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Ashe County Commissioner Larry Rhodes said the long awaited Ashe County Airport runway extension will be completed by next summer, barring unforeseen delays. When the construction project is completed, the runway will total more than 5,000 feet in length, with an additional 300 feet of emergency overrun that will offer pilots an additional margin of safety.

Originally published: Jan. 2
Last modified: Jan. 2

Adam Orr

The new year is here, and the Ashe Mountain Times spoke with area leaders about some of the most important issues facing the county in the coming year.

Job recruitment, GE
Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick said a focus on job recruitment will be a key in 2014 and beyond.

Yearick, who started his new position Dec. 2, said he planned to be aggressive on economic development issues.

“I’ve got a good idea of what I’m going to do,” Yearick said. “We’re not going to sit here and wait for companies to come to us.”

Ashe County Commissioners Larry Rhodes, Judy Poe and Gary Roark all stressed the need to seek a replacement for Gates Corporation in the coming year.

The company announced on July 27, that it would begin shutdown operations in September, according to Gates Corporation Executive Vice President Tom Reeve.

Reeves said the closure would affect the entire facility, which employed 247 people on three shifts.

“We’ve been a little laid back on the jobs issue,” Roark said Friday. “But I think Sam is going to try and work hard to fix that.”

Yearick said his time as a tax consultant could help him in his role as economic developer.

“We had to call people all the time,” Yearick said. “Some people don’t particularly like that, and I don’t like being told 'no' 40 times a day, but by the same token if you play the numbers long enough you’ll hear 'yes.'”

The expansion of GE Aviation’s West Jefferson facility will also be important in 2014, Yearick said.

Plant Leader Jessica Ensani said the company plans to occupy the 80,000-square-foot expanded facility in late 2015.

By the end of 2017, she said the facility will employ 265 people, adding an additional 105 jobs to its current 160-member staff.
“Making sure that expansion moves forward is crucial this year,” Yearick said. “We’re happy to see that happen.”

The Ashe County Airport
Rhodes said the long awaited Ashe County Airport runway extension will likely be completed this summer.

“I’ll be delighted when we can say we’ve got that done,” Rhodes said. “It’ll be a big draw for industry searching for a new location and, unless something unforeseen happens it should be completed by late summer or even earlier.”

On Aug. 5, commissioners approved Eagle Wood Inc.’s $1 million bid to complete the remaining runway extension work at the Ashe County Airport, finishing work started by Vannoy General Contractors in October of 2011.

The project will finish remaining earthwork at the site, will bring the runway to grade, and will include the paving and stone for the runway extension including lighting and electrical work, in addition to erosion and sediment control protections.

Less than a month later commissioners decided to shelve the project until the spring of 2014.

According to James Moose, a project manager with AVCON, INC., a Charlotte based civil engineering consulting firm, a state-level delay in processing the project’s grant award means project construction did not begin on schedule.

The paving and lighting project, which was bid in July, was originally scheduled to begin construction in mid-August, Moose said, however, in speaking with Eagle Wood, Moose said it was likely the project would not begin construction until sometime in October, once grant funding was finally approved.

A start that late in the year, however, would not allow the contractor to get a “significant amount of work done,” before the site would need to be shut down, reseeded and closed for the winter, Moose said.

“They couldn’t get it finished this year, so we’ll begin work as soon as the weather breaks,” Rhodes said. “I know (Yearick) has been working with Ashe County Airport Manager Eric Payne and the Airport Advisory Board. They’ve already started ordering lights getting ready for spring.”

According to a consulting report issued by the North Carolina DOTAD, the Ashe County Airport is responsible for approximately $32 million per year in total economic impact, and affects approximately 220 county jobs, as well as more than $220,000 per year in tax revenue from airplanes and hangars housed at the airport.

Currently, the Ashe County Airport runway is approximately 4,300 feet in length, and 75 feet wide. When the construction project is completed, the runway will total more than 5,000 feet in length, with an additional 300 feet of emergency overrun that will offer pilots an additional margin of safety.

The Ashe County Landfill
Ashe County Environmental Services Director Scott Hurley said Friday that the successful completion of “check dams,” could reduce the costs associated with costly draining and transporting leachate from the Ashe County Landfill’s lagoon this year.

Leachate — the storm water that passes through exposed landfill cells — system contains the runoff water and channels it into a large lagoon before recycling it back through the landfill. In essence, the lagoon makes the landfill a closed system that prevents harmful contaminants from seeping into groundwater.

“We’ve got all of the leachate removed out of the landfill, and the check dams have been installed for the past month-and-a-half,” Hurley said.

The completion of the check dams means that much of the water that had been funneled into the landfill cells before will now drain off the landfill property as storm water, which should reduce costs.

In the first half of 2013, heavy rains kept the landfill lagoon filled close to capacity, Hurley said, and forced the county to transport the leachate offsite up to 60 times per month, at a cost of $1,100 per load.

In total, the problem cost the county more than $300,000 more in 2012/13 than in the previous year.

In June, commissioners unanimously approved a $49 fee increase for all county households to offset the leachate lagoon costs, increasing the residential waste disposal fee to $130 from $81 the previous year.

Roark said he thought the county should lower that fee in the coming year.

“I don’t think we need to keep pumping that kind of money into the landfill,” Roark said.

Landfill lawsuit
Rhodes also listed a satisfactory resolution to the ongoing lawsuit with Hunter Construction Group, Inc. as one of the most important issues facing the county this year.

“I wouldn’t place it as our most important concern, but I would say that it’s a big one,” Rhodes said.

Former Ashe County managers Dan McMillan and Pat Mitchell, along with Ashe County Commissioner Larry Rhodes, gave sworn oral testimony Dec. 19-20, as part of the ongoing lawsuit, according to court records.

The suit is centered on more than $95,000 the county allegedly owes to Mooresville-based Hunter Construction Group Inc. for construction work done at the landfill between 2010-2011, according to court records.

The county claims it is holding the funds as retainage to offset liquidated damages of $505,500, owed to the county after Hunter allegedly completed the project more than 400 days late, according to court records.

But Hunter argues in court filings that the delays occurred, in part, because the county and its engineer provided flawed plans and failed to disclose pre-existing problems at the site.

Ashe County Attorney John Kilby said the case would likely be on the trial calendar sometime in the spring of 2014, and said, in his opinion, it was unlikely the case would be resolved before trial.  

Mental Health
Poe, who currently serves as an at-large member on the Smoky Mountain Center Board of Directors, also said she had concerns about planned changes to the state’s mental health structure in 2014, including an emphasis on “value based” outcomes.

“Mental health is going to be a huge issue,” Poe said Friday.

In particular, Poe said recent mental health conferences she has attended, including Pinehurst in early December, have increasingly been focused on the idea of value based outcomes, a system she said places too much emphasis on the cost to delivery mental health treatment.

“I can’t see the service delivery getting better,” Poe said. “I really can’t. You can’t base a person’s mental health on how soon they work through their problems and get over something. I can’t see that a value based system is going to be that good.”

Poe said she also had concerns about the state level integration of specialty care with the delivery of all health care.

“It’s taking care of the total person,” Poe said. “But does this mean one entity will handle all the Medicaid money, which is what it sounds like to me. It will affect social services, the local health departments, anybody that is receiving Medicaid money. To me, that’s a very big undertaking.”

Under the integrated care model, which would combine both mental health services and general health services, Poe said Ashe County would be represented by two separate boards: one that includes the far western counties in the state, and another that includes those along the border with Virginia.  

“If it sounds like I’m confused, it's because I am, every time I go to these meetings,” Poe, who has attended 17 mental health conferences in the past year, said. “It’ll be very important to all of us, though, to try to keep that local input on these boards.”

Budget, merit pay
Commissioners also discussed the upcoming 2014/15 budget, and the possibility of moving to a merit pay structure.

“My biggest concern is getting a budget and when the evaluations start coming in that we know that we are going to be revenue neutral,” Roark said. “We need to start planning now for next year’s budget and the cuts that can be made.”

The county manager will begin drafting the upcoming year’s budget in February, Roark said, and state law requires counties to approve the document by June 30.

Roark said he anticipated 2014 would be a “tight” year, and that he expects a decrease in property values.

“There is a lot of issues that are going to be facing the commissioners at budget time,” Roark said. “I don’t want to see anybody lose their jobs, but we may have to look at cutting back some expenses in different places that we don’t need to fund.”

Roark cited the adult daycare program at Ashe Services for Aging as a potential program commissioners might discontinue.

“I don’t think you can fund all these programs without raising taxes,” Roark said. “I’m not for raising taxes, for sure.”

Poe and Rhodes said they had differing opinions on the prospect of transitioning county employees to a merit pay structure, which the board has twice discussed in recent months.

“On merit pay, I’m open to listening to that,” Rhodes said, “but I have some real reservations about merit pay in a system where everything is open to the public.”

In private industry, Rhodes said employees doing similar jobs can be compensated in different amounts because employee salaries are private.

“Among public employees, it might create a lot of ill will,” Rhodes said.
Poe, however, said she supports moving to a merit pay system, in part because outstanding efforts by county employees could be rewarded.

“I know all the local governments use a step pay system, but that discourages people from doing more in their jobs,” Poe said. “I worked at Lowes for 21 years and it was all based on merit raises.”

Poe objected to the idea of merit raises would favor “the good old boy,” in reference to a comment made by Rhodes on Dec. 19.

“That doesn’t say much for our supervisors,” Poe said. “If they can’t figure out which employees are doing a good job, well, they should have already been doing that and evaluating employees.”
For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.