There were a few outstanding items to be settled, though. Earlier in the meeting, the commissioners had heard economic development funding requests from eleven organizations. The combined ask was $949,000, but the county only had $569,275 available via a placeholder in the budget.
Also, Buncombe County Schools had requested $1,349,499 for the new Enka Elementary School and $199,839 to fund the third year of the Martin Nesbitt Discovery Academy. Raises for school personnel were also in order, but exact amounts could not be nailed down until the state came together on its budget. Greene said $1,018,000 would be needed for a 5-percent certified personnel salary increase and a $510,000 for a 3-percent non-certified increase. The county would definitely need $174,265 to fund an increase in retirement and health benefits expenses and $120,000 to upgrade the schools’ Homebase and Canvas software.
In addition, county leadership has been under much pressure to increase the teacher supplemental pay. Currently, a scale running between 6.3 and 11.7 percent, depending on years of service, is used. If the county were to increase the steps to 8.5 through 16.9 percent, another $3,297,312 would have to be allocated, and Greene called this, “a little bit of a stretch beyond what we have.”
On the bright side, Senate Bill 888 had passed the previous night, relieving the county’s budget of $5 million in debt service. Before making a motion, Commissioner Tim Moffitt took partial credit. He had introduced the legislation in 2013. Having been voted out of office, he asked now outgoing Senator Tom Apodaca to see the bill through to conclusion, and last night, he met with Representative Chuck McGrady to prepare him for his floor debate.
Moffitt moved to approve the budget with a few amendments: (1) lower the tax rate be from 60.4 to 59.4 cents, (2) fund Enka Elementary and the Nesbitt Academy as Greene had proposed, (3) allocate $500,000 for non-certified school employee raises, (4) ask Buncombe County Schools to take $1.7 million out of the school system’s $12.5 million fund balance to pay for their other requests, (5) fund Asheville Schools’ request with $200,000-$300,000 from the county’s fund balance, and (6) fund the eleven outstanding economic development programs as Greene had proposed.
BCS Superintendent Tony Baldwin was called to the podium to answer for the system’s fund balance. He said Moffitt was correct in that they are not statutorily required to maintain any fund balance. However, funds are reserved as a best practice, to help keep things running fluidly. After all, the state is notorious for swiftly imposing financial burdens. Moffitt replied that if the schools got into such a position, they should come to the county for relief. That was one of the reasons why the county maintained its reserve.
Chair Gantt said he could not support Moffitt’s motion because teachers needed a pay increase. Commissioner Ellen Frost noted Moffitt’s decrease in taxes would only amount to $20 a year for a $200,000 house. Jones said, 500:1, people ask her to do more for schools instead of getting tax money back. Frost agreed. “Like Commissioner Jones,” she said, “no one has ever said to me, ‘Please lower the tax rate on my $200,000 house so I can save $20.’ What they have said is, ‘Do everything you can for schools.'”
Before Moffitt’s motion failed on the usual 3-4, Moffitt clarified his opponents were making a straw man with a false dichotomy. Teachers could get a pay increase and taxes could go down. He just wanted the increase to be funded from the county’s fund balance.
Vice Chair Brownie Newman next made a motion to adopt with these amendments: (1) fund the eleven outstanding economic development programs as proposed, but add an additional $75,000 for the Asheville Museum of Science, (2) fund Enka Elementary and the Nesbitt Academy, (3) increase funding for non-certified school employees by $500,000, (4) adopt the proposed supplemental teacher pay scale increases over a two-year period at a cost of about $1.9 million each year, (5) increase funding for implementing the Buncombe County Greenways Plan from $300,000 to $400,000, and (6) include $1 million payable over the next five years for building multimodal design into the I-26 upgrades.
Greene was clueless about the last item. Newman explained citizens had been very involved in designing multimodal features for the I-26 corridor that go above and beyond DOT cookie-cutter elements. The DOT has been very supportive of these, and the City of Asheville has committed $1 million toward their construction. A match from the county, he said, would be a drop in the bucket, but it would be a token gesture to show the DOT the county’s priorities and thus help make the multimodal elements a part of the final design.
Moffitt voiced disapproval. “Most of my time in elective office has been spent on tax policy. It’s a lot funner. Spending other peoples’ money is not as fun – unless it’s my dad’s money,” he began. Just 26 hours ago, before S888 passed, the county did not have a $5 million surplus. The county got the money, and they burned through it rather than returning it to the taxpayers. “We have to be mindful that we take that money by law from hard-working citizens, and when we have an opportunity to return that to them, whether it’s $10 or $20, it’s important that we do so.”
Commissioner Mike Fryar also expressed disappointment. He said the commissioners were about to blow an opportunity to give a penny back to the citizens. He thought the citizens should decide how to use their money rather than investing in multimodal and greenways projects, initiatives he slyly said Newman had himself helped lobby the state to fund.
Throughout the discussion, Greene’s accountants had been scurrying to keep up with recommendations. When things seemed about to finalize, she asked for another $75,000 in contingency from fund balance to cover associated costs. It should go without saying, the measure passed on the usual 4-3.