By Leslee Kulba- Everybody knows how to work with a budget, except government. The last Buncombe County Commissioners’ meeting was a classic illustration of the supply side and demand side conversing as if in a false dilemma. Had the commissioners been drawing an Economics 101 price diagram, supply and demand would be on parallel trajectories; never the twain should meet.
Mike Fryar pulled an item for a $7 million AB-Tech capital project from the consent agenda for further consideration. The county has been investing in capital improvements on the community college campus since a dedicated quarter-cent tax was approved narrowly in a referendum pushed by AB-Tech’s former president, Dr. Hank Dunn. Construction efforts will now turn to overhauling the Rhododendron building. Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton introduced the subject, offering no hint that he understood why Fryar cared to challenge it.
Creighton said all activities now taking place in the Rhododendron building will move to the Allied Health Building. He then encouraged the commissioners to see that building, as it has “turned out extremely nice.” Creighton continued, saying the Rhododendron building had been built in the mid-’70s and added to in the mid-’80s. It was dated. With single-pane windows and a tar and gravel roof, it was not energy-efficient. It was laid out poorly. With 45,000 sq. ft., it only housed seven classrooms. The halls were “in the wrong location,” and the basement had 5600 sq. ft. that was never finished. He said nothing was worth salvaging, and the whole building had to be gutted. The basic structure was sound, though, and Creighton wanted to get another forty years out of the building.
The plan is to have the Engineering programs move out of the Elm Building, and the Cosmetology program move out of the Birch Building to free up space for the new Craft Beverage Institute, which must move out of the Haynes Building on the Enka campus. In June, the college announced cost-cutting plans to close down the Enka campus by September 30.
The budget for renovating the Rhododendron building would be $7 million. Including soft costs, that amounted to $159/sq. ft. Soft costs included hiring an architect, engineers, people to remove asbestos, and concrete testers. Creighton said he need the commissioners to approve a number before he could hire anybody to give him a better one.
Following his remarks, Mike Fryar said his piece. He had before him the numbers the commissioners had approved in 2013 for AB-Tech’s capital improvements to be funded with the quarter-cent sales tax. It listed Rhododendron Building improvements at $3 million. Having doubled the approved numbers and then some, he asked if the commissioners might be able to set aside the vote until somebody could come up with “some kind of true numbers.”
Fryar continued, saying the whole capital improvement plan was originally supposed to cost only $84 million. Now, it would be $105 million. The county had shaved $13 million off the Allied Health Building, but then it added those costs back by building a parking deck and another building. Fryar assumed costs would escalate proportionately for the Elm Building, too. Then, Fryar, who serves on AB-Tech’s board, started hearing things for the first time. He had thought the college was selling the Enka campus in order to pay for the new aviation programs at AB-Tech South, but Greene said, “We’re selling Enka to do Elm.”
Fryar said somebody was picking numbers out of the sky, prompting Creighton to interject his belief that the $3 million figure was the number picked out of the sky. “I can’t find anybody that put the original numbers together,” said Creighton. “Nobody will lay claim and say, ‘I did those.’” Greene added that construction costs were rising and said the numbers had been put together three years before the commission approved them.
Fryar countered he’d never seen the price of anything double in less than three years. More importantly, $3 million is what had been approved in the Capital Projects Ordinance dated February 5, 2013. Fryar said the ordinance, “didn’t say the AB-Tech quarter-cent tax would be a forever deal.” People at the time had the understanding that it would “sunset in x amount of years.” Belaboring the obvious, he added, “The way we’re going right now, it’s never gonna sunset.”
“Can I make a motion to approve the resolution?” interrupted Commissioner Ellen Frost. The motion was made and seconded, so the floor opened for discussion.
“Here’s the discussion,” said Fryar facetiously, “It’s that just whatever you want to spend is OK.” He then asked his peers if they were OK going against the promise they had made to the people. He said he would vote for the measure, “but the fact is, we just busted the budget, and nobody seems to care about that.” Fryar asked how much the estimates had gone up on the new Human Services building on Coxe Avenue. Green replied estimates had started at $35 million and exceeded $40 million by the time they were approved.
Chair David Gantt, after explaining the reason for estimates and the inevitability of inflation, shared, “The question is, do we want to have facilities for the people at AB-Tech that are good to train people to get the jobs to have the quality of life that we want for people in Buncombe County? And the way I look at it is, we do the best we can.”
Holly Jones ascertained the projects were on-schedule for a timely sunset of the sales tax. But Greene said there was nothing requiring a sunset. That decision would be handled by a future board. “I’ll be gone for sure,” said Jones, perhaps alluding to her bid for lieutenant governor in 2016.
Fryar closed with a request. “If anything’s in the $7-8 million range, please, let’s don’t put it on the consent agenda.” He noted the county had just given away some land for Eblen Charities and the State Employees’ Credit Union (SECU) Foundation, so they could build teacher housing – and that required a public discussion. Approval of the Rhododendron Building’s new budget passed unanimously.