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Budget Cuts Necessary-

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Timing Could Be More Courteous

At the last commissioners’ meeting, County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene explained the county had become accustomed to last-minute, high-amplitude budgetary vicissitudes from the General Assembly; but there was more agitation than usual this year. As a budget highlight, Greene traditionally shares that the county has always been able to reimburse what it borrows from its fund balance – with the exception of one year when the state withdrew serious funding at the last minute, and possibly this year as well.

The last-minute repeal of the CRA (Community Re-investment Act) caused only changes in accounting. The county must now advertise its property tax rate as 60.4 cents, rather than 56.9 cents plus a 3.5-cent CRA tax. There will also be less temptation for the county to raise taxes another 3.5 cents and blame it on the CRA.

At the meeting two weeks prior, Greene had covered problems with NC FAST. As the county struggles to serve a needy population that has doubled in size since 2008, state and federal governments are whimsically changing guidelines in the process of trying to consolidate all welfare services into a single, complex, and necessarily glitchy, database. Greene shared a conservative estimate that counties had spent $14.9 million in “unbudgeted expenses relating to NC FAST,” and the expenditures will continue. In Buncombe County, Greene estimates $2,258,051 will be spent, all-told, on staffing, tech support, and food to tide people over.

Getting people enrolled in the Health Insurance Marketplace has been a wicked experience as well. Greene related that 2465 new Medicaid applications were routed to the county after the deadline. Most of the people did not qualify for Medicaid, but getting rejected was a hoop through which the process demanded they jump. To meet state and federal processing guidelines, the county had to pull employees away from more meaningful work to process the backlog.

Another of this year’s last-minute whammies is uncertainties in funding for teacher pay. Tuesday, leadership from both school districts presented Greene with revisions to their funding requests. To buffer against a worst-case scenario playing out, Asheville Schools Interim Superintendent Bobbie Short added $174,950 to her $8,891,294 request for county funding submitted last month, and Buncombe County Schools’ Superintendent Tony Baldwin added $2,658,383 to his former request for $60,888,139.

Baldwin described the process as “nailing Jell-O to the wall.” He had to work with four budgets: the governor’s, the Senate’s, the House’s, and, worst of all, “the one that’s yet to come.” To start, staff assumed what was common to the first three budgets would make it to the final budget.

Baldwin argued most vociferously for funding teachers and teacher assistants. “I can bring plenty of data to show you that Buncombe County Schools represents one of the leanest, meanest, most intelligent, most good-looking central offices in the state. But we have reduced and reduced. We are down to bare bones. But we’re used to that, and that’s the way it should be. We’ll take that hit, but don’t let it go out into our classrooms in our schools.”

To deal with the greater demands, Greene announced the county would postpone plans to build a new Health and Human Services center as well as the covered pool/aquatic center the CRA had been pursuing at its last meeting. The county was also putting together incentives to encourage employees to retire early.

Over in the City of Asheville, Mayor Esther Manheimer is glad the lawsuit with the state over the water system was at least stayed by the courts. But then, she wouldn’t be too surprised if the legislature found a way to work around that. The water system runs as an enterprise fund, and the Sullivan acts prevent the use of the system as a cash cow for the general fund, so Manheimer expects the city would lose a little more than $1 million a year, plus legal fees, if and when the state prevails in confiscating it.

A couple years ago, a brief weakening of the Sullivan acts allowed the city to divert 5 percent of water revenues toward upgrading roads and sidewalks torn up in waterworks projects. The city then quickly committed to major improvements on Azalea Road. Representative Tim Moffitt said the city was abusing its privilege, diverting $2 million from the water system to overhaul the landscape when $189,000 would have covered basic repairs. He, Nathan Ramsey, and Chuck McGrady, therefore, introduced a bill to stop the diversion. But, in an act of mercy, the bill was passed with amendments to allow the city to use $3.65 million in water revenues for projects “already in the pipeline.”

For the past year, local governments have been worried about what might become of their ability to levy local privilege license fees. Manheimer described this as a moving target. The legislature had considered restructuring or eliminating the tax. In the end, the legislatures decided to allow municipalities to continue to collect the fees for one more year, before wiping it out entirely. The blow to the city is estimated to be $1.1 million. Asheville will be the biggest loser in the region, with Hendersonville losing only $300,000, and Weaverville, $90,000, for example.

While better timing would be courteous, our state legislators could use some mercy, for they are only grappling with federal decisions. They’re like the infant children of a junkie parent, left in charge of running the shop.

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