Presenting her budget-balancing proposal to the board of commissioners May 28, Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene recommended a big tax increase.
Her plan for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which begins July 1, calls for raising the property-tax rate by roughly 15 percent. Greene blames the sputtering economy, a drop in property values, increased funding requests and unfunded federal mandates for the change.
"These difficult and uncertain economic times have required discipline and sacrifice in all aspects of government and life in general," she writes in the seven-page report submitted to commissioners. "I am cautiously optimistic that we have hit bottom in this recession and are seeing some upward mobility."
Buncombe County property values were evaluated this year for the first time since 2006, dropping from $30.4 billion to $27.6 billion. To make up for the decrease and keep the county coffers at the same level as last year, Buncombe would need to raise the existing 52.5 cents per $100 tax rate by about 5 cents, Greene explains.
Her budget goes a step further, starting with a base rate of 56.9 cents and adding 3.5 cents, specifically to fund programs managed by a new Culture and Recreation Authority. Rep. Nathan Ramsey, former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, has proposed a bill that would allow the creation of such an authority; the measure passed the North Carolina House with strong support and is being considered by the Senate.
But even if the Senate doesn’t approve the bill, Greene maintains that the extra few cents is needed to balance the books, effectively making the new rate for county property owners 15 percent higher regardless of what the state does. If commissioners agree, the new rate will be 60.4 cents per $100 of value.
The value of high-end properties in areas like Biltmore Forest and The Cliffs at Walnut Creek fell drastically in this year's appraisal, which means that even if the rate goes up, those property owners may pay less under Greene’s plan. On the other hand, many Asheville residents, whose values went up, overall, by about 2 percent, could face higher tax bills, especially if the city deals with its own budget crunch by raising its rate (see the Council report, “What If,” elsewhere in this issue).
The proposed increase still isn't enough to balance the budget: Greene's plan also calls for dipping into the county's rainy-day fund to the tune of $7.75 million. That's slightly less than last year's budget called for, though none was used: County department heads found ways to cut costs. Greene said she would ask departments to do the same this year.
Nonetheless, she’s closely monitoring 50 to 60 bills in the North Carolina General Assembly that could force last-minute changes to the budget before commissioners vote on it June 24.
As Greene reviewed the budget proposal, commissioners kept their thoughts to themselves. Board Chair David Gantt had asked them to wait until their next meeting, scheduled for June 4, to express views on the plan. That session will also include a public hearing.
But during the May 28 public-comment period, a pair of regular, often-outspoken meeting attendees didn't hold their tongues.
Stepping up to the podium, Candler resident Jerry Rice donned a mask with a long nose. He accused the commissioners of being "two-faced Pinocchios" who said one thing during the campaign but are doing something different in office. He singled out the three GOP freshmen, asserting: "I am ashamed of my Republican friends, as commissioners, not to be standing up against this thing."
Jupiter resident Don Yelton, a former GOP candidate for commissioner, continued the verbal onslaught. "When people get elected to office, two things happen: They get castrated and they get a frontal lobotomy," he declared.
Up to the task?
In other business, the commissioners heard from members of the Safe Schools Task Force, which was formed in the wake of December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 20 students and six adults dead.
Charged with evaluating the safety of Buncombe County schools, the group made a number of recommendations to commissioners, such as:
• Renovating entry systems at several schools to better track who comes and goes.
• Installing additional cameras at schools and on buses.
• Hiring seven additional school-resource officers — one for each of the six elementary school districts — and hiring an extra, unarmed security guard for each high school campus.
• Providing preventative mental-health services by implementing an anti-bullying curriculum and hiring more counselors and social workers to work with students.
Commissioners didn't vote on these and other recommendations, although Greene's budget includes $1.26 million to hire eight new social workers and seven school-resource officers. A survey of parents conducted by the task force showed respondents strongly supporting these particular measures.
However, Commissioner Mike Fryar questioned taking an approach that struck him as overreacting to tragedies. "We just had a tornado that killed 10 kids [in Oklahoma], so are we going to build all the schools tornado-proof?" he asked. Fryar added, "We cannot stop everything from happening in this world by putting an officer in place."
David Thompson, who served on the task force and is the director of student services for Buncombe County Schools, responded that the recommendations won't address all problems but "will help us be a safer school system."
Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan added that he thinks the recommendations are a step in the right direction, although he noted that the task force took budget limits into account. Ideally, he said, each school would have an armed officer on site, but the cost would be prohibitive.
Meanwhile, Gantt voiced strong support, declaring, "We clearly have a moral obligation to make sure our kids are safe, and protected, and getting their mental health needs taken care of."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or email@example.com.