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Avery Commissioners Discuss New High School Loan Application and Communication Between the Fire Commission and Association

By Tim Gardner

During their bi-monthly meeting September 17, the Avery County Commissioners discussed a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Loan Application for new construction and renovations at the county’s only high school and held a joint meeting with the county’s fire commission and the Chief’s of the County’s twelve Fire and Rescue departments.

All Commissioners — Martha Hicks (Chairperson); Blake Vance (Vice-Chairman); Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr.; Tim Phillips; and Faye Lacey were present at the meeting. Other top county officials attending included: County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr.; Assistant County Manager and Clerk to the Board Cindy Turbyfill; and County Attorney Michaelle Poore.

Barrier told the Commissioners during an official public session at the meeting that the County has applied for a $19,500,000.00 USDA loan for the high school project. He said there are various detailed parts to completing the loan application, but that he and Poore are working feverishly to complete it and that they will have it submitted by its September 30 deadline.

He added that the County should receive notification shortly after that deadline if the loan application has been approved or rejected.

Under the terms of an approved loan, the County would borrow the money from a bank, which Barrier said is being considered to be Wells Fargo because of its low interest rates, and then use that money to pay back the USDA.

Avery Schools Superintendent Bryan Taylor told the Commissioners that the county would not have to begin repaying the loan until the construction and renovates are completed.

The County and School System have already jointly applied for monies from The Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, which if approved, could provide the county with up to $10 million for capital projects. That amount is more than half of the estimated $19.5 million total cost for the pending Avery High School renovation project which was approved by the Board of Commissioners earlier this year. However, the county is not guaranteed to receive that amount of funding, or any funding.

Matching grants involve receiving the same amount of money spent, usually on types of purchases specified in the grant, and within a certain time frame.

The program does come with a clause: If the county receives grant funding, it must forfeit lottery funds for five years. However, Barrier said the county usually receives approximately $150,000.00 in lottery funding each year, meaning the county could receive much larger amounts from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund.

The application deadline was August 31, and details were sent from the Commissioners to Avery County Board of Education officials and Taylor, who prepared and submitted the application before its deadline.

Barrier said those fund recipients will be announced September 30.

The new construction and renovations at the high school would start in April 2019 and are projected to be finished in December 2020.

Young said the project’s start-to-finish time frame seems tight. Taylor admitted that the construction and renovation project may indeed seem “difficult to finish within that eighteen-month time period.” But Taylor noted that the project’s architect, Boomerang Design, has completed other projects in the county in short time spans and that Boomerang Design officials have said that the new Avery High addition can even be under a roof by late fall, 2019, while other construction at the site continues.

Barrier added that adequate funds exist from the $1,700,000.00 lottery monies the County received to begin the initial phase of the construction and repairs such as making the necessary designs and preparing the bid documents. He noted that other funds such as a quarter-cent additional sales tales—if approved by Avery voters on November 6– could be available to help offset the actual costs the County would have to pay for the high school project.

The proposed Avery High renovation and addition project will consist of three main phases of work. Phase one will include a new multi-story addition of approximately 58,340 square feet. This new structure will be built directly in front of the existing school. This new two-story building will contain twenty new regular classrooms, four new science labs, an elevator to address Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility, administrative and guidance offices and a new main entrance. Phase two will consist of the demolition of two of the seven existing pods and the construction of a new art room and a new ETE classrooms where those pods stood. Phase three will consist of renovations to the media center, cafeteria and site improvements to unify the campus as a whole.

The commissioners held their discussion (which was a round table setting) with the Fire Commission and Avery Fire Association (Chief’s of each department) to again iron out any issues and concerns between the entities, which have had strained relations at times due to what County Manger Phillip Barrier called “a lack of communication.”

There have been a few previous such meetings and this was the first of quarterly joint meetings between the entities that were promised by the Board of Commissioners.

All four current members of the Fire Commission were present, consisting of Chairman Bill Beuttell and members Jim Brooks, Robert Hancock and Matt McClellan. Beuttell announced at the meeting that Cory Hughes has resigned as a Fire Commission member and that the agency is accepting application to fill the now vacant fifth Fire Commission post.

Avery Fire Commission Coordinator Charlie Franklin also attended the meeting.

The Chief’s present and which agency they represent included: Bob Garland, Avery County Ladder Company and Linville-Central Rescue Squad; Gary Miller, Banner Elk Fire and Rescue; Bob Pudney, Beech Mountain Fire Department; Dean Gibbs, Crossnore Fire Department; Mike Ellenburg, Elk Park Fire Department; Jeremy Hayes, Fall Creek Fire Department; Casey Hughes, Frank Fire Department; Kennie McFee, Green Valley Fire Department; Mark Taylor, Linville Fire Department; Brian Bodford, Newland Fire Department; and Bobby Powell, Seven Devils Fire Department.

Only a few of the Chiefs present cited issues or concerns to the Commissioners or the Fire Commission. But those who did asked about how the Fire Commission determines how much funding the fire and rescue departments receive each year, how funding for emergency or unusual needs is determined and about having more general input with the Fire Commission.

McFee also asked why his department still has only one paid position when others in the county have one-and-one half paid personnel. McFee also noted that Green Valley gives a lot of mutual aid to fire and rescue calls in Mitchell County—perhaps more so than any county department does to another county because of its proximity to Mitchell County—particularly Spruce Pine.

McFee added that certain operational methods may work for one fire and/or rescue department, but not for another.

Vance said that any money spent by a fire department has to first be approved by the Fire Commission according to State of North Carolina law.

Brooks remarked that the Fire Association officials or members have rarely given him information to take back to the whole Fire Commission from Fire Association meetings he has attended.

In summation, Barrier instructed the Fire Commission to print out its guidelines for how it determines funding appropriations and present a copy to each fire department. Barrier said that should answer any questions about funding guidelines. He added that the Commissioners and county officials will continue to hold joint quarterly meetings with the Fire Commission and the Fire Association, with the next slated for January 2019.

Beuttell said the Fire Commission wants to “be of as much assistance as possible to the county.” He added: “I think the Fire Commission has done a good job with room for improvement. Sometimes our fire expenses are up and our revenues don’t match it, but we work hard to do the best we can with what we have. But we want to work with the Fire Association in every possible way to work through whatever concerns are expressed. Our members are always available to help as is Charlie Franklin.”

Hicks said she believes communication between Fire Commission and Fire Association has “improved during the past few months and that the Commissioners and other County officials will keep working to help ensure that the lines of communication between the entities keeps improving and that any concerns or issues will be resolved in the best manner for both the Fire Commission and the Fire and Rescue departments.”

Barrier heaped praise on the county’s emergency services outlets for their efforts during Hurricane Florence, terming them “total team in its strongest sense.”

 He then expounded upon that analogy with the following comments: “On behalf of the Avery County Government, I thank everyone from our County’s emergency services for their hard work during Storm Florence. These include personnel from our fire and rescue departments, Sheriff’s Department, 911 Communications, Emergency Management Office and the American Red Cross. The Parks and Recreation staff also was a big help. Individuals from these agencies went far beyond the call of duty to put the county in the best prepared state it could be in for the hurricane or storm.

“Avery County was ready for Florence because of the tremendous efforts of personnel from each of these departments and agencies.   They all had very organized plans to combat any problems caused by Florence. The county’s citizens can take great pride in having these personnel to help them during a natural disaster such as Florence.”