It was a historic year for Buncombe County government, as the first Board of Commissioners to be elected by districts took the reins.
After a protracted legal battle over the election results, Commissioner Ellen Frost was sworn in Jan. 15, giving Democrats a slim 4-3 majority on the board. With property values down, commissioners soon faced a major budget crunch and a tough choice — slashing popular services or raising taxes.
After months of wrangling and debate, they opted for a 15 percent property tax rate increase. Commissioner Mike Fryar cast the lone dissenting vote.
The budget also created a powerful new Culture and Recreation Authority, made possible by a change in state law, that is charged with managing the county’s libraries, parks and recreational facilities.
It allocated about $20 million for a new building for Isaac Dickson Elementary, which is currently under construction. The commissioners opted to delay funding for a new Asheville Middle School, instead setting a tentative 2018 date for that project. Later they unanimously approved spending $1.9 million to buy land for a new intermediate school in Enka and $5.5 million for a new STEM high school in Emma.
Another change in state law enabled the county to take control of A-B Tech’s capital-development plan, which had previously been managed by the community college’s board of trustees. Funded by a quarter-cent sales-tax increase approved in a 2011 referendum, the plan had included a $50 million health and workforce training building, but the commissioners downscaled that proposal in favor of creating more classroom space and parking. Amid considerable controversy, school President Hank Dunn stepped down after nearly four years on the job, and Fryar, one of his biggest critics, was appointed to the board of trustees.
And in a contentious budget battle, Democrats also beat back a GOP proposal to permanently restrict nonprofit funding.
On economic policy, the county continued to use incentives to lure businesses to expand. In their biggest and most complex deal of the year, commissioners agreed to spend $15.7 million on land acquisition and facility construction for GE Aviation — plus $2.68 million in cash grants.
In terms of contentious social issues, the commissioners voted along party lines to extend employee benefits to both same- and opposite-sex domestic partners and to safeguard workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Meanwhile, Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger made headlines for being the first in the South to accept applications for marriage licenses for same-sex couples, pending approval by the N.C. attorney general (whose office later responded that issuing the licenses would violate state law). Reisinger also drew attention by apparently making Buncombe the first county in the country to digitize its original slave records.
In the environmental arena, the commissioners helped fund several conservation easements to protect land from development. On a split vote with Fryar and Joe Belcher opposed, they also approved a goal of reducing the county’s carbon emissions by 2 percent per year.