Amid rising demand for services, the Buncombe County commissioners have floated the idea of moving the Health and Human Services Department out of downtown Asheville to save money.
County Manager Wanda Greene formally presented the proposed budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year during the Board of Commissioners’ June 3 meeting. Among other things, it proposes spending $44.3 million to build a 49,000 square foot addition to the current facility at 40 Coxe Ave. and an adjacent 650-space parking garage.
“I know that’s a high number,” Greene told the commissioners. “But we do need the space and the parking.” She also called the current location “challenging” because there’s little room to expand. Over the last few years, neighboring property owners have declined to sell adjoining land or real estate to the county, noted Greene.
“Is it possible to move it out so it’s not as costly?” asked Vice Chair Ellen Frost. A discussion of the various options ensued, with commissioners urging staff to try to find a suitable alternate site before the June 30 budget deadline.
Any new location would need to include 15 to 20 acres and be easily accessible by public transit, said Greene. Current or former grocery store properties would be ideal, she added, saying she would “ask around. … We will spend the next few weeks looking at property.”
Planning Director Jon Creighton said he’d help with the search, though he also emphasized the major advantage the existing facility has in being located right across the street from the Asheville Transit Center. “I think that’s critical,” said Creighton.
Commissioner Joe Belcher argued that selling the current property, located in the fast-growing South Slope neighborhood, “could be a substantial shot in the arm for the city … and provide a really good return for the citizens.” And Commissioner Mike Fryar encouraged staff to look at possibilities along Highway 70 toward Black Mountain, which would be in District 3, the area he represents.
But Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt cautioned that any new building would be costly, and he prefers to keep the facility downtown. “We’re here to serve people,” he said, adding, “It does cost money to serve people.”
The county spent millions renovating the current building just a few years ago. In 2012, commissioners celebrated the newly renovated facility, portraying it as a state-of-the art center offering integrated services.
The other pieces of the county’s budget puzzle generated little discussion during the meeting; the commissioners must finalize the spending plan before July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. The current version calls for keeping the countywide property-tax rate at 60.4 cents per $100 of assessed value.
That includes a 3.5 cent levy dedicated to funding programs managed by the Culture and Recreation Authority, created last year to oversee the county’s libraries, parks and other recreational facilities. The agency is slated to spend $6.5 million on a new indoor pool at the Zeugner Center, next to Roberson High School in Arden, and distribute $1.17 million to local nonprofits and other government agencies.
In addition, the county’s proposed spending plan allocates about $67.9 million to local schools — about $2.38 million more than last year.
Nonetheless, the $280.3 million general fund budget cuts overall spending by $1.4 million (0.5 percent) compared with last year’s total. The savings come mainly from reduced spending on capital projects — last year, the county was building two elementary schools and renovating the courthouse, noted Greene. Due in large part to a drop in property values, last year’s budget was funded by a 15 percent increase in the property-tax rate.
This year, Greene proposes balancing the budget by dipping into the county’s reserve fund for $6.5 million. However, it’s unlikely that the county will actually end up spending that amount: The plan also calls on county departments to find ways to save that money during the course of the year.
In the next few weeks, said Greene, she’s going to work on drafting an incentive plan to encourage some of the county’s longest serving and highest paid employees to take early retirement. Such a measure, she noted, could save the county about $1 million a year.
Buncombe Commissioners will hold a public hearing on budget issues June 17. The meeting begins at 4:30 p.m., in the commissioner’s chambers, located at 200 College Street, suite 326.