The final budget was $368,462,255 with the tax rate unchanged from last year’s 60.4 cents. General fund expenditures actually contracted 0.11 percent, at least from an accounting perspective. The county continues to contract and partner, thus getting cooperation from the private sector in shouldering the burden of state- and federally-mandated services.
This year, 87.3 percent of the budget is non-negotiable. That is, the state and federal government require the county to provide or in some instances oversee the provision of public schools, the sheriff’s department with the court systems, and health and human services. As Greene mentioned at the previous meeting, the county not only must provide the services, it must follow strict guidelines for administration that include staffing ratios. The commissioners, therefore, have discretion over only about $47 million.
Before the meeting, they were presented with four changes to the budget. Affected were appropriations for education, nonprofit agencies, stormwater activities, and medical examiner fees. Consideration of work on repairs to swimming pools, or the construction of a world-class aquatic center, will be deferred to a January capital projects retreat. As a last-minute strategy, Greene introduced an early retirement program to try to loosen up $1 million in the budget. An estimated twelve positions will be eliminated as a result.
Once again, Commissioner Ellen Frost asked if the General Assembly’s rejection of Medicaid expansion was hurting the budget. Greene said there were a lot of issues with compliance and automation changing over to the federal marketplace, but she deferred to Assistant Manager Mandy Stone.
Stone indicated she did not understand why any of Frost’s constituents might be insinuating the decision was affecting the budget. After all, the county does not pay for services associated with the ACA. Whatever money flows into the county goes to services. An expansion would mean the county could cover more people. It is estimated 11,000 people in the county are eligible and not receiving services, and another 1800 might come out of the woodwork if funds were available. The only change would be that the county would have to cover 50 percent of the costs of expanding staff to cover the increased caseload.
After the meeting, Commissioner Joe Belcher explained why he voted against the budget. Blaming “excessive spending,” he remarked, “This budget included money that could easily have been reduced with some cooperation which I could not get.” The main cuts he cited included hundreds of thousands of dollars he did not want to award to community agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services had recommended a few recipients, like Eblen and ABCCM, but several other applicants came in under the wire.
At the meeting, Commissioner Mike Fryar indicated decisions had been made behind the scenes. He said he didn’t hear about the changes until 10:00 that morning. “Everything’s kind of put around a corner, here,” he said. “Well I ‘don’t mind being left out.” Fifteen community agencies had been added to the list, upping total disbursements by $556,375. With a $350,000 disbursement for WNC Medical Services transferred to another department, the county still managed to expand grants to local nonprofits from $1.7 million last year to $2.3 million. Fryar argued he wanted to cut spending somewhere to give the schools another half a million dollars. “I’m not for just giving this town away,” said Fryar.
Particularly objectionable was the Asheville Art Museum’s award of $250,000. “And we’ve got something here on our desk that that entity’s not doing too good,” intimated Fryar. Rather than getting into alleged controversies, Fryar only indicated the grant payment was not urgent. Pack Place was getting another $409,275. Greene tried to derail the tension by quoting from the resolution authorizing the grant. She said it specified the funds would be disbursed, “When the nail hits the hammer going into the wood in the construction.”
Commissioner Ellen Frost argued all the community agencies were investing in children, and nothing was frivolous. Fryar countered, “How are we going to work together when all we do is spend? Every time I see something, it’s give this, give that. Well, let’s give back to the people just a little bit here.” Commissioner Holly Jones begged her peers to do the math. She did not think $100,000 was worth the wrangling.
Fryar and Belcher also wanted to defer investment in an initiative to reduce the county’s carbon footprint. Fryar put up some numbers, disappointed that they had been “left behind and shoved under the table.” By adopting the proposal, the county committed to investing $1.9 million in the fourth year, all to reduce the carbon footprint by only 2.1 percent – when the goal is to reduce it by 80 percent. Fryar also mentioned under his breath that judges and certain others will likely get their normal exemptions from things like mandated thermostat settings. Belcher pointed out delaying the program could have loosened up $200,000 for the current budget.
In the end, the budget was adopted with an amendment proposed by Fryar directing county staff to look for excess real estate holdings it might return to the tax rolls. Although the amendment was accepted, Belcher and Fryar voted against the overall package.