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.

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