The rancor over last year's vote to approve a quarter-cent sales-tax increase is continuing to play out, developing into a major issue in the Republican primary race for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
Buncombe County voters narrowly approved a referendum on the matter Nov. 8, 2011, paving the way for the Board of Commissioners to levy the tax to fund capital improvements at A-B Tech.
Collection for the additional tax started April 1. And after a nearly five-month delay, the group responsible for the campaign in support of it — the Join Our Buncombe Solutions (J.O.B.S.) committee — recently made good on a promise to reimburse the Buncombe County Board of Elections for $89,800 in expenses incurred to open and staff the polls during what would have otherwise not been a countywide election year.
The money was donated to J.O.B.S. by the A-B Tech Foundation and other donors, according to Mona Cornwell, A-B Tech's director of community relations and marketing. Officials declined to disclose the the breakdown of contributions, noting that they'll be available when the committee files its next report with the Board of Elections, due April 30.
Meanwhile, several Republican commissioner candidates running in the May 8 primary have said they'll try to repeal the tax if they win seats on the board.
Mike Fryar, running in District 2, has been the most outspoken candidate against the tax, regularly coming to board meetings to lambast commissioners and A-B Tech officials for what he sees as long list of related problems, from a lack of transparency in how the pro-tax campaign was funded and conducted to how it will impact people's pocketbooks.
Taxes and tack
On April 3, the conservative Buncombe Forward group, which was founded by former Buncombe GOP chair Robert Malt (who also lead the campaign against the tax) endorsed a slate of candidates: Christina Kelley G. Merrill (District 2), Linda Southard (District 3) and Glenda Weinert (Chair).
All three, the group claimed in a statement, had "pledged to not raise taxes or fees, not incur any more debt, and repeal the recent regressive sales-tax increase that is costing Buncombe County jobs."
However, in a sign that passions against the sales-tax issue remain intense among factions of the local conservative base, Buncombe Forward released an April 18 statement declaring that the group "has withdrawn its endorsement of Glenda Weinert, candidate for Chair of the Board of Buncombe County Commissioners."
It continues: "Ms. Weinert's recent public statements against the repeal of the 1/4 percent sales-tax increase is in direct contradiction to the clear and public position for the repeal that she took during our interview process. … Buncombe Forward's position is unequivocally in favor of repeal."
In response, Weinert brushed off the charge: "The first time I read that I said to my husband, Clint, 'Well, bless their hearts. I guess they don't understand that there's a process involved in shaping public policy,'" she wrote in a statement to Xpress. "Then he said to me, 'Doesn't that group only have four people in it anyway?'"
She adds that she doesn't mind the group's withdrawal of its endorsement: "I saw it as a gift because I didn't ask for it in the first place. I'm running to represent all the people of Buncombe County, not just the four people in some little political group."
And she seeks to clarify her position on the tax: "I've said it before publicly and I'll say it again: I personally have some fundamental problems with the process by which the sales tax was enacted. But while the very close vote certainly did not indicate any kind of mandate, it was legal and did pass. I'd be very hesitant as a board to unilaterally overturn the stated will of the people. The current board has been guilty of that, and I don't think it's right."
Weinert is competing with private investigator and former N.C. Highway patrolman JB Howard in the primary. However, her tack on the sales-tax issue could be a sign that she's already looking ahead to the general election, when she'll likely have to appeal to more moderate voters to have a chance of winning the position in Buncombe County, which leans Democratic.
The Republican primary winner is likely to face incumbent Democratic Board Chair David Gantt, who is fending of a primary challenge from retired respiratory specialist Milton Byrd, whose campaign lacks funding and organization. And Gantt has consistently stood strongly behind the tax, casting it as a necessary measure to support the community college, job creation and economic development.
The incumbents in the commission race — all Democrats — have also strongly supported the measure, as well as several of the other candidates running in their party's primary, making it unlikely opponents will gain the four seats needed to approve a repeal. And if they did, murky legal issues could complicate the effort, as many of the capital projects that rely on the promised county funding would be well under way.
Photo by Bill Rhodes