"If you have $300, you can go to Wal-Mart and get into the methamphetamine business." That was the message Sheriff's Capt. Lee Farnsworth delivered at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' Aug. 2 formal meeting.
Somewhat ominously, Farnsworth also asked commissioners if they ever brewed coffee in motel rooms when they traveled. "Motel room coffee pots can be used to make methamphetamines, and residue can stay on them for a long time if they aren't thoroughly cleaned," he warned, adding, "They aren't cleaned very often."
Farnsworth's comments were offered as a segment of the County Manager's Report -- a portion of the commissioners' meetings regularly devoted to explaining specific aspects of county government. In his report, he discussed the growing presence of meth labs in Western North Carolina.
"When you say 'lab,' it is kind of confusing," he noted. "It doesn't look like a lab. There are Pyrex dishes, Coke bottles, a coffee maker." Before he was trained to look for the drug, he admitted, "In most probability, I've walked into a meth lab and not realized what I was looking at." Later, he added, "It can be in a car, a camper, a tent, a motel room, out in the woods.
"Fortunately we haven't had any professional production labs," he added. "The people we deal with make it for two reasons: one, personal use; and two, to sell it to cover the expense of personal use."
By way of explaining the spread of the drug, Farnsworth said, "It's cheap to manufacture -- not easy, not safe, but cheap; $100 can be turned into $1,500 worth of drug." Ingredients are found in commonly available goods: pseudoephedrine-based cold remedies, matchboxes, gas-line antifreeze, fertilizer and flashlight batteries.
From the standpoint of the Sheriff's Department and the county, he said, "The bad news is the cost. We hit 26 labs in Buncombe County last year. Thank goodness they were all small labs ... a small lab takes an estimated 100 hours to clean up. Plus we have to have a fire engine and an ambulance there the whole time. Then we have to pay to have the chemicals hauled off by the federal government." Further societal costs are incurred when children's health is affected by chemicals and when children are removed from a home by the Department of Social Services, he explained.
"If you are unfortunate enough to rent a property to someone who uses it as a meth lab, you will have to hire an industrial hygienist to clean it up," Farnsworth said. In some cases, he added, cleanup is impossible.
Farnsworth then described methamphetamine's effects. "This drug causes a lot of side effects: depression, irritability, anxiety, violent mood changes, paranoia, hallucinations and calcium depletion. There are five stages in its effect: the initial rush (five to 30 minutes); a high that lasts four to 16 hours; a binge that may last three to 15 days without sleep; tweaking, when the user is in a hyper state caused by an adrenaline rush -- you can't reason with them or talk to them; and a crash, when the user may sleep for up to three days. Often that's when DSS gets involved; parents are asleep and kids are untended."
Farnsworth reported that most area pharmacies have now put pseudoephedrine drugs behind the counter and that the state legislature may act next year to make them available by prescription only.
Commissioner David Young interjected, "I understand that states where these laws have been passed, the use has declined."
"It's a little early to be sure, since these are recent laws," replied Farnsworth, "but that would take the substance out of circulation."
Prescription drug deal
County Manager Wanda Greene continued on the topic of drugs, discussing a prescription discount program that will soon be available to all county residents. Under the program, which was developed by the National Association of Counties, cards are issued by counties and cardholders get a discount from participating pharmacies. "Savings range from 13 to 35 percent," Greene reported. "With a mail-in program, savings can range up to 50 percent."
Greene also noted that there is "no cost to citizens," and that the only cost to the county is for printing the cards." That cost is estimated to be between $3,000 and $5,000. There are no qualifying criteria for obtaining the cards, and they can be used by both insured and uninsured citizens. Cards will be freely available at many county offices, including public libraries, by the end of August.
At present, 49 pharmacies in the county have agreed to participate in the program.
Chairman Nathan Ramsey asked Greene, "The federal government is coming out with a prescription drug discount as part of Medicare -- what's the connection between the programs?"
Greene responded, "Medicare Part D is very complicated, but you can use this card with that, too."
Rendering unto Caesar
In two related reports, Director Gary Roberts and Real Property Manager Linda Brown of the Buncombe County Tax Office discussed current collections and future assessments.
Roberts reported that as of June 30, the collection rate for county taxes stood at 98.89 percent. "We have the highest collection rate in counties of our size in the state," he said. "The state average is 96.41 percent among counties 100,000 and up. ... A higher collection rate is good for everyone, because if you had to raise the rates to make up for people who don't pay, it would be harder on those who do pay." He explained that collections have steadily risen over the past several years and that "citizens are being much better stewards about setting up payment plans and taking care of their obligations."
The board unanimously approved Roberts' report and the annual Order to Collect, which grants the Tax Office legal authorization to continue its function.
Brown then presented the commissioners with a revised Schedule of Values that will be used for the quadrennial revaluation of all real property in the county. The document, which formerly comprised eight volumes, has been slimmed down to one loose-leaf notebook -- albeit, one fat loose-leaf notebook.
"The next reval is Jan. 1, 2006," Brown said. "The schedules are very important because once they are adopted we are only permitted to make changes based on specific criteria. The importance is that you have to be flexible enough to plan for everything that happens in the next four years."
She went on to explain that, due to rising real-estate prices and changes of use -- for example, a factory moving its operations out of the county -- values are in a constant state of flux.
"The reval is our chance to correct any inequities that we have found over the last four years," Brown noted. Later, she added, "If you have a volatile market like we have here, eight years is a long time; a lot of inequities can build up."
New valuations will be sent out in February, and Ramsey reminded citizens that they can appeal their new assessments.
A public hearing on the revised Schedule of Values is slated for Sept. 6. Citizens interested in reviewing the document can read copies in the Board of Commissioners' office or the Tax Office, and portions will be posted on the county Web site.
Not forgiving trespasses
In other business, commissioners voted to post signs on county property prohibiting trespassing after regular business hours. Steve Oxner, the Sheriff Department's facilities/safety officer, reported that sleeping vagrants have presented a growing problem for county workers attempting to enter their offices and that a trespassing ordinance would help his department deal with the issue.
Lastly, the commissioners appointed Athena Blakely, Carol Howard and Susan Ledwell to the Women's Commission, and Beth Greck to the Board of Health.