The Buncombe County Commissioners held a budget retreat last weekend in the county office building on College Street. Contrasted to the cozy, woodsy overnighters some local governments have hosted in past years, the Friday and Saturday meetings were plain old business meetings.
The worst news is that the county is looking at raising property tax rates by five cents. County Manager Wanda Greene, with remorse, announced the need to raise the rate from 52.5 to 57.84 cents, unless the commissioners could come up with a better idea. Before the revaluation, the county’s tax base totaled $30.4 billion. Now, it is down to $27.6 billion. Not only did properties lose market value, growth slowed to 2.18 percent.
In addition, the county will lose about $2.4 million in federal revenues it used to receive for social services. Then, the court system is in need of another $1.2 million. Some of the sum will pay for beefed up security, but the rest will pay for a new court and two new jail pods. The jail space is required in accordance with a state formula for housing inmates. The average population of ninety-day misdemeanants has increased by about 60-65. Then, complying with the first year of Obamacare is going to cost somewhere around $927,877.
Other big-ticket items driving up the cost of government are stream bank repairs at Owen Park ($100,000), horse and feral cat care ($124,500), a new ambulance ($552,136), public safety technology including door automation at the jail ($235,000), and an expanded appropriation to the affordable housing fund ($195,400).
Commissioner Joe Belcher suggested introducing criteria to reward outside agencies for good performance rather than just granting money somewhat miscellaneously. Mike Fryar suggested partnering with Woodfin to share a new ambulance. Greene said she had already spoken with Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun and determined the costs would not be offset by the benefits of the new ambulance.
Chair David Gantt commended the county on the capital investments it had made in recent years. He encouraged his peers to visit some of the sites, such as the new, green landfill and the regional emergency headquarters. Greene said the county is reaching the end of a long list of construction projects that included upgrading the jail, renovating the courthouse, moving county offices to the College Street complex, renovating the former health services building on Coxe Avenue, and building the parking garage and what is now the Bill Stanley Center.
Unlike the City of Asheville, Buncombe County is not under siege by a barrage of state legislation. Greene brought up only House Bill 418 seeking to create a regional parks and recreation authority. So far, affected parties are foreseeing financial advantages should the bill pass. Holly Jones asked what impact the bill eliminating the ETJ will have, and she was told that no new staff would be hired to handle the additional administrative load.
Attention next turned to the schools. Since the meeting took place before the Boston bombing, all eyes were turned to the Connecticut disaster and the role elected officials should assume in assuring the public the exact same thing wouldn’t occur in Buncombe County. The county was holding $1 million for the schools, but Greene could not say how much would go toward the ten social workers or seven SRO’s the schools want. Greene said parents were more supportive of spending the money on mental health resources. As always, law enforcement has advised citizens that it has everything under control, but it cannot divulge its strategies.
Brownie Newman asked his peers to get real. He doubted Buncombe County Schools were really a hotbed of terrorist potential, and suggested limited county resources might be better spent addressing problems known to threaten children in unsafe neighborhoods. Newman wagered the schools are probably the safest place some kids get to go, now.
Belcher wanted to make sure K-3 kids would not be deprived of extra attention they now receive from teacher assistants. He passionately argued on behalf of children who are not getting the parenting they need at an early age, but he didn’t get into whether or not the lack of parenting was at all connected with government’s eagerness to assume the role.
New Initiatives –
Following the bad news, Newman proposed that the county commit to decreasing its energy consumption by 2 percent of current levels each year until it is burning only 20 percent as much carbon fuels. This excited his peers, some of whom wanted to engage enforcement strategies for the private sector. Newman repeated, his plan was only for government, so it could be a responsible steward of the environment and taxpayer dollars, and lead by example. Commissioners thought it would be great to hype the program with visual adverts to help citizens who can’t do math understand its significance. Ellen Frost said it was important for the commissioners, and not the media, to control the messaging.
Jones asked if the county could find a way to reward employees for identifying new ways to make operations more efficient. Chair David Gantt said the county already has such a program, but it is underutilized.
Lastly, the commissioner spoke of their need to create jobs. Fryar said he was not going to err on the side of ideology, but he wanted to be pragmatic and create jobs. David King mentioned statistics of economic multipliers showing how redistributing taxpayer dollars to companies strategically-selected by government leaders adds hundreds of jobs that add tens of millions of dollars to local economies. Newman wanted the county to engage in microlending as well as passing megabucks to companies like Linamar.
Several commissioners told how they had taken out loans with unfavorable terms when they were naïve and starting their businesses. Government loans, by contrast, cwould only be fair.