Three recent community meetings gave Buncombe County residents a chance to raise concerns with the Board of Commissioners.
The informal get-togethers, held in the three electoral districts introduced last year, were “a great way to learn what's on people's minds," noted Commissioner Brownie Newman.
The July 9 set the stage, taking place at the Enka Library in District 3, which encompasses much of the western part of the county, including Leicester and Biltmore Forest. The district’s two commissioners, David King and Joe Belcher, led the session. Over the course of an hour and a half, the roughly 20 attendees asked about a proposed Culture and Recreation Authority, a property tax hike, economic incentives for businesses and more.
Kim MacQueen, who chairs the county libraries’ board of trustees, asked about a state bill that, as originally proposed, would have allowed Buncombe County government and municipalities to consolidate their parks and recreation departments and library services.
But the final version of the law, approved by the General Assembly July 16, excludes municipalities. MacQueen questioned the logic of the move, asserting that establishing a new Cultural and Recreation Authority that can’t consolidate services and save money is merely "creating another bureaucracy."
Belcher and King sought to ease her concerns.
Having the libraries and other departments under the direction of the new authority, said Belcher, could "take some of the politics out" of administrative and funding decisions. King, who called himself a "heavy supporter of libraries," added that commissioners will still have the power to approve the new agency’s funding and budget.
David Gantt, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, assured library employees that their pay and benefits won't be decreased.
But Candler resident Jerry Rice, a frequent critic of the board, worried about the impact of the special tax (3.5 cents per $100 of property value) that would be levied to fund the new entity. That increase was approved July 18 as part of the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. All told, the budget raises the property tax rate by 15 percent. Rice called the change "absolutely too high," saying taxpayers are "going to be hit hard here pretty quick."
“There's not a member of this board that wants to raise the tax rate," countered King. But with property values down amid increased funding requests and federal mandates, commissioners were "faced with the hard choices," he added.
"I don't like the tax rate situation either," said Belcher, declaring that he works "every day to save money for this county."
Commissioner Mike Fryar cast the lone vote against the tax hike on July 18.
Gantt added that the revenue is needed to maintain safe schools and provide popular services that make the county a good place to live and grow businesses.
But even the question of how to grow the local economy proved contentious, as resident Gail Harding questioned the fairness of the commissioners’ approving millions in incentive grants to GE Aviation and other firms. "In the bottom of my mind, it bothers me how you determine who's going to get the incentives and if it's fair," she told them.
King replied that Buncombe and North Carolina face intense competition from other areas trying to attract the same companies. "We don't choose who gets the incentives: They choose us.”
He continued, "Just getting on their radar is hard," saying the commissioners should do whatever they can to bring companies and their jobs here. In the long run, these businesses more than pay for the incentives they get through the jobs they create and the taxes they pay, King maintained.
On another front, Candler resident Michelle Pace Wood, who made an unsuccessful run for commissioner last year, urged the board to take steps to fight crime in her neighborhood.
She asked the commissioners to ban loitering in parking lots at night after businesses have closed, which she said has led to vandalism. The board said it would look into the idea.
Residents also voiced concerns about possible contamination at the former BASF plant, a recent decision not to expand where motocross facilities can be located, and the wisdom of conservation easements.
But the tone remained civil throughout the discussion, and the last resident to speak, Philip Pritchard of Enka, said the meeting had given him more confidence in the commissioners.
Both Belcher and King urged attendees to view media reports with skepticism, saying that many of their positive achievements don't get coverage. Pritchard echoed that sentiment, thanking the commissioners for providing an in-person "reality check. So much of our information,” he maintained, “comes through the media, and that can be a little skewed.”
City schools, county dollars
Asheville residents focused much of the next community meeting, held July 15 at Pack Library, on new schools and a proposed shooting range.
District 1 Commissioners Holly Jones and Newman represent an area that’s roughly equivalent to the city's boundaries. Several speakers praised them for agreeing to spend about $20 million on a new Isaac Dickson Elementary School.
"Thanks for support of the school system," said Gene Bell, who stepped down in March as chair of the Board of Education for the Asheville City Schools. "You all have demonstrated a level of professionalism you should be proud of."
Peggy Dalman, the school board’s new vice chair, added, "I know how challenging some of the budgets have been, but the support of Asheville and Buncombe County has been incredible over these last few years."
Newman responded enthusiastically, saying, "I know I speak for everyone when I say how excited we are. This is one of the signature things our commission has gotten off the ground."
He cited Jones' leadership in pushing for two new schools; construction at Dickson is slated to begin early next year.
But with the new Asheville Middle School projected to cost $41.5 million, commissioners have delayed that project until 2018. "Our goal is for it to happen sooner rather than later," noted Newman, though he didn't address where the funding might come from.
Because state law requires the county to allocate the revenue from a special local sales tax for school construction based on enrollment, the county system gets most of the money. In the last three decades, the county schools have added 15 new buildings; the city system hasn't had a new one since 1986.
In response to a question, King revealed that he's spoken with state lawmakers about changing the distribution formula. "The subject has been broached, but we are where we are," he reported. "Just keep re-electing us and we'll take care of it."
Belcher added: "We'll figure out a model. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have that on our resume?"
In the meantime, the commissioners plan to rely mostly on property tax revenue to fund the Dickson construction.
Shooting from the hip
Another costly capital project discussed at the meeting was a new shooting range for training local law enforcement. But the proposed $10 million indoor facility near the county landfill is "off the table now," Commissioner Ellen Frost reported.
The public, noted Jones, has made its opposition clear, leading commissioners to look for less expensive options. "You all have been a really important part of this determination to back up and take another look at it," she said. "And to our credit, we heard you and are responding. … It's a beautiful example of how our democracy should work."
The range, added Jones, "is a legitimate need for our public-safety officers. … But the question is, what is the appropriate amount to invest in this need?"
The county is now seeking a location for an outdoor range that would cost about $2 million, Planning Director Jon Creighton reported. But previous attempts to site an outdoor facility were derailed by neighbors concerned about noise pollution, lead contamination and other issues, he noted.
Commissioners asked audience members to alert them to any suitable properties. “Just because we couldn't find an outdoor range over the last four years doesn't mean we won't be able to find one in the next four years,” Belcher noted hopefully.
A kick in the pants?
The third session took place July 16 at the Bee Tree Fire Station in Swannanoa, where concerns about zoning and development took center stage. District 2, which also includes Black Mountain, Fairview and Weaverville, is represented on the board by Frost and Fryar.
Black Mountain resident Richard Hudson said he supports zoning but worries that the county's 2007 ordinance has already become "antiquated." The real-estate agent urged commissioners to allow dense residential housing, including mobile homes, in more areas.
"I think you've got a lot of work that needs to be done on your zoning ordinance, and I think you need to kick some people in the pants to do it," he asserted.
Fryar reminded the audience that he opposes all zoning. And Frost called the current ordinance "a work in progress," saying residents "couldn't find seven people more concerned with affordable housing and density" than the current commissioners.
But they deferred to Creighton on some specifics of county zoning rules. Planning staff, he revealed, is preparing to recommend changes that would allow higher density housing, including reducing the minimum lot size for residential construction.
"Some things are antiquated," Creighton agreed, adding that a revised land-use plan will be presented to commissioners soon.
Meanwhile, Cindy Weeks of Mountain Housing Opportunities gave an update on another planning process. The nonprofit will be seeking community input on a possible mixed-use development at the former Beacon Manufacturing site in Swannanoa. Single-family homes, work-force housing and light industry are all being considered, she revealed.
But Weeks assured attendees, "Nothing's going to be planned until we talk to people," explaining that staffers will be reaching out to community groups and residents throughout the year.
Swannanoa residents also requested more sidewalks and greenways, as well as a recycling and trash drop-off area, to address concerns about littering and pedestrian safety.
Chief Bruce Cook of Broad River Volunteer Fire & Rescue urged the board to reward volunteer firefighters for their service, perhaps by working with state legislators to provide tax breaks.
After promising to explore those ideas, the commissioners declared the series of meetings a success.
"We've learned a lot," noted Gantt. And Fryar added: "We are listening. There's been a few things that have come out in these community meetings that needed to come out."
— Jake Frankel, firstname.lastname@example.org, 251-1333, ext. 115, @JakeFrankel