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Avery Board of Commissioners Address Property Lease Agreement Between County and State During August 7 Meeting

By Tim Gardner

Approval of a lease agreement between the County of Avery and the State of North Carolina of the property where the county’s Emergency Communications Tower is located and questions and concerns from citizens regarding military veterans, law enforcement officers, and religious literature being distributed in the county’s library highlighted the Avery Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, August 7.

All commissioners–Chairwoman Martha Hicks, Vice-Chairman Tim Phillips, Dennis Aldridge, Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr., and Robert Burleson–were present for the meeting. Other top Avery officials attending were: County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr., Assistant County Manager and Clerk to the Commission Cindy Turbyfill, County Finance Officer Caleb Hogan, and County Attorney Michaelle Poore. 

By a unanimous (5-0) vote, the commissioners approved the property lease of the Hawshaw Mountain Property on 115 Hawshaw Firetower Road, Newland, between the county (leese) and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service (lessor) for three (3) years at a price of one dollar ($1.00).  The property lease indicates that the county will use the property for its Emergency Communications Tower during the duration of the lease (August 1, 2023 through July 31, 2026).

Three concerned citizens who provided their names addressed the commissioners during the public comments segment of the meeting. Hicks told them and all others assembled that the commissioners are to not be expected to comment or take action at the same meeting regarding issues told to them in the public segment session.

During the meeting and in previous correspondence with the commissioners, county manager, assistant county manager, county attorney, and Military Veterans Service Officer Tara Gragg Daniels, Greg Jenkins spoke of philosophical differences he has with them concerning how they handle some veterans’ issues.

“There’s people in your ranks suffering you don’t even know about.  It’s a shame.  But you have no shame,” Jenkins said.

He added that he’s “going to build a shelter in Avery County for my brothers in blue (law enforcement officers) and his (military) veteran brothers.” 

Hicks also told High Country Press that “the commissioners appreciate Jenkins being concerned with veterans’ topics and wanting to help Avery’s military veterans and others, but that one of the continuous top priorities for myself and all our county officials is assisting all our military veterans, law enforcement officers, and citizens.  We have done so in every possible way and will continue to do so.”

The commission chairwoman also noted that she, the other commissioners, the county manager, assistant county manager, and the veterans officer take issue with some of the accusations made by Jenkins against them in person, by phone, and in correspondence that she termed as being “not only inaccurate, but personally offensive.”

Hicks added that Daniels is “one of the finest veterans service officers that any government agency has and possesses a special love for all veterans and a great passion for helping them.”

Larry Woody asked the commissioners about the possibility of him leaving religious materials in the Avery County Morrison Library for anyone who wished to take copies.  The commissioners thanked him for his request.  But Hicks said to High Country Press that federal regulations that also regulate county and regional government-related agencies like libraries prohibit such items from being distributed in such a manner to the public and that those mandated regulations must be followed by law.  She added that if federal law permitted religious items to be distributed in all facilities that items from other organizations that might be potentially offensive to some people could also be distributed in the same facilities.

George Greene also asked the commissioners about the county’s solid waste department not accepting brush.  Hicks told High Country Press that the county has an overload of brush now, which can’t be disposed of properly as its wood chipper is tore up. She added that the wood chipper is in the process of being fixed and once it is and the current overload of brush is chipped up and disposed of, then the county will resume accepting brush.

In other set meeting agenda topics, the commissioners (also by unanimous 5-0 votes):

*Approved the July 2023 Tax Report from Tax Administrator Andrea Turbyfill that $101,015.40 was collected in taxes due the county.  Turbyfill noted that a total $4,119,601.25 has been collected by the county’s tax department during 2023’s first seven months (January, February, March, April, May, June, and July).

*Approved financial budget amendments presented by Hogan that included: 

-The county’s Department of Emergency Services (EMS) receiving a grant in the amount of $140,000.00 from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to purchase a generator and a trailer for the emergency shelter in the event of a disaster.

-The county’s Department of Emergency Services (EMS) receiving a grant in the amount of $80,000.00 from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to purchase a generator for the emergency operations center in the event of a disaster.

-The county reimbursing the Avery County Schools System in the amount of $354,000.00 for the purchase of and installation of new bleachers in the Avery County High School gymnasium.  This expenditure would be paid for using county lottery funds.  The bleachers were not installed during the 2022-2023 fiscal year and Hogan noted that the project will be moved into the current 2023-2024 fiscal year after the commissioners approved the amendment.

-The county’s Sheriff’s Office receiving a grant in the amount of $10,228.00 for the detection and mitigation of Covid (coronavirus) in confinement facilities. The grant was awarded in the 2022-2023 fiscal year and the $10,228.00 is the remaining balance to be spent.

-The county’s Sheriff’s Office receiving a reimbursement in the amount of $791.02 from the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners liability and property pool for the purchase of brush guards for its vehicles.

The commissioners also made the following service agency appointment by a unanimous (5-0) vote-Paul Harris to the Workforce Development Board of Directors.

During the county manager’s report to the commissioners, Barrier Jr. said that work toward obtaining Broadband Internet access for every residence and business in the county is sill “moving forward toward its total completion date of December 21, 2026.”  More than 200 homes and several businesses in the county already have Broadband Internet and the commissioners have prioritized that every residence and business in the county does during the next three-and-a-half year’s timeline.

The county manager also noted that the Avery County government is set to receive $1,713,552 over an 18-year period as part of the

national opioid settlement. On April 24, 2023, Avery County held its first public input meeting to consider the goals and spending plan of the settlement funds. As a result of the first public input meeting the consensus was drawn to follow Option A as laid out in the Memorandum of

Agreement Between the State of North Carolina and Local Governments on Proceeds Relating to the Settlement of Opioid Litigation, with the focus for Avery County being on 1) Prevention and 2) Rehabilitation. 

The following are eligible project areas within Option A include:

1. Collaborative strategic planning

2. Evidence-based addiction treatment

3. Recovery support services

4. Recovery housing support

5. Employment-related services

6. Early intervention

7. Naloxone distribution

8. Post-overdose response team

9. Syringe Service Program

10. Criminal justice diversion programs

11. Addiction treatment for incarcerated persons

12. Reentry programs

Applications for funding will be considered by a small seven-member committee made up of subject matter experts selected by the public input attendees and members of the drug crisis roundtable. The committee’s considerations and recommendations will then be presented to the

Board of Commissioners for approval. Approved requests will be funded through June 30, 2024 and each organization must apply annually thereafter for subsequent funding.

Avery County anticipates granting awards between $20,000.00 and $50,000.00 per applicant per year. While the county is open to considering grant awards that fall outside of this range, it is the intent of the county to spread out funding awards over the next 18-plus years. This funding strategy will be reviewed annually by the Board of Commissioners and at the public input meeting and drug crisis roundtable meetings.

Barrier, Jr. said those who may apply for funding and regulations to which they must comply include:

1. Organizations must have 501(c)(3) status verification through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Evidence of 501(c)(3) status should be provided with the application.

2. Startups will be considered for funding but must submit a budget and a plan of operation.

3. Applicant organizations that have not been in existence for 2 years or that have not obtained or applied for 501(c)(3) status, may apply under the umbrella of another eligible agency that will serve as the applicant and provide fiduciary responsibility.

Barrier, Jr. also noted that Avery County Opioid Funding for Fiscal Year 2023 – 2024 may be used for:  

1. A public purpose not otherwise provided by the County or that augments what is offered by the County, and follows the goals set forth in Option A.

2. Strategies that pursue Avery County’s stated goals of addressing 1) Prevention and 2) Rehabilitation, or some combination of both goals.

The commissioners also went into closed session, but took no votes or other action after returning to open session.

The commissioners will next meet on Monday, August 21 in their Board Room on the top floor of the County’s Administration Building, located at 175 Linville Street in Newland. The meeting will commence at 3:30 p.m.