Saturday, February 28, 2015

Meanwhile in Watauga: Not Quite 'The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius,' But Closer Than We Were

The second day of the budget workshops clinched the impression that the Watauga County Commission (still 3-2, Republican advantage) has gone decidedly moderate since the departure of former Chair Nathan Miller. Under new board Chair Jimmy Hodges (a former Democrat, ahem), there's a whole new tone of expansive progressivism. Or maybe we should hedge our bets and borrow presidential candidate Jeb Bush's term for the campaign he intends to run: "an inclusive conservatism."

I knew we were in very different post-Nathan Miller territory when Democratic Commissioner Billy Kennedy pushed yesterday, on the final afternoon of the budget workshops, for a $10,000 grant for the Hospitality House. If you'll recall, under the Nathan Miller Regime, funding for most non-profits was either greatly reduced or zeroed out. The Hospitality House was a particular target for zeroing out, and for the last few budget cycles it got nothing from the county while providing social services that would otherwise fall on the county to provide.

$10,000, Commissioner Kennedy proposed, and Chair Jimmy Hodges said, "I'm okay with it." That comment was not lost of the other two Republicans, Blust and Yates, who now appear out-numbered on that issue. Jimmy Hodges has become the unpredictable swing vote on the Commission.

What happened in the discussion yesterday is by no means final or official. It was a "penciling in" of an amount for the County Manager and his finance team to juggle in coming up with a final budget that will be voted on later this spring. So we'll see if Mr. Hodges continues to be "okay with it."

Other Issues
County Manager Deron Geoque plans a modest cost-of-living increase for county employees ("but not for county commissioners!" Perry Yates almost shouted. He didn't like the perception of a salary increase for elected commissioners).

Matt Vincent, head of the Tourism Development Authority, said he wanted the county to take over maintenance of capital improvements, like greenways and bike trails, because the fear of maintenance costs was preventing the Tea Party element (my words, not Mr. Vincent's) on the TDA from initiating grant applications for more capital improvements. Commissioner David Blust, who's always complained about maintenance costs, remained conspicuously quiet at that moment.

The Republican majority on the commission expressed love for Horn in the West and unified hostility toward the restoration of the Appalachian Theater in downtown Boone. Commissioner Kennedy was urging his fellow commissioners to give equal support to both the Horn and the theater as community-building venues for the performance arts, but Boone-hatred is still pretty much the modus operandi of county Republicans. "Not enough parking," Yates groused, and Chairman Hodges focused on "bars" downtown and "intoxicated people" as reasons the theater will never succeed. But the commission agreed to invite the people in charge of the theater restoration to a meeting soon to 'splain themselves and (presumably) beg for money.

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