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Commissioners could have framed this better


By Leslee Kulba-Tuesday the fourteenth, the Buncombe County Commissioners met in continued session. Items from the prior week’s agenda were rolled over for discussion simultaneously with, but across the street from, the next regularly-scheduled meeting of Asheville City Council. It’s the kind of thing that makes short-staffed indy media outlets nervous. After all, Project X was handled with this kind of scheduling.

“I’m not sure why the room is not full, but they’re not interested as we are in these matters,” decried Finance Director Donna Clark. It burned, as if she were scoffing at the mere mortal frames inhibiting the omnipresence of press correspondents. It all may have been above-board. Maybe the county needed to operate in a small, specific window to realize additional savings, but it would have been difficult for a mere citizen to prove.

The object of discussion was a “Resolution Making Certain Findings of Fact, Approving a Contract Amendment and a Notice of Extension to a Deed of Trust and the Delivery Thereof and Providing for Certain Other Related Matters.” It was a blurb chair David Gantt implied was in need of clarification until citizen Jerry Rice requested, during public comment, that public announcements use more accessible language. Rice also was the only one to question the wisdom of borrowing in this economy.

Clark presented a summary of what the commissioners would be approving. The staff reports consisted of a couple hundred pages of contractual legalese. The topic of bond issuance is such that, after about the 180th page, the average reader should be too zoned out to catch implicit mischief.

The county was holding a public hearing, absent the public, on taking out $122 million in bonds for capital projects. With effort, one with a discerning eye can actually decipher the dollar amounts from a blurry, blurry slide in the YouTube video. In sum, the county would, in the near term, spend $21 million on rebuilding Isaac Dickson Elementary, and $2.5 million would go toward a public safety complex.

For AB Tech, the county would be spending $2 million on a public safety classroom, $15 million on a parking deck, $7 million on multipurpose classrooms, and $41 million on the new Allied Health building. Funds borrowed for the projects would be returned to the county via the controversial quarter-cent sales tax. Commissioner Mike Fryar wanted to call attention to the fact that, following allegations that college leadership had plans to squander the sales tax on plans for lavish administrative offices, the county inserted itself into the contracting process. As a result, costs for this phase of construction fell from $83 million to $73 million, and the Allied Health building and the parking deck were added, to boot.

Also in the mix was $28.5 million for “Economic Development Buildings.” In English, that translates to construction of a new terminal for Old Dominion Freight Lines as compensation for acquiring their existing facility to pay GE Aviation to move to the area. More significantly, bonds will also pay for a manufacturing facility and office space for GE Aviation. Expenditures of debt for the undertaking formerly known as Project X would be repaid through a lease agreement.

Also in the mix were a couple measures to refinance debt, saving the county a couple million a year over the next couple decades. The commissioners were also asked to approve $40.5 million for Asheville Middle School. Funds wouldn’t be borrowed until July, but by piggybacking on existing paperwork, the county could save a lot.

County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene applauded the commissioners and staff for whittling away at proposed expenditures. Greene told the members of the audience many months of hard work went into pacing the projects, setting aside funds for the future, and, of course, cutting expenses. As a result, debt service will not increase. “We’ve navigated some fairly interesting waters to bring you these recommendations,” said she mysteriously.

The Softer Side of the Meeting –

The commissioners also received a report from Community Action Opportunities, a Community Action Agency created years ago by the Economic Opportunity Act. The organization will receive $724,133 from the federal government to lift about 50 families above the poverty level. Proceeds will go toward Buncombe, Madison, and McDowell counties. Buncombe County will receive $525,416 of the sum, compared to $392,000 last year.

Through recruitment, screening, coordination, leadership, coaching, orientation programs, database management, and other administrative services, the program serves to develop action plans for clientele. A public hearing was held in December to, keeping up with the lingo, identify domains defining the causes and cures for poverty. Last fiscal year, the social ROI for the program was 4.35, exactly.

Transparently, the budget breakdown was blank in the printed agenda, but, getting a leg up on the public, the commissioners received a last-minute copy. Commissioner David King asked questions to better understand who would be helped by the program. Services are directed toward families just below the poverty line; specialized needs would be referred to community partners, such as the ACORN-spawned advocates of the living wage, Just Economics. King’s question about recidivism rates was met with evasiveness, as the presenter, Interim Economic Development Director of CAO Carey Gibson, hadn’t anticipated the need for that kind of data.

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