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Baldwin, Jackson & Rice Give Budget Hard Time


County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene announced the county would keep the Zeugner pool open an additional year as the county enters into a memorandum of understanding with Buncombe County Schools for operation. Greene raised concerns when she said the county would continue to pay a $150,000 annual maintenance fee barring a “major system failure” with the fifty-year-old pool. For the long term, though, the county would pursue a public/private partnership for the construction of a $6.5 million covered pool. The pool is to be 25 meters x 60 feet. The address provided for approval of the bonds was Woodfin, but Greene said that could be changed if it became advisable. For some swimmers, though, this is not enough. They are pushing for a $20 million aquatic center they say will attract regional meets.

Commenting on the proposed debt, Betty Jackson joined the ranks of citizens who have objected to the lack of transparency in the county’s staff reports. Regular Jerry Rice continued the theme, “You is elected to the people, not the back room,” he said. “Nobody wants to say the truth. They just want to deliberate in the back room and let the folks think what they want to think.”

Lisa Baldwin asked the commissioners to kindly reconsider their decision to double the size of the Coxe Avenue DHHS center. She said the commissioners had “suddenly” voted to add a $48.5 million garage, which had not been advertised with the agenda. No opportunity had been given for public comment, and now new and corrected information was available. Baldwin said she had spoken to an unnamed law professor at the School of Government who told her the rather dated regulations cited by the county are not requirements, but rather recommendations or guidelines. Baldwin asked if DHHS’s in other counties had been fined or if Buncombe County had been served notices for noncompliance. To that, the law professor said, “’Buncombe County is being proactive.’” When contacting the state DHHS, Baldwin was told the department only helps counties to identify space needs and then works with the federal government to arrange funding.

Prefacing a prepared presentation on the debt, Greene backed up to respond to public concerns. She said she would be more transparent in the future. She explained the county takes out debt in accordance with three governing statutes under the guidance and approval of the Local Government Commission. In addition, the county has its own policies of financing only when necessary, going to market only once a year, timing debt to optimize efficiencies and interest, and protecting the county’s AAA credit rating. Furthermore, the county keeps its net debt less than $200 per capita, less than 3 percent of assessed valuations, and less than 8 percent of general fund expenditures. Greene said the county had a reputation for scrubbing costs out of projects.

With the proposed debt plan, per capita debt would be between $80 and $81 per capita, run between 1.65 and 1.48 percent of assessed valuations, and fall below 7.1 percent of general fund expenditures. The county’s debt would increase from $30 million to $50 million, but it would not exceed its debt ceiling. The county strives to absorb debt without increasing debt service. With the proposed issue, the county will still be able to pay off 60 to 65 percent of its debt within ten years.

Greene then repeated the reasons the county provided at the last commissioners’ and city council meetings for expanding DHHS on Coxe Avenue. She added the county was sold on a one-stop solution. It could not locate an existing $140,000 square-foot building for sale. But if the county were able to take out a lease on a big box, it would end up losing $11 million over the next twenty years, and $80 million over the next forty.

Another round of public comment addressed plans for the Enka Intermediate School. Costing $25 million, it would serve 850 students with 47 instructional rooms in a 115,000 square foot, 2-story building. Jackson suggested county management had not performed due diligence. Baldwin said $1.5 billion in interest was too much to lay on taxpayers. She maintained her oft-expressed stance that the Enka school, as well as the DHHS expansion, was an unnecessary expenditure. She asked how the commissioners could fund a pool when there wasn’t even enough money for textbooks.

Mike Fryar was the only commissioner to vote against the debt. He said the other matters had been well-vetted, but the swimming pool and gun range proposals had not come before the commissioners before. What’s more, there was no way he could support spending $500 per square foot on the $6.9 million firing range when law enforcement officers in neighboring counties are satisfied training outdoors at landfills.

Chair David Gantt said the county couldn’t put the firing range at the landfill because a previous board of commissioners had given their word they would not use the land for other purposes. To that, Fryar asked, rhetorically, “Didn’t this board give word that they wouldn’t put zoning in effect, and we just went through stuff like that for an hour?” As the two sparred, Commissioner Ellen Frost begged to call the question.

Gantt summed up his position. “I’ve been on this board eighteen years, and early on I think there was kind of a – not a total – paralysis, but there was a real reluctance to fund government.” He paused for a dramatic rock in his chair. “And it was a carryover from years past where they just didn’t do anything. All they cared about was cutting the budget. They didn’t want to fund services. They didn’t want to do anything they needed to do. They kicked the ball down the road The swim pool has been kicked down the road for 25 years. The shooting range has been kicked down the road about 25 years. And I’ve been part of that. But at some point, you’ve got to have the political guts to do what you need to do to fund government.”

Discussion –

After the meeting, Baldwin emailed the <ITAL>Tribune</ITAL> stating, “I just wanted to clarify that I stand by my statement that he DHHS building is unnecessary. The space regulations cited by county employees are archaic and have not been enforced in the past per NC DHHS.” She argued the statutes were recommendations that “may” result in a loss of federal funding.

Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone agreed the standards are old, but read them another way. “They are, however, what remains on the books.” Stone said she followed up with Aimee Wall, the attorney at the School of Government. She said Baldwin’s quote had surprised her, because “Administrative Code is a binding rule intended to set forth how laws are administered.” Stone said Wall said she did not say what Baldwin said she said. Instead, Wall claimed she had offered no legal opinion and referred Baldwin back to Stone.

Stone referenced 10A NCAC 67A .0103 from the code, which states, “The following guidelines show the acceptable minimum range of space which will vary due to position function, special equipment and furniture needs, fixed existing conditions or the availability of separate private interviewing rooms.” It then provided “minimum square footages of space range.” In another section, “Requirements for Privacy,” the document stated, “Private offices or interviewing room shall be available to all staff who interview clients.”

Another standard, 10A NCAC 67A .0105, stated, “Federal and state participation in the cost of administration may not be claimed when agencies are not in compliance with the standards set forth in 10A NCAC 67A .0103 or when the county fails to submit an acceptable plan for compliance within 90 days of notification of non-compliance.”

Stone concluded, “I have consistently made the point that yes there are state requirements, but the basis for our request for space is that we are totally maxed out and currently have staff in multiple lease spaces. This is both costly and ineffective. In addition, the work conditions for staff at Coxe are crowded and inefficient and pose significant challenges related to legal mandates for confidentiality. We have been working toward expansion since 2009, and we are totally out of strategies to maximize the space we have.” Stone then rehashed the statistics rehashed at public meetings during the last two weeks.

In Other Matters –

In a unanimous vote, horses were exempted from the recently-passed amendments to the county’s animal control ordinance. Horse owners objected to a requirement that equine have manmade shelters built to the commissioners’ specifications. Horse people knew horses don’t do shelters.

A few changes were made to the changes posted with the published agenda, consistent with the meeting’s theme and variations on government opacity agitating members of the audience. Presenter Attorney Mike Frue said the amendments to the amendment that was already in its fourth round were the result of ongoing negotiations. No mischief was intended; they all loosened the county’s attempt to control livestock. “I just can’t help think of a fat pig,” said Frue on the eleventh-hour exemption of livestock from “adequate exercise.” The “social interaction” requirement had already been dropped.

Frost and Miranda DeBruhl appeared to carry on a subtle spat. Frost, who had spearheaded the ordinance, hasted to damage control. She said the commissioners set out to get animal abuse on the front page of newspapers, and they accomplished that goal. During public comment, Jimmy Cowan from the NC Farm Bureau had said agriculturalists across the state had been put on alert by the amendments.

DeBruhl seized the opportunity for an I-told-you-so moment. “I think it’s no secret that I pointed out from the beginning there were severe problems with this. I’m on the record, even calling it a mess, and in my opinion it was.” Frost took the floor three times to say the commissioners navigated a work in progress to a good outcome. “I don’t think trying can ever be called an ‘embarrassment’ or a ‘mess,’ she said.”

Fryar added the ordinance was, “another thing that was basically put on an agenda that nobody knew was coming. We thought we were talking about dogs, and we ended up with horses tied to it. It was a leash law that turned into – I call it the dog and pony show.” He said the commissioners had unnecessarily subjected the public to anxiety and derailed a number of professionals from more constructive endeavors.

The commissioners also approved three rezoning requests unanimously, but split the vote on a third. Mack Padgett wanted to be able to have a “little park” for mobile homes, and wanted to add two new units. This did not sit well with the Friends and Neighbors of Swannanoa. The group’s chair, Sophia Papadopoulos and others spoke of an obstructed viewshed. Commissioner Joe Belcher advocated helping two families have modest housing. Holly Jones and Fryar thought the area could still be beautiful with two new mobile homes.

On the flip side, Frost argued the rezoning ran counter to the hard work of the community group. “I really have to applaud the Swannanoa Neighbors and Friends. You guys have taken on a fight that nobody really wants to hear about at times. . . . I really want to be careful that we don’t do things here just so people can get money back for their property,” she said. Frost and Gantt were outnumbered in voting against the rezoning.

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