• Mitchell County Commissioner Steve Pitman addresses the crowd Monday, June 3, during a public hearing about the 2019-20 proposed budget. (BRANDON ROBERTS/NEWS-JOURNAL)
    Mitchell County Commissioner Steve Pitman addresses the crowd Monday, June 3, during a public hearing about the 2019-20 proposed budget. (BRANDON ROBERTS/NEWS-JOURNAL)

Dozens show up for public hearing

Proposed funding of health district has citizens concerned

BAKERSVILLE – People packed the Mitchell County Administration Building conference room Monday, June 3, for the regular meeting of the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners that featured a public hearing about the county’s 2019-20 budget. 

The board reviewed and discussed the budget Monday, May 20, during a special meeting. Under the proposed budget, the county would use $17,269 only of local money to provide a 3 percent raise for Toe River Health District employees. The remainder of the health district’s requested $462,000 of funding would come from Mitchell County’s portion of the profits from the sale of its home health. 

Board Chair Danny Burleson explained during the special meeting that dipping into that balance of funds would avoid a tax increase. 

Commissioner Jeff Harding said he was “bothered” by how the county planned to fund the Toe River Health District and Commissioner Jacob Willis reiterated he thinks Mitchell, Avery and Yancey counties should all pay the same amount and receive the same services and added Mitchell County taxpayers “shouldn’t have to suffer.”

“When everyone comes to the table, we’ll talk,” Willis said during the special meeting. 

During the public hearing, the table got crowded. 

Concerned citizens and Toe River Health District employees packed the conference room, which carries a capacity of 45 people due to fire code. A capacity crowd packed the room, leaving more than a dozen waiting in the hallway and watching through the windows. 

Burleson opened the meeting by reiterating Mitchell County does plan to continue to fund the health department. He added the board had decided to pull from funds from the home health sale because it is “simply a good business decision for the citizens” and reiterated one-third of the funds from the home health sale belong to the county and are available to use. 

“We’ve done this with other departments,” he said. “We took $100,000 out of the Economic Development Commissioner budget not because we don’t support it but because they had a substantial fund balance. We then used that money to help fund two STEM teachers that our schools needed.”

Burleson then urged the listeners to “look at the whole picture” and said he could not rule out Mitchell County pulling out of the Toe River Health District in the future.

“We are considering pulling out of the Toe River Health District if that is the best decision for our citizens,” Burleson said. “My advice is to meet, discuss and find the remedy.”

Burleson then allowed each commissioner to make a brief statement before opening the public hearing. 

Willis spoke first and apologized for any previous statements of his that may have been misconstrued and added he always welcomes questions. He said Mitchell County has paid more into the health district than the other two counties in the past decade and has received “less than satisfactory” services. 

“We are elected to provide you the very best services we can for the very best amount of tax value that we can,” Willis said. 

Commissioner Matthew “Vern” Grindstaff followed Willis and he, like Burleson, said he remains committed to avoiding a tax increase. 

“We are doing this to avoid a tax increase,” he said. “No one is happy with a tax increase. We can’t afford a tax increase. I don’t think any of us can.”

Grindstaff also addressed rumors from some health district employees the commissioners are attempting to avoid funding the health district and are looking to pull out of the district as a retaliatory move. 

“We’ve never cut them short,” Grindstaff said. “This is a completely ridiculous, fabricated statement made by some, for whatever reason. This level of underhanded politics is beneath what I think our professionals should be.

“We are exploring the options of joining another health district, but it’s prudent, not retaliatory. Still, there’s also much work to be done if we ever come to that place.”

Harding, who represents the commissioners on the Toe River Health District Board, said a lot of the issues with the health district stem from its environmental health department and the health inspection process. 

Harding cautioned that using funds from the sale of home health makes the future uncertain, proposing the question of what happens when the sale funds run out. He encouraged all parties to be honest with each other. 

Commissioner Steve Pitman said he had similar concerns as Harding. 

Following the statements, Burleson opened the public hearing. 

Five individuals commented during the public hearing, including Jim Deyton, Yancey County at-large representative for the Toe River Health District Board, and local family doctor Steve North. 

Deyton said the home health sale funds are designed as emergency funds and tapping into them is dangerous. 

“If you exhaust that fund, there’s no other way to fund the health district,” he said. “You’d be tapping into a reserve that you have a right to tap into, but it is unnecessary.”

Deyton added that if the county withdrew from the Toe River Health District, state requirements would still force the county to either join another health district or hire a county health director. 

North echoed Deyton’s concerns and added that significant health issues such as the opioid crisis and the measles mean the county should be prepared by being a part of a steady health district. 

“I feel that it’s short-sighted and fiscally irresponsible for this board to consider spending the reserve fund,” North said.  

Before the public hearing closed, Willis pointed out that Avery and Yancey counties have already dipped into the emergency fund to offset the cost of past health district requests. 

“What difference does it make if you take it all at one time or take it over five years?” Willis said. “This is politics. This has nothing to do with what you all have been told it has to do with.”

Following the public hearing, the board received several more public comments about the future of the health district. 

Karin Rolett, Jessica Farley and Christy Duncan expressed their concern over Mitchell County potentially leaving the Toe River Health District.

“To break up the district does not make sense,” Farley said. “I think breaking up the district would be a horrible mistake. If we can share, partner and figure out our mistakes together, that’s what we should do.”

Duncan said pulling out of the health district would have consequences for the citizens of Mitchell County. During her comments, she also mentioned she believes the commissioners have worked to obtain special privileges for individuals with money. 

Grindstaff asked where she heard that information and Duncan said she heard it in a conversation with County Manager Kathy Young. 

“No, ma’am,” said Young, who was sitting just a few feet from Duncan in the first row. “I have never said that.”

Duncan responded to Young briefly before ending her comments. 

“You can say what you want,” Duncan said. “But you did tell me names. I won’t repeat them right here in front of everyone.”

Before adjourning, Grindstaff thanked everyone who provided public comment. 

“This bothers me greatly,” he said. “It bothers me the attitudes that have developed. It bothers me the things that have been said – all the he-said, she-said and the back-and-forth. We need to be professionals. We need to be kind and courteous.”

Grindstaff urged Toe River Health Director Diane Creek to speak with him outside of the meeting to begin a dialogue. 

“I think we owe it to each other and the citizens,” Grindstaff said. “We’re not going to shut down the health department. Sometimes, it takes a prayer meeting, and I’d like for Ms. Creek and me to start that meeting.”

Following Grindstaff’s comments, Harding asked the other commissioners when they could all meet with the Toe River Health District board for a discussion. 

“Enough is enough,” Harding said. “Let’s figure this out. Let’s get a plan.”

After a brief silence, Burleson looked at Harding and responded. 

“I tried to bring this up, and I think you were one of the main ones that always had to work,” Burleson said. “I gave up on it.”

Harding responded by telling Burleson he has never missed a meeting.

Willis said he remains open to discussions.

“The director ought to come to us, and we can negotiate some terms here,” Willis said.

Harding said he disagreed. 

“I don’t think it’s just up to the director,” Harding said. “I think it involves three counties and two different boards.”

Burleson and Willis said the Toe River Health District board is like any other board in the county, adding the appointed commissioner representative for that board, in this case, Harding, should take care of the necessary discussions and report back.

“That’s their board,” Burleson said. “That has nothing to do with us. You’re our representative on that board. You should take care of that.”

The MItchell News

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