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Send more money, commissioners tell legislators

Henderson County will receive $2,160,413 in funding to pay for expenses associated with the coronavirus public health emergency, state Rep. Jake Johnson told the Henderson County Board of Commissioners on Monday night.

Commissioners greeted the news with less than full-throated gratitude, saying legislators need to do more to help cities and counties facing a huge drop in sales tax, hotel tax and other revenue. None of the emergency aid can be used to replace the tax loss local governments have seen since the coronavirus-caused economic shutdown.

Johnson updated the Board of Commissioners on the Legislature's work to allocate $1.6 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding. The money includes funding for education, small business, broadband expansion and assisted living facilities.

"As you can see, we're putting an enormous focus on on-line learning," he said. "This is the first round. I fully anticipate the federal govenrment will issue another round of funding. And then we're going to be looking at municipalities" in the next round of relief, he said.

The Saluda Republican acknowledged that the state was unprepared for the wave of unemployment claims that resulted when the virus ground the economy to a halt in March.

"The system was built to handle 3,000 people a week," he said. "Within three weeks, we were trying to push a half million people through it."

"Raleigh's strategy for dealing with this is completely backward," Commissioner Grady Hawkins said. "Instead of leaving the small businsess, bread and butter, open, we closed them and left the big box stores open. If all of a sudden you've got 300,000 people unemployed, you didn't approach it the right way."

The allocation of $125 million for small business through the state's Golden Leaf Foundation is too little, Commissioner Michael Edney said.

"Next round, try to do more than a small percentage of it for the people that are putting it back in," he said. "If you were to vote to hold us harmless on sales tax, we would greatly appreciate it."

Later, Edney said legislators ought to focus their effort not just on distributing federal emergency aid but should appropriate state funds as well.

"So far they've not been willing to come out of pocket with any money that our local guys sent to Raleigh," he said.

Because it's neither a rural hospital or teaching hospital, Pardee will get only a small amount, Edney said, urging Johnson to do what he can to change.

McCall asked Johnson how legislators managed to meet under the coronavirus regulations.

"It has been very new," he said. "We are doing Zoom meetings." In the General Assembly, legislators had their temperature taken. Proxy voting was allowed. Voting was open for 40 minutes instead of 15 seconds. "We've had to make some adjustment but hopefully we get back to normal soon."

The General Assembly had granted the governor broad power to use executive orders to respond to emergencies, Johnson said, and Republican leaders doubt a repeal or revision of the law would survive Cooper's veto.

Cane Creek-Municipal Sewer District merger

County Attorney Russ Burrell reported on a public hearing on the merger of the Municipal Sewer District and county-owned Cane Creek Sewer District.

"It was the most successful public hearing I've ever been a part of," he said. County Engineer Marcus Jones made a 10-minute presentation about the merger before a state Environmental Management Commission hearing officer. "And we sat for 28 minutes as no one came in to comment" on the merger. "The hearing officer strongly supports the merger of these two entities. I have no reason to believe there's going to be any opposition."

Blue Ridge Community College

Commissioners heard about the upcoming bid process for $20.1 million for new classroom building and renovation of the Patton Building at Blue Ridge Community College and $1 million for a Police Officers Physical Abilities Test facility. Commissioners selected Vannoy Construction as the construction manager at risk in December. On Monday commissioners authorized a fee of $126,600 to Vannoy for pre-construction services.

Commissioner Bill Lampley asked about the time frame for receiving bids so commissioners can see the final cost.

"We will not bring you a project that does not conform with the conceptual budget which you've already approved," John Mitchell, director of Business and Community Development, responded.