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Actions Not Taken by Commissioners

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By Leslee Kulba- Buncombe County Commissioner Tim Moffitt proposed changes to the county’s guidelines that qualify local nonprofits for subsidies the county hands out in a competitive process. In recent years, about $2 million in tax dollars has been given to various groups during budget cycle. A couple years ago, Commissioner Joe Belcher’s ideas, for making awardees more accountable and funding projects covering services the county would otherwise have to perform, were well received and accepted by his peers.

Moffitt proposed five changes: (1) Clarify the distinctions between Community Development Grants and department-level contracts, (2) Require recipients to use recognized accounting practices in financial presentations, (3) Award funds only to projects that serve only residents of Buncombe County, (4) Require the boards of all agencies receiving funding to conduct business in accordance with state open meetings laws and make all official documents available for public scrutiny, and (5) Require all grants to be startup assistance with no more than three years of funding being awarded for any project.

Applicants were already required to complete the official application form. Recipient organizations would then have to measure up to performance contracts that would be evaluated throughout the year. They further had to, “open their books for the division of their organization funded with public funds so citizens of Buncombe County can determine to their satisfaction that transferred tax dollars are spent in the public interest with proper fiduciary responsibility.” In addition, they must submit audited financial statements or reports to the county’s finance department. Recipients could be eligible for Community Development Grants in future cycles only if they met performance targets.

Organizations seeking funding for capital projects would only be allowed to apply for funding during the appropriate filing time in the annual budget cycle. Funding could only be awarded from the county as a match for other grants, and the amount would be capped at either 10 percent of the project’s estimated cost or $500,000, whichever is less. Funds would have to pay for projects lasting more than five years.

This year, the county received requests for funding for over sixty projects, with total requests adding up to $34,660,955. Things were seriously pared down with the majority of projects getting partial funding. A public hearing was held during which all applicants had a few minutes to make their case. Things ranged from small organizations wanting a few bucks to help transport seniors to big-dollar requests from the Asheville Art Museum. A remarkable number of organizations wanted to fund navigators.

Moffitt didn’t share why he proposed the changes. One reason may have been to prevent something like the Eagle Market Street fiasco from recurring. He did, after all, ask fiscally-responsible questions the last time representatives from the project came before the commissioners to request approval for a change in plans.

Eagle Market Street is an attempt to create affordable housing on prime real estate downtown. The project, which has been trying to get off the ground for two decades, was touted as urban renewal that would preserve Asheville’s African-American heritage. The new building would house 62 residences plus commercial and community space. By 2014, the project had received $2 million in federal funds, $7 million from the state, $2.3 million in two loans from the commissioners, and $5.9 million from the City of Asheville. It has since returned to city and county leaders requesting changes to terms in order to remain qualified for loans. The latest request was to halve the number of units that would be offered as affordable housing.

The amendment proposed to require county tax dollars to apply to county residents had a ring of fairness, but it did not sit well with Moffitt’s peers. Commissioner Ellen Frost challenged the idea, asking if Moffitt wanted a battered woman seeking sanctuary at the Family Justice Center to be turned away because she was not a resident of the county. Such callousness would not be humane.

Moffitt countered that the majority of nonprofits seeking funding from the county would not be dramatically impacted by the residency requirement. Besides, organizations providing emergency services had a number of other options for funding besides the county.

As things typically go at commissioners’ meetings, since Moffitt was a Republican making a proposal, his peers and staff waited until the public presentation to humiliate him for proposing changes that were already on the books. When Democrats suggest less than professional changes to ordinances, like the recent fiasco requiring horse owners to build horse shelters against horse owners’ expertise; the idea gets treated as a great learning experience that shows how absolutely receptive the commissioners are to public feedback.

Seeing he did not have the support of the board, Moffitt withdrew his amendments, suggesting they could be retained for consideration down the road. Moffitt’s term of service will end at the end of the year, and he did not seek re-election.

In Other Matters –

Carried over from the last meeting was the selection of artists to prepare a mural for the new Criminal Justice Center and a kinetic sculpture for the plaza in front. A board was to be appointed to oversee the process for selecting how $75,000 in public money would be spent, and a total of six artists responded to the requests for proposals. At that meeting, the commissioners only said publicly they needed more time to review the proposals. They voted unanimously to defer action until a future meeting.

In the meantime, it was discovered that concerns had been raised because all six members of the art selection board were Caucasian. The lack of diversity on the board was claimed, once again, to demonstrate how minorities are drawn out of access to community decision-making processes. So, the commissioners again voted unanimously to defer a decision until African-Americans could be involved in the process. They further elected to reject all six submissions. Chair David Gantt said the rejected artists could resubmit their work, but also said having had the conversations would lead to a better product.

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