The proposed general fund reflected a 2.3 percent increase over the current year’s amended budget, which, to date, has grown about $4.6 million from the adopted amount. Since, as County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene acknowledged, all the money is coming from taxpayers, it is only fair to ask (1) if those footing the bill have had commensurate increases in their income, and, if not, (2) if the year-over-year improvements in government services justify its consumption of greater shares of public-sector earnings.
Most of Greene’s PowerPoint presentation diagrammed the tax structure, emphasizing how little power the commissioners have over the budget. 92 percent of county functions are mandated by the state. Some it can outsource, and others it can’t. Mandated services were listed as, “elections, register of deeds, sheriff, courts, public health, social services, mental health, medical examiner, community colleges, EMS, emergency management, public schools, property assessment, building code enforcement, and jails.” 41 percent of the county’s general budget pays salaries and benefits, and those are usually controlled to some degree by state pay grades.
Staff prepared the budget assuming a tax rate of 55.9 cents per $100 assessed. Following the revaluation, the county will collect $3.6 million for every cent in the rate. For the coming fiscal year, staff projected 62.69 percent of the county’s revenues would be collected from property taxes.
9.01 percent of revenues would come from sales taxes, but Greene said this year was no different from others. Draft legislation loomed in Raleigh, threatening to restructure redistribution in ways unascertainable until final bills were signed.
16.7 percent of county funding comes from federal programs, paying for unfunded liabilities and programs like transportation and food and housing assistance. Greene said federal funding not only comes to the county’s coffers, it comes to peoples’ pockets and “turns over in our community many times.” The broken window fallacy was at it again.
Greene proposed drawing down only $3.84 million from the county’s reserve fund this year. Commissioner Ellen Frost asked why the county didn’t draw down a more typical amount and cut some slack for taxpayers. Chair Brorwnie Newman thought it made more sense to bypass the charade of borrowing every year only to pay it back. Greene explained if the amount were not appropriated, taxpayers would have to fork it over, presumably to satisfy statutory balanced-budget requirements.
7.53 percent of county expenditures service debt. Greene said the county had a good debt ratio, carrying $0.407 billion with an estimated $1.326 billion in capital assets; namely, schools and county buildings. Describing the debt, Greene resurrected a slide former Chair David Gantt used to praise. It compared the county’s debt to a $61,000 mortgage on a $200,000 home.
Commissioner Mike Fryar referred back to that image after Commissioner Joe Belcher broached the subject of the impact the county’s purchase of a $6.8 million parcel off Ferry Road would have on the budget. In 2015, the county called an emergency meeting to approve the acquisition in order to lure Deschutes Brewery to the area. When Deschutes took an offer in Virginia, it left the county holding a tough-to-sell parcel.
Fryar said county management was sticking taxpayers with a 2-cent rate increase to pay for the commissioners’ “stupidity” in approving the sale in a fifteen-minute session. Belcher and Fryar had been outvoted in their opposition. “Go back to the house, Ms. Greene,” said Fryar. “If you buy a $200,000 house when you can only afford a $100,000 house, pretty soon, it’s gonna catch up to you. We just got caught up to, but we have a way to get it. We can go to Dad and say, ‘I need some more money to fix it with.’ That’s not the way you fix things, in my eyes.”
Newman was optimistic the county would find a buyer and come out ahead. It had acquired a parcel worth $6.8 million and, as part of the complex deal, recovered half the selling price from the City of Asheville to be spent on public safety projects. The county had long since used the $3.4 million to construct the firing range and purchase miscellany for the county’s public safety training facility. To Fryar, though, the county had “bought land on an if, was trying to sell land on an if, and expecting the taxpayers to pay property tax on the same if.”