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Commissioners struggle with interpretations, award funding anyway

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State law considered economic development projects to be those that “increase the population, taxable property, agricultural industries, employment, industrial output, or business prospects of the county.” The organizations from which the county would hear were simply asking supplemental funding, but as an apparent aside, Greene said the county is statutorily limited in what it can offer to: (1) acquiring and developing land for an industrial park; (2) acquiring, assembling, and holding for resale property suitable for industrial or commercial use; (3) acquiring options for the acquisition of property; (4) acquiring, constructing, conveying, or leasing a building suitable for industrial or commercial use; (5) constructing, extending, or owning utility facilities or providing or assisting in the extension of utility services; (6) extending or providing for or assisting in the extension of water and sewer lines to industrial properties or facilities; (7) engaging in site preparation; (8) making grants or loans for rehabilitation of commercial or noncommercial historic structures; and (9) creating an economic development commission for the county. The county further had its own criterion that any recipient must pay employees at least median wage.

The first applicant made her case, but Commissioner Holly Jones was concerned the aforementioned requirements might disqualify some of the projects soliciting funding. To protect the county against claims that funded organizations did nothing for economic development, she asked the definition be expanded to include community benefits. In other words, she understood the legislation to mean the county could not just hand cash to an organization claiming to have economic impact.

Brownie Newman and Ellen Frost suggested proceeding as planned. On the community benefits angle, Frost argued, “Every single one of these makes life in Buncombe County better.” After a few more comments and friendly amendment offerings, Greene cautioned the Christmas tree of a motion was so over-decorated with the multiplication of words, the commissioners were setting themselves up for legal challenge. She suggested instead of the growing motion the board more simply entertain a motion to fund the item in question, but not as an economic development initiative. After some more back and forth, Joe Belcher called, “Point of order, because I was quite a bit confused.”

With continued discussion, consultation with County Attorney Bob Deutsch, and three motions floating around, Chair David Gantt said he was going to make a ruling that the board would hold the public hearings and then vote on whether or not a proposal met the statutory criteria for economic development. If it did, the commissioners would then vote on the level of funding. If not, it would be moved to general budget considerations to be discussed later in the meeting. At one point, Jones suggested Commissioner Tim Moffitt may have voted on the legislation while serving in Raleigh. To wit, he replied, “Oh, no. It would be a lot clearer if I were there.”

During public hearings, Don Yelton told the commissioners if they wanted economic development, they shouldn’t be enablers for organizations that can’t support themselves. Fremont Brown repeated the message. He said he was disgusted. The businesses, he said, “need to make their own go. If they can’t sustain themselves, then they need to go out of business. Period.” He told the commissioners if they wanted to see economic development, they needed to take the placeholder amount and reduce the business tax.

As public hearings proceeded, Newman wanted to assure that voting a project unqualified as economic development in no way meant the project was not boosting the economy. It was merely deciding if their endeavors met the definition of certain legislation. In particular, he apologized to the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission saying the decision seemed harsh. “You’re awesome!” he repeated.

Most controversial was consideration of funding for the Asheville Art Museum. As was to be expected, former Mayor Ken Michalove alleged mismanagement and astronomically stretched projections, referring to five pages of complaints he had supplied to the commissioners. He said of the director, “She wants the Asheville Art Museum to be the Guggenheim of the South! We can’t afford it!” The Art Museum had initially asked $2,175,000; but they backpedaled to $225,000. Aspersions were cast about the board having a guideline capping awards at $100,000. Moffitt thought it should be honored, but Gantt ruled that any guideline, if one existed, was to be suspended, and the museum was awarded $225,000 along party lines.

In the end, the commissioners approved the full asks from the Asheville Downtown Association ($25,000), the Economic Development Coalition ($300,000), the Folk Heritage Committee ($4275), and the YMI Cultural Center ($40,000). Projects receiving less than their ask were the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project ($27,500), the Asheville Area Arts Council ($20,000), the Sports Commission ($30,000), the Asheville Museum of Science ($75,000), Just Economics ($12,500), the Pack Square Cultural Partnership ($350,000), the Support Center ($50,000), and WNC Communities ($35,000)

During the public hearing for Just Economics, an organization that pushes for living wages, Yelton commented on the chair’s recent waiving of the rules and the futility of public comment. He said the commissioners were going to do what they were going to do and change the rules if they had to. As for the “economic justice” the group in question was pursuing, Yelton said the grant the commissioners were about to award was funded by dollars that first had to be taxed out of the wages of those the commissioners were pretending to help. Just Economics was a particular irony, but Yelton said of the groups in general, if they were that good, they should be able to support themselves.

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