Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Commissioners Retreat

"Retreat" in this case is the noun, not the verb, as our county commissioners show no signs of doing like the verb and retreating on any of their particular philosophical biases. But they spent over eight hours in a coffee-and-sweetmeats "retreat" Friday night and Saturday morning, hearing reports on "the state of the county" and what the future holds. Below, some notes on what got said. And what didn't.

First, it must be pointed out as somehow symbolic of just how serious this Commission takes its job ... that they DID NOT KEEP ANY OFFICIAL RECORD. No minutes were taken! No tape recording. No video recording. No nothing. Many important things were uttered by the county staff and by significant county volunteers to the County Commission's working committees ... yet no one thought it important enough to keep an official record. We have only the notes made by independent citizens, acting as mute observers of these proceedings. Reporters for the print media were there, and we look forward to reading their accounts. But in the meantime, the following is what struck us as important:

School Funding: Everyone knows that the current taskforce studying needs at Watauga High School is about to deliver a high-ticket set of recommendations. The Commissioners seem just as surely destined to take the easy way out ... put the whole thing (whatever that turns out to be) up for a public referendum, probably as a ballot initiative on November 2nd, at the same time as the general elections. The high school is already like the Titanic on its way down -- taking on water, overcome by too many students, the pipes exploding, and music teachers riding pianos into the cold dark sea. Everyone's speculating on what the recommendations will be: one new high school? two new high schools? two new middle schools tied to a massive renovation of the existing high school? Throwing a kink into estimating the future: an actual declining projected enrollment (as the county ages out into On Golden Pond Retirementland) and the fact that the last bond issue for the schools (passed in 1992) still has millions and millions owed on the principal & interest (not scheduled to be paid off until 2015). Declining enrollments, incidentally, trigger a drop in state funding, dollars which mainly go to personnel. People will lose their jobs. This is a potential disaster of ... Titanic proportions, where genuine leadership and courage would be desirable, but don't look for genuine leadership and courage from this Gang of Five, as the County Commission seems bent on committing the future of the schools to a bond referendum that will, without leadership and courage, be defeated. Commissioner Honeycutt at least pays lip service to education; commissioners Blust and Trivette are not unexpectedly devoid of inspiration on this particular issue. Commission Chairman Coffey and Commissioner Hodges, who hold the balance of power, are inscrutable.

Watauga Medics (the private, publicly subsidized ambulance service): County Manager Rocky Nelson signaled to the commissioners that he would like the ambulance service to raise its rates (did you hear that quite clearly?) so that the county can cut its subsidy. Commissioner Hodges took that bait and spent a good deal of talking-time tsk-tsking about the current contract not allowing charges to "non-transports." So beware, sick & feeble Wataugans! The contract comes up for renewal at the end of this year, and it's likely the County Commission plans to save some money at your expense.

Planning for the Future. Planning & Inspections Director Joe Furman opened his report Saturday morning by admitting that "everything in my report is both controversial and will cost money." Joe took the proverbial bull by the proverbial short-hairs: "Failing to plan is planning to fail," he said, quoting the hoariest chestnut available, before recommending that the County Commission spend some money (literally, anywhere between $5,000 and $75,000) launching a new strategic planning process -- a "visioning," Joe grandly called it, to deaf ears -- that would involve much citizen input. "Citizen participation is essential," Joe said, which caused Commissioner Trivette a mild eruption of dyspepsia about his "people" getting run over by the better-educated and then, in a stunning admission, considering the way he ran for office last year, Trivette's admitting that "Planning is not as bad as it's been made out to be, but it's the approach." There was begrudging consensus for Joe to at least develop and present a concrete plan for planning. Stand by for news!

Economic Development. The Economic Development Commission, led by banker John Brubaker, took the stand, and this was the part of the two-day retreat that woke everyone up with the electric possibility that a fist-fight might break out at any minute. The give and take between the commissioners and these business high-rollers bordered on the hostile, with the advantage going to the EDC. (Never mentioned but clanking around that cold room in the Department of Social Services like Marley's Ghost was the fact that most of these business leaders had supported the "scenic byway" status for the Doc & Merle Watson Highway, which the commissioners, to a man, stoutly opposed.) Commissioner Honeycutt tried to clear the air: "We all know there's been some bickering going on. Let's put it behind us and get something done." The getting-something-done comes down to hiring a full-time director of economic development, which the commissioners seem resigned to doing (and even Allen Trivette at one point seemed to be advocating for a really high salary), but the Commissioners also signaled that they want to micro-manage what this person does. (And that in a nutshell is this County Commission's particular pathology: they can't stand to relinquish any control or power to anyone else. And there was grumbling on the EDU about being reduced to the status of mammaries on a boar hog over this lack of power.) Commissioner Hodges, who had not much to say previously about the dire state of the high school, came vividly alive during this discussion, even at one point saying, "Is this board committed enough to economic development to put some money behind it? We may have to raise taxes to get there," a suggestion that landed like the passing of gas in a church ... best ignored, lest someone think you even noticed it. It seems a special shame that some truly innovative ideas had been prepared for this retreat and put into the commissioners' briefing binders that were totally ignored or not discussed ... something called the "Rural Entrepreneurs Development Program" and a proposal by the Watauga Arts Council for turning a vacant building into an artists' work and marketing space. These innovations stimulated no discussion and not even any discernible curiosity among our County Commissioners. To a man they seem more interested in putting their money into something they can immediately understand ... hiring a director of economic development that they can also subsequently fire in a year because he's brought no big factories to Watauga County.

Affordable Housing. What's the point? Without available land (and this board is not interested in purchasing any) and without water & sewer (see below), this is a government that does not believe that government can do anything to solve problems like this. They did take the wan "initiative" of looking at some county-owned vacant property at the landfill, to see if access can be gained to it for future development.

Water & Sewer. Here's the crux of almost every development problem facing the county, and Commissioner Honeycutt is the sole commissioner who seems to get it. He gets the problem all right, but he reduces it to "their playhouse is bigger than mine!" childishness. The bottomline: Boone has the "excess" water and sewer capacity at the moment; the county would like to get its hands on that excess capacity; but the county does not intend to follow any of the development rules that Boone has put in place. Honeycutt in particular passes up no opportunity to bash Boone and its Unified Development Ordinance (reduced to a sneering emphasis by Honeycutt: "the U-D-O-O-O-O!"). He sees no reason whatsoever that the county should have to follow Boone's rules and regs, while it highjacks its water and sewer to enrich private developers who aren't particularly careful about set-backs, buffers, density, parking, etc. The commissioners were particularly miffed that the towns of Boone and Blowing Rock have been having conversations about connecting their water systems, without involving the county commissioners in those discussions. "We need to be a player," whined Commissioner Blust, who added that he was ready to threaten Boone that the county just might "go off on its own" and develop its own water and sewer systems ... as empty and pathetic a boast as we heard during the two days. If the county had the will or the way to do that, it would not be directing such spite and envy at the town of Boone.

At the close of the retreat around noon on Saturday, Commissioner Coffey remarked that it would take a 15- to 20-cent increase in the tax rate to fund all the stuff that had been presented to them (translation: "dream on, suckas!"). Allen Trivette said he had been hoping to reduce the tax rate again this year. To which Commissioner Hodges answered, "Pretty soon you're going to be talking about cutting that dental insurance again, Allen."

Trivette's main contribution to the retreat's agenda was a request to the County Attorney to make sure that pet tigers (oh my) are prohibited by an exotic animal ordinance (I'm not making this up).

So many incredible and seemingly insurmountable problems facing us ... and such untapped creativity already here in our midst for tackling those problems ... yet it all comes down to regulating tigers.

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