By Leslee Kulba-Considering the enormity of the problem, Commissioner Holly Jones wanted members of the public to be realistic. The number of people dependent on services from the federal government was greater than all the generosity of all churches, charities, and nonprofit organizations in Buncombe County could ever muster. The only way to make sure children, the frail elderly, and others with serious needs would be able to make it would be through action of elected leaders in Washington. Worst of all, the pains that are and will be afflicted have nothing to do with the Democrats’ desire to raise the debt ceiling, but everything to do with the Republicans’ shutdown.
The commissioners were aghast that elected leaders would be playing politics when so many people were wholly dependent on Uncle Sam’s ample arm. Chair David Gantt wanted to assure the public that rumors about welfare waste, fraud, and abuse were patently false. He kept referring back to the statistic showing how welfare recipients, those receiving one-time cash handouts rather than food or housing subsidies, dropped from about 8000 recipients in 1996 to just 341 today. Welfare today, he said, is only used by those with disabilities or short-term need. Nobody, repeat nobody, is getting welfare simply because they don’t want to work.
Even Mike Fryar, who is conservative enough to go out on a limb and cast a lone vote against nonsense from time to time, did not see how the county was going to pick up the tab. What’s more, he didn’t think the non-low-income people in Buncombe County were well enough off to afford an extra 1- or 2-cent tax increase to help the poor. Nobody wanted to question the efficiency of programs, lest they be labeled a child abuser. Before the public was an image of the children of Calcutta, barefoot in diapers, swarmed in flies and suffering kwashkiorkor – not those bling-flashing fashionistas that chatter on their smartphones in public housing, throwing ham sandwiches and hairweaves on the ground as they go.
Making the problem worse was the media’s attention to the picayune aspects of the shutdown. Ellen Frost provided the media with some advice on how to prioritize the facts presented.
Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone told of the county’s predicament. Stone typically astounds with an alacrity for rattling off numbers with a voice and personality so laidback and smooth one would swear she’d been swigging a WD-40. Tuesday, however, she sounded like a ball of nerves, ready to burst into tears at any moment. She said she’d been patched into conference calls with state and local leadership twice daily since the shutdown. She apologized for getting the stats for her presentation to the commissioners at the very last minute. The scene has been hectic.
For every day the government remains shut down, the county loses $195,000. Stone did not know whether there was any chance of recovering those funds in full or in part. The county’s Department of Social Services runs on a $396 million budget, only $29 million of which is funded through county revenues. Worsening the problem were the economic multipliers. Federal employees were already furloughed, and so they were not spending money in the community. Not only do healthcare providers pad their bottom lines with Medicaid reimbursements; large merchandisers heralded as pinnacles of capitalism could be plowed under should the food stamp trade dry up.
Stone was most concerned about daycare. The smallest of certified daycare centers would lose at least $7000 from their bottom lines, and most would have to close. When they closed, they would not only cause low-income parents receiving government subsidies to quit work to watch the kids, middle-class wage earners paying market rates at the same facilities would have to quit as well. Stone said some counties had already given ten days’ notice that services would terminate. She did not want to go that route. Prior to the shutdown, the county budgeted $8,956,714 for non-Smart Start daycare serving 1606 children. At that, the county was only meeting 52 percent of demand.
Stone noted children who receive public assistance are twice as likely as those who don’t to need government services later in life. Speaking of the high-risk population, she cautioned if the children don’t receive care now, they will cost society more in terms of emergency services, processing by the criminal justice system, and lost opportunities later.
Jones was further galled by the audacity of the Republicans in Raleigh, deciding that North Carolina shall be the only state in the Union to shutter its Work First program. Otherwise known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the program provides one-time assistance, like cash for purchasing work boots, to help the poor get steady employment. When the ever-flowing fountain of federal dollars started to dry up, the $5 million a month going into this program failed the triage. Stone noted the program may eventually be phased out altogether, but the state is still telling counties they must continue to accept program applicants. The county had intended to spend $2,494,851 on TANF.
Stone acknowledged the commissioners knew the drill ad nauseum, but for members of the slumbering public, she reiterated that 99 percent of the Buncombe County DSS’ outlay and function are mandated directly by the federal government or through the state. Stone’s hands are tied insomuch as details as nitty-gritty as administrator-to-client ratios are nonnegotiable. 70 percent of DSS funding comes from the federal government. But as state and federal officials put the squeeze on the money hose, they are telling counties they are not absolved from their responsibility to maintain high levels of service for the needy in their counties.
Who are the needy?
Stone said nationwide, estimates of food stamp recipients range from one-fourth to one-fifth of the population. In Buncombe County, with a population of 250,000, 60,000 are enrolled in the program. Paying out around $60 million a year, the program subsidizes poor families to the tune of about $243 per month per household. On top of that, the county provides services and $3.6 million in vouchers to 5250 enrollees in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Adding flourishes to the painting of economic recovery is the knowledge that public schools offer universal breakfast and free and reduced lunch; and food kitchens abound.
That’s only about 25 percent of the county’s population. Also dependent on the federal government are the frail elderly. The county had intended to spend $555,356 this year on adult protective services. It was going to spend another $1.4 million availed through the Home and Community Care Block Grant to help the elderly “age in place;” that is, receive home health services in lieu of moving into an institutional setting. $4.8 million in federal funds for veterans could also evaporate.
Another $284,000 was classified as going toward “Women and Children.” This category encompasses charitable endeavors such as family planning, which includes emergency contraception, clinical services for STD’s, and even mentoring to help children having children stay in school. And the county’s last adopted budget chanted the mantra of “building capacity.” Over 26,000 residents in Buncombe County receive Medicaid, and those who multiply economics argue the county would lose $240 million should the program shut down.
Only Fryar was bold enough to hint at the old adage about poverty being the failure to contribute. For the most part, there was a sense of alarm, an urgency to take the wittow-booboos who comprise half the population under the only competent nurturing wing in the universe, that of the bald eagle on the Great Seal of the United States of America, who happens to be loaded with cash by the way.
Following the presentation, Commissioner David King asked for clarification on what Stone was requesting. Stone said she could continue to operate through the end of the month, but, as a good steward, she was putting the commissioners on notice that if partisans in Congress can’t resolve their differences before the commissioners’ next meeting, which will be in November, danger will be afoot. The commissioners agreed to send a plea to members of Congress equivalent to a request to fund Obamacare, default on the national debt – anything to get the money flowing back to the American poor.
In Other Matters –
The county was recognized for receiving a Local Government Federal Credit Union (LGFCU) Excellence in Innovation Award for the Health and Human Services Meeting Garden. The space was designed to invite and engage nurturing as parents visit with children and receive DSS training on proper rearing techniques. Stone emphasized the importance of the natural backdrop, noting before the garden opened, parents would meet at McDonald’s where the noise and food choices were less than desirable. Today, county workers pass out maps locating county parks to help parents avoid poor food choices during supervised visitations with their children.
The county was able to find $84,000 in future budgets, payable over three years, to bestow a little corporate welfare on Plasticard-Locktech. County staff recognized PLI as “the world’s largest manufacture of hotel keycards and a leading specialty printer of plastic and paper products.” The company would take its expansion elsewhere, perhaps to its too-big-to-fail ventures in Canada or Dubai, “but for” the generosity of the commissioners. The funds will be disbursed after PLI creates 42 jobs paying a mean, not a median, salary of $26,000 and invests $4.4 million in capital improvements. Plasticard received similar promises from the City of Asheville and the One North Carolina fund last year. The commissioners were totally sold on the idea. Assistant County Manager told the commissioners the $84,000 would have an ROI of about 50, and he had the bar graphs and pie charts to prove it!
Lastly, residents of Black Oak Drive, just outside the city limits, came to ask for help. In early July, a house, which according to one neighbor was built on a ravine carelessly filled with detritus from a previous landslide, fell victim to a sinkhole and landslides. Neighbors thanked the city and county for helping, but for the last three months, the house has been “sliding down the hill,” and ingress and egress to the houses above has been somewhat of an extreme sport. Gantt said the commissioners were well aware of the neighbors’ misfortune, some having visited the site; and they would be discussing the plight in closed session following the meeting.