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What They Said about the County Budget

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Former Asheville mayor Ken Michalove once again asked the county reject funding Pack Place. Reasons included the board’s alleged mismanagement of funding and misrepresentation of economic impact. Michalove referred to their estimated generation of 55,000 room nights two years after completion of renovations as “atmospheric calculations.” He said if the commissioners were to approve funding for the Asheville Art Museum and the Diana Wortham Theater, they would be, “suckered into the fraud that [City Manager Gary] Jackson, [Vice Mayor Marc] Hunt and [Mayor Esther] Manheimer have perpetuated.”

The Asheville Art Museum had requested $2.5 million in county funding this year, almost a ten-fold increase over last year’s disbursement. Slated for approval was a grant of $235,000. The Pack Square Cultural Partnership requested another $415,000, of which county would approve only $350,000. The Colburn Earth Science Museum used to be part of Pack Place until what Michalove described as hostile policies forced it to relocate. President Jon Neumann was gracious about Colburn getting zilch from its request for $275,000. He merely asked the county to consider looking more kindly upon their educational endeavors in future.

David Craig Starkey challenged Michalove’s remarks. Starkey is president of the Asheville Arts Council and founder of the Asheville Lyric Opera. He argued if city and county government did not invest in arts and culture, “our community would be average, maybe boring.” While he agreed the county should carefully consider donations and hold recipients to high standards of accountability, he cautioned against the “irresponsible, immediate ramifications” of Michalove’s suggestion. For example, not funding Pack Place would spell the end of the ALO. Gary Kallbach echoed Starkey. He and his wife came to Asheville from New Jersey for the arts, and he said it was here that he was able to get a hug from the choreographer of the Broadway version of The Lion King.

Also seeking full disbursement, Ben VanCamp, executive director of the Asheville Regional Sports Commission, told of his organization’s successes in the last five years, not the least of which was bringing the NCAA Southern Conference back to Asheville. He said the commission had generated $40 million in economic impact through events it had coordinated. The county had proposed cutting the commission’s funding by $45,000, and VanCamp said that would force it to get rid of one of its two staff members. Contending that the coordination of big events was very time-consuming, he said the cuts would likely force the commission to turn down prospects.

Child education advocate Lisa Baldwin repeated objections she had lodged with the commissioners, having received no response. First, the county gives out over $600,000 in bonus pay to school administrators. This is on top of supplements. Some principals receive as much as $16,000 in bonuses for doing extra work she feels is part of any school administrator’s job description. Nearly $1 million in bonuses is given to sports coaches, but teachers receive no bonuses for coaching academic activities like debate teams and the Science Olympiad.

Other complaints were that the school budget appropriated $400,000 to continue paying positions created with grant money. She believed it proper to terminate those positions when the funding ran out and further suggested some of those jobs are superfluous. The budget further funds a PAC, the School Boards Association Action Center, which she said could lobby for administrators and candidates rather than students. Arguing that more money should go to classrooms, she believed funding for textbooks and supplies was following a lousy trajectory, having decreased from $1.8 million to $1.1 million over the last three years.

Rather than just shaking her head in disbelief, Betty Jackson attempted to do something about the old adage that claims one must hold public office not to understand certain economic principles. So, somewhat snarkily, she proceeded to give a 101-style lecture on the topic of scarcity. She stated the commissioners had limits to spending and indebtedness, and the tone of her voice insinuated there was something crazy about giving away money to get money, whether it was to a specific crony or a vague but grandiose scheme. Having spoken with hundreds of citizens across the economic spectrum, she concluded the county’s last tax increase was most damaging to the county’s poor and lower middle class.

Jerry Rice, who likes to comment clean-up, objected to the commissioners holding a public hearing on the budget, making changes to which the public has no access, and then voting. He could not take available information seriously following the Culture and Recreation Authority sleight of hand in recent years. The recreation authority was created to levy a 3.5-cent tax increase, and then it was dissolved so the county could claim no tax increase as it raised taxes from 56.9 cents to 60.4 cents. Rice also objected to the fund balance, describing it as a slush fund for items not approved in the budget. He said the state only requires the county to maintain a rainy-day fund equal to 8.5 percent of general fund expenditures, but the county is reserving 15 percent. He closed asking the commissioners to be mindful of the struggling poor, many of whom have the deepest roots in the community. Spending tax collections, or going into debt with interest to be paid with tax collections, to construct an expensive building for the DSS, he said, was not helping the poor.

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