By Leslee Kulba-County Commissioner Mike Fryar is a representative of interest simply because he votes “no” on occasion. While campaigning, Fryar was vehemently opposed to the quarter-cent tax hike for AB Tech. A resident of Fairview, he sees people and businesses struggling every day. $45 a year is a lot to take from somebody who is trying to scrape enough together to pay the bills and feed the family. Fryar has some ideas for restructuring the budget, which he shared on the condition that he be allowed to announce them publicly
Fryar will vote “no” to keep his campaign promises, but he knows that’s not enough. He talks to the other commissioners to test the waters, get their input, and try to sway them to his point of view. He laughs as he recalls thinking he only needed four votes to get something approved, but finding out, with Chair David Gantt, much to their mystification, that that was not always the case. Their guy lost with four votes when multiple candidates were appointed to fill multiple seats.
Fryar frequently makes headlines for voting against small-beans budget items. As a citizen activist, he came down against the Buncombe County Commissioners’ compensation packages that outpaced just about every other North Carolina county’s. Public outcry resulted in cuts of the five-digit sums. After his election, when public ire was rekindled over a 1.7-percent pay raise for the commissioners, passed between the lines of the budget, Fryar was the only one to reject it. He accordingly filled out and filed extra paperwork for the personal exemption.
Fryar also makes a big deal over outside agency funding. That, too, is a drop in the county’s budget, which ended fiscal year technically reporting $310,295,520 in revenues and $359,956,909 in expenditures. The problem is, most of what the county does is mandated by state and federal law. In the Department of Social Services, for example, 99 percent of activities are mandated. For 2014, the county raised tax rates from 52.5 cents per $100 of valuation to 56.9 cents, and then added another 3.5 cents for the new Culture & Recreation Authority. Fryar is not alone in expecting the CRA to soon utilize its 7-cent taxing power to the fullest extent.
Unlike hardcore fiscal conservatives, Fryar is a fan of economic development activities, otherwise known as corporate welfare. He applauds county management in their Herculean efforts to save and create jobs with the new GE deal. He takes the numbers presented at face value and shares anecdotes about people who have lifted themselves from poverty by taking government-created jobs. That’s more important to him than theoretical discussions about who should pay and what might have been. Now that controversies over at AB Tech are done and buried, he is hoping that by serving on the board he will direct the college toward matching course offerings with training demanded by existing and prospective Buncombe County employers.
Fryar says rumors about County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene ruling with an iron fist are unfounded. True, she and her assistant managers run a complex and well-oiled machine with low levels of defect. But that doesn’t translate to telling commissioners how to vote. Fryar says Greene has been very helpful getting him up to speed and running down facts for him. He has stories to tell about Greene answering his questions at 12:30 or 4:30 in the morning. “’I catnap,’” was her answer to the obvious.
Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone, who oversees Health and Human Services, is in the same category. Fryar refers to her as a living encyclopedia, who also never sleeps. He remembers a time when Stone worked until noon, drove out to Raleigh for a meeting, and then came back to work. Fryar has nothing but praise for Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton’s intelligence in his field of expertise as well. Creighton oversees facilities and construction.
Fryar says he had to work with Greene a lot with the budget. He ran on a platform of protecting taxpayers from tax increases. Therefore, if he wanted the county to do something new, he had to eliminate something else. Greene could always make things work out. Fryar had a few proposals for saving money, like sharing costs for an ambulance with Woodfin, that didn’t gain traction with his peers for one reason or another. He voted against the budget for several reasons, but then approved it to spare everyone the rigmarole one dissenting vote would have caused for nothing.
It’s important not to take oneself too seriously. A scandal tried to break out about a video of key figures in Asheville City management masquerading as local characters. It was a going-away present for long-time Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson. It featured former Assistant County Manager Jeff Richardson impersonating Mike Fryar. He was wearing a red wig chain smoking. Richardson apologized, but Fryar said it wasn’t necessary. He thought it was hilarious.
Chemotherapy has since caused Fryar to lose his hair and his cigarettes, but he maintains a positive, even keel, even about the economy. He laughs, “I had a friend tell me, ‘I’m a Democrat, but not a Progressive.’ ‘What do you mean by that?’ I asked. He said, ‘I’m a Democrat, but not a Progressive. I work.’”