Assistant Buncombe County Manager Jon Creighton and Senior Staff Attorney Mike Frue presented council with an abridged presentation. A month ago, the commissioners heard how the county’s HHS department was bursting at the seams. 100,000 people visit the Coxe building each year for services. The county has moved offices to other buildings sixteen times since 2010. The moves disrupt operations and confuse clientele. The county is renting both office and parking spaces.
County leaders have tried to consolidate space wherever possible. Many workers are now field-based, making use of technology; paper files are now stored digitally to free up office space; training rooms were converted to cubicles, forcing meetings into kitchens. With that, staff was doubled-up, compromising client confidentiality on sensitive matters. Not only is the squeeze uncomfortable, the county risks losing state and federal funding for not complying with mandated minima for office and parking space. The federal government also has minima for staff-to-client ratios.
Caseloads have been increasing and showing no signs of reduction illustrative of an economic recovery. Since 2007, the number of county households receiving food assistance has increased from 8995 to 20,636, and the number of Medicaid recipients has increased from 34,165 to 44,174. If Medicaid expansion is approved, the number is projected to increase by 12,000 by 2016. County management wanted to expand the Coxe building because 47 percent of the clientele it serves live within a five-mile radius, and the building is right across from the bus terminal. What’s more, the county recently received a federal grant valued at $9 million to renovate the building. The renovations have been completed, but the money could be revoked should HHS leave the building.
The two people who spoke during public comment did not like the idea. The owners of the S&W, Swicegood, and Bank of America buildings had had plans to convert them to a luxury Parisian hotel. Nancy Hayes, who works for MRK Investments, reminded members of council how downtown was derelict thirty years ago, when she relocated. A lot of people invested in rebuilding it, and now local government was shooting itself in the foot. It was building a tax-exempt facility on expensive real estate. Worse, she feared consolidating services downtown would attract more aggressive panhandling. She said she felt for the poor, but they were not even able to buy a hotdog with what they can panhandle. The new HHS building was not even going to provide public restrooms.
Hayes suggested setting up a campus at the Innsbruck Mall, where property is less expensive. The mall is on a busline, it has a lot of parking and room for new buildings, and it is close to grocery stores and the Social Security office in Chunn’s Cove. The county’s purchase of the Coxe building when it was dirt cheap made fiscal sense; expanding the structure on prime real estate does not.
Byron Greiner later elaborated the concerns of his clients. He is the broker who listed the three properties, the plans for the Parisian hotel being scrapped with the news of the HHS expansion. Greiner said his clients, who are based in Florida, are continually panhandled when they’re in town, and they had spoken to members of council about the problem. Greiner said his clients were pretty upset; they had wanted to invest their money in Asheville. But they don’t want their customers to have to deal with the constant barrage of panhandlers.
Greiner spoke of repurposing the prime real estate in the Central Business District for commerce. In addition to HHS, nonprofit service providers downtown, like Western Carolina Rescue Mission, ABCCM, and A-HOPE, he said are running at capacity. Greiner argued if the nonprofits serving the homeless would exit the CBD, over $10 million in real estate could go back on the tax rolls.
What Greiner had in mind to better serve the needy was merging all social service providers into a one-stop service campus. He thought the South Slope, which is already a medical district, would be a good place for a one-stop service partnership of city and county governments and Mission Hospital. In addition to arguing that a parking garage is needed more in that part of town, he said one-stop service centers are touted as being efficient and effective. The center in Baton Rouge provides apartments with wraparound services, like drug counseling, medications, and general healthcare. Centers in San Diego and Los Angeles are more like malls where the needy can come in and get whatever they need to get back on a career path, be it a haircut, manicure, phone charge, or access to washers and dryers. The San Diego facility has 73 studio apartments and 150 transitional beds, and it cost $38 million to build. The campus would also mitigate emergency room abuse.
Well-acquainted with Asheville’s homeless population, Councilman Jan Davis asked Creighton to comment for the public on the number of chronically homeless the center would serve. Creighton merely repeated the one-in-five statistic without regard to context. Gordon Smith answered better. He said the city has reduced the local chronically homeless population by 82 percent over the last eleven years. Homeless transients are another problem. Panhandlers, he said, go downtown for the money, not for services, so the building should have no impact on their numbers.
Smith then added, “Downtown’s not just for the wealthy. Downtown’s for everybody. . . . That may make some folks or all of us uncomfortable sometimes. We don’t need to make an effort to sanitize it. We need to make an effort to open it up and make it as livable as possible for as many as possible.” Council approved the measure unanimously.