Picking winners

Making the case: Swannanoa Valley Museum executive director Anne Chesky Smith says that proposed county funding will help pay for much needed renovations to the facility.
Making the case: Swannanoa Valley Museum executive director Anne Chesky Smith says that proposed county funding will help pay for much needed renovations to the facility.

After months of debate, Buncombe County Commissioners are poised to give local nonprofits slightly more money overall than last year, but much less than they want.

The 2013-2014 budget proposal allocates $1.88 million to 28 nonprofits. That's about 9 percent more than in 2012, but far short of granting the agencies the full $7.21 million requested.

Pack Place, an arts-and-science education center in downtown Asheville, asked for $475,000 but will get a little more than half that under the plan, which commissioners will vote on June 25.

The Western Carolina Medical Society Foundation requested what it received last year for providing health care to low-income, uninsured residents. But it's slated for a 22 percent cut in the proposed budget, getting $350,000.

Helpmate, which serves victims of domestic violence, asked for $40,000; the plan calls for giving the group less than half that.

Meanwhile, other groups will benefit from this year's funding increases.

The Asheville Art Museum asked the county for $2.9 million to help fund a $24 million facility upgrade. The Buncombe budget calls for contributing $250,000 to the project this year, with more to be distributed in the years ahead.

The budget also calls for giving Mountain Housing Opportunities $150,000 for affordable housing projects, including a major new mixed-use development in Swannanoa. That's up 119 percent from what the group received last year.

Last year, the Swannanoa Valley Museum didn’t receive any county funding. This year, commissioners’ proposed budget awards $75,000 to help pay for a construction project. "We're in dire need of repair and renovation to better serve the community," says Anne Chesky Smith, the museum’s executive director.

Up for discussion

Commissioners made these tentative funding decisions during months of mostly behind-the-scenes negotiations. As they prepare to vote on June 25, disagreements remain.

The county's $337 million budget proposal already calls for raising the property-tax rate by roughly 15 percent and dipping into the county's reserve funds to the tune of $7.74 million. In addition to an increase in funding requests, Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene blames a drop in property values and unfunded federal mandates for the crunch. (See "Paying the Costs," June 5.)

The situation puts political pressure on commissioners trying to fulfill campaign promises to be fiscally disciplined yet also maintain popular programs.

The budget "doesn't look so good," Commissioner Mike Fryar said on June 4, during the most recent public budget talks. Singling out Pack Place and Mountain Housing Opportunities, he says the county should give less money to nonprofits.

Earlier this year, Commissioner Joe Belcher unsuccessfully pushed for austerity measures that would've limited spending on nonprofits by barring their annual funding requests from exceeding the inflation rate.

But nonprofit leaders say the sputtering economy has also resulted in more demand but less money for their work. Many, such as Bill Murdock, executive director of Eblen Charities, have argued that their services actually save taxpayer money in the longterm.

The organization's Graduation Initiative has helped reduce dropouts since its inception in 2006, he reports. Murdock maintains that the participating students will more than make up for the cost of the program through the increased tax revenues they contribute over the course of their lives, as well as reduced costs for health care, criminal justice and public assistance.

Buncombe County's budget fulfills Eblen's total requested amount of $50,000 for the program this year.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Ellen Frost is campaigning on behalf of Pisgah Legal Services, urging her colleagues to give more to a program that helps disadvantaged children escape abuse and neglect. "It's incredible— incredible what they do," she exclaimed to fellow commissioners June 4. "They save us a lot of money in the long run." 

In the days since, Greene has amended the county’s budget, tentatively adding $50,000 to Pisgah's allocation, bringing the total to $175,000 — more than twice what it received last year.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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

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