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Broadband, Opioid, and Occupancy Tax Funding the Top Issues at Avery Board of Commissioners July 1 Meeting

By Tim Gardner

Discussion of receiving additional Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) Internet funding, approval of a service agreement to implement an occupancy tax in parts of the county, and adoption of three resolutions concerning Opioid Settlement funds the county has received highlighted the regular monthly meeting of the Avery Board of Commissioners on July 1.

Commissioners Dennis Aldridge, Martha Hicks, Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr., and Robert Burleson were present at the meeting. County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr., Assistant County Manager and Clerk to the Board Cindy Turbyfill, County Finance Officer Caleb Hogan, County Attorney Michaelle Poore, and Tax Administrator Andrea Turbyfill were also in attendance.

Commission Chairman Tim Phillips was absent from the meeting due to being on vacation.  Aldridge moderated the meeting as the Board’s Vice-Chairman in Phillips’ absence.

The North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s (NCDIT) Division of Broadband and Digital Equity announced on June 17 that $67 million in Completing Access to Broadband (CAB) program awards to connect 15,835 households and businesses to high-speed internet in fifteen counties across the state.  Avery is the only county in the North Carolina High Country to receive this funding through a program that creates a partnership with local governments to close the digital divide.

These projects will be funded by nearly $35 million from the federal American Rescue Plan awarded by NCDIT, nearly $16 million from counties, and more than $16 million from selected broadband providers.  

SkyBest, Incorporated (Inc) representative Edward Hinson addressed the commissioners during the meeting, thanking them and Barrier, Jr. for approving the internet carrier to provide Broadband deployment to unserved and underserved locations in the county.

An evaluation committee, consisting of two individuals from the county and two from the NCDIT, received and reviewed two bids in response to Avery County’s scope of work. The committee members were: Phillip Barrier, Jr., Avery County Manager; Arizona Gragg, Avery County Finance/Information Technology Specialist; Angie Bailey, Broadband Infrastructure Office Director; and Jeff Brooks, Broadband Infrastructure Office Solutions Specialist.

The committee met and selected SkyBest, Inc.’s vendor bid for a contract award based on the evaluation criteria set out in that scope of work to provide Broadband deployment to unserved and underserved locations in Avery County.  The total project cost is $9,999,410.12, with the average cost per location being $10,459.63.

Under terms of the contract, Sky Best, Inc. has two (2) years to construct the network (by October 31, 2026), plus three (3) years to maintain the network and offer service to subscribers.

The CAB program’s procurement process allows counties to partner with NCDIT to identify areas that need access, solicit proposals from prequalified internet service providers, and quickly make awards. Awardees must agree to provide high-speed service that reliably meets or exceeds speeds of 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload.

Mbps stands for “Megabits per second” and refers to download and upload speeds.  However, there’s another very similar acronym that means something different: MBps, which is “Megabytes per second.” A megabyte is equal to 8 bits and refers to the size of a downloaded file or the amount of data that’s been transferred to a computer over the internet. Megabits (Mbps) has a small ‘b’ in its abbreviation, while Megabytes (MBps) includes a large “B” in its abbreviation.

Unserved locations for the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funded programs in North Carolina are defined as locations without access to fixed terrestrial internet service, through Fiber, Cable, or non-mobile Licensed Fixed Wireless technologies, of at least 25mb/s Download and 3mb/s Upload speeds. Underserved locations are defined as locations without access to fixed terrestrial internet service of at least 100mb/s Download and 20mb/s Upload speeds, but greater than 25mb/s Download and 3mb/s Upload speeds.

The Proposed Mapping Summary for Avery County includes:

*Total Eligible Broadband Serviceable Locations Proposed-956 Locations 

*Unserved Locations Proposed-956 Locations (93.45 percent of Total Unserved in County)

*Total Underserved Locations Proposed-0 (0 percent of Total Underserved Locations in County)

*Fiber Locations Proposed-956

*Cable Locations Proposed-0

*Fixed Wireless Locations Proposed-0

The commissioners have provided $749,970.51 in local funding to obtain Broadband Internet service in the county.

The commissioners also unanimously (4-0 of members present at the meeting) approved a $39,000.00 service agreement proposal from Deckard Technologies, based in San Diego, California, to provide collection of information to implement the occupancy tax for District A, which is any place or community in the county that is not designated as a town or a village.

The three resolutions that the commissioners approved by a 4-0 vote regarding the Opioid Settlement include authorizing the execution of the funds, approving the second supplemental agreement for additional funds, and directing the expenditure of the funds.

The County of Avery is set to receive $3,108,715.00through 2039 as part of the national opioid settlement. In July 2021, a national opioid litigation committee agreed on terms for a nationwide $26 billion settlement to resolve litigation brought against three of the largest opioid drug distributors – McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, and one opioid manufacturer – Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., along with its parent company, Johnson & Johnson (J&J). This initial settlement is commonly referred to as “Wave One Settlements.” 

In December 2022, another national $21 billion settlement was released with CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Allergan, and Teva. These “Wave Two Settlements” will provide $600 million to North Carolina over the next 15 years. In addition to “Wave One” and “Wave Two,” there have also been several other settlements and bankruptcies that will add funding to North Carolina through the state budget and via local government settlement payments. Local governments across the state receiving opioid settlement funds were required to sign onto the agreement which details the mandates by which they must adhere.

In other news, the commissioners also by a unanimous (4-0) vote of those present:

*Appointed Terri Melton, Jerry Moody, and Cindy Nelson to the County’s Economic Development Committee and Commissioner Aldridge to the Toe River Health District Board of Directors

*Approved the June 2024 Tax Report from Tax Administrator Turbyfill of $54,217.69in taxes due the County collected by her and her tax collections staff on all days of that month except those on the month’s four weekends and Juneteenth (19) when there were no tax collections on that date due to it being a federal holiday.

Tax Administrator Turbyfill said that $4,291,644.97in taxes due was collected for the first six months of 2024–January, February, March, April, May, and June.

The Tax Administrator also reported that the 2023 tax levy was $23,513,659.68.

Additionally, the commissioners approved the following budget amendments (4-0 vote) requested by Hogan which include their respective details and monetary amounts:

*In fiscal year 2023-2024, the Sheriff’s Office was awarded various grants to help fund the D.A.R.E Program.  Of those funds, $13,489.80 was not spent and the Sheriff’s Office requested that amount to be rolled over for use in the current 2024-2025 fiscal year, which began on July 1.

*The Sheriff’s Office receives monthly funds from the State Unauthorized Substances Excise Tax. At the end of each fiscal year (June 30), any remaining funds must be carried to the next fiscal year. To comply with that state regulation, $6,675.72 in state drug fund expense funds will be rolled over to the 2024-2025 fiscal year.

*$27,000.00 in a Dogwood Health Trust Grant for housing assessment needs from the 2021-2022 fiscal year being rolled over to the 2024-2025 fiscal year.

*$279,833.97 in a Dogwood Health Trust Grant to aid in the planning and implementation of the Opioid settlement funds from the 2023-2024 fiscal year being rolled over to the 2024-2025 fiscal year.

$15,955.28 in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for the Department of Emergency Management for various pandemic expenses being rolled over to the 2024-2025 fiscal year.

*$1,797,153.84 in funding from the County’s Capital Outlay budget to be rolled over to the 2024-2025 fiscal year to be used for the Avery High School Kitchen renovation project.  This amendment will provide the funds for the roof contract and the facility’s commercial dishwasher.

*To appropriate Opioid Settlement funds in accordance with the budget ordinance Memorandum of Understanding, the following amounts are appropriated in the Special Reserve Fund for $182,250.00 for the 2024-2025 fiscal year with this breakdown of each entity’s allocation:

-Freedom Life of Avery Ministries $56,250.00

-Highland Community Health $50,000.00

-Marjorie Williams Academy $25,000.00 

-Media and Restorative Justice Center $51,000.00

*Moved $33,000.00 for the replacement of glass at the Avery County Library to the 2024-2025 fiscal year that was budgeted for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, but was not used due to contractor delays.

*Moved $285,000.00 for a new roll-off truck for the Solid Waste Department to the 2024-2025 fiscal year that was budgeted for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, but has not been delivered by the company from which it was purchased.

During the Celebrate Avery County segment of the meeting, which features proclamations and awards, the commissioners and county manager recognized and honored Sheriff’s Office employees Tim Franklin and Tim Winters for their fifteen years of employment with the county. They were given appreciation notebook-plaques with a county seal pin.

In more news, Avery County has received funding for two projects from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.  The funds include $10,000 for the Wayside project and $23,480.80 for its Historical Society to pay for the Avery County 250 History project it’s undertaking.

The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ America 250 NC initiative has dispersed nearly $900,000 in grant funds across 34 counties in the state. The grant-funded projects include new cultural events, physical and digital exhibits, historical markers, and more all inspired by North Carolina’s revolutionary history and the themes of America 250 NC. The America 250 NC Grants are designed to spark programs and activities on a local level to create a memorable and meaningful commemoration of the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026.

Grant applications for the 2025-2026 fiscal year will open in August to disperse over a million dollars in remaining funds awarded by the North Carolina legislature for the America 250 NC grant program. Guidance for grant application techniques is posted online at www.america250.nc.gov/grants. Counties that did not apply in this round are encouraged to do so in the upcoming cycle for funds to assist with commemorative activities.

America 250 NC is North Carolina’s commemoration of the nation’s 250th anniversary and is led by the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Barrier, Jr. announced that two public input meetings will be held to gather feedback concerning a proposal to repurpose the County’s $950,000.00 Community Development Block Grant Neighborhood Revitalization funding to meet the needs of domestic violence.  The funds were originally to be used for a reentry housing facility, which has been tabled for current consideration by the Board of Commissioners. 

The meetings will be held on Wednesday, July 10 from 10:00 a.m. until 12:00 noon and again on Tuesday, July 16 from 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. in the Commission Board Room on the second floor of the County Administration Building, located at 175 Linville Street in Newland.

The commissioners wish to remind county citizens and anyone or any business conducting business with the County of Avery, that all its offices will be closed on Thursday, July 4, in observance of Independence Day.

The commissioners will hold their next regular monthly meeting in their Board Room on Monday, August 5, beginning at 6:00 p.m.