Timing public comment
You know you're through when the egg timer rings, sounding like an old-fashioned alarm clock: Three minutes is the limit set by the Buncombe County Commissioners for citizens who come before them at regular, televised meetings.
But how long do representatives of groups get?
Asheville City Council members grant such speakers 10 minutes. Commissioners haven't had a formal policy. But during the pre-meeting on May 16, board Chair Tom Sobol mentioned that a resident of Woodland Hills might address commissioners that evening. Should he get 10 minutes ... if about six fellow residents came with him and elected him as their representative? "It's better for one [person] to speak for 10 than six [to speak] for three [minutes each]," argued Sobol, adding, "We don't want to have 10 people who love possums wanting ... to talk about possums for [three minutes each]."
He recommended giving representatives of "legitimate groups" up to 10 minutes. Other commissioners made no comment on Sobol's proposal.
County Attorney Joe Connolly said he would write a proposed policy for commissioners to consider at a future session.
But during the public-comment period later that day, Sobol objected when Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air representative Hazel Fobes tried to continued speaking after the timer had sounded the three-minute mark. Fobes said she thought that, as a group representative, she'd get 10 minutes; Sobol asked whether she had six fellow CSDWA members present. She didn't, but Fobes nonetheless spent 10 minutes quizzing commissioners as to why they hadn't taken further action on the fate of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency. (On May 2, Asheville City Council members passed a resolution calling for a new interlocal agreement that would maintain an independent board and agency; commissioners have informally supported this idea, as well. Woodland Hills resident Joe Mickey, on the other hand, was limited to three minutes because he wasn't accompanied by six neighbors.
Mickey asked commissioners to intercede in the development of a wooded tract near his neighborhood; he claims the land is supposed to be restricted to just a few uses, such as a school, but the new owners appear to have other plans.
And about a half-dozen Friends for Animals representatives spoke individually at the May 16 meeting, although, Sobol later observed, they could have appointed a representative to address commissioners for 10 minutes.
On the whole issue of public comment, Sobol commented a few days after the meeting, "The confusion was on commissioners' part. We've just got to have a clear policy [on public comment]. Quite obviously, our rules are fuzzy." Commissioners will discuss and adopt a policy for both individual and group speakers, at their May 30 meeting, he promised. Sobol also mentioned that Buncombe is one of the few counties in the state to allow as much public comment as it does. He voiced some concern, too, about the need to ensure that those allotted 10 minutes go only to legitimate groups (whether formally or informally organized).
And Connolly, reached later, added, "We allow [citizens] to speak for up to five minutes on agenda items; were you aware of that?" He also noted that citizens and groups can get virtually unlimited time to speak, if they successfully petition commissioners to put their issue on the formal agenda (provided their issue or concern is something the commissioners can take action or take a stand on, cautioned Sobol).
The school-system budgets
The Buncombe County and Asheville City schools presented their budget requests for fiscal year 2000-01. Both want more money than they got this year -- primarily, they said, to cover state-mandated raises for teachers.
The county schools are seeking roughly $36 million from commissioners -- an almost 10-percent increase over 1999-2000. And the Asheville City Schools have asked commissioners for $5.2 million, representing a roughly equivalent increase. (Adding in the "pass-through" of the Asheville District Supplemental Tax, sales taxes and related revenues collected by the county on the city schools' behalf, the budget request totals $12.2 million).
Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Steve Page cautioned that his budget request entails an educated guess as to how much the state will allocate for local schools, remarking: "North Carolina statutes tend to put the cart before the horse. We must make requests [to you] before we know [what the state's going to give]." He added that half of the county's increased cost -- about $1.5 million -- is due to the opening of two new schools (Cane Creek and Haw Creek elementaries).
Page emphasized, "You're getting your money's worth" -- Buncombe ranks in the top four, among the state's 117 school systems, in terms of SAT scores.
Students in the Asheville City Schools also consistently score higher than the state average on the SATs, and Newsweek magazine ranked Asheville High as one of the top 100 public schools in the U.S., noted Superintendent Karen Campbell. "A lot of our budget is about giving children ... opportunities," she said.
Commissioners David Gantt and Patsy Keever both voiced mild concern that the growth of charter schools in the area is reducing the number of public-school students -- and, thus, the amount of state and federal funding public schools receive. But school officials reported that there's only one charter school in the county, at present.
Commissioners took no formal action on these budget requests (Commissioner Bill Stanley was heard to say, as he entered the chamber that day, "[We're] approving no budget today -- approving no budget!").
In another budget issue, representatives of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council asked commissioners to consider providing -- at least for 2001 -- some form of matching funds for the approximately $500,000 per year in state, federal and grant funds that's allocated for local nonprofits. JCPC Chair Gene Rainey pointed out that Buncombe is one of only a handful of counties in the state that doesn't provide some kind of matching grants.
Commissioners said they would consider the idea.
Their initial review of the overall county budget takes place Tuesday, May 30 at 4 p.m. The public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 6.
Pace property rezoned
Fully appreciating the irony, commissioners unanimously approved the rezoning of property owned by longtime zoning critic Ben Pace at the May 16 meeting.
"Ben has given me so much trouble about zoning [over] the past few years, I'm suprised these have gone so smoothly," said Zoning Administrator Jim Coman lightheartedly. But, he explained, the two lots in question (at the corner of Mills Gap and Cane Creek roads in South Asheville) include buildings that have been used commercially since 1949 -- despite being zoned "residential" for the past 18 years. The Limestone Council, Coman continued, recently voted unanimously to rezone the lots.
Several commissioners laughed at the irony -- and David Gantt made a motion to approve the rezoning. Vice Chair Patsy Keever seconded it, and commissioners voted 4-0 to pass Gantt's motion (David Young was absent from the May 16 meeting).
Eden for seniors
More than 60 percent of nursing-home residents receive no visitors, Andrea Stoltz told commissioners on May 16. The chair of the county's Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee asked commissioners to consider three strategies for improving such residents' quality of life: Take the time to visit them; support a state moratorium on the construction of assisted-living centers; and support the "Eden" concept.
"Edenized" nursing homes allow more staff input into day-to-day operations and policies, and take steps to give residents contact with plants, animals and provide "intergenerational" visits, Stoltz explained.
"How many of our nursing homes [in the county] have Edenized?" asked Vice Chair Keever, who said she supports the concept.
There's one at Pisgah Manor Health Center, and the Givens Estate will Edenize its new facility, Stoltz responded, adding, "None of us wants to be in a non-Edenized facility."
Commissioners took no formal action on her requests.