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Commissioners Get Serious

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By Leslee Kulba- The meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners began with commentary from Chair Brownie Newman. Before a moment of silence, he noted the concept that righteousness and justice were connected went back to Biblical times. He then invited members of the audience to use the moment to pray for or meditate on a more just and fair society.

The public comment period then featured a couple who put in a good word for the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative. They had lost a daughter to heroin addiction. The mother told how addicts can’t make or keep appointments because they have no reliable transportation and their phones keep getting stolen. They further don’t trust counsellors, viewing appointments as potential traps. When they do get arrested, they are often discharged with nothing and return to their user buddies. Throughout the meeting, speakers would recall the mother talking about holding her daughter’s birth certificate in one hand and her death certificate in the other. The mom had to wait five days before she was allowed to see the body, she could not even brush the hair, and she is still awaiting the results of the autopsy.

The commissioners were to approve two requests, which were built up in terms of putting a face on social issues. “Trauma” was the operative word. For the first presentation, introducing the Isaac Coleman Economic Community Investment Model, UNC-Asheville political science professor Dwight Mullen provided statistics on the tenth anniversary of the State of Black Asheville. Black people are leaving the area. Death rates for blacks are 38 percent higher than for whites, and infant mortality rates are higher as well. 35 percent of black students are reading at grade-level, and 32 percent are proficient in math. 17.7 percent don’t graduate high school. The median household income for blacks in the area is $26,065; whites, $46,805. One-third of blacks are living in poverty. Unemployment rates for blacks are normally twice those for whites, but in Asheville, the rate is tripled. While blacks make up 5.6 percent of the general population, they make up 28 percent of the prison population.

Charlotte Hipps, principal of Johnston Elementary, has been bending the ear of local luminaries. Her school serves about 300 students, 60 percent of whom identify as minorities and 33 percent of whom speak English as a second language. Nine languages are now represented, compared to thirteen last year. Over 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. This year, a student was murdered, and there were a total of eight murders in Deaverview, where many of the school’s children live. Educators must teach resiliency skills, including breathing exercises, and crisis de-escalation techniques; and get through the Common Core Curriculum as well. Other speakers told stories of children coming to school and requiring an hour to calm down before they could concentrate.

Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone said staff had been listening to members of the community and searching best practices to develop a plan of action to check the trauma and racism children in Buncombe County endure every day. The county had already invested a lot in school buildings, it gives to nonprofit organizations, and it has grown its Department of Health and Human Services. This time, the commissioners were being asked to give $500,000 to community and neighborhood initiatives. Stone said no administrative infrastructure was in place, and a request-for-proposals process would have to be rolled out. She expected it would take three years of “one-time” $500,000 commitments from the county to “see the fire catch.” $325,000 for this year’s funding would come from an unused allocation for the Oak Hill Commons hard-to-house mainstreaming apartment complex. No reasons for the defunding were discussed.

Drawing from Mullen’s presentation, citizen Jerry Rice suggested the money should go toward curricula in the schools. Schools have administrative structures in-place, and they deal with all children, not just those accessing special startup programs. The county goes into debt constructing schools and pays teachers, but the presentation had just made school life for children look a wreck. People commenting thereafter found Rice’s comments offensive; teachers cannot be asked to deal with all the trauma and also provide children the education they need to get a job that pays well. “It takes a community to raise a child,” they echoed. The measure passed unanimously.

The second agenda item, which also passed unanimously, proposed additional jail-diversion programs. Stone said the county is already a national model for its DWI, Drug, Family, and Veterans’ specialty courts; Crisis Intervention Teams; case management; information-sharing between emergency services and the criminal justice system; and pre-trial release. Even so, nationwide, serious mental illness is 2-6 times more prevalent in jail populations than in the general public, and about 70 percent of inmates abuse controlled substances. In Buncombe County, an average of 51 inmates a day receive treatment for serious mental illness, and 800 inmates had to be monitored for withdrawal last year.

Going to jail does not cure persons with mental illness or substance abuse problems. In fact, prison has sometimes been described as a school where criminals exchange ideas. Then, when prisoners are “freed,” they have to “check the box,” making it forever difficult to get housing, employment, education, or even financial assistance. To bridge gaps in services and establish a “trauma-informed system,” Stone requested $547,000 annualized. The investment, she said, could also forestall or prevent the construction of a new detention facility. Commissioner Joe Belcher established the facility would cost $45 million, or $4 million plus $1-2 million in operating costs each year. Funds would support, among other things, a Justice Resource Center with a Justice Resource Collaborating Council and a Justice Resource Coordinator, and a Case Management Data System. The system would give judges insight into people’s histories to better determine who needs to be kept off the streets and who, with appropriate treatment, poses no threat to the public peace and welfare. Commissioner Ellen Frost captured the moment saying it’s a pity for anybody to waste potential in jail when the commissioners have the power to offer alternatives.

Sheriff Van Duncan cautioned the commissioners were “threading the needle” precariously with projected estimates. The county jail has 604 beds. With 568 inmates now booked, it is effectively full because, for example, men cannot be bunked with women, and misdemeanants can’t be bunked with violent offenders. 100 beds are occupied by federal inmates, and it is by housing them that the county receives funding for its diversionary programs. Duncan said the proposal would afford better outcomes, but the jail population must be monitored closely.

In Another Matter –

As the meeting stretched into the 9:00 hour, the commissioners got around to talking about AB Tech capital projects. At their last meeting, they had voted to cease releasing funds for construction at the college until more detailed financials could be produced. The commissioners demanded accountability because construction is being funded with a quarter-cent sales tax narrowly approved by voters. Originally, the revenues were to fund $80,872,000 in projects. The public had been told the tax could sunset once the construction was complete; now, overruns could be used to justify extending the tax indefinitely.

College president Dennis King delivered a very general presentation, surveying needs, completed projects, and options for further development. He concluded saying at the very minimum, the college needed to proceed with the $27 million Arts & Sciences/Engineering Building. Other needs included finishing the fifth floor of the Ferguson Center and either renovating the Elm, Birch, and Sycamore buildings or constructing new facilities.

Commissioner Mike Fryar, who also serves on AB Tech’s board of directors, had his own PowerPoint presentation. He had searched the commissioners’ agendas and found the record of transactions for AB Tech capital projects wanting. What he did find had been approved by way of consent agendas, and different sources quoted different numbers. In sum, Fryar said fulfilling all promises made at the time the sales tax referendum passed would leave AB Tech $9,613,594 in the red. Throwing in the $27 million Arts and Science Building would bring the school $36,613,594 over budget; more would be needed to house displaced programs. Fryar wanted care taken to be sure funds were being spent wisely. For example, classrooms could be built in the vacant fifth floor of the Ferguson Building. An example of waste was the simple shed erected for an air compressor at a cost of $50,000.

Frost kept returning to statistics she found unacceptable, and for which King expressed shame. Last year, minorities comprised only 17.8 and 17.2 percent, respectively, of curriculum and continuing education enrollees; this year, the numbers were up to 18.1 and 18.0. Both years, the population of AB Tech’s service area was 15.6 percent minority. Only 6 percent of the student population self-identified as black. Frost asked King what the school was doing to recruit a student population that would be, in the modern parlance, more representative of the black population.

Commissioner Al Whitesides said he had served eight years on North Carolina Central University’s board and another eight on UNC-Asheville’s. Those schools were always building, and the money was easy to follow. That was not the case with the current presentation. Belcher said it was too late to sort out Priorities 1-4, Basic Plans, and Optimal Plans. Frost moved to continue the discussion, and King said he would have answers if the commissioners could supply questions in advance. Questions included deeper probing by Frost into strategies for proactive minority recruitment as well as requests for conclusive, comprehensive numbers that add up and reasons for changing the capital projects master plan.

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