- County may withhold URTV funding
Money may be tight, but plans for Buncombe County's new emergency-services training facility are proceeding full speed ahead. Training provided at the facility could save lives, county officials say.
At its Feb. 17 meeting, the Board of Commissioners authorized a design contract with Keith Hargrove Architects and instructed staff to put together a potential funding package for the project, which is expected to cost about $15 million.
"You can obviously see there's a real need for this," said Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton. "We don't have a facility in Western North Carolina that has these features. We have parts but not a total facility. It's a major step for our citizens to have this kind of training."
The 30-acre Woodfin site, a portion of the county's former landfill property, will house a firing range, driving course, "burn building" and 27,000 square feet of classroom space. A-B Tech will handle day-to-day operations.
"Words can't say how much we appreciate what you've done for us," Skyland Fire Chief Dennis Presley told the board. "There was a group of nine firefighters -- known now as the Charleston Nine -- that were 10 feet away from being alive today, and they're not with us because they died in the line of duty. The federal government labeled that inadequate training. It's very important that we train, train and continue to train."
Presley noted that a "burn building" -- which can be repeatedly set alight to provide realistic training conditions -- will be one of the first structures erected on the site.
And Sheriff Van Duncan emphasized that the new facility "will be essential for not just us but the other municipalities and other law enforcement in the county, not to mention the western end of the state."
The county's current arrangement with Biltmore Estate to use its firing range for state-mandated training for deputies, he noted, may expire at the end of the year, leaving the Sheriff's Office searching for another place to train.
The public-safety center will also include a driving course designed to accommodate fire engines and other heavy vehicles. "This driving track will meet our needs, and we're beginning to see how it can meet the needs of citizens around the area," said Maj. Scott Bissinger.
The two items related to the proposed facility were originally part of the consent agenda (a list of routine measures that the board approves en masse). But Commissioner Holly Jones suggested bringing them up for separate votes, saying, "We need to highlight this good news."
Commissioner K. Ray Bailey agreed. "It's important that our people won't have to go Mecklenberg or Gaston to train," he said. "I don't think the general public understands the amount of money we're going to save."
On another front, URTV Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse has not answered calls from county staff concerning ongoing controversy at the public-access channel (see "Whose TV?" elsewhere in this issue), and the county may delay delivery of some of the station's funding, County Manager Wanda Greene told the board.
"We did have the executive director from URTV come in and meet with the expert that we use on ... public-access franchises," Greene told the board. "We thought we understood one another. We have since tried to reach her on four different occasions in a variety of ways, and she has not returned our calls. But we will pursue that again tomorrow to make sure that we address this issue."
"So the director has not contacted you since you've asked for her?" inquired Vice Chair Bill Stanley, presiding over the meeting in David Gantt's absence.
"We've tried to contact them several times," Greene replied.
"Well, I hope if we're in charge of their money we're holding it up for a little while," said Stanley.
"We did relay that message," Greene replied.
A fee that Charter Communications charges its cable customers generates the so-called PEG funds, which account for the lion's share of the public-access channel's revenue. The company (which recently declared bankruptcy) funnels the money through city and county government, which parcel out a portion of it to URTV. The station's management agreements with both local governments require it to adhere to the state's open-meetings law.
The remarks came in response to comments by URTV board member Davyne Dial, who has criticized what she and fellow board member Richard Bernier see as a lack of transparency in the station's operations.
In a closed session, URTV's Executive Committee voted Feb. 9 to remove both Dial and Bernier. The full board must vote to implement the move, but at press time, no such meeting had been scheduled. The board's next regular meeting is slated for Thursday, March 19.
Dial, however, called on the county to conduct an independent review of the station.
"It's intolerable to me and others that a public-access station that should be a beacon of First Amendment rights is muzzling its board members," Dial declared. "I would hope if this review was able to be done, we could get a complete cross section of points of view about this."
But changes in state law now allow for competition in providing local cable service, and Stanley also noted that as soon as another company -- such as AT&T -- starts offering cable service in the area, the current local PEG funds (which are part of Charter's exclusive franchise agreements) will dry up.
"The county doesn't really have much clout with [URTV] anymore," he said.