BOONE — Watauga County was to ease local restrictions on May 22 after commissioners voted to align their timing with the statewide three-phase reopening plan, which moved into Phase 2 on Friday.
During the Watauga County Board of Commissioners meeting on May 5, the board passed a plan for easing county restrictions — including a ban on short-term rentals and a 14-day self-quarantine order for those arriving from an overnight stay outside of the county — two weeks after the statewide Phase 2 begins.
The board on May 19 voted unanimously to modify its original plan, allowing short-term rentals to resume at the beginning of Phase 2 — instead of two weeks in — and to lift the 14-day quarantine order at the same time. This would include local campgrounds.
The commissioners noted that they considered comments received from the public in making their decision. These comments included ones such as the email the commissioners received from Debbie and George Warren, who stated that they own a home in Blowing Rock that they live in during the weekends.
“What is difficult for us to understand is why it is OK for day visitors to come to Blowing Rock and shop the retail establishments and get takeout food, but if we come, we are not allowed off (of) our property,” stated the Warrens.
The county also received comments from Watauga residents such as Annie Woodford and Willard Watson, who voiced support for stricter restrictions.
The commissioners did keep the restriction that short-term rentals will operate at 50 percent of occupancy capacity or 50 percent of available rental units; short-term rentals can operate at 100 percent capacity at the start of the statewide Phase 3. County Manager Deron Geouque said that the 50 percent amount was not arbitrary, as it has been determined that any operational capacity less than half would not be feasible for short-term rentals to reopen.
Commissioner Billy Kennedy said he thinks it would be a good idea for short-term rental facilities to offer guests a mask and encourage them to use it while in the county. Jennifer Greene, the health director for AppHealthCare, noted that some people are unable to wear a mask due to health reasons, but that those who are healthy and able should set a good example by wearing one.
“We need to care for others,” Greene said. “All of us who are able to wear a mask should for the people who cannot.”
Geouque said that Cooper had made some modifications to Phase 1 since the county’s May 5 meeting, and surrounding counties have already started to remove or partially lift their restrictions. He said the county has received various comments from the public about the restrictions, particularly about the 14-day self quarantine.
According to Geouque, some benefits of the 14-day self quarantine have lessened since surrounding counties are no longer requiring the same restriction. He added that Watauga has continued to monitor any impacts since neighboring counties have lifted that particular restriction. Commissioner Perry Yates mentioned he knew that some local hotels were already operating and were already not quite following the original restrictions.
The commissioners received public comment from Sharon DiSandro, who stated she had owned a short-term rental property in Valle Crucis for six years. She said hotels are shared spaces, and vacation rental homes offer a way for people to be socially distant.
“While vacation rental properties sit empty and are banned in Watauga County, hotel parking lots are full of cars,” DiSandro said. (Watauga’s short-term rental restrictions made exceptions for lodging of certain categories of workers.)
Geouque mentioned that the county has had discussions with local municipalities about keeping a consistent message when it comes to restrictions, as differing messages could cause confusion. He and Greene said they were worried that mixed messages would cause people to “throw up their hands” and not follow any restrictions.
“We don’t want that,” Geouque said. “We’ve worked too hard to get to where we’re at now to just throw that all away.”
Chairman John Welch said the plan passed on May 19 strikes a balance from what the county is hearing from public health officials and county residents. He added the county’s plan may be adjusted in the future as there’s “not a playbook for something like this.”
County budget, CARES Act funding plan
Three people spoke during the public hearing on the FY 2020-21 budget and one person emailed a statement that was read aloud. Sara Crouch from OASIS, Catherine King from the Community Care Clinic and Lory Whitehead from the Hospitality House all expressed gratitude to the county for the allotment their organizations are proposed to receive in the coming fiscal year. OASIS is recommended to receive $10,000, the Community Care Clinic would receive $25,000 and the Hospitality House would receive $10,000 as well as another $2,500 through the WeCAN program.
Nathan Miller, a local attorney and former county commissioner, spoke during the public hearing to request that the county provide tax relief to local property owners — as the property tax rate currently sits at 40.3 cents per $100 valuation. He also criticized the county for its recommended proposal of not appropriating any funds from the county’s fund balance in the 2020-21 budget.
Miller pointed out that the Local Government Commission recommends that local governments retain at least an 8 percent fund balance. According to Finance Director Misty Watson, the county’s unassigned fund balance as of June 2019 was $20,497,998 — 39 percent of the county’s yearly expenditures. According to the LGC, the median fund balance for N.C. counties the size of Watauga — with a population of 50,000 to 99,999 — is 35.70 percent. The average for counties of Watauga’s size is 37.72 percent.
The commissioners are planned to vote on the recommended budget at the board’s June 2 meeting.
Additionally, the board passed its plan to allocate the $1,164,018 it is planned to receive from the federal CARES Act relief funds. The plan includes keeping $100,000 for the county, and allocating $38,382 to the town of Boone, $21,153 to the town of Blowing Rock, $20,290 to the town of Beech Mountain, $20,175 to the town of Seven Devils, $639,018 to AppHealthCare, $200,000 to Appalachian Regional Healthcare System and Watauga County Schools would receive $125,000.
During the May 19 meeting Geouque said he understood that the $1,164,018 wouldn’t meet all of the local needs, but that it is a step in the right direction. He also mentioned that many counties in the state opted not to provide any funding to municipalities. Chairman John Welch said Watauga didn’t deem that necessary or fair. The county must submit its disbursement plan to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management by June 1.