Duke, housing and budget top agenda for County Council

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By Stan Welch

Anderson County Council made Duke Energy incentives official, heard a presentation on housing issues and discussed the budget during their meeting Tuesday.

Council put the final, and highly anticipated, stamp of approval on the incentive package used to entice Duke Energy to upgrade the Lee Steam Plant. The project to convert the plant to a natural gas fired facility will create as many as 500 construction jobs and bring a capital investment of between six hundred and seven hundred million dollars. A formal announcement of the project was made last week, but the final reading of the incentive ordinance took place last night.

Representatives of the Anderson Interfaith Ministries (AIM) gave a presentation on that group’s efforts to address some of the housing issues in the county, and to seek ten thousand dollars from the County to support those efforts.

Working with a variety of donors and service providers, the organization uses local contractors to repair and rehabilitate old homes; adds ramps and steps to provide access to the elderly and the handicapped; and helps clients access mortgage assistance programs.

AIM director Kristi King-Brock stressed that the purpose of the programs is to keep homeowners in the homes they have often owned for decades. She also pointed out that such an approach is by far the most economical. “It costs an average of $7000 per home that is demolished by the County. To relocate a senior to a nursing home, if they lose their home, costs $69,000 a year. To relocate them to a rental property is about $13,000 a year.”

She told the Council that the amount requested would be used for general expenses and possibly as matching funds for the many grants the group pursues. “Our total budget just to operate this housing project is about $150,000. We have many other partners, including ACOG, whom we also receive assistance from.”

County administrator Rusty Burns pointed out that as a non-profit organization, AIM can seek such grants and loans, while the County cannot. “We can’t get this money no matter what. We simply aren’t eligible.” Council agreed to consider the request during the upcoming budget discussions.

Budget discussions occupied a large part of the remainder of the meeting, as first one, then another member of Council raised their concerns. Councilman Francis Crowder reprised most of a presentation which he made at the last Council meeting, with a few added details.

He began by once more reminding the public that the General Assembly has failed in its obligation to return funds to the local governments as required by legislation. “People think we are in charge of our own destiny at the county level, but that is not true. The amount returned to us has fallen steadily during recent years.” He then returned to his earlier bemoaning of rising health insurance costs for the County and its employees. He pointed out that once those costs are added to a budget they affect every budget subsequent to that one.

He continued to push for the financing and construction of a “spec” building for sale to a commercial or industrial customer. The County has been so successful in filling vacant properties in recent years that the inventory of available, suitable facilities is exhausted, according to Crowder and County economic development director Burriss Nelson. Crowder said that Nelson has gone so far as to assure the Council that he can fill such a building as quickly as it is completed, a claim that Nelson confirmed from the audience.

Crowder pointed out that the County has $265,000 in hand, and pledges of an additional $150,000 for construction from private sources. “We need to move forward on this. We have cut our unemployment to a remarkable level, but there are still unemployed and underemployed people, and we need to take care of that.”

Councilwoman Cindy Wilson spoke next, raising several concerns about the budget, including an increase in the general fund budget of approximately $680,000, and an unfunded requirement by the federal and state government that the County fund a stormwater department, to the tune of $375,000.

There were some bright spots, however, including the news that the County’s debt service is down to $5.6 million and that projected legal costs are estimated at $450,000.

She also mentioned that the Appalachian Regional Council, an arm of ACOG which administers federal grants and loans, has sent her a letter indicating that approximately $1.2 million has been earmarked to elevate one of the low bridges on Hwy. 29 that currently restricts truck access to the businesses and industries in the area.