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County charged with allocating $1.1M in COVID-19 relief funding

BOONE — According to Watauga officials, the county will receive $1,164,018 in federal CARES Act relief funds that will be split eight ways to help with the local COVID-19 response.

The plan for how the money will be dispersed was considered by the Watauga County Board of Commissioners on May 19, as plans are required to be submitted to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management by June 1. The commissioners accepted the county relief funding plan with no changes.

According to the county, the North Carolina General Assembly authorized $150 million in funding to the 97 counties that did not receive direct federal funding from the CARES Act. In addition, it has $150 million in reserve funds to be appropriated to local governments if local governments experience a revenue shortfall from COVID-19 and if the federal government amends the CARES Act to allow funding to be spent on revenue replacement.

Funding was to be distributed on a per capita basis, with a guaranteed minimum distribution of $250,000 per county, according to information provided by Watauga County. According to county leaders, counties are authorized but not required to allocate a portion of their allotment to municipalities within the county as long as the transfer meets the requirements of the CARES Act and corresponding U.S. Treasury guidance.

Of the $1,164,018 Watauga is planned to receive, county staff recommended that $200,000 should be distributed for essential local government response. The plan recommends that the county keep $100,000 with $38,382 given to the town of Boone, $21,153 to the town of Blowing Rock, $20,290 to the town of Beech Mountain and $20,175 to the town of Seven Devils.

Boone Town Manager John Ward said the town is appreciative that the county has taken into consideration the significant cost of the COVID-19 response on the local municipalities. While the $38,382 will help, Ward said it will not fully offset the town’s expenditure amount to date.

“While it will not cover the full cost, every little bit helps when revenues to pay for expected services have been significantly impacted,” Ward said.

Seven Devils Town Manager Debbie Powers said town officials had not had any official discussions about the potential relief funds from the county, and that it was too early to speculate how the funding will impact Seven Devils.

“The town of Blowing Rock is grateful for any assistance that we receive. We are very thankful!” Town Manager Shane Fox said.

Request for comment from Beech Mountain was not returned as of presstime.

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 Watuaga didn't deem that necessary or fair.

The majority of Watauga’s allotment is to be given to AppHealthCare for public health services, with the agency planned to receive $639,018. Appalachian Regional Healthcare System is suggested to receive $200,000, and Watauga County Schools would receive $125,000.

The commissioners met May 14-15 to discuss the budget, during which County Manager Deron Geouque mentioned that the county is facing the brunt of the financial hit as it manages situations with agencies such as the local health department, Department of Social Services and the public school system. He added that the bulk of the money is proposed to be given to AppHealthCare as they’ve taken on a “huge amount of expenses.”

The county stated that each entity would be required to expend all funds by Oct. 1, and any unspent funds would be reallocated to the other entities included in the county’s plan.

Guidance given to government entities state that funding from the CARES Act can be used to cover costs for necessary expenditures incurred due to COVID-19; that were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27 (the date of enactment of the CARES Act) for the state or government; and that were incurred from March 1 to Dec. 30, 2020.

More information on how the CARES Act funding can be used can be found in the the commissioners’ board packet at tinyurl.com/ybv74veu.

Beech Mountain launches website for Watauga River intake plan

BEECH MOUNTAIN — The town of Beech Mountain announced on May 19 that it has launched a website titled “Let It Flow” to keep community members up to date on its plans for a new water intake in the Watauga River.

“This project will secure a secondary supplemental water source for the town of Beech Mountain by drawing a small amount of water periodically (approximately 60 days a year) from the Watauga River,” the website states. “The water will travel from a small pumping station 7.2 miles to Buckeye Lake. This water source will only be used in times of drought, catastrophic emergency or if Beech Mountain’s current water system fails.”

The new intake — planned for a site near Guy Ford Road in Bethel — has been a topic of discussion in the community for much of the past decade. In 2013, the Watauga County Commissioners unanimously voted against a resolution of support for a river reclassification necessary for Beech Mountain to pursue the intake project. At the time, a number of residents of Bethel and the surrounding areas spoke against the project.

In 2015, the N.C. Division of Water Resources determined that the town’s single water source, Buckeye Lake, does not meet town needs and advised that the town should “explore and seek a secondary, supplemental water source,” the town said.

According to the website, in 2019, a water audit found that 59 percent of the town’s water supply was being lost due to leakage within the main water lines, pipes and connectors that were constructed in the 1970s.

“Leaks in the water system are being addressed by gradually replacing all galvanized steel pipe and faulty service lines, but this will take many years since there are over 60 miles of these lines,” the website states. “Fixing water loss, while important, will not be enough to ensure an adequate water supply for the town.”

The website states that the town explored alternative water sources, including upgrading its current water system, expanding Buckeye Lake, drilling wells, water tanker truck transfers and withdrawing from the Elk River before determining that a Watauga River intake was the best course of action.

“With this option the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. The Watauga River has ample supply of high quality water and it is separate from our current single source. Constructing an intake system would have hardly any interference with existing plant operations,” the website states. “The disadvantages of an intake project are a high capital cost and significant operation and maintenance expense. This option would also require the reclassification of the Watauga River to further protect the watershed as well as extensive permitting.”

The Beech Mountain Town Council voted in February to proceed with plans for the Watauga River intake, and the town also discussed its plan to “try to fix a certain amount of its water pipes each year.”

The vote met criticism from members of MountainTrue, an environmental nonprofit, who argued that Beech Mountain should repair its leaking water pipes to answer its water supply problem. MountainTrue representatives wore stickers that said, “Hey Beech Mtn, fix your pipes, save our river” and “Stop the Beech Mtn Water Grab.”

The cost of the project is estimated to be between $16 to $18 million, and construction could take five to seven years, according to the website.

The Let It Flow site was designed to provide information about the project, and it offers the public an opportunity to submit questions or comments by contacting the town directly from the website, according to the town’s announcement.

Details and statistics surrounding the town’s water use, supply and demand are included on the website, including one that states how much water the town will be pulling from the Watauga River on an as-needed basis.

“The (new) intake would only provide a supplemental, secondary source of water for the town of Beech Mountain. It will draw up to 500,000 gallons per day on an as-needed basis. For a simple reference, this would equate to drawing 20 fluid ounces (approximately 2.4 cups) out of a 50-gallon rain barrel,” the website states on its “Project Background” page.

Progress reports about the project will also be available on the Let It Flow website as they become available; however, the Project Timeline online states that it’s still in the planning phase and is expected to be until May 2021.

“This is an extremely important project for Beech Mountain,” said Interim Town Manager Bob Pudney. “We get our water from a very small lake called Buckeye Lake, and twice in the last eight years, that lake has gone dry due to drought. We need the Watauga River intake for emergency purposes only during times of drought to supply water to the town of Beech Mountain.”

Additionally, the website mentions that because “Beech Mountain is part of the Watauga River Watershed, the water will be treated and eventually returned to the river.” To increase its resources revolving around water treatment and quality, Beech Mountain funded a $4.8 million “state-of-the-art water treatment plant,” which was completed in 2017.

Recreation surrounding the Watauga River will not be impacted by the Watauga River intake project, the website states.

To learn more about the Watauga River intake project in Beech Mountain, visit http://beechmtnwater.com or email letitflow@townofbeechmtn.com.

Watauga cases at 12; Cooper says Phase 2 update coming mid-week

BOONE — On May 18 and 19, local health departments announced that the number of Watauga County residents testing positive for COVID-19 has risen to 12 and that Avery County has its first confirmed case of the virus.

In surrounding counties, Ashe County had 28 confirmed cases, Caldwell had 86, Wilkes had 443, Avery had one, Carter County had 19 and Johnson County had 15 cases, according to health departments and the Raleigh News & Observer.

Two new Watauga cases announced May 19 have ties to Appalachian State University. One is an employee of Appalachian whose last day on campus was March 20, and the other is a subcontracted worker who last worked on campus May 13, according to AppHealthCare, the health department for Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties.

“These individuals have fully cooperated with isolation instructions and are recovering at home,” the health department stated. “Public health staff have identified close contacts, and they are in quarantine and are being provided access to testing during their quarantine period.”

The two cases come days after the university announced to campus that 16 subcontracted workers at a campus construction project — which university spokesperson Megan Hayes confirmed was the Sanford Hall renovation project — had tested positive for COVID-19. The workers were not residents of Watauga County and thus are not included in the county’s positive case count.

The subcontracted worker announced on May 19 was not related to the Sanford Hall project, Hayes said.

The university stated on May 19 that officials continue to hear of self-reported, confirmed cases that are not being tested by AppHealthCare or App State.

“As we learn of these cases, we are coordinating with local public health agencies to the greatest extent possible, in consultation with the North Carolina Division of Public Health Communicable Disease team,” the university stated. “AppHealthCare continues to be a valuable university partner, helping verify tests that may have been performed in other counties.”

When announcing the 16 positive test results, the university stated that “there is no direct risk to the university community related to these cases.”

“Direct risk is assessed by public health based on contact tracing,” Hayes said. “The university works closely with AppHealthCare on all of our public health messages to campus, and verifies risk with them before reporting it to our campus.”

AppHealthCare spokesperson Melissa Bracey noted that when App State learned of self-reported cases through one of its contractors on May 7, AppHealthCare identified individuals who had close contact to the positive case and offered testing to those individuals.

“Once they were tested, they were quarantined at home until test results came back,” Bracey said. “Close contact is defined as 10 minutes or more or within six feet of a positive case.”

Appalachian State said May 19 that it is “implementing enhanced precautionary measures with employees who are on campus as well as with subcontracted workers, which include wearing face coverings, maintaining appropriate physical distance and reviewing North Carolina Governor’s Executive Orders 131 and 135, which require all individuals to wear face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of distance in public areas or work centers.”

“As testing guidance continues to expand, we expect to see additional cases,” said Jennifer Greene, health director of AppHealthCare, in a May 19 statement. “It remains important for each person in the community to do their part to slow the spread of this virus.”

Greene advised that if a community member is leaving their home, they should follow the three Ws and wear a cloth face covering, wait six feet apart from others and wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds.

“These are important actions we can all take to protect ourselves and each other,” Greene said. “If you are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, please call your health care provider or AppHealthCare to discuss your symptoms to determine whether testing would be appropriate.”

App State said it will continue to keep the university community informed about verified, positive cases with potential to impact university students, faculty and staff. The latest updates regarding App State’s response to COVID-19 may be found at appstate.edu/coronavirus.

Speaking at a press briefing May 18, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said that he hoped to announce plans for Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan by “mid-week.” The state is currently in Phase 1 of the reopening plan, which expires this Friday, May 22, unless extended.