By Tim Gardner
The Avery County Board of Commissioners had a heavy agenda during their regular monthly meeting November 6. The adoption of resolutions in support of Veterans Day and declaring certain real property surplus and authorizing its sale, in particular, the Avery CARES Building, and approving the termination of a lease agreement with Freedom Life Ministrieswere its among its primary topics.
All commissioners–Chairwoman Martha Hicks, Vice-Chairman Tim Phillips, Dennis Aldridge, Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr., and Robert Burleson–were present for the meeting, as were County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr., Assistant County Manager and Clerk to the Board Cindy Turbyfill, County Finance Officer Caleb Hogan, and County Attorney Michaelle Poore.
The resolution support to honor military veterans on Veterans Day, 2023, centers around the Operation Green Light program. The Veterans Service Office of Avery County announced plans to illuminate the county court house green from Monday, November 6 through Sunday, November 12 as a part of Operation Green Light for Veterans, a nationwide collaborative initiative of the National Association of Counties (NACo) to support military veterans for the purpose of raising awareness about the unique challenges faced by many veterans and the resources that are available at the county, state, and federal level to assist them and their families.
The commissioners, Avery County Veterans Officer Tara Gragg Daniels, and all other county officials and employees encourage residents, businesses, and other organizations to participate by simply changing one light bulb in their home to a green bulb. Changing exterior lights so that neighbors and passersby can see is also encouraged.
Daniels said that, additionally, placing green lights on the interior and exterior is a hope of sparking conversation with family and friends. By shining a green light, veterans know that they are seen, appreciated, and supported for all they have done for our great nation.
Counties and residents across the country are also sharing their participation by posting pictures on social media using the hashtag #OperationGreenLight.
The resolution declaring certain real property surplus and authorizing its sale, in particular, the Avery CARES Building and the property on which it sits on Cranberry Street in Newland. It will be by private sale and upset bid and with no warranty and sold “As Is.” The commissioners further authorized the County Manager to enter into a listing contract for the sale with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services/Blue Ridge Realtors.
The termination of the lease agreement between the County and Freedom Life Ministries includes that of two lots, 25-foot by 180-foot, fronting on State of North Carolina Highway 194—also the Avery CARES property. Freedom Life Ministries officials eventually claimed the old CARES building was not suitable to use for its Avery County operations and never occupied the leased property. The organization desired to surrender it back to the County, which the commissioners acknowledged has no rent or other fees due the county. And the County had to terminate the lease so the property could be listed for sale.
Melanie Burgin, Executive Director for Habitat for Humanity of Avery County, gave the commissioners a report about the agency, a local, grass-roots, Christian Housing Ministry formed in 1991 by Avery citizens, incorporated as a Christian Non-Profit religious organization under North Carolina law, and voluntarily affiliated with Habitat International.
“We build houses in Avery County with low-income families in the name of Jesus Christ,” Burgin said. “We are founded on the conviction that every man, woman and child should have a simple, decent, affordable place to live in dignity and safety. Habitat for Humanity of Avery County has successfully completed the building of 53 homes in our community. That means that there are 53 houses in Avery County that stand as a tangible witness to the fact that the people of Avery County love and care for each other. Avery Habitat has improved the lives of over 61 families that make up over 285 individuals.
“Habitat is not a give-away program. We often say that Habitat is a ‘Hand up, not a hand out.’ Homeowners invest hundreds of hours of
their own labor, or “sweat equity” into building their new house and the houses of others. We require each adult to work a minimum of 250
hours. In the beginning of their partnership, they will work on other Family Partners’ houses that are under construction, work at our
ReStore, our office, or other non-profit organizations in Avery County. Once they have worked at least 150 hours, we will start the planning of their house. During their time working on sweat equity hours, Partner Families are required to pay $1,800 into an escrow account that will be used at closing to pay their first year of homeowner insurance, recording fees and taxes. In addition, they buy their house from Habitat and make modest monthly house payments. No interest or profit is ever charged. Last year our homeowners contributed more than $15,000 in Avery County property taxes. There is true pride and joy in homeownership and there is also a new set of responsibilities – a new way of life for our people – growth
Burgin said those interested in getting more information about Avery County Habitat for Humanity or to help fund this most worthy ministry, can log ono its Internet website at www.averycohfh.org, check out its Facebook Social Media page, or call (828) 733-1909.
Raquel Jennings, Director of Avery County Social Services (DSS) updated the commissioners about the department’s two Energy Assistance Programs-Crisis Intervention and Low-Income.
She said that the County received $49,749.00 in Crisis Intervention Funds, has distributed $29,314.71 to needy citizens as of November 1, and has $20,434.29 remaining to distribute. She said anyone may sign up for this funding at any time interval.
Jennings also said that the “County received $104,388.00 in Low-Income Assistance Funds, which will be available for distribution to needy individuals and families starting at two different time intervals (December 1 through December 31, 2023 and January 1 through March 31, 2024 or until funds are exhausted). Those needing funds may sign up for them during those times.”
Jennings added that more information about the Crisis Intervention and Low-Income Energy Assistance programs can be obtained by calling the DSS office at (828) 733-8230.
Scott Heath, Chairman of the Avery Fire Commission also provided the commissioners updates about the following three topics, with his quotes about each. Details about the Elk Park Fire Station and the stipend program, particularly at the Banner Elk Fire Department is included.
*Elk Park Fire Station: “State funding was awarded for the $3.6 million dollar project (to build a new fire station). The old fire station had several structural deficiencies. This allows us to move on with the next fire station in line for renovation/ replacement project, which will be the Crossnore Fire Station.
In its budget this year, the Fire Commission implemented the stipend program to increase participation in being volunteer firefighters which had dwindled in number and had limited response to emergencies.
*Stipend Program: “It offers the volunteer fire fighters incentives for training and call response. It also has reduced our non-response calls across the county. In fact, a fire department–Banner Elk—that was among the highest in 2022 in those calls, has had them reduced by 81 percent. This is a significant decrease compared to last year. And no fire-related calls have been missed this year. This is in part by the department being proactive and receiving a federal grant to improve staffing and our stipend program. We are closely monitoring this program as all new programs that could have a loss of interest over time.”
The Banner Elk Fire Department obtained a Federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which provides funding to staff that station with personnel and financially compensates those staff individuals, thus ensuring a response to emergencies in a quick, organized manner. The Fire Commission Stipend Program works similarly to that Grant by compensating volunteers for training hours, calls response, personal vehicle fuel use, and other forms that the departments adopt to assist with calls response. The Banner Elk Department, being the most effected, uses both programs to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters.
*Financial Audits- “We are also conducting financial audits on two fire departments as part of a routine accountability program. This helps ensure the taxpayer dollars (are spent efficiently).”
In other action, the commissioners approved the following budget amendments as requested by Hogan that included their respective details and monetary amounts:
*Accepted a grant in the amount of $91,379.56 the Sheriff’s Office received from the International Association of Chiefs of Police for a Victim Services Position, which will be 100 percent funded for two years. The grant provides for a salary of $41,933.00, plus employee insurance, retirement, and related expenditures.
*Appropriating funds in the amount of $56,692.77 for the Planning and Inspections Department to hire a full-time Ordinance Administrator. Part of the funds for the position were budgeted from the Available for Appropriations funds ($32,650.00) and the rest from Fund Balance ($24,042.77). The total funding also provides for employee insurance, retirement, and related expenditures.
*Appropriating funds in the amount of $21,275.00 to hire a temporary Business Personal Property Appraiser for the Tax Administration Department due to an employee’s retirement that will become a full-time position on July 1, 2024. The total appropriated amount includes payments to Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) for the employee.
*Appropriating funds in the amount of $392,000.00 for an upgraded Emergency Medical Services (Ambulance and Rescue Squad) Base in the Green Valley (Ingalls) Community. The funds will provide for construction of a new building that provides space for two ambulances, Emergency-911 backup facilities, personnel sleeping quarters, a kitchen, and a commons area. The facility will be constructed with money from the County’s Capital Outlay funding.
*Appropriating an additional $83,000.00 for a Rolloff Truck for the Department of Solid Waste. The cost of the truck was originally projected to be $202,000.00, but it actual cost is $285,000.00. It will be purchased with the County’s Capital Outlay funding.
*Appropriating $395,196.00 from the County’s Capital Outlay Funding for a Bearcat Tactical Response vehicle for the Sheriff’s Department to use in any catastrophic events.
*Appropriating $33,014.57 from the County’s Capital Outlay Funding for the Sheriff’s Department to purchase tactical helmets equipped with communications devices and related accessories to provide protection and improve communications for its Special Response Team.
*Appropriating $14,123.03from the County’s Capital Outlay Funding for the Sheriff’s Department to purchase a new drone system. The department’s current drone is an older model that Hogan said needs replacing and was damaged in a recent incident.
Additionally, the commissioners approved the October 2023 Tax Report from Tax Administrator Andrea Turbyfill that $1,478,123.35 was collected in taxes due the county during the month.
Turbyfill also noted that a total of $13,240,723.33 has been collected by the county’s tax department during 2023 (January 2 through October 31).
In other action, the commissioners reappointed Young, Jr. to the Rural Transportation Advisory Committee by unanimous vote.
His fellow-commissioners also recognized Young Jr., for being named this year’s Outstanding Rural Transportation Advisory Committee (RTAC) member by his fellow RTAC board members during the High Country Council of Governments awards ceremony held in the Grandview Ballroom at Appalachian State University in Boone.
High Country Council of Governments (HCCOG) is a regional entity that serves and supports local governments in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey Counties. Its awards ceremony honors outstanding achievements and contributions by elected officials, local government employees, and advisory committee members.
The Outstanding Rural Transportation Advisory Committee (RTAC) Award recognizes an individual’s contribution to the region as a whole and their knowledge of the region’s transportation needs. Young, Jr. is a two-time Chair of the RTAC, who has remained involved in the RPO’s work program and projects. Young, Jr. has also served on the High Country Rural Planning Organization (RPO) since January 2017 with excellent attendance at its meetings.
His RTAC and RPO fellow-board members have described him as a very engaged member of the committee who is eager to learn more about the region’s transportation needs and issues at every meeting and routinely inquires about transportation projects. They also maintain that Young, Jr. works effectively with other RTAC members, North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) staff, RPO staff, and supports the efforts of the High Country RPO to plan for and improve the region’s transportation network.
Former Avery High School Head Wrestling Coach Hank Hardin asked the commissioners to provide funding to construct a new wrestling room at the school. Hicks told High Country Press that the County is still paying for the new addition and renovations completed in 2021 at the school, that funding for needed renovations to its kitchen will be a priority topic for the Board of Commissioners, and that they will also discuss funding for a wrestling room.
The commissioners will next meet on Monday, December 4 in their Board Room on the top floor of the County’s Administration Building, located at 175 Linville Street in Newland. The meeting will start at 3:30 p.m.