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BOC holds public hearings and approves county budget for FY 2020-21

JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Commissioners met in regular session on Monday, June 15. The meeting began at 9 a.m. and for the first time in months, the public was invited to attend.

This meeting included three public hearings for the public to have the opportunity to comment on the proposed county budget for fiscal year 2020-21.

Monday’s morning was recessed and resumed at 10 a.m. on June 16. This was in accordance with G.S. 166A-19.24 which states that electronic meetings that take place in the emergency area during a state of emergency declared by the Governor or General Assembly, must allow for written comments on the subject of the public hearing to be submitted 24 hours after the public hearing.

As confirmed by Ann Clark, clerk to the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, there were no written comments received from any members of the public.

No votes or comments by the BOC took place at the June 15 meeting and were reserved for the June 16 meeting.

As a safety precaution, any members of the public in attendance were encouraged to wear a face covering and the podium was wiped down with disinfectant between each speaker.

Commissioners Larry Dix, William Sands, Paula Perry and Vice-Chair Larry Rhodes were physically present at both meetings while Chairman Todd McNeill participated via phone.

Rhodes read aloud all three public hearing items for the BOC to vote on.

The first were the two resolutions for the Wilkes Community College Installment Financing Project. These included a resolution for the negotiation of the installment financing contract and a resolution for the installment financing contract.

Rhodes made the motion to adopt the resolutions, which carried.

The second was for the public hearing of the entire budget or the economic development expenditures included in the FY 2020-21 budget.

Rhodes asked for the motion to adopt a budget ordinance for FY 2020-21 for $52,998,192.

He further read the specifications of the budget which included the Ad Valorem Tax rate at .443 per $100 of assessed value which is unchanged from FY 2019-20.

All fire taxes are to remain the same, except for West Jefferson Fire Department which went changed from 1.7 to .030.

Fire taxes for all other departments are: Creston .06, Fleetwood .04, Glendale Springs .07, Lansing .06, Warrensville .08, Jefferson .029, New River .07, Pond Mountain .08, Todd .08 and Deep Gap .04.

During the commissioners’ comments portion Rhodes said this is the 22nd budget he has sat in on and these were the most difficult decisions he has had to make during a budget time.

“This was a very difficult budget session due to the many unknowns and uncertainties surrounding the impact from Covid-19. I think cautious and conservative would describe our approach to this budget at the same time ever mindful and with one eye on next year,” Dix said. “Spending was held in place from last year or reduced at the same time providing essential services to our citizens without raising taxes. Although I do not like dipping into fund balance to budget, I am glad we are in good shape to do it. I am hopeful we do not need to use any of the fund balance but it is there if needed. We are aware that we may need to review our actions over the next few months if circumstances change.”

At the meeting held on Monday, June 15, the first item on the agenda was a public hearing for the Wilkes Community College Installment Financing project. Included in this was the adoption of two resolutions for an Installment Financing contract.

County Manager Adam Stumb clarified that of the proposed $13 million in the contract, $8 million is for Wilkes Community College. The remaining $5 million is for refinancing of the jail.

The second public hearing was for the adoption of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2020-21. Since there were no public comments, the public hearing was closed for this item.

The third public hearing item was for the adoption of the proposed 2020-21 economic development budget.

After the public hearing items were presented, all other business outlined in the agenda was addressed.

During her presentation, DSS Director Tracie Downer shared news of the retirement of Tommy McClure, Adult Services Supervisor. His last day in the office was June 15 and they plan to hold a retirement celebration when it is safe to do so.

“He has been a real asset, not only to DSS but the community,” Rhodes said. “He will continue to be to the community, knowing Tommy, but I do really appreciate all the work he has done.”

Don Church, president of Mount Jefferson Child Development, came before the BOC for the renewal and and request for forgiveness of three lease payments due to the financial strain of COVID-19.

The main concerns for the BOC during this discussion was being consistent with all other businesses and agencies in terms of forgiveness for missed lease payments.

“I don’t think, and I might be wrong, that Mount Jefferson has missed any monthly payments since they’ve been in the building,” Dix said. “And you’ve already stated several times how things are different because of coronavirus. That’s made a big difference and these are unusual times; yes we have a contract, but there’s been relief measures put in place all over the country where people are not being held accountable in some ways because of the coronavirus.”

After the discussion, Sands made a motion to allow MJDC to pay back the $11,305.74 owed to the county during a 12-month period because the payments would be amount to less than an $1,000 additional cost per month.

After this motion was made, Perry made an amendment for the payment period to be extended to 18 months.

The BOC voted to extend the payback period to 18 months instead of 12 months if the need arises.

They then voted on the original motion that the period be extended to 18 months, total of $11,305.74 be paid and if something changes or MJCD vacates the building it will be paid ahead of time.

The vote was 4-1, with Dix not in favor of the motion.

The 12 month lease for the building was also approved and MJCD was encouraged to seek any available help or grant funding.

Stumb and County Extension Director and Extension Agent Travis Birdsell discussed the High Country Commercial Kitchen fee schedule, permits and requirements.

Birdsell said they have been utilizing the freezer and cooler storage space for food procurement they have received and redistributed to local food pantries. He said this has been a fantastic service to residents of Ashe County.

“We have been able to move somewhere close to 20,000 pounds of meat, cold storage through that facility since April,” Birdsell said.” And that’s during a time when meat, as you all know, through the country even if you had money to pay for it might not be available.

There was a discussion about a request received from a woman who is experiencing financial hardship and is in need of a certified kitchen. She requested that the kitchen use fee be waived and has plans to provide chocolates for a fundraiser.

Prior to COVID-19, there was a $25 per hour fee for use of the commercial kitchen itself. There was also a $50 fee for any cancelations with less than 24 hour notice. Storage fees are to remain the same, as stated by both Stumb and Birdsell.

It was proposed by Birdsell to provide discounted pricing on a uniform basis.

McNeill made the motion to grant Stumb and Birdsell the authority to adjust the fee schedule at their discretion based on how they feel the market will fare. He also added that there has to be some fee and for it to be a blanket fee schedule.

The motion carried there was a 5-0 vote.

Sheriff B. Phil Howell announced that the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office recently received notice of their COPS grant.

Howell reiterated that the ASCO requested the addition of new officers in the FY 2020-21 budget due to increased call volume.

At the beginning of March, they applied for the COPS grant in which they applied for four officers.

Howell said they received a press release at their budget meeting last week that they were award $485,000 for officers to enter the community.

Howell said Public Information Officer Brian Blanco has been applying for grants nonstop.

No action was taken, as they are still awaiting the award packet which will address additional questions.

Work sessions

The Ashe County Board of Commissioners held its fiscal year 2020-21 work sessions to discuss the proposed county budget June 1-2 in the conference room at the Agricultural Services Building.

At the meeting were Ashe County Manager Adam Stumb, Chairman Todd McNeill, Vice-Chairman Larry Rhodes, Commissioner Larry Dix, Commissioner Paula Perry and Commissioner William Sands. Ashe County Clerk to the Board Ann Clark, Deputy Clerk to the Board of Commissioners Barbara McCoy, Finance Officer Sandra Long, Assistant Finance Officer/Human Resources Director Angela Eggers, and Deputy Finance Officer Teresa Bare were also present.

This proposed budget was presented by Stumb to the Ashe County Board of Commissioners on May 18.

The proposed budget for the General Fund for fiscal year 2020/21 was presented at $37,775,363.

The tax rate per $100 assessed valuation was proposed at $0.443, which reflected no change from the current 2019-2020 fiscal year.

The recommended budget represents a conservative spending plan for the coming year due to uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. It was also decided that there will be no capital expenditures for the first quarter of 2021.

At this time, the BOC still hasn’t been able to evaluate the impact of sales tax revenues for the current fiscal year and Long does not expect this to be determined until at least August.

To contribute to the discussion and consideration of the budget, several departments came forth to address those at the meetings.

Departmental presentations included the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Social Services, Ashe County Schools, Tax Administration and Ashe Services for Aging.

On June 1, Sheriff B. Phil Howell, accompanied by his Executive Assistant Jessica Vogler and Chief Deputy Danny Houck, spoke about the ASCO’s need for vehicles.

The proposed budget for law enforcement includes an investment in new equipment such as additional new vehicles and an upgrade to VIPER radios for all officers. For corrections, the budget shows a reduction in revenues due to uncertainty in the number of inmates in the next because of fewer out-of-ounty inmates and state misdemeanor confinement inmates.

Howell described vehicles as being the top priority and how he felt it would be ideal if there was a standard for the ASCO to receive four or five cars each year.

“My vehicles are in such bad shape, you saw it last year, unfortunately we had the two deer accidents, but at the same time, my vehicles are a huge concern for me,” Howell said.

He expressed his concern due to the need for deputies to respond to calls and how past sheriffs, including James Williams and Jim Hartley, needed to go to commissioners’ meetings to “fight for cars.”

The ASCO received four vehicles during the budget process last year and one new position which went to Administrative Coordinator, Brian Blanco.

When McNeill asked about the cost of one car, including equipment, Vogler shared pricing information based on a turnkey quote from a vendor. Vogler added that Dodge models on state contracts are priced lower than Ford models.

The requested cars for the ASCO are four Dodge Durangos and one Ford F-150.

Vogler and McNeill estimated the cost to be around $44,080 for the Durangos with all equipment, including the computer docking system. The turnkey quote as presented by Vogler for the Ford F150 was $29,979.

Also included in the proposed budget for health services is $592,611 for Appalachian District Health and a total of $190,066 to be appropriated toward County mental health services.

Playground equipment for Ashe County Parks & Recreation was a topic of discussion on Monday afternoon and equipment discussed included repairs to a swing set and the addition of handicap accessible equipment.

On June 2, the Ashe County Department of Social Services discussed its funding with the BOC. On-hand were Director Tracie Downer and Fiscal Officer Kelly Surber.

The grand total county appropriation amount available to DSS for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020, is $3,815,022.

Downer discussed adding an Income Maintenance Caseworker position, which would be a $10,500 estimated cost to the county. She also addressed the possibility of purchasing two vehicles, a Ford Explorer with third row seating and a Ford Fusion from the local Ford dealership.

According to Downer, money was already taken out of this year’s budget for new laptops since they had already purchased these due to the COVID-19 outbreak for employees to complete telework.

Also discussed was $25,000 which was budgeted again for this year to begin the planning phase of a new Human Services building. According to Downer, they have collaborated with two different engineering companies and Stumb anticipates a price proposal in the near future. Stumb said the process of planning the new building will begin next budget year.

Downer also presented information about an electronic file storage program by Northwoods called Traverse. According to Downer, the program is priced — dependent on the county and would cost $75,000 per year for all included services. The cost of implementation of the program has not yet been verified but is estimated to be approximately $225,000.

Downer said counties across the state including Wilson County, Pitt County and Brunswick County were approved to use Traverse.

According to Downer, this program will allow workers to be more efficient because they will have the ability to download the entire history of the case file to take with them into the field and complete necessary paperwork on the computer while planning with the family.

“I think that this program could really revolutionize the way we do social services work,” Downer said.

Superintendent Phyllis Yates and Finance Officer Amanda Coldiron came before the BOC on behalf of Ashe County Schools.

Yates expressed her appreciation that they received level funding and they realize the impact the pandemic has had on county revenue. As far as assistance, they asked for help in the area of employee benefits.

According to Yates, they are short in dollar allotments for benefits and locally they are having to pick up the difference in the benefits for state and federal employees.

Coldiron said there are currently 13 teachers at ACS who are paid locally and typically include new teachers and those who have the least risk of getting hurt while on the job. Usually those who are more at risk are placed on state dollars since worker’s compensation is costly.

As far as remote learning, Yates said the State plans to provide money for more internet access in the county in the form of hotspots.

They also discussed the supplemental pay of $25 per day for those who worked with the Child Nutrition programs preparing and delivering meals to students while schools were out due to COVID-19.

Yates discussed the after school care program which is currently in the works with Western Youth Network. There was an MoU by the Board of Education during their meeting on June 1 about moving forward with WYN.

According to Yates, any funds carried over from the 4-H program will go to ACS to help pay WYN for all necessary start-up supplies. The estimated funding needed for the year would be $30,000-40,000 for the program, which they hope will also provide after school transportation.

Tax Director, Chris Lambert presented information about an aerial imagery program which was previously discussed in a meeting in March. All departments will have access to the program which will also be available through the public website for other entities such as realtors to use.

The cost of the program is $186,000 for three years, with new imagery updated every three years.

Lambert said he believes this program will “pay for itself.”

“We’re not out driving around, we’re in the office getting our work done,” Lambert said. “We’re not spending on gas, we’re not putting miles on cars. We’re doing a lot of at-desk reappraisals.”

Dispatch will also have access to the program which will prove helpful during welfare checks due to the ability to have a picture of every improved structure on all four sides.

“It’s a win-win for all of us really,” Lambert said.

The final presentation of the day was Ashe Services for Aging. Present were Ashe Services for Aging Board Chairman Richard Blackburn, Executive Director Patricia Calloway and Fiscal Officer Mary Owen.

Blackburn shared three things they were able to do with the extra allocated funds they received last year. They were able to establish a reserve for replacement funds to ensure the aging building could be cared for in a timely manner without jeopardizing services, rebuild their line of credit to guarantee payroll was met when billing cycles were out of sync and they also dedicated one new employee for marketing, fundraising and resource development.

Blackburn said their request for this year is based on the Board’s need to offer their staff a competitive salary. According to Blackburn, in some cases they were able to make up some inequities in salaries in a small way but they haven’t offered an across-the-board salary increase in more than 12 years.

“The reason for our additional request this year is so that we can strictly work on improving our workforce salaries so that they can be compensated for what they do,” Blackburn said.

According to Calloway, they have 140-150 employees throughout the whole agency.

Calloway said they continue to provide home delivered meals for adults in the adult daycare program and a sizable number of people in the community.

They also started drive-thru congregate nutrition services where participants call ahead the day before by 2 p.m. and are issued a number. Participants drive through the parking lot and workers package and deliver the food to the cars. According to Calloway, this is provided through Block Grant services.

“We are delivering more meals than we’ve ever delivered and our volunteers, who are in the higher risk category over age 60, they keep coming back,” Calloway said.

Calloway said the volunteers are so invested in what they do and because of this they are able to spend less money for these services.

Once all presentations were completed, hours of discussion ensued to consider all points brought forth by community organizations. A large concern was dipping into fund balance, since there is still a great amount of uncertainty within the next year due to COVID-19.

The BOC further discussed Ashe Services for Aging and the playground equipment.

During the discussion, Stumb said the quote to repair the swing set would be $2,000.

The decision was made not to purchase any new equipment at this time, unless absolutely necessary.

Commissioner William Sands suggested the allotment of an extra $50,000 to Ashe Services for Aging for salary increases.

A key fob system that was proposed to allow or limit access to certain parts of the courthouse was also up for discussion. The decision was made to not pursue the key fob system at this time.

The meeting concluded on Tuesday with the following decisions. The tough decision was made, in fairness, not to add any new positions in any department.

Regarding the vehicles for the ASCO, the BOC decided on including three vehicles in the proposed budget. Funds for three cars would be included in the proposed budget and the BOC recommended that the Sheriff purchase the fourth using money from the Sheriff’s discretionary drug fund.

It was also decided to allocate an extra $50,000 to Ashe Services for Aging. In total there was $203,000 in cuts, leaving them with roughly $64,840.

Local nurse celebrates 50 year career with same physican

Joy Cockerham began her career with Dr. Edward Miller on June 19, 1970 — and is celebrating 50 years as a nurse with the same practice and physician.

Since childhood, Cockerham always knew she wanted to become a nurse. When asked what has been most memorable about her career she said it has been the ability to take care of people throughout their life from childbirth until they have a family of their own.

Cockerham said the biggest change during her career has been the transition to electronic medical records from paper patient charts.

Her advice for anybody going into the medical field is to make sure they have the love and desire to take care of people.

“Joy has been such an inspiring member of our team at Ashe Memorial and Mount Jefferson Family Medicine throughout the years,” said Rita Richardson, practice manager at Mount Jefferson Family Medicine. “She always puts the needs of the patients first and cares deeply about providing excellent patient care. We could not ask for a better coworker and friend.”

Cockerham is also known at the office for her sense of humor, as she often cracks jokes and regularly brings smiles to the faces of her coworkers.

“At the end of the day she normally tells one of us ‘You’re fired but make sure you come back tomorrow,’” Richardson said.

Miller said Cockerham has been a friend and invaluable teammate of his over the years and everyone at his practice truly admires her dedication.

“She knows our patients so well and has worked with me so long she often anticipates what is needed before I even go into the patient’s room,” Miller said. “This makes my job so much easier and our patients appreciate the individualized care they receive. It would be extremely difficult for me to practice without her by my side. I appreciate all she does for me and my patients.”

Lansing Aldermen decide on new appointment, ready to approve budget

LANSING — The Lansing Board of Aldermen met Tuesday, June 9, via Zoom for its regular, monthly meeting, setting a date for the final approval of the town’s budget and setting its sights on a new alderman.

The board had four aldermen for the meeting, following the announcement of Jack Brown’s resignation at the May 12 meeting, leaving only Cheyenne Blevins, Jim Blevins, Matt Cordell and Tom Richardson on the board.

The board first heard from Maintenance Supervisor Larry Blevins, who gave an update on the N.C. 194 bridge replacement. Larry Blevins said more equipment was being brought in every day as construction looms, and that sandbags have been placed in the river to divert it.

GLAD board president Dick Greenwood was also on-hand to let the board know what the community organization has been up to. Greenwood said the organization is handing out two $500 scholarships this year to high school graduates, and is also working on receiving a grant from Carolina Farm Stewardship, a non-profit out of Pittsboro.

The board also looked at a request from a town resident who had a recent problem with their home’s water. According to Town Clerk Marcy Little, a leak in the home’s plumbing went unchecked for roughly one month while the residents were away. In that time, 43,270 gallons of water escaped, skyrocketing the water bill for the home. The board voted unanimously to grant leniency to the resident’s bill, requiring them only to pay the minimum monthly water bill given the circumstances.

The board then moved to discussing the budget for the 2020/21 fiscal year. After a suggestion from Cordell, the board then approved an increase in the minimum water bill by five percent, with plans to look at an additional five percent next year. Mayor Mack Powers said the decision shows their “good stewardship” of an aging water and sewer system, and that they will be able to slowly update, replace and improve the system. The board voted unanimously to approve the proposed budget, setting up a meeting for Tuesday, June 23 to put the budget in place following a public hearing.

Next was taking a look at filling the vacant alderman position left by Brown. Little said they had heard from resident Teresa McCoy threw her hat into the ring with an email to Little, receiving votes of confidence from Larry Blevins and multiple aldermen. After approving the appointment, Little said the plan would be to swear McCoy in before the June 23 meeting.

The board also discussed the reopening of the town’s public bathrooms in the Lansing Creeper Trail Park. The concern for reopening is still keeping the bathrooms clean in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Richardson mentioned that United Chemi-con has hired a woman to do a deep cleaning twice-a-day, which is something the town could consider as well. The board decided it would be a good idea to hire a part-time worker for a few hours a day for the job.

The meeting was adjourned just before 7:45 p.m. After the budget meeting June 23, the next meeting of the Lansing Board of Aldermen will be Tuesday, July 14.

Ashe County Library reopens to public with social distancing measures in place

WEST JEFFERSON — Appalachian Regional Library, with public libraries in Ashe, Watauga and Wilkes counties opened to the public on Monday, June 15, with limited services, reduced hours and reduced building capacities.

The Ashe County Public Library’s hours of operation will be Monday-Thursday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. The first hour of service each day is currently being reserved for people most at risk of dying from COVID-19.

All patrons are allowed into the library for one visit per day for a maximum stay of one hour. Those who are sick are asked to remain at home and not make any visits to the library. Upon arrival, a greeter will present the guidelines and safety precautions to patrons.

It is requested that everyone entering the library abides by the three Ws: wearing a face covering, washing their hands and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from other people.

Other notable differences in library operations include social distancing markers intended to help library users maintain a safe distance from others and the removal of all seating areas.

Marna Napoleon, youth services specialist said it has been different adjusting to the new protocols and appearance of the library.

“It’s just really weird. When it first started and we took all the toys out, it was awful,” Napolean said.

Sneeze guards were also installed at all of the reference and check out desks, which were made by a volunteer.

There will be no in-person programs or meetings held in the library for the foreseeable future and in lieu of in-house events, all summer learning will take place online. Weekly activity kits will be available for pickup while supplies last.

The library will be offering check-out of materials either chosen from shelves or picked up as holds. Curbside pickup of materials continues to be offered to those who wish to continue utilizing this service.

There will also be limited use of adult computers with remote computer assistance and fewer computers will be available to accommodate social distancing.

No toys or games will be available and there will be no periodicals available for browsing.

Adult Services Librarian Laura McPherson said the library plans to have masks available within the next few weeks to provide to those who do not have one.

McPherson said at this time the library is not accepting any donations of books, DVDS, toys, etc. because they currently do not have volunteers or the space necessary to process donations.

According to McPherson, they are unable to resume to Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program this year. Some suggested alternatives for those who need VITA services are the Ashe Senior Center or local banks.

Per usual, there is not a limit on the number of books patrons can check out at one time. However, McPherson said they are quarantining books that are returned or books that come by transit from other libraries for 48 hours.

According to McPherson, the Centers for Disease Control and the Institute of Museum and Library Services has provided guidance concerning sanitization of reading materials. Per CDC and IMLS, was a recommended quarantine time of 24 hours for books, but McPherson said the library decided to be extra cautious and extended it to 48 hours.

Youth Services Library Ashlin Edmisten said they recently held an art contest where children submitted their art to be chosen as the theme of the week for summer learning activity kits.

Each kit has a theme and contains a STEAM activity, a craft, a math activity, builder’s challenge and a description of the art displayed on the front of the bag.

Edmisten said the activity kits are available for pickup but are on a first-come first serve basis while supplies lasts. She said parents have been pleased with the summer learning activity kits because it gives their child something to keep them busy throughout the week.

“That was sort of the goal, was to have something that would keep them entertained and engaged through the entire week,” Edmisten said.

For more information about Ashe County Public Library and their current services or to access all summer learning material, visit the website at www.arlibrary.org/ashe. Additional information is also available on the Facebook page @Ashe County Public Library or by calling (336) 846-2041.