The Wilkes County commissioners heard funding requests on behalf of Hospitality House in Boone and the Wilkes County Library during a public hearing on the fiscal 2019-20 county budget Tuesday night.

They also conducted a public hearing on a proposed fire tax rate increase for the Moravian Falls Fire District.

The commissioners have a budget work session scheduled for 5:30 p.m. May 28 in the commissioners’ room on the first floor of the Wilkes County Office Building in Wilkesboro. Work sessions are open to the public.

Also Tuesday night, the commissioners heard concerns from representatives of the Wilkes Association of Realtors about the fee charged for access to the Wilkes Register of Deeds website.

Hospitality House

Hospitality House is a private nonprofit that addresses homelessness in Wilkes, Watauga, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties. Dr. Bert Young, pastor of First Baptist Church of North Wilkesboro, spoke on behalf of Hospitality House during the hearing.

Ninety-five percent of Hospitality House residents come from Wilkes, Watauga, Avery and Ashe counties and it gets annual financial support from the county governments of all four except Wilkes, said Young.

The Wilkes commissioners were asked to allocate $4,750 to Hospitality House this year, but no funding is listed for the organization in the draft budget submitted by County Manager John Yates. Other Hospitality House funding requests submitted to Wilkes County government met the same fate in the past.

Young told commissioners that there is a homelessness crisis in Wilkes.

He said the Point in Time Homeless Count in January 2018 found that 63 adults and 35 children were living unsheltered in Wilkes, and that number increased by 24 people when the count was conducted in 2019.

“These statistics depict the desperate situation in our county. Fortunately, Hospitality House is addressing it,” said Young.

Eighteen percent of Hospitality House residents were from Wilkes last year, said Young, adding that this cost the organization $240,242 at $33 per night.

He said that in addition to providing emergency shelter, Hospitality House works to get people back on their feet through goal-setting, counseling, training and connecting agencies with proper agencies.

In 2018, he said, 103 Hospitality House residents were placed in their own independent housing.

Young said over half of people placed in satellite rental housing by Hospitality House are Wilkes residents. The organization guarantees rent payment to landlords if residents don’t pay. Each household is assigned a social worker to help assure a successful transition by mentoring and troubleshooting as needed.

He said many churches and individuals in Wilkes financially support Hospitality House.

Keith Elmore responded, “We’re familiar with your work and we appreciate what you do.”

More sought for library

Wilkes County Librarian Aimee James appeared before the board to request an additional $29,000 in the proposed budget, saying that was the amount needed for the commissioners to fulfill the second year of a pledge to increase library pay over a three-year period.

James was referencing a plan to allocate an additional $86,000 for the Wilkes County Library over a three-year period.

The draft county budget includes $662,009 for the Appalachian Regional Library, up from $636,739 the prior year. The request was for $690,773. The draft budget also lists $31,316 for the Traphill Branch Library, which is the amount requested. The Traphill branch received $27,900 the prior year.

Moravian Falls VFD

Also Tuesday night, the commissioners held a public hearing on a request from the Moravian Falls Fire Department and its board to include a 5-cent increase in the Moravian Falls Fire District tax rate in the 2019-20 budget. It’s already included in the draft budget.

A 5-cent increase would result in a 9-cent fire tax rate, still the lowest in Wilkes.

The commissioners have approved several fire tax rate increases requested by Wilkes volunteer fire departments in the last few years, but the only request this year is from Moravian Falls.

Appearing on behalf of the request for Moravian Falls were Moravian Falls Fire Department Board Chairman Gary Jordan, Fire Chief Kimi Hamby and Assistant Chief Sam Ingram.

Jordan said the fire tax rate has been 5 cents per $100 of property valuation since the department was started in 1958. He said that through sound financial stewardship and property value growth, an increase has been avoided until now. In the last few years, he said, property valuation growth hasn’t kept up with the rate expenses have risen.

“The last thing we wanted to do over all these years was to increase the fire tax rate, but we’ve got to the point now that we are going to have to have some assistance.”

Jordan said the Moravian Falls Fire Station, completed nearly 20 years ago, needs new asphalt and concrete. He said the Pores Knob area gives the fire department one of the largest wildland fire risks of any Wilkes district and the department’s wildland firefighting equipment is nearly 26 years old.

Jordan said the rate hike is need to help fund a program of replacing older equipment over time, including two first-out pumper fire trucks that are 20 and 22 years old.

They’re in good condition, “but the (N.C.) Department of Insurance gets a little nervous when it sees pumper tankers over 20 years old” during inspections.

Jordan said a single self-contained breathing apparatus now costs $8,000. The department has 10 of these going out of service this year and received a grant to fund five.

Moravian Falls had 425 first responder and fire calls in 2018, and it assists other departments with its larger pumper-tanker. Hamby said about 270 of these were first responder calls and the rest were fire calls.

Request from Realtors

During the public concerns portion of the meeting, Wilkes Association of Realtors President Jim Logan and Richard Renton, CEO of Triad Multiple Listing Services, appeared concerning the annual fee of $150 charged for access to deeds and certain related records on Wilkes Register of Deeds website.

Renton said his company provides multiple listing services for Realtors in a 10-12 county region that includes Wilkes.

He said the vast majority of county registers of deeds offices in North Carolina offer online access to deeds and related records at no cost.

Logan and Renton emphasized the importance of these records to the real estate industry.

“We request that you consider doing what the vast majority of other North Carolina counties do by offering these (records) at no cost,” said Renton.

Keith Elmore, chairman of the commissioners, said Wilkes has a “duly elected register of deeds,” who is Misty Smithey. He suggested that they meet with Smithey and added, “I’m sure that something can be worked out.”

When Elmore asked if they had met with Smithey, Logan said he hadn’t but that he didn’t know if representatives of the Wilkes Association of Realtors had met with her earlier.

County Attorney Tony Triplett said in an interview, “In my opinion the county commissioners don’t have authority to control what the register of deeds does with regards to this aspect of the operations of her office,” referring to charging a fee for website access.

Smithey said in an interview later that no representatives of the association has asked to speak with her about the $150 annual “membership” fee for access to the Wilkes Register of Deeds website.

It was stated during the public concerns presentation to the commissioners that deed restrictions aren’t available on the Wilkes Register of Deeds website. Smithey said that wasn’t correct because those records are on the site.

She said putting deeds and certain other records online resulted in lost revenue from not making as many paper copies—and charging for that. Charging a website membership fee helped compensate for part of that loss.

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