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County passes resolution to pursue occupancy tax

NEWLAND — The Avery County Board of Commissioners reconvened for their monthly meeting on Monday, April 5, in which the board received presentations from several local organizations ahead of budget time, and the commissioners passed a resolution to pursue the implementation of an occupancy tax.

The meeting opened with a moment of silence for Donald Baker, who served as county manager from 1996 to 2002. Baker retired from Lees-McRae College 1994 after 34 years of service, and served as the president of the area chamber of commerce in 1984. He also served on the High Country Council of Council of Governments. Baker was widely recognized and commended for his selfless dedication to the Aver County and the state of North Carolina.

Mayland Community College President Dr. John Boyd made a public comment related to the request of $20,000 from the county related to operating and maintenance costs. Boyd added that if the community college receives this amount from Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties, then it would be able to provide armed security on campus. Funds would also go toward refurbishing the fire training center so it is usable again.

Sarah Crouch, outreach coordinator for OASIS (Opposing Abuse with Service, Information and Shelter) spoke to the commissioners about the organization’s mission in recognition of April as sexual assault awareness month. Crouch explained that OASIS services survivors of intimate partner violence, sexual violence and sex trafficking. OASIS is currently the only agency in Avery County that provides these services for survivors.

Services offered by OASIS include an emergency shelter, housing assistance, crisis support services, a 24/7 crisis call line, counseling opportunities, medical advocacy, judicial system advocacy, community education and prevention programming. OASIS also partners with RAMS Rack and High Country Community Health, in order to provide survivors with outside services, such as healthcare, mental health services and dental care.

“We recently received a new grant that is going to expand our ability to serve survivors in Avery County, and that is going to keep people in Avery to not have to shuffle them around to other counties in order for them to receive the services that they require,” Crouch said.

In fiscal year 2019-2020, OASIS served 102 victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in Avery County. OASIS requested $5,000 from the county in order to continue its mission of providing free and confidential services to the citizens of the county.

Avery County Schools Finance Officer Jeffery Jaynes then presented the NC Department of Public Instruction Facility Needs Survey for the school system to the commissioners. The school’s system’s facility needs survey is required to be conducted every five years. The projects that may need to be completed within the next five years are new roofs at Cranberry Middle School, Freedom Trail Elementary and Riverside Elementary. Within the next 10 years, Crossnore Elementary will potentially need a boiler replacement, and Newland Elementary may need to replace its geothermal system, of which there are about 52 individual units that control the temperatures in each classroom. The chiller at Riverside Elementary will also be approaching its end-of-life date within the next 10 years.

The total costs of the maintenance projects comes in a $3.4 million, however, the projects do not need to be completed all at once. The turf on the football field at the high school is also approaching its end-of-life use, and the costs of its replacement are projected to be between $375,000 to $450,000, as well as the stadium lighting, which needs to be replaced due to requirements made by the NC High School Athletic Association for the school to host playoff games. The quote on the lighting system comes in at $375,000, which Jaynes noted as “out there.” Jaynes did not request the county for any funding but simply presented the potential needs of the school system. The commissioners then approved the NCDPI Facility Needs Survey.

As the next order of business, the commissioners approved the Toe River Regional Hazard Mitigation Plan update, which ensures that the county is prepared for hazards, such as weather, loss of life, damage to public property and other unforeseen occurrences. The county must update the plan every five years in order to receive federal and state funding.

The county then re-approved its lease agreement for the Altamont Convenience Site, which must be done every five years and costs the county the full amount of $1.

A resolution for the county attorney to request the authority to levy an occupancy tax was then brought forth in the meeting. As written in the document, the resolution would allow the state to authorize the county to levy a room occupancy tax up to six percent. Commissioner Dennis Aldridge made the motion and Tim Phillips seconded the motion.

County Attorney Michelle Poore pointed out that the resolution is a formal request to the state legislature to allow the county set a potential occupancy tax and does not yet allow the county to implement or set an occupancy tax on hotels, motels, lodges and other dwellings that hosts visitors to the county.

“This is just to ask the ask the legislature to adopt it. Any legislation that is drafted will be up to the legislature. This is just saying that the county is interested in having this authority,” Poore said.

The commissioners unanimously passed the resolution.

According to Tax Administrator Bruce Daniels, the county collected $677,000 in sales tax for the month of March. The county has collected 97.81 percent of taxes owed for 2020, which is about $240,000 more this year than the previous year. Daniels said that the housing market remains “robust,” with 94 qualified sales for the month of March, versus 44 sales the previous March.

“It’s still going at an unbelievable pace as far as the speed at which properties are moving,” Daniels said.

County Manager Phillip Barrier then gave the monthly county manager’s report, in which he updated the board on the county and the chamber of commerce’s process of looking through applications for companies to lay out broadband infrastructure through a $100,000 grant the county received from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Barrier also said that Gov. Roy Cooper had laid out some plans to use funds from the American Rescue Plan in order to expand broadband in the state.

“They’ll talk a lot about expanding broadband but it takes money to do so,” Barrier said. “Speaking with one of the companies that we all know that has broadband in our county, there is not any more juice to push anymore broadband from their current structure. They would have to  spend tens of millions of dollars to upgrade to expand services in our county.”

After some further discussion about broadband issues, Barrier reported that there are 59 active COVID-19 cases in the county, which is above Mitchell and Yancey counties, who have 26 and 21 actives cases, respectively. The county has vaccinated 30 percent of its population, and vaccine appointments remain available, which can be made by calling (828) 733-8273. The county also needs 50 people to sign up for the wait list to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

In other news, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games will be held July 8 to 12, with masks and other health guidelines in place. The Avery County Senior Center is preparing to reopen for community programs soon. In addition, the county also plans to open the pool complex while following health guidelines. Barrier also expects the NC Department of Transportation to complete its litter sweep the first full week of April.

The board met in closed session before adjourning.

Vaccines available to ages 18 and up, nursing homes welcome back families

AVERY COUNTY — As vaccines continue to be administered to Avery County residents, the effects of the vaccine rollout are beginning to be felt in some of the areas that were hit hardest by the pandemic, such as assisted living facilities, which are beginning to reopen visitation for residents’ families.

Appointments for first doses of the vaccines continue to be available at the Avery County Agricultural Extension facility. The first dose clinic for the week of April 5 to 9 will be held on Thursday, April 8, and interested parties can call the vaccine hotline at (828) 733-8273 to make an appointment to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The clinic to receive the second dose of the vaccine is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, April 7 and 8, at the Avery County Agricultural Extension building. The county reminds recipients to bring their white vaccine appointment card. To reschedule an appointment to receive the second dose, call the Avery County Health Department at (828) 733-6031.

Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier reports that the county is administering 400 first doses of the Moderna vaccine this week, as well as a total of 550 second doses. Those who are eligible to receive the vaccine now includes everyone 18 years of age or older, which also encompasses previously eligible groups, such as healthcare workers, nursing homes residents and staff, those who are 65 and older, essential workers and individuals with underlying health conditions.

Additionally, the county has created a wait list for those who would like to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Barrier said that the county has made a request to the state to receive the one-and-done vaccines due to demand from county residents. Moreover, there are no mobile clinics planned this week, and COVID-19 tests remain available at the Avery County Pool Complex.

As of the morning of Monday, April 5, the county has booked 173 appointments for its first dose clinic on Thursday and has about 200 slots available that need to be filled. Barrier said that the number of people who are waiting for the Johnson & Johnson vaccines to become available may be one reason why it is taking longer to fill appointments.

“It’s kind of slowed down. We had four days to take appointments last week, and we used to fill them up in two days,” Barrier said.

Meanwhile, the county continues to outpace much of the surrounding region in terms of the percentage of its population that is being vaccinated from the COVID-19 virus.

As of April 5, Avery County has administered 5,371 first doses of the vaccine and 3,653 second doses, according to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services data. Avery County has currently fully vaccinated 20.8 percent of its 18,000 official residents, while at least 30.6 percent of residents are partially vaccinated. For the week of March 29, the state recorded a larger portion of second doses of the vaccine being administered than first doses, with 211,470 second doses and 155,771 first doses administered.

Statewide, a total of 1,923,646 second dose vaccines have been administered, while 3,145,064 first doses have been administered. Additionally, 141,561 single-shot vaccines have been administered and a total of 5,210,271 shots have been administered overall.

To find nearby private providers who offer the vaccine, click to myspot.nc.gov.

Nursing homes begin welcoming residents’ families back for visitation

When the availability of the COVID-19 vaccines was first announced at the beginning of the year, this news was accompanied with the further revelation that the federal government was partnering with Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy in order to administer vaccines to nursing home staff and residents, the population most vulnerable to the virus.

Now, three months later, these same facilities are beginning to take steps to allow the families of residents to see and visit their loved ones, while also continuing to take practical precautions to ensure their safety. Dee Brooks, division director of clinical services for ALG Senior, elaborated on the process that took place to get vaccines into the arms of staff and residents. ALG Senior provides clinical services to 20 senior communities in western NC, including Cranberry House.

“Our partnership with CVS was fantastic. We had really clear schedules of when the team would be there. As with anything, we worked out a few of the little kinks. It didn’t take very long to get a system and a rhythm going. We could not have asked for a better partnership,” Brooks said.

Brooks said that the teams with ALG Senior and CVS worked to create a positive atmosphere as the vaccination effort was under way. Three clinic dates were held, with first doses being administered at the beginning of January and second doses being completed in February, while another make up day was held in February as well.

“I said this at each of the clinics to residents and staff as they came in. I said, ’You are making history. Doing this puts you in the history books, because 50 years from now or 100 years from now when students in class are being taught the history of the pandemic of 2020, you may not be named as an individual who changed the course of this pandemic, but you are part of that, because taking this vaccine will help us eradicate this virus,” Brooks said.

At the Cranberry House, 90 percent of the residents have been vaccinated, as well as 82 percent of the staff. As a division, across the 20 communities in western NC, 80 percent of staff and residents have also completed the vaccine sequence. Moreover, Brooks reported that no positive cases among residents or staff have been reported since the vaccination effort began in January.

“I am thrilled beyond words with that metric,” Brooks said.

In response to these metrics, ALG Senior updated its visitation guidance last month. In-person visits are allowed both inside and outside the facilities, although in-person visitation is preceded by screenings, hand washing, social distancing, the wearing of face masks and the utilization of rapid COVID-19 tests upon request. Last Fall, outside visitation was allowed with precautions in place, before the facility transitioned to window visitation. Compassionate care standards also remain in effect.

“We have experienced the joy of reconnection in our communities. This has certainly provided all of us a greater appreciation for what connection means. It’s been really beautiful to see these examples and joy on our residents’ faces as they see their families in person,” Brooks said.

Visitors to the Cranberry House can call (828) 733-5558 or click to newlandseniors.com.

County ranger Shoupe honored for three decades of service

NEWLAND — Recently retired North Carolina Forest Ranger Joe Shoupe was honored at the Avery County Fire Association’s regular meeting on Thursday, April 1.

Shoupe served as the county ranger for the local NC Forest Service outpost in Avery County for the past 30 years. During his time with the service, Shoupe worked closely with the county’s fire departments by providing assistance and responding to calls in moments of emergency.

For his selfless dedication to the county for the past three decades, Fire Association President Scott Stansberry presented a plaque to Shoupe and shared some thoughts on what he has meant to the fire service and himself over the years.

“I consider him a friend, and anytime anybody asks me about Joe, I always think about the first class I ever sat in when I was starting in the fire department. That was S130 and S190, when Joe would come to Fall Creek and teach. It was a good class,” Stansberry said. “Joe’s always been accessible and I appreciate that. Whenever I needed something or had a question about something, he was always available. I’m going to miss him. I always felt like he did a great job, and I’m sure everybody else here feels the same way.”

Shoupe began his service as Avery County’s county ranger for 16 years. Previously, he served in Lincoln County as an assistant county ranger for six years, and he worked with the forest service at Linville River Nursery for seven years. Shoupe said the past 16 years were the best years of his career.

“I appreciate everybody’s support. We couldn’t have done it without the fire departments. We always tried to support you guys, and we appreciate all the help throughout the years. I appreciate my wife, too, because she raised our kids while I was out farming and fighting fires, sometimes even on the other end of the county. I appreciate her and what she’s done. Thank y’all very much. It’s been a real good career, and I always felt like I had the best job in Avery County. I loved it, but I felt like I had my full 30 minutes and it was time to move on to do something different,” Shoupe said.

Shoupe’s plans upon his retirement are actually to go back to work. He said he was retired for one full week before he picked up a new gig selling medical supplies, such as oxygen tanks. However, he plans to travel in the future when the time is right. Shoupe had previously announced his retirement to the community on Feb. 23, in which he stated the following:

“After a full 30 years of service it’s time for a change,” Shoupe said. “I’ve had a wonderful career, and worked with a lot of great folks. God has kept me safe and healthy all these years. Thanks to each of you for the friendship and assistance. If you’re in my neck of the woods, look me up or at least call. God bless you all.”