ASHEVILLE — Buncombe County’s biggest payouts in its new round of nearly $19 million in COVID-19 recovery money include $2.03 million for employee incentives, the largest amount out of 24 projects aimed at post-pandemic fiscal resurgence.
On July 19, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved $18.8 million for the projects, the second and final major installment of federal COVID relief money — known as the American Rescue Plan Act — including the county received nearly $51 million.
Of the 24 projects, the largest payments were those of just over $2 million. They understand:
- $2.03 million for retention of Buncombe County government employees.
- $2 million for Helpmate, which will use the money to build an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence.
- $2 million for nearby water, sewer and roads developments off Ferry Road, possibly including mixed-use and mixed-income housing. The $650 million Pratt & Whitney factory is also being built in the Ferry Road area.
- $2 million for continued broadband infrastructure construction, which is in its second phase and uses the North Carolina Completing Access to Broadband program.
“Thank you to the many community partners represented in this recipient list,” said Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. “There is just amazing work being done in the community to respond to the ongoing impact of the pandemic.”
There was 105 applicationsmany of which Beach-Ferrara said were “compelling”, noting that the choosing process was not easy and emphasizing the “strength of what our community does”.
Although most of 24 funding allocations will go to community organizations like Helpmate, Habitat for Humanity, Thrive, the YMI Cultural Center and others, Buncombe is also using the $18.8 million to address some of its own concerns, such as the loss of employees, with which he has been fighting for at least December 2020.
Human Resources Director Sharon Burke told commissioners in December that 13% of the county’s current workforce separated between December 2020 and December 2021.
It’s a continuing trend, she said in the $2.03 million funding proposal, noting that revenue grew 7.2% in fiscal year 2019 to 14, 25% in fiscal year 2022, which ended June 30.
“Over the past 12 months, we’ve seen over 250 departures versus 190 new hires, with the majority of that turnover occurring at lower pay rates,” the funding proposal says. “The continued loss of employees in functions such as public safety, social work and emergency management will have significant impacts on our ability to effectively serve Buncombe County residents.”
The solution is what the proposal calls a “Countywide Retention Incentive Program.” Modeled on similar programs across government and private industry inside and outside of North Carolina, the retention incentive will apply to all county employees and will be tiered in based on employee wages, which means there will be greater incentives for employees earning less, according to the proposal. .
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The incentive will be paid in two installments over a 12-month period for employees hired before March 1.
Although the human resources department requested $3.9 million to fund the employee retention program, the commissioners only approved $2 million.
Ferry Road needs roads
Buncombe’s other $2 million requests also meet growing needs. State-level programs such as NC Completing Access to Broadband have recognized the importance of getting high-speed Internet to areas that don’t have it, especially rural areas. So far, the county has invested $4 million in COVID recovery funds in this effort.
The Ferry Road project is centered on approximately 200 acres of county-owned land that is on the path to affordable housing development. But first, it needs better infrastructure, according to director of economic development Tim Love, whose department authored the $2 million proposal.
“This project will provide water and sewer infrastructure to the Ferry Road parcel,” the proposal states. “The extension of this infrastructure will allow development of the site for mixed-use and mixed-income housing supported by recreational, commercial and institutional uses. Without this infrastructure, the site will remain underdeveloped.
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More recently, after county planners presented five concepts at public meetings and began gathering feedback from neighborhoods and stakeholders, Buncombe is on the verge of reaching the next phase of Ferry Road’s development: the purchase of a pre-development analysis of $137,400 over 12 months.
If all goes according to plan, the site will become a hotspot for affordable family options and progress toward the county’s proposed goal of approximately 3,000 new affordable units built in Buncombe by 2030.
There have been previous attempts to develop the property, according to Love’s proposal, but none with affordability in mind.
building a shelter
Helpmate’s $2 million prize is the largest amount of money slated for a community organization in the new funding round. The organization has requested $3 million to “double the availability of emergency shelters for victims of domestic violence,” according to a proposal led by Executive Director April Burgess-Johnson.
“This request covers costs associated with site infrastructure, architectural design, structural engineering, construction, finishing, furnishing and related costs to construct a domestic violence shelter from 25,000 to 30,000 square feet on land owned by the organization,” the proposal states.
This building would include 20 suites housing two survivors per suite in a living space that includes bedrooms, kitchenettes, private bathrooms and sitting areas, and a multi-purpose room that can be used as a dormitory, the proposal stated.
Helpmate has been trying to expand since 2016 but was unable to move forward with the project until 2020 when he was able to purchase land around his existing shelter.
In total, the county allocated $46.8 million in federal COVID relief money, also known as ARPA funding.
Just over $3.9 million remains.
More information and updates on Buncombe’s recovery funding for COVID-19 are available at buncombecounty.org and search for “COVID Funding”.
Andrew Jones is a Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or [email protected]. Please help support this kind of journalism with a subscription at the Citizen Times.