In an action-packed meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners decided last week to seek public input on using limited county zoning to prevent the city of Asheville from extending its extraterritorial jurisdiction farther into the county.
Illustrating the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, board members (who have diverse views on countywide zoning) were united in calling for public comment on a proposal that would essentially fight zoning with zoning.
The board took that action at its Feb. 20 meeting after hearing a report from County Zoning Administrator James H. Coman on the city's interest in extending its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) a mile outside the city limits.
At City Council's January retreat, Council members touched on the idea of expanding the ETJ. City staff proposed extending it along entryway corridors, in areas where infrastructure expansion is planned or likely, and in areas with a variety of land uses.
Council has asked for a cost/benefit analysis, Coman said, adding that the Council members he's talked with have indicated that the expansion is a "done deal."
Under state law, a city can exercise a number of powers within its ETJ, including zoning, subdivision regulations, building inspections, floodplain management, junked-vehicle regulations and erosion-control requirements.
A city can extend its development-review powers within ETJs to ensure orderly development and aid future annexation, according to a Jan. 18 letter city staff wrote to Council members (which Coman referred to in his presentation).
However, the city can only extend its ETJ into unzoned, unincorporated areas of the county, Coman noted. So if the county enacted its own zoning within that one-mile radius, it could block the city's ETJ extension, he told the board.
"Why would we care?" asked Commissioner David Young, attempting to get Coman to explain the situation to the public.
"This will have a significant impact on the people who live in these areas," Coman replied.
Most people find city zoning difficult to deal with, Coman told the board. In addition, the city building-permit process is more restrictive than the county process, he said.
Coman also noted that an ETJ expansion would cut into the county's building inspection revenues.
"If we had county zoning tomorrow, would that stop the ETJ?" asked Commissioner Patsy Keever (a zoning advocate).
Coman said it would -- as would zoning a band around the city. But he said there's virtually nothing the county can do to stop annexation, which he sees as inextricably tied to ETJ expansion. (considered a precursor to annexation).
"The city is embarking on a very aggressive annexation policy," Coman noted.
Although ETJ residents don't pay city property taxes, they can't vote in city elections either. Such residents are represented on the city Planning Board (although its decisions must be approved by Council), noted Commissioner David Gantt.
"They have no right to vote for the people making these regulations or enforcing these regulations," Gantt said. Commissioner Bill Stanley noted that the county could impose "multipurpose" zoning within a mile of the city limits, and suggested that the board could perhaps hold a public hearing on the matter.
Coman noted that simple economics often drives cities to consider annexing areas that already have utility extensions. Within two years of annexation, cities must provide (or put under contract to provide) annexed areas with the same services other city residents receive he said.
"I made a campaign promise and I'm going to keep it," declared Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey (a zoning opponent who pledged during his campaign that countywide zoning wouldn't be on the table).
But Ramsey noted that people who lived within the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction would be stuck "between a rock and a hard place."
"Hold a public hearing to see what the public wants to do," urged Stanley.
Ramsey conceded that he supports the board's attempt to get public comment on the issue.
A date for the public hearing has not yet been set.
Gantt pointed out after the meeting that he thinks even zoning opponents will embrace the limited-zoning idea, because the city's rules would be more restrictive than the county's.
County Manager Wanda Greene and Finance Director Nancy Brooks filled board members in on something they knew all too well: The state's $791 million budget shortfall has prompted Gov. Mike Easley to freeze allocations to local governments across the state.
Buncombe County's hit was a $1.3 million tax-inventory reimbursement that was scheduled to arrive in April. County officials have been advised that they may not be able to count on receiving that money at all, Brooks told the board.
In addition, the county learned that its share of Medicaid costs is $700,000 higher than the state had previously projected. The county pays 5.5 percent of the Medicaid expenses of the roughly 22,000 Medicaid recipients in the county, Greene revealed. She also said she'd been told to expect that county Medicaid costs next year will be $1.8 million more than this year's original budget ($7.9 million).
Those factors prompted Greene to lay off 17 county employees on Friday, Feb. 16, and propose eliminating 34 county positions, with half of the affected staffers moving into vacant positions. (Commissioners approved the position eliminations in the consent agenda.)
"We sent a lot of people home in pain Friday," Greene told the board.
Those 17 people who were laid off, she noted, have priority consideration to be rehired (for a position they're qualified for) for a year. Each employee also will receive two weeks' severance pay for every year of employment.
The county manager said she'd targeted upper and middle management and tried to preserve programs, to minimize the cutbacks' impact on people in the community.
"This is one of the most painful things you can do to a work force," Greene acknowledged. "It's startling to the community."
Greene said she'd received input from department heads, stressing that there was no "second wave" of layoffs ahead. She explained that she didn't cut services and supplies, because that would be a short-term fix to a long-term problem. She also didn't want to make across-the-board salary cuts, which would make the county less competitive and lead to more turnover.
In addition, Greene noted her concern about maintaining a healthy fund balance (and therefore a good bond rating).
"We lost a lot of good people," Ramsey added. "I'm sorry for that."
Greene's plan also included implementing an eight-week hiring freeze, cutting the capital-equipment budget and abolishing eight position classifications (within the 34 positions eliminated) each of which employed only one person -- including the associate county attorney's position.
In addition, Greene cut allocations to 56 nonprofit organizations by 10 percent (for human-service organizations) and 25 percent (for others). Those cuts ranged from $250 to Life on Life's Terms (a residential substance-abuse recovery program) to $100,000 to Pack Place, for a total of $396,398 in cuts to nonprofits.
The board got an earful from several nonprofit leaders, including Karen Kiehna, executive director of the Affordable Housing Coalition, who noted: "The buck ends up stopping at the citizen who needed those services to begin with."
And Diana Bilbrey, chair of the Pack Place board of trustees, told the board that nonprofits -- which have fixed expenses -- would have to fire some of their staff members to cope with the county's cutbacks.
Steve Steinert of the Asheville Area Arts Council (whose allotment was cut $8,250) told the board that arts and cultural agencies had taken disproportionate hit. Organizations that were funded by the Arts Council and Pack Place, for example, ended up being cut twice.
"What you accuse the state of doing ... you have done to us," Steinert charged.
Gantt noted that $109,000 the board had earmarked for affordable housing back in June had just been allocated to Mountain Housing Opportunities to help build 40 affordable-housing rental units for low-income senior citizens.
"This is not a value judgment of worth or nonworth," commented Gantt. "We've had to make tough business choices. We had to make some terrible choices we didn't want to make."
Although board members paid attention to public comment on the issue, they had already officially approved the cuts in their consent agenda, which was adopted at the beginning of the meeting.
The commissioners indicated that they didn't take the decision to make the cuts lightly. It's the worst thing I've had to do since I've been here," said Stanley, who's been a commissioner for 12 years.
Biltmore School reprieve
It was down to the wire for the Western North Carolina Historical Association's plan to buy the former Biltmore School for use as a museum.
In fact, the commissioners -- who had given the association a Feb. 28 deadline -- had seemed poised to place the museum on the open market. At the board's administrative "pre-meeting," Young had seemed anxious to promote the sale of the property, even suggesting that the county go through a real-estate agent instead of simply running a legal advertisement.
But Rebecca Lamb, executive director of the historical association, gave the board some surprising news: The association has raised the entire $1 million it needs to qualify for an $800,000 grant from Asheville's Janirve Foundation.
The news generated applause from nearly everyone in the room, including the three rows of supporters.
The foundation was scheduled to meet the following Tuesday, Lamb said. The county manager asked the board for permission to start the upset-bid process if Janirve doesn't provide the grant funding. The commissioners unanimously agreed to extend the deadline to March 30.
211 starts in May
Community volunteer Jennie Eblen told the commissioners that people in need will soon be able to call a new number to obtain a wide range of information.
Starting in May, Buncombe County residents will be able to dial 211 to get free information about everything from where to go for help with basic needs (such as food, clothing and shelter) to how to access resources on Alzheimer's disease. In addition, people who want to volunteer will be able to find out about organizations that need volunteers. Local referral specialists will be available 24 hours a day.
"You can see it's a very cutting-edge initiative in the area," Eblen said.
First Call For Help (a service of Buncombe County, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County and Ingles Markets) will morph into the new 211 call center, Eblen said.
The new program will be modeled on similar systems in Atlanta and Connecticut.
The benefits include easier access to community resources as well as a chance to increase citizen involvement. A centralized database will also allow community needs and resources to be tracked, which can provide for better community planning, noted Eblen. The service should also decrease the number of inappropriate calls to the 911 emergency number.
First Call For Help receives about 25,000 calls per year, said United Way CEO David Bailey. But thanks to start-up money provided by Steelcase and other corporations, Bailey said the program isn't asking for any money.
"At this point, we're funded for the next couple of years," he revealed.
"It sounds like a great service," said Keever.
But Eblen and Bailey faced tough questions from Young, who asked whether the service would strain the resources of the agencies to which the callers are referred. Eblen replied that the United Way board of directors had set aside $50,000 to deal with these increased needs during the first year.
"Isn't it going to be gone pretty quickly?" Young persisted.
Bailey said that many of the calls will be from people seeking counseling or support -- not help in meeting basic needs. And Eblen added that proponents have kept the service agencies informed about their plans from the beginning.
Because of the way the N.C. Utilities Commission set up the structure, callers won't be able to call free from a pay phone, Eblen said in answer to a question from Stanley.
Local resident Hazel Fobes asked where they would get the answers to the questions callers might ask.