AshevilleCity - County Gov.Leslee KulbaNews Stories

A Sunsetting Tax, Equal Opportunity, & Other Lines


In Buncombe County, the proposed quarter-cent tax was billed as a means of generating revenue for badly-needed capital improvements at AB Tech. And, as assurance to taxpayers, one of those nonbinding resolutions was passed, the message being, this too shall pass. Administrative message-crafters believed they were leading taxpayers to believe that once construction was complete, the sales tax could sunset. But taxpayers knew they’d have a greater chance of catching a three-horned unicorn.

Sure, questions were raised about the many ways the college and local government used tax dollars to promote the bond. Then, once the bond passed, brewing public dismay over profligate plans spurred county leadership to seize control of construction, and the scandal played into the resignation of the college’s president.

Since the project started, the county has been able to spend about $12 million a year on constructing the Allied Health building, a multiuse building, the parking deck, HVAC on the Enka campus, and a public safety training building; purchasing the MAHEC Women’s Health Center; repaving Victoria Road; and performing other major maintenance. The commissioners were now asked to, “expand the use [to include] major maintenance and operational needs as deemed appropriate by a majority of the Board of Commissioners.” Commissioner Mike Fryar supported the idea because it’s just plain bad management to construct buildings without a revenue stream for maintenance.

Citizens Jerry Rice and Don Yelton reminded the commissioners about the nonbinding resolution, insinuating leadership had been guilty of false advertising, as if anybody expected more from government. Yelton suggested, in lieu of perpetuating the tax, having the college start a program in maintenance technology. Students could repair and clean the school as they gained credentials needed for jobs in all the new apartments and hotels in the commissioners’ visions. The fact these are jobs nobody wants should drive up wages; especially for highly-skilled workers.

Fryar asked that the measure be passed with a proviso that the county’s retired General Services Director Greg Israel be charged with full control of the use of the operations and maintenance funds. While nobody could disagree the school would reap many benefits thereby, the commissioners decided to vote on that separately via the next consent agenda.

Nobody appeared to consider advertising for the position Israel would assume; but at their last meeting, the commissioners had paused the signing of an agreement with Duke Energy in order to open the process to competitive bids. Duke was going to partner with the county to remediate the closed Riverside Drive landfill and create a solar farm. Commissioners Ellen Frost and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara led the charge to instead send out an RFP.

Now, it is not unusual for an HR department subject to advertising requirements to post a job description uniquely tailored to the person the organization wants to hire. Analogously, this RFP says the qualified applicant will have experience, “developing utility-scale solar photovoltaic energy systems,” “developing landfill or brownfield sites,” “working with local governments,” and “working with utility companies.”

As further evidence that at least some commissioners are not as anxious to partner as Duke, a presentation by the Energy Innovation Task Force was coolly received. The partnership of the county, the City of Asheville, Duke, and the Rocky Mountain Institute was forged to forestall construction of a third natural-gas generator with the overhaul of the Lake Julian plant. Priorities listed included $35,000 for low-income home weatherization, $50,000 for the RMI, $25,000 for education and outreach, $50,000 for energy audits of private-sector buildings, and $400,000 for community projects TBD.

Many commissioners wanted more specifics before committing to anything. “We’re up here supposedly to lead; we’re not up here to supposedly follow,” said Fryar. He said he had to represent all people, including the 2500 elderly who have to go to the tax office to make special arrangements to pay their assessments. At that, Chair Brownie Newman repeated the county already pays $2 million a year to help low-income families pay winter heating bills, and green energy solutions installed in county schools, minus a three-year payback period, are saving taxpayers $1 million a year.

The Sierra Club had posted notices asking its members to show up to support the EITF’s recommendations. Many did, and many said what was being asked was not enough. To that, Fryar said if the Western North Carolina Chapter could ask its over 6,000 members and supporters to make a nominal contribution, they could raise the needed funds.

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