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Luring Business with Public Pre-K

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At their last meeting, things were reframed very differently. Leadership spoke as if any fool had plainly seen all along these changes were made due to the – albeit still undisclosed – misdeeds of the former county manager now under federal investigation.

In the couple weeks in between, local media outlets have been hyping the compensation of key staff members, as if paying oneself and others “too much” by way of salary information available to auditors and the public were a federal crime. New County Manager Mandy Stone wanted to clarify that early retirement packages had saved the county $1.6 million, but after 170 talented experts in senior leadership positions opted in, the county began offering a retention incentive. It, too, was a lump sum, but it was paid immediately instead of at retirement. That incentive saved the county another $96,000, she said.

Then, there was supplemental pay. Stone herself was one recipient, as were others wearing many hats. Stone, for example, was fulltime director of Health and Human Services as well as assistant county manager. Stone shared that with no fulltime assistant managers, Buncombe had been operating the least-expensive urban county manager organization in the state. The other nine urban counties retain between one and nine assistant county managers at $117,000-$800,000 a year.

Regardless, once appointed manager, Stone led the charge of reducing county overhead by negotiating herself a pay cut. Whereas her predecessor had been collecting $247,000 before perks, Stone accepted $215,567. She also eliminated the supplement for assistant county managers. Overall, she cropped the annual county management budget by $51,980, or 29 percent. Stone wisely counseled that regardless of who had done what, now everybody shared the responsibility for rebuilding public trust and getting the county back on track.

After reviewing the changes made to date to policy and the organizational structure, the commissioners approved revisions to the county’s policy governing economic development incentives. While free markets, where consumers proverbially vote with their money, have always been the most democratic form of deciding which products are available and worthy of further research and development; cronies prefer a more representative structure where beneficiaries of forced tax collections prop up flawed business models.

To their credit, Buncombe County leaders have realized the magical economic multipliers promised with incentives have not proven to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. To their discredit, they assume this can be remedied through variations on the theme of corporate welfare. The commissioners, therefore, agreed to offer more incentives for smaller businesses. Commissioner Ellen Frost wanted to clarify for members of the public this was purely a redistribution scheme, and the county would not be assuming, for example, a dictatorial role on corporate boards.

Across the country, local governments have been finding sometimes the incentives offered to lure multimillion-dollar, multinational corporations into their communities end up drawing multitudes to fill jobs that pay so meagerly, social service programs are drained under the heavy load. The county is therefore requiring that all jobs pay at least the average wage in Buncombe County, or $20.93 (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average weekly wage in Buncombe County was $837, which divided by $20.93 comes out to 40 hours. County Employment and Wages in North Carolina – Fourth Quarter 2016 : Southeast Information Office : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), and cover at least half the cost of employee health insurance. Greater incentives will be available for things like locating major headquarters in the county or covering at least half the cost of employee childcare.

The total in the incentives pot going into the meeting was $4,963,585. The commissioners voted to keep the county’s commitments to seven projects already in the pipeline, with an estimated total payout of $3,038,853. $200,000 of the balance would be diverted to small business incentives, and $250,000 would fund preschool initiatives. The latter is justified, as county leadership deems public preschool attendance crucial to most future successes, and thus instrumental in diverting potential prison detainees into entrepreneurship. The remainder would be ploughed back into the county’s fund balance.

Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton explained the $250,000 could be used to equip new classrooms, support apprenticeships, or fund recruitment incentives for preschool teachers, like loan forgiveness. Lisa Cook, representing the Buncombe County Women’s Commission, applauded the commissioners for hearing and acting upon that group’s plea. “Publicly-funded Pre-K education would be a huge step toward improving the economic and family lives of Buncombe County women and families. … We continue to believe that childcare access is the key issue relating to social and economic progress of women here,” she said.

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