Buncombe commissioners hear appeals for school funding, delay contentious decisions

Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin made the case to commissioners for increased funding. Photo by Jake Frankel.
Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin made the case to commissioners for increased funding. Photo by Jake Frankel.

Buncombe commissioners put their annual budget on hold June 17, citing uncertainty over what North Carolina legislators will do with school funding and other issues. Commissioners also delayed contentious decisions on whether to relocate the Health and Human Services Department and build a new aquatics center.

County Manager Wanda Greene’s initial spending plan, presented earlier this month, proposed allocating $67.9 million to local schools — about $2.38 million more than last year.

But local schools superintendents told commissioners that’s not likely enough to offset problems caused by state budget changes. However, with major differences between the proposals from Gov. Pat McCrory, the N.C. House and the Senate, it’s hard to determine exactly what the final disparity will be, said county Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin. “It’s like nailing Jell-O to the wall,” he said. “This is one of the most difficult years I’ve seen since I came into this profession.”

All of the state plans call for giving teachers raises in various ways and at different levels, which Baldwin praised, but he worried that without local help, those raises could come at the expense of losing positions. “We all want to see those raises come … but with those raises, something’s got to give,” he said.

Since 2010, the Buncombe school system has cut 167 positions – 55 of them were teachers and 24 were teaching assistants, he said.  About 65 percent of the county school budget comes from state funds, 26 percent from local funds and 9 percent from federal sources, Baldwin said.

The new budgetary year begins July 1, but Greene said that with state funding decisions still far from clear, the county will need to pass a temporary measure extending the current budget past that date. That will give the county “some time to take a responsible look” at the final state budget before making local decisions, she said. Commissioners unanimously passed the temporary measure Thursday, June 19, which will keep all tax and spending rates the same as they have been for the last year. Board Chair David Gantt noted that the county took similar action last year and said it’s necessary “when there’s a great deal of uncertainty.”

During those deliberations, Commissioners were also waiting to see what happens in Raleigh concerning the Cultural and Recreation Authority, a new local government entity the General Assembly authorized last year to manage the county’s libraries, parks and recreation facilities. Greene told commissioners she expected the legislature to disband that organization soon. And sure enough, later that day, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to dissolve it.

On another front, Greene said the county is continuing to look for new, less costly sites to house the county’s Health and Human Services Department, which is currently at 40 Coxe Ave. in downtown Asheville. Earlier this month, commissioners balked at her recommendation to spend $44.3 million to build a 49,000-square-foot addition and an adjacent 650-space parking garage at the current location. Although it’s only been a few years since the county pumped millions into renovating the downtown Asheville building, commissioners instructed staff to look for relocation options. Greene reported back June 17 that those efforts are in full swing, but she needs until August before offering specific alternatives. “There’s so many different options at this time, we haven’t been able to say what’s best,” she said.

Greene also requested delaying any decision on spending $6.5 million on a new indoor pool at the Zeugner Center, next to Roberson High School in Arden, until August. The construction was included in Greene’s original budget draft and recommended by the Cultural and Recreation Authority, but on June 17 she told commissioners the county needs more time to explore different options.

Despite all of the uncertainty, Greene said she doesn’t anticipate the county will need to change the property tax rate “unless something really drastic happens.” That rate is currently at 60.4 cents per $100 of assessed value. That includes a 3.5-cent levy dedicated to funding programs previously managed by the Culture and Recreation Authority. As a result of the legislature’s action, the Authority’s programs and funding will be absorbed into the county’s budget, with no impact on the total tax rate paid by residents, Greene said.

During the June 17 public hearing, several members of the local WNC for Public Education organization joined with school officials in urging funding. And representatives from Pisgah Legal Services also pitched commissioners on giving the nonprofit $120,000 to help provide legal aid to low-income residents in need.

However, Republican commissioner candidate Christina Merrill pushed the board for fiscal conservatism. “When we’re coming up with a budget, we need to cut out some of the special-interest projects,” she said. “We need to get out of this spend more, tax more mentality.” Her District 2 race against Democratic incumbent Ellen Frost this fall will determine which party controls a majority of the board’s seats.

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.

At the budget hearing, commissioners stayed mostly mum. “I anticipate that the real budget discussion that we’re going to have will come at a much later date, after we have a better sense of what the General Assembly will do” said Gantt. “We take this very seriously. We understand this is a very tense year. … We are going to do the best we can.”

Commissioners are tentatively scheduled to meet next on July 8.

 

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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