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Originally published: 2013-06-04 18:49:10
Last modified: 2013-06-05 08:47:15

County's 2013-14 budget approved

The Board of Commissioners approved Watauga County's 2013-14 budget Tuesday in a 3-2 vote after a contentious decision to remove $50,000 designated for mental health services and redistribute it to several nonprofits and the sheriff's office.

Vice Chairman David Blust presented the proposal at the start of the meeting, asking that the county remove $50,000 of the $221,194 proposed allocation to the Smoky Mountain Center, which contracts with local agencies to provide mental health and substance abuse services in Watauga and other counties.

Chairman Nathan Miller said he believed Watauga County was either paying more per capita than other counties for the same services or that local taxpayers' money was being used to fund services elsewhere. He claimed that other counties -- Caldwell, Haywood, Avery, Wilkes and Alleghany -- have in the past cut their allocations to Smoky Mountain Center without losing any mental health services.

"It is incorrect to say the mental health services here will suffer," he said.

Miller has expressed concerns about Smoky Mountain Center since the collapse of New River Behavioral HealthCare in 2011. He claimed Tuesday that the agency is unable to identify where the money from the county goes and verify that it is used for services provided in Watauga County.

Commissioner Billy Kennedy, who currently serves on the Smoky Mountain board, most vehemently opposed the funding cut.

"For us to sit up here and say we can cut a quarter of our commitment to mental health in this county, to me, is wrong," Kennedy said. "If you don't get mental health patients treatment, then we all suffer. ... I think it's short-sighted, and I don't see what you're going to gain from it."

Commissioner John Welch also expressed reservations and repeatedly asked for an additional work session to discuss the ideas more fully.

The board voted 3-2, with Kennedy and Welch opposed, to remove $50,000 from the Smoky Mountain Center line item.

Then came the debate on how to spend that $50,000.

Blust proposed a litany of allocations: $4,000 more to the Foscoe Grandfather Community Center ($5,000 total); $4,000 more to the Green Valley Community Park ($8,000 total); $2,500 more to Mountain Alliance ($8,000 total); $1,300 more to the Hunger and Health Coalition ($10,000 total) and $1,500 to Western Youth Network ($1,500 total).

The budget discussion took a lengthy detour during discussion of Green Valley Community Park. The Board of Commissioners allowed public comment from a representative of the park, Janice Carroll, and from Wahoo's Adventures, Virginia Roseman, to describe conflicts the two have had about parking and use of the community park. The board did not allow comments at that time from others.

Roseman explained that Wahoo's, which offers tubing and boat rentals, does not approve of the Green Valley Park receiving public money while allowing an out-of-county outfitter to use the park's river access as part of its for-profit business.

Following the hearing, Welch proposed a different allocation breakdown to nonprofits, which was seconded by Kennedy but failed in a 3-2 vote.

Blust's proposal originally passed 3-2, but Kennedy changed his vote at the end of the meeting to result in a 4-1 vote.

Several people attended the meeting dressed in hot pink to show support for additional nonprofit funding. The decisions to fund some nonprofits and not others appeared to frustrate representatives of the Hospitality House, which will receive no county funding for the third consecutive year.

 "So much for justice for all," Allison Jennings, the Hospitality House food service coordinator, shouted from the audience at one point.

The Hospitality House posted later Tuesday on its Facebook page the definition of "hypocrite" and this message: "This is for you Nathan Miller, Perry Yates and David Blust -- every time you pray or say the pledge -- remember that THIS is what you are."

The board voted unanimously to allocate the remaining $36,700 toward the Watauga County Sheriff's Office for bulletproof vests, uniforms and other safety equipment.

Kennedy said the budget actions had not been done properly and the county had ignored immediate needs.
"I'm embarrassed to be part of this board," he said. "I just wish we could do better."

Miller, however, said he was thankful that the budget included a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for county employees and sufficiently funded all departments.

"I am happy with the budget," he said.

County refuses hospital funding

After another lengthy discussion and presentation, the Board of Commissioners voted against providing $150,000 toward water and sewer infrastructure needs for the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System's proposed extended care center near Blowing Rock.

Representatives of the hospital system appealed to the county for the funding on the premise that the project, called Appalachian Place at Chestnut Ridge, would save or create hundreds of jobs. The Economic Development Commission recommended that the county provide $75,000 from the EDC's fund for economic development initiatives and $75,000 from the regular county budget.

Aside from the senior living center, a second phase of the project is slated to include a retirement community, pharmacy, primary care clinic and other ancillary businesses.

Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president of the ARHS Foundation, explained that the state will not permit the project cost to exceed $20 million, which the hospital believes it will need for the land purchase and building. The hospital system expects to rely on public grant funding for other infrastructure needs.

Yates said he was concerned that the jobs might not benefit Watauga County residents and disliked that the project contract was not competitively bid. ARHS has selected Vannoy Construction to construct the project, a decision Hudspeth said was made because Vannoy could design and build on the fast pace necessary.

"If you're looking job creation in this county, this is it," Hudspeth said. "This is what you're looking for."

Miller threw out other ideas, such as an interest-free loan, or a deal in which the hospitals would provide free inmate meals or medical care.

He said he ultimately believed the project would progress with or without county funding.

"There is money there for this water and sewer, and you don't need it from us," he said.

Welch moved that the county provide $75,000 from the EDC funds and continue discussions about the remaining request, a proposal seconded by Kennedy.

The motion failed 2-3.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of county employees' cost-of-living adjustment. The story has been corrected.