The rancor over the quarter-cent sales-tax increase to fund capital improvements at A-B Tech didn't end when the polls closed on Nov. 8.
After months of contentious debate, county voters approved the measure by a narrow margin of less than 500 votes, according to unofficial results released by the Buncombe County Board of Elections (the department will certify the results on Nov. 11). Amounting to a countywide turnout of less than 20 percent, 16,795 people cast ballots for it and 16,303 voted against it, with the vast majority of support coming from within Asheville city limits.
The city precincts started reporting their results first on election night, showing that voters favored the measure by between 10 and 12 percent. But even as those early numbers started rolling in, the mood was tense among the approximately 100 supporters who gathered on the campus of A-B Tech.
"The strategy was to kill it in the city," said Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt as he mingled, explaining that supporters were hoping for a winning margin of 20 percent in Asheville districts that didn't come to fruition. "I don't know if we're going to make it," he worried as the margin grew smaller and smaller as county precincts started reporting their results.
Earlier this year, commissioners unanimously approved putting the referendum on the ballot and passed a resolution promising to use the sale-tax funds for capital improvements at A-B Tech. Officials from the community college argued that the money — estimated at $6 million to $7 million a year — is desperately needed to serve a rising enrollment, and to fund projects such as a new $55 million Allied Health and Workforce Development Building.
But both supporters and critics agreed that much of the opposition to the measure arose out of fear that the money wouldn't go to the school. And after the results were in, the opposing groups each had harsh words for the way the other conducted their campaign.
An ongoing argument
Former Republican mayor Lou Bissette, who co-chaired the campaign to get the referendum approved, focused his criticism on fellow Republican Robert Malt, former chair of the county GOP and executive director of the the Sales Tax Opposition Partnership (S.T.O.P.), a committee that waged a grassroots campaign to defeat the measure.
"I don't go around with that end of my party," said Bissette as he awaited the final returns, clarifying a few moments later with a laugh that by "that end of my party," he meant "Robert Malt."
"I don't fault him for having very conservative ideas. … I just fault him for his tactics and his treatment of other people," he explained, describing a recent occasion in which A-B Tech President Hank Dunn pitched the tax to the executive board of the party and was met by screaming and accusations by Malt.
"To treat the president of A-B Tech with that kind of disrespect when he comes out to make a presentation — what does that tell you about the people that were doing this?" he said. "These people were lying. It's crazy."
He continued: "I think the opposition threw up a lot of stuff on the wall and some of it stuck. … like 'the commissioners just want this money to use for themselves.' It's irrational. But I think there's a lot of distrust of public officials."
Speaking later that evening to Xpress on the phone, Malt agreed that the vote showed a mistrust of the commissioners, but said it was warranted. By scheduling the vote in a municipal-election year when many county voters wouldn't have anything on the ballot other than the referendum, Malt argued: "The county commissioners knowingly disenfranchised thousands of county voters and they're going to have to deal with the repercussions of that. Because there's a lot of unhappy county voters out there. Particularly tomorrow when they realize there was an election they didn't know about."
He also cited a number of other concerns, calling some of the donations to the pro-sales-tax Join Our Buncombe Solutions (J.O.B.S.) committee "unethical" and faulting the way the issue was portrayed in local media, particularly by reporters at the Asheville Citizen-Times, which he called "propagandists."
"We put up a good fight. It was nearly enough to win, and had the other side not cheated, we would have won," he asserted, noting that J.O.B.S. raised more than $140,000 for its effort, while S.T.O.P. raised slightly more than $2,000.
Now, Malt says the group is looking at launching a petition drive to force a referendum of appeal on next year's ballot, which would require the signatures of 16,000 county residents. He says, "Any fool can see that in a countywide year, we win easily."
And Malt reports that Buncombe Forward, another activist group he started, is going to take aim squarely at defeating the sitting commissioners in their re-election bids next year, hoping that the lack of trust he says the referendum vote showed will translate into victory for more conservative candidates.
"We're going to be looking to recruit, train and help get elected, candidates for Buncombe County commissioner to replace the current office holders. We're nonpartisan, but fiscal responsibility and property rights are two of our four pillars of our organizations, and those obviously put us in direct opposition to the people that run this county," he asserted. "There were many people who wanted to give to A-B Tech, but because it's not guaranteed, flat-out said, 'I voted against it because I don't trust the commissioners.' We heard that over and over and over again."
Meanwhile, Gantt refuted Malt's accusations, asserting that he "would resign before a nickel of that money went anywhere except A-B Tech, and I think the rest of the board feels the same way."
"That was just an argument the opponents used, a last-gas effort to try to derail it," he added. "I don't know where it came from other than just desperate moves by desperate people. . … We're never going to divert money. But I'm glad people saw through it and I think they did the right thing tonight."
Commissioners will act "as fast as possible" to formally levy the tax and issue over $50 million in COP bonds to start funding the improvements at A-B Tech. The bonds will then be paid back with the sales-tax revenue, he said.
Addressing jubilant supporters after the polls closed, Dunn touted the measure as transformative, declaring that although "The word 'tax' became a four letter word instead of an investment," during the campaign, he feels that "When the voters of Buncombe County actually see that we're going to do what we said we were going to do, and see the transformation that will happen at A-B Tech on behalf of the community, they'll be very pleased with their vote."