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County a key partner, Land of Sky chief says

By dropping out of the Land of Sky Regional Council, Henderson County would force other jurisdictions to subsidize services the council must by law provide to towns and counties, the regional planning agency's director said.

Last week County Commissioner Grady Hawkins urged the county to defund the planning council, saying the county gets nothing of value from its annual dues. Henderson County pays $38,426 a year to support the Land of Sky and $20,000 a year for its sister agency, the French Broad MPO, which ranks road projects paid for by state and federal tax dollars.
"I don't think we get $58,000 worth," Hawkins said.
Stopping short of pulling the money, commissioners instead directed staff to study the consequences.
Justin Hembree, executive director of the Asheville-based agency, has been working since last week on a report showing the services the council provides to Henderson County, the second largest county in the five-county Land of Sky region.
"It would obviously be very concerning from a regional perspective," Hembree said of the county's threat to drop out. "I think we really value Henderson County's membership in the council and more importantly we value their partnership as a regional partner. What we're doing now is trying to develop a spreadsheet showing in a comprehensive way the services the county receives from the Land of Sky."
The agency does more than hold meetings and draft plans, he said.
"There's obviously the one that everybody thinks about — planning, grant writing and grant administration," Hembree said. "We administered the ($373,000) CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) that went in at Sierra Nevada and we did the Appalachian Regional Commission grant to convert the fairgrounds into an industrial park but three other areas are the Area Agency on Aging and our volunteer services and workforce development."
"There are a lot of services provided through the agency that we are required by law to provide to all counties in our jurisdiction," he added. "So what that would mean quite frankly is that the other counties in region would be carrying the freight to provide those services to Henderson County."
It's possible, too, that by dropping out of the council Henderson County could lose grant money.
"There's plenty of programs that individual local governments can't be the direct recipient of for various reasons," he said. "In the short term that quite frankly probably would not have an impact but long-range it could."
Hawkins has mentioned several times that Henderson County spent $13,000 on a "tourism study" that the Board of Commissioners has never seen.
Hembree, a former Henderson County planner, said that the study was an analysis of "household travel" that had more to with long-range transportation planning than tourism.
"That was completed in September and the study was submitted to both subcommittees of the MPO of which Henderson County has members on," he said. "It's not like this thing was paid for and all of sudden went away. It's been completed and we are using it."
Before it had its own study based on actual local numbers, the MPO used numbers from a community in Ohio "thought to be like ours." It turned out the Ohio patterns were not a match.
"For long-range transportation planning, we never had a localized travel survey like that," he said. "What this did was give us the actual specific data for the five-county region and Henderson County was an important partner in getting that done. We're using it for long-range transportation to rank projects in terms of which projects should be funded first. It's complicated and real detailed but bottom line it's helping us make better decisions and quite frankly will help us move up projects that are outside the traditional planning. Balfour Parkway comes to mind," he said, referring to a proposed $130 million outer loop from U.S. 64 East to N.C. 191, in Hendersonville.
"We're approaching this from the standpoint of the region really benefiting from Henderson County being part of the council," he said, "and we feel like Henderson County really benefits from being part of the council."