NEWLAND — Avery County Commissioners selected three candidates from a field of eight individual applicants for positions with the county planning board during its regular monthly meeting on Monday, May 3.

The board had received applications from a strong cross-section of the county to serve on the board, and the commission voted via individual ballot, with Chairwoman Martha Hicks and Assistant County Manager Cindy Turbyfill tabulating the results during a brief recess following the vote. Following tabulation, Hicks announced that Cheryl Buchanan, Mike Lacey and Anna Trivett had received the top total of votes, with the commission unanimously approving the selections.

“We thank each and every person who put in for this board,” Hicks said. “Everybody can’t win, but we wish they could. If they have interest to (serve) on it, that’s good, so we’ll keep them in mind for next time.”

Commissioners also moved to appoint Linda Taylor to the Jury Commission. Pursuant to state statute, a county commission is required to appoint one member to the Jury Commission every two years.

County Manager Phillip Barrier also submitted for consideration by the board the application of Edward Hinson for re-appointment to the High Country Workforce Development Board. Hinson currently serves as vice chair on the board and would be a regional appointment due to SkyLine/SkyBest is a regional employer and has locations in Avery County and throughout the High Country. The High Country WDB region includes Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties. The board will take action on the application at its next meeting.

Starli McDowell with WAMY Community Action, Inc. provided an update to the commission on the work of the organization in regard to CARES Act fund distribution. McDowell explained that the organization had received CARES Act funding in late July 2020 and has assisted residents with bills in the four-county region of Watauga, Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties, covering needs that include mortgage and rent payments, utilities, heating and fuel, as well as water bills.

“The need in this community was immense, especially through the holidays, and as you can see in our numbers, we served a considerable amount of people,” McDowell said. “This would have been a glum and hard holiday season had we not been able to help out so many people.”

McDowell shared a number of statistics with the board detailing the work of WAMY in the region, noting that WAMY has served 19 households since July 2020 through CARES Act funding, as well as 13 households through AMY Wellness Foundation COVID relief funding. Three households have been assisted during that time through Duke Energy COVID relief funds, while 18 children received full scholarships for 4-H Summer WOW camp to help parents maintain employment through affordable and safe childcare. A total of 261 children in Avery County received educational supplements delivered to their homes through WAMY after being sent home from school due to COVID-19, while WAMY provided 199 individuals with Thanksgiving meals and 25 individuals received food boxes from July through December 2020 in partnership with the Neighbors Feeding Neighbors organization.

McDowell explained that WAMY works to provide residents with a hand up from their current situation rather than a handout, outlining that the organization strives to partner with families and communities to provide the disadvantaged support and tools they need to become self-sufficient. McDowell referred to the rent moratorium, explaining that even though it protected tenants from eviction, it does not wipe away that expense and tenants continue to owe back rent payments, adding that when the moratorium is lifted, tenants will owe hundreds of dollars in unpaid rent and be facing eviction.

McDowell also presented the flip side of the proverbial coin and noted the plight of landlords who own the rented properties and are not receiving payment during the pandemic, explaining the strain it places on the property owner and, while still renting the property, are not receiving funds to provide adequate maintenance and, in some cases, are paying water bills themselves to prevent cutoffs, which a reconnect would become their financial responsibility.

Concluding her presentation, McDowell informed the board that WAMY would continue to provide disbursement of remaining CARES Act funds likely for the next year, and that $70,000 in funding has been distributed since last July, stating that additional funding has been provided by AMY Wellness Foundation and Duke Energy. McDowell encouraged anyone needing assistance to contact her at (828) 773-0814, or by clicking to www.wamycommunityaction.org.

Additional news and notes

A moment of silence was observed for those impacted by the incident last week in Boone which claimed the lives of Watauga County Sheriff’s deputies Sgt. Chris Ward and K-9 Deputy Logan Fox.

Commissioners approved the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council County Funding Plan in the amount of $114,931. Commissioner Dennis Aldridge, who serves on the council, explained that the plan requires annual approval and that the council oversees the local distribution of funds at the county level.

Tax Administrator Bruce Daniels lauded the continued “seller’s market” within Avery County, noting that there were 105 qualified sales in the month of April 2021, a stark contrast to just 38 qualified sales for the same month one year ago. Daniels shared that his department has been reviewing the 10-year collections totals, and reported that the county is looking at an approximately 99.45 percent rate for 10-year collections, adding that the total collection rate for this year thus far surpasses the 98-percent mark.

“We’re moving in a good direction, and let’s hope it stays that way,” Daniels told the board. Commissioners unanimously approved the report.

County Manager Barrier reported that by most recent statistics, there were 52 active cases of COVID-19 in Avery County, including several students, adding that to his knowledge only one person was currently hospitalized in Watauga Medical Center with the virus.

Barrier added that 30.3 percent of Avery County residents have been completely vaccinated, but that the rate at which residents are coming to receive the vaccine has slowed. Barrier reported that Walgreen’s as well as Cannon Memorial Hospital and Crossnore Drug Store are all offering vaccine opportunities for individuals to take their shot.

Barrier informed the board that he expects to receive information any day from High Country Council of Governments on whether the county has received the ARC matching grant toward broadband internet expansion. He also provided some basic information to the commissioners regarding the initial release of figures pertaining to the 2020 Census, sharing that Avery County’s population had increased in 2020 to 18,035 individuals.

The Avery County Pool Complex will be opening for the season on May 29 and applications for lifeguard positions are being accepted through the Parks and Recreation Department. Barrier concluded his report by reporting that the state DOT had completed its litter sweep initiative on major highways, and noted that initial planning for a 0.25-mile road project to add a right turn lane on Highway 19E at the intersection with Highway 194 in the Cranberry community is under way, designed to improve safety for the traveling public and provide safe passage for pedestrians along the corridor.

Finance Officer Caleb Hogan presented a quartet of budget amendments which were each unanimously approved by commissioners, including adoption of a budget amendment for $560 in regard to Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) funding, $29,518 to reflect Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Grant funding awarded to the Avery County Board of Elections to improve administrations of federal elections, $24,500 to reflect the Avery County Sheriff’s Office’s awarding of a NC Department of Public Safety Governor’s Crime Commission Grant to be used for technology improvements, and a budget amendment totaling $96,614.30 to recognize a settlement agreement for the Department of Social Services.

Avery County Commissioners are scheduled to hold a budget workshop on at 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 6, with presentations from the sheriff’s office, board of education and fire commission, with another budget workshop scheduled for 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 13. The board’s May 17 regularly scheduled meeting has been canceled, but can use that date for another budget workshop if needed. The board will hold its next regular monthly meeting at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, June 7, at the County Administrative Building, and agreed to reschedule its regular July meeting from Monday, July 5, to a special meeting on Monday, July 12, due to county offices being closed on July 5 for the Independence Day holiday.

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