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County Debt Passes Half Billion Mark


Latest project commitments total $141 million

Asheville History 1930 – 1940,

The website translates the $56 million indebtedness that brought the city and county to their knees in 1930 into a present-day value of $7.81 billion,

If the $56 million 1930 figure is replaced with $530 million – the total amount of the county’s current indebtedness after County Commission added $141 million to it last week – the equivalent figure is $7.81 billion in 1930 money.

In other words, Buncombe County’s current debt, if calculated 85 years ago, would have been 14 times greater than the amount that bankrupted both the city and the county at that time.

“Of course, to some extent it’s an apples and oranges comparison,” said a local financial advisor who asked not to be identified, “the Depression debt was brought on by municipal bonds default and when the Central Bank failed there was a domino effect. But money is money. People throw ‘millions’ and ‘billions’ around all the time without understanding the magnitude of what they mean, so in that respect the comparison is useful.”

The $141 million spending package passed by County Commission at its meeting last Tuesday includes $48.5 million for extensive and expansion to the existing Department of Health and Human Services building on Coxe Avenue, $6 million for a law enforcement shooting range in Woodfin and $6.5 million for a new indoor county swimming pool.

Also included in the package was a $25 million allocation for constructing a new intermediate school in Enka – though that projected cost has already run over approximately a million dollars over original budget.

Nearly all elements comprising the county’s spending package have come under fire from various directions.

The cost of enlarging the DHHS building includes the addition of several floors, plus installation of a 650-vehicle parking area. The move has been greeted in one quarter as unnecessary overspending and in another as “undesirable” in its present location and responsible for one developer’s cancelling plans to construct a luxury hotel nearby.

MRK Properties, a Florida-based developer, announced last week through its local representative, Keller-Williams Realty, that it had abruptly scrapped plans for installing its hotel in the old Bank of America building at 68 Patton Avenue. MRK said it was abandoning that plan because the addition to the DHHS facility would worsen an existing situation of “undesirables” frequenting the neighborhood.

Byron Greiner, a broker with Keller-Williams, told Asheville City Council that the hotel idea would have to be rethought because of the presence of “undesirable” people “hanging out” in the vicinity. The Asheville Blade quoted Greiner as saying, “Their [MRK’s] feeling is that if this building is built at this location it will increase the population of some undesirables we deal with every day in terms of the homeless and panhandling.” (See “When Worlds Collide: Bums 1, Developers 0,” March 5.)

But Greiner later amended his position, telling the Tribune in an interview that although MRK was “not happy with the idea of a lot of undesirables in the vicinity” of its contemplated hotel, that in itself was not the reason for the change of plans. “There are seven hotels coming out of the ground close by.” he said. “They [MRK] felt that was too much hotel density to be competing with right now.” The neighborhood vagrancy issue, he now said, was “totally unrelated” to the change of plans.

MRK decided instead to use the former bank building into luxury condominiums. He said, “Condos are less vulnerable to undesirables in the area than a hotel would be. Condos are permanent, secure residences.” He did not elaborate as to whether a hotel would be relatively insecure by comparison, nor did he indicate how MRK would not have already known seven hotels were being constructed in the vicinity.

The Enka intermediate school project has received criticism from both residents and county watchdog groups who claim that the money allocated for constructing it could have been put to better use, at this time, by banking the money for books, supplies and student services. One observer, county watchdog and former school board member Lisa Baldwin, said, “Amidst this county wide construction boom, poor planning, resource management and timing has some schools operating at 139 percent capacity and others at 59 percent. This while expensive vanity schools are being built to satisfy political versus academic interests.”

Baldwin also questioned the spending, at this time, of monies for both the firing range and renovation to the county’s Valley Street permits office, saying those items were not included in the county’s general budget plan.

But County Manager Wanda Greene told the Tribune those projects “have been on the plan for years.” She added, “. The firing range was partially funded in FY2014; however, the price has increased.”

The swimming pool project drew not only financial scrutiny but loud complaints from local swimming teams, who said they would be left with no place to practice during its construction if, as it had previously announced, the county closed the existing, aging Zeugner Center, where five county school teams hold meets and practice. “We have no plan to close Zeugner. If we have a major system failure, we do have to have that discussion,” Greene said.

Her statement contradicted commission’s January statement that the Zeugner center would indeed be closed.

Altogether, Greene said, “We proposed $89.5 million in new debt and the rest is refinanced debt that will save around $5 million over the remaining life of those mortgages. We did not change the maturity dates on the refinanced projects.

“The debt measured at date of the new debt issue will be just shy of $530 million; however year end debt payments will drop the outstanding debt back below that number before June 30th.,” she concluded.

Commission chairman David Gantt had not returned the Tribune’s call for comment by press time.

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