By Leslee Kulba- Only five commissioners were at the last meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners. Holly Jones had a family emergency, and Miranda DeBruhl had resigned unexpectedly, citing a business opportunity. Chair David Gantt explained it was up to the local Republican Party to nominate somebody to fill her unexpired term. The commissioners would then ratify the nominee, who would serve until November. Gantt did not explain how the seat would be filled afterward. With her resignation, DeBruhl also dropped her bid for commission chair after winning the Republican primary.
County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene presented an overview of the entire county budget. The commissioners will vote on a finalized version at their June 7 meeting. The recommended budget is $407,169,686, and there will be no change in the 60.4 cent tax rate. The overall budget decreased 0.01 cents this year.
The greatest challenge to the county this year was adjusting to what Greene referred to as the “2016 Medford incarceration.” Seeing no path to victory, the county decided to settle lawsuits alleging former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford’s interrogation methods had led to the unlawful imprisonment of suspects in a homicide case. Estimates of what the settlement would be ran from $4-8 million. The budget now shows an overall $4.8 million being “used” from the county’s fund balance.
2017 will be a revaluation year. Citizen Don Yelton in public comment spoke about how the county forewent revaluating houses when values were plummeting. But now that they’re on the rise, the county wants to seize the margins. He added that locals living in shacks are being adversely impacted by out-of-towners whose building big in the neighborhood inflates property values, in spite of government’s attempts to increase affordable housing stock.
Greene also spoke about capital projects, debt, and amortization schedules. Much of the conversation was already covered in the schools’ requests for funding. Outside of that, work was progressing toward a fall opening for the parking garage for the new Health and Human Services building downtown. The county currently holds about $1.158 billion in assets with just $450 million in debt.
As for gifts the county makes to social service programs, a budget category that continually changes its name, Greene said the county is taking another tack. In recent years, the commissioners decided they should fund only those organizations that perform something the county should be doing. This year, Greene said if they were performing a county government function, they ought to be under county management. $1.3 million was still awarded to various programs.
Government is a service industry, and its largest budget line item is usually personnel. The county has worked hard to save where it can, and since 2006 it has dropped the number of its employees from 1517 to 1462. That was done in spite of federal requirements for supervisory ratios the county deems excessive.
As for school funding, the county had estimated it would spend $64,603,494 on Buncombe County Schools, $16,681,890 on Asheville City Schools, $6,063,999 on AB Tech, and $24,650,492 on debt service. AB Tech’s allotment was unchanged, ACS’ went up about $800,000, and BCS’ went up about $1.5 million. These numbers will be adjusted. Greene said the county is collecting data on the impact charter schools are having on school funding, and she would see what she could do about Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin’s request for higher supplemental pay.
Greene tipped her hat to Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone. Stone manages health and human services for a county with low-income issues in the out-county rural lands and urban issues in one of the state’s largest municipal areas. Greene said costs were contained so well, while providing such high levels of service, State Auditor Beth Wood paid a visit to the county to see how they do it all.
Greene explained state and federal government are funding smaller percentages of the county’s HHS budget. She then showed a slide that showed consumption of county social services by zip code. West Asheville 28806 consumed 21.4 percent with 16.2 percent of the county’s population. Candler 28715 was second, consuming 11.3 percent with 10.5 percent of the population.
For public safety, the county is looking at spending $100,000 on vehicle replacement and $200,000 to upgrade the 21-year-old kitchen at the new detention facility. $150,000 will be needed for more animal enforcement officers, and $436,844 will be spent bringing the new firing range online.
Greene lastly announced two new senate bills moving through the legislature. The state redistributes sales taxes based on economic tiers. It has traditionally used a five-tier system, but it is moving to three tiers. According to the new system, Buncombe County would be moved to the least distressed tier, causing it to receive only 90 percent of sales taxes collected, as opposed to 106 percent. If the bill passes unamended, the county budget would see a structural budgetary shortage estimated at $1.4 million for the first year, which would be 2018. Another part of the same bill would cost the county $600,000 in the first year because the state would be keeping more of collections.
On a positive note from the perspective of balancing county budgets, Greene said a piece of local legislation, S888, was also moving through the legislature. Introduced by outgoing Senator Tom Apodaca, the bill would create a School Capital Fund Commission for the county. The commission would oversee the Capital Reserve Fund, which would oversee moneys allocated toward school capital improvement projects.
Greene pointed out the school would have autonomy over any funds for capital improvement under $100,000. She then showed how the legislation would liquefy cash flow for the schools. Commissioner Brownie Newman liked how it would allow greater flexibility for the schools to prioritize among capital and operational needs.
Commissioner Mike Fryar asked if any of the flexibility freeing up money could be used to lower the tax rate. He said the schools and the county have demands, but the people do, too.