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Avery Board of Commissioners Adopt Economic Strategic Plan and Establish Priority Needs List of Transportation Projects

County of Avery 15-Year Service Awards recipients honored during the July 11, 2023 Board of Commissioners meeting included (from left-to-right): Robbyn Mull, Cindy Turbyfill, Clarice Singleton;, Erin English, Tim Phillips, Starla McClellan, Israel Murray, Michael Watson, andSteve Burleson.  Not pictured: County Commission (Chairwoman)-Martha Hicks.

By Tim Gardner

Adoption of a new Economic Strategic Plan and establishing a Priority Needs List of transportation projects listwere highlights of the regular monthly meeting of the Avery County Commissioners on July 11.

Commissioners present for the meeting included Vice-Chairman Tim Phillips, Dennis Aldridge, Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr. and Robert Burleson. Commission Chairwoman Martha Hicks was absent due to a death in her family.

County Manager Phillip Barrier; Assistant County Manager and Clerk to the Board of Commissioners Cindy Turbyfill; and County Attorney Michaelle Poore also were present.

As Vice-Chairman, Phillips moderated the meeting in Hicks’ absence.

The commissioners unanimously (4-0) approved the Economic Development Strategic Plan for the county, which also included them adopting a resolution for such (also by unanimous vote).

Regarding the request by the Avery County Board of Commissioners for the North Carolina Department of Commerce to assist with preparing an Economic Development Strategic Plan, provisions pertaining to NC Department of Commerce services include:  

1) As part of the NC Department of Commerce, the state’s lead agency for promoting economic development and prosperity, the NC Main Street and Rural Planning Center provides services and assistance that add value to community economic development efforts. In this context, clients are requested to provide any data which demonstrates the economic impact of the services provided within one (1) year of the project’s completion or as implementation proceeds. 

2) The mission of the Center is to work in regions, counties, cities, towns, downtown districts, and designated North Carolina Main Street communities to inspire placemaking through building asset based economic development strategies that achieve measurable results such as investment, business growth, and jobs. In fulfilling its mission, the Center may share successful “best practices” with other communities when appropriate. In this context, all materials produced from this project and economic outcomes may be shared with other communities, as needed. 

3) The Appalachian Regional Commission makes it possible for Center staff to provide services to Avery County with no fees. However, if large numbers of copies of project materials or extensive research are required by the County, it may be necessary for the County to cover such expenses. 

4) The Center currently has staff with various skill sets in economic and community development planning and is responsible for delivering services throughout the state. When the Center accepts a project, its goal is to complete the project in a timely and responsible manner. In the event of staff turnover, budget reductions, or other unforeseeable events, the Center may be compelled to place a project in an indefinite “hold” status until replacement staff and/or other resources can be secured. In rare cases, where very specialized staff skills are unable to be replaced, the project commitment may be terminated. Projects may also be reprioritized consistent with departmental or division policies.

5) The Center’s work to assist Avery County with developing an Economic Development Strategic Plan is tentatively scheduled to begin in August 2023 and is targeted to be completed no later than December 2023. The Center’s lead planner for the project will be Kyle Case. 

6) The Center may partner with other agencies or organizations on certain aspects of the project, subject to approval by Avery County if applicable.

The Avery County Strategic Plan Proposed Scope of work may be adjusted or altered based on the needs of the County. The work encompasses the following:

  • Review Existing Plans and Conditions, including previous plans and applicable data – past and potential (as available)
  • Compile Inventory and map County assets, target areas, and potential project sites; Meet with the local work group in a series of four or five meetings, once per month
  • Review community demographic and economic data, community input data such as a community survey (optional), and conduct county staff and community stakeholder interviews.
  • Develop of a vision statement, goals, and a work plan through a work group that should consist of approximately ten (10) diverse community members that can include: Elected officials, other Avery County Government staff, economic development professionals, business owners, education leaders, healthcare leaders, faith leaders, and related other professionals. 
  • Compile community data and stakeholder input summaries 
  • Compile asset and project mapping (where applicable)

All these are part of a work plan with its goals, objectives, and actions designed to move the County toward its vision of economic development excellence that will be second to no other county government entity.

Through the High Country Council of Governments, which represents seven North Carolina Mountain counties, the Solicitation of New Transportation Projects for the 2026-2035 State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) is underway.

The High Country Rural Planning Organization (RPO), a collaborative effort between the counties of Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey; the incorporated municipalities in the seven counties; the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT); and the High Country (Region D) Council of Governments, utilizes a project prioritization system to produce a Priority Needs List of transportation projects for the High Country RPO region. 

The Priority Needs List is typically submitted to the NC Department of Transportation every other year as the STIP is drafted. The first step in the project prioritization process and the development of the Priority Needs List is the solicitation of new transportation projects from each county and the Town of Boone.  According to the High Country RPO project prioritization system, each county and the Town of Boone can submit up to the requisite number of new projects within each mode (highway, bicycle & pedestrian, transit, aviation, and rail) as follows:

  • Alleghany County – 2 projects
  • Ashe County – 3 projects
  • Avery County – 3 projects
  • Mitchell County – 2 projects
  • Watauga County – 4 projects
  • Wilkes County – 6 projects
  • Yancey County – 3 projects
  • Boone – 1 project

Carryover projects are defined as projects that automatically carry over from the previous round of project prioritization for evaluation in the current round of project prioritization.

Modifications of Carryover projects that create segments will count toward the maximum number of submittals. Modifications that change a project’s limits or scope will not count toward the maximum number of submittals. All modifications must have agreement between the Division(s) and the RPO.

Holding Tank projects are those projects that will be removed from the current round of project prioritization unless they are re-submitted as new projects.

Projects identified as “Carryover” should not be submitted as a new project. “Holding Tank” projects identified are eligible to be submitted as new projects.

Multiple projects are allowed along the same section of roadway. If two conflicting projects along the same section score high enough to be funded, a discussion with the NCDOT STIP Unit and the associated Division(s)/RPO will be held to pick the project that will remain in the STIP.

For a bicycle and pedestrian project to be eligible, a cost estimate for the project must be provided and a commitment letter (on letterhead) for the 20 percent project match from the local government is required with project submission. A 10 percent local match for transit projects is required for new projects. Acknowledgement correspondence of the required 10 percent match from local government is required with project submission.

Government official have until the end of the business day on Friday, July 14, 2023 to submit their number of new projects in accordance with the details previously noted, that they would like to have considered in the development of the Priority Needs List and the 2026-2035 STIP. 

The commissioners unanimously (4-0) approved the following projects for submission:

-(Aviation) Avery County Airport-Morrison Field in Ingalls…Construct new terminal and hangar buildings

-(Carryover) NC Highway 105 to Dobbins Road in Banner Elk…Widen to multi-lane.

-Watauga River Road…Extend climbing lane into NC Highway 184 intersection and include additional turning lanes at the NC 184-NC 105 Intersection to Watauga River Road.

-Beech Mountain Parkway. Bring NC 194 up to current design standards.  Widen to 12-foot lanes with wide paved shoulders (4 to 5 feet) to accommodate bicycles.

-Squirrel Creek Road to Old Minneapolis School Road….Widen US 19-E to 12-foot lanes with 4 to 5 foot paved shoulders to accommodate bicycles.

The next step in the project prioritization process will be the solicitation of Priority Projects from County Managers with a supplemental overall project scores list beginning in early May of 2024 for local scoring and ranking.

Barrier, Jr. added that engineers may conduct some preliminary work on the proposed projects before May 2024 to enhance their scores.

The commissioners also unanimously approved hiring Andrea Turbyfill as Tax Administrator for the consolidated positions of Tax Collector and Tax Assessor for the 2023-2024 fiscal year (July 1, 2023 through June 30, 2024).

During their Celebrate County Government segment of the meeting, the commissioners and Barrier, Jr. recognized the following county employees who have fifteen (15) years of service and presented each with appreciation notebook-plaques with a county seal pin:

  • Department of Social Services (DSS)-Robbyn Mull
  • Emergency Medical Services-Israel Murray
  • Solid Waste-Clarice Singleton
  • Sheriff’s Office-Michael Watson
  • Jail-Steve Burleson
  • Register of Deeds-Erin English
  • Finance Office-Starla McClellan
  • Assistant County Manager and Clerk to the Board of Commissioners-Cindy Turbyfill
  • County Commission (Chairwoman)-Martha Hicks 

In other action, the commissioners also approved the following county service agency appointments (4-0): 

*Linda Webb-Juvenile Crime Prevention Council

*Lewis Benfield -WTJ (Board of Adjustment) for the Town of Banner Elk

*Commissioner Tim Phillips as a voting delegate at the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners Conference in Wake County August 24 through 26.  Each of the state’s 100 counties is allowed one voting delate for items that comes before the association’s membership.

Additionally, the commissioners also approved Tax Administrator Turbyfill’s report that $34,679.26 was collected in taxes for the month of June, 2023. That brings the total collected the first six months of 2023 (January, February, March, April, May, and June) to $4,018,585.85, according to the Tax Administrator.

Barrier, Jr. also updated the commissioners that the Connectivity Access Broadband (CAB) Internet program, of which the county has committed $3,000,000.00 of the American Rescue Act funds to implement it in the county.   The CAB Program is a competitive bidding program that provides an opportunity for individual North Carolina County governments to partner with the North Carolina Department of Internet Technology (NCDIT) to fund broadband infrastructure projects in unserved and underserved areas of each county. 

Avery County is also a beneficiary of a grant that Spectrum was awarded that will bring gigabit high-speed internet access to more than 230 homes and small businesses in Avery County. It’s funded by the North Carolina Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology (GREAT) Program and is approximately $2.25 million in value. Combined with funding from the County of $250,000, that was used from the Federal American Rescue Plan (Coronavirus Pandemic Recovery) money it received, the total project investment is nearly $2.65 million ($2,646, 740.00 precisely).

Spectrum is part of Charter Communications, Inc., an American telecommunications and mass media company.  Its services are branded as Spectrum. Its Fiber-Optic buildout will connect Gigabit Broadband in the county with starting speeds of 300 Megabits per second (Mbps).

The GREAT grant is one of nine already awarded to Spectrum to expand fiber-optic broadband infrastructure to areas of the state that currently lack access to high-speed connection. Spectrum is North Carolina’s largest broadband provider, serving 2.8 million customers and employing nearly 11,000 residents in the state.

Tax Administrator Turbyfill also reported to the commissioners that the Total Levy on all 2022 tax bills was $22,686,233.96 for a collection rate of 98.44 percent. She also reported that the Total Levy on Real and Personal Property also was $22,686,233.96 for a collection rate of 98.44 percent.

She also reported to the commissioners of the following related figures and comparisons from recent years:  

  • Original Levy- County tax of $19,355,565.03, plus Fire tax of $3,085,718.14 for a total of $22,441,283.17 
  • Releases-  County tax of $29,963.70, plus Fire tax of $4,837.92 for a total of $34,801.62 
  • Discoveries- County tax of $241,486.16 plus Fire tax of $38,266.25 for a total of $279,752.41 

2022 Total Levy- $22,686,233.96 

2022-  All 2022 Tax Bills Total: Levy $22,686,233.96, Total Collected $22,332,270.19, and Collection Rate 98.44 percent

  • Real & Personal Property: Total Levy $22,686,233.96, Total Collected $22,332,270.19 and Collection Rate 98.44 percent
  • Motor Vehicles Total: Levy $0.00, Total Collected $0.00, and Collection Rate 0.00 percent

2021- All 2021 Tax Bills: Total Levy $22,352,083.28, Total Collected 22,176,719.92, and Collection Rate 99.22 percent 

  • Real & Personal Property: $22,352,083.28 Total Levy $$22,176,719.92 and Collection Rate 99.22 percent 
  • Motor Vehicles: Total Levy $0.00, Total Collected $0.00, Collection Rate 0.00 percent

2013-2022- All 2013-2022 Tax Bills to year total: Total Levy $196,059,085.15, Total Collected $195,174,524.43, Collection Rate 99.55 percent 

  • Real & Personal Property: Total Levy $195,676,762.56, Total Collected $194,812,727.43, Collection Rate 99.56 percent 
  • Motor Vehicles: Total Levy $382,322.59, Total Collected $361,797.00, Collection Rate 94.63 percent

Payment Agreements Outstanding- 

  • 2022 Only= $9,005.59 
  • 2013-2022= $29,017.55 

Bankruptcies Outstanding- 

  • 2022 Only= $1,685.61 
  • 2013-2022= $6,500.87 

Attorney Pursuits Outstanding- 

  • 2022 Only= $14,508.64 
  • 2013-2022= $195,686.19 

The commissioners also approved all of the tax reports by a 4-0 vote.

The commissioners will next meet on Monday, August 7, beginning at 3:30 p.m. in their Board Room on the second floor of the County Administration Building, located at 175 Linville Street in Newland.