On a contentious 5-2 vote July 8, Buncombe County’s Board of Commissioners held the property tax rate steady in the new fiscal-year budget but juggled numbers to pump more money into the school system. Commissioners also got their first look at an early-retirement plan that could save $1 million but result in the county losing many of its most experienced workers.
Commissioners Mike Fryar and Joe Belcher opposed the budget, questioning such expenses as $2.3 million in grants to local nonprofits and the cost of implementing clean-energy measures that were previously approved.
Fryar also noted that scrambling to move the disbanded Culture and Recreation Authority’s finances back into the overall county budget has “got us all screwed up.” The CRA — terminated by state legislators just one year after its creation — managed the county’s libraries, parks and recreation facilities.
Belcher latched onto the money allotted for Pack Place in the county’s list of grants to local nonprofits. He noted that $275,000 would pay for utilities and maintenance on the building but questioned whether an additional $134,000 was needed. “If we keep saying yes to everything,” said Belcher, “We may not be able to do X, Y or Z when we need to.”
Fryar questioned funding for the Asheville Art Museum and suggested shuffling the budget deck. “I’m all for the schools,” he said, arguing, “In the nonprofits [funding], we can come up with this $500,000 to $600,000 to help these teachers.”
But Commissioners Ellen Frost and Holly Jones backed the $2.3 million in grants to local nonprofits.
Frost said, “Even with the great commitment to the art museum, pretty much everything we have in community funding touches children, [and] these numbers … were carefully thought out. Nothing was frivolous.” She told Fryar, “I wouldn’t be on a fishing expedition in community funding to cut anything.”
Fryar stuck to his argument and also questioned — as he has on previous occasions — the county’s ongoing efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Although Frost and Jones tried to interject comments and questions, Fryar kept plugging along. “We’re wasting money. …. Let’s give this money to the schools like these people are asking for.”
“What would you take out?” Frost asked.
“First, I’d take out the art [museum] deal. We take it out, that’s [money] we can give to this school [system],” he answered.
“What nonprofits would you take out?” she asked.
“Art and carbon footprint,” he replied. Fryar contended that the carbon-reduction measures cost a lot of money up front but don’t produce measurable returns on the county’s investment for years and that the community funding had increased substantially.
Jones said she was “trying to be patient.” She argued that nonprofit funding “went up $116,000. …. It is an increase. But it’s not this ‘half a million.’ It’s not $700,000. It’s not these crazy numbers being thrown around.”
“Let’s be accurate,” Fryar rejoined, citing a variety of numbers and sticking to his estimate that the community nonprofit grants total was more than $700,000 higher than it was two years ago.
More back-and-forth argument ensued, until the chair of the board, David Gantt, gave Jones the floor. She said, “I respect that people on this dais have different approaches to government and investments.” Nonprofit grants, she continued, “are investments in our community and citizens. They’re not giveaways.”
She concluded, “This is a $368 million budget, with no tax increase, and we’re quibbling about some line items.”
Public comment on the budget focused on the concern raised by two county-school swimming coaches, who asked why a $6.7 million plan for a new indoor pool had been dropped from the budget. County Manager Wanda Greene replied that the CRA had asked staff to look at various options, “so we pulled the $6.5 million out.” Greene assured the coaches, “We did keep a little over $400,000 in [the budget] to try and keep the [Zeugner Center] pool running, and we’ll do everything in our power to do that.” She added, “It’s old and it has some problems.”
Many school swimming teams have their meets at Zeugner, the only county-owned indoor pool in Buncombe. General Services Director Greg Israel said that studies indicate that $800,000 would be needed just to bring the pool up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards — and that doesn’t include improvements to the 50-year-old pool itself. Israel said the pool was up and running for this year but that everyone should “hold their breath.”
Greene and the commissioners told the coaches that plans for a new indoor facility were not dead and that they would take a look at available funds in the next budget cycle.
Just before commissioners voted on the budget, Fryar introduced an amendment that would “direct the county manager to sell the properties located at 225 East Chestnut St. and return the proceeds to the county fund balance.” Fryar said, “We do not use the property and have no further use for the [two-parcel] property.” He also asked for county staff to provide an inventory of all real properties in the county’s possession, including details about future plans for those properties.
The commissioners were open to Fryar’s suggestions, but Board of Commissioner Chair David Gantt called for further study, saying he didn’t know anything about the East Chestnut property.
The commissioners directed staff to inventory all properties and separate them into properties that have plans for future uses and those that don’t. The 225 East Chestnut Street property will be included in the review.
During the meeting, Greene introduced a proposal for a retirement incentive plan for county employees. The idea is to recoup at least $1 million in annual savings and permanently cut 12 positions. There are 280 county workers currently eligible for either full or reduced retirement, Greene explained. She said that these employees have been encouraged to consider the retirement incentive, and 178 of them have done so. Sixty of those have indicated that they would take the deal.
The retirement incentive is threefold: extending medical insurance premiums until age 65, which many county employees are already eligible for; reducing the years required to qualify for the Medicare supplement; and paying a year’s salary over the three-year post-retirement period. The deal requires no immediate cash dispersal, Greene explained.
She said the county has lost 200 employees since the beginning of the recession, and she knows it’s difficult to consider further staff reductions. Nonetheless, said Greene, “We see that there are some challenges ahead, but we are going to be able to do what we need to do.”
In other business, commissioners picked Belcher to be the voting delegate at this year’s North Carolina Association of County Commissioners Conference, with Gantt as alternate. The conference will be held in Asheville on Aug. 14-17.