Gaining authority

Getting it together: Leaders of the new government entity met to brainstorm how to best manage Buncombe County’s libraries, parks and recreation facilities. photo by Caitlin Byrd
Getting it together: Leaders of the new government entity met to brainstorm how to best manage Buncombe County’s libraries, parks and recreation facilities. photo by Caitlin Byrd

The newly formed Buncombe County Culture and Recreation Authority met for the first time Oct. 29, drafting an ambitious list of goals for the months ahead. The board is charged with governing a powerful new agency that will manage the county's libraries, parks and recreation facilities.

"We're going to have to set the priorities on how we set the priorities," said CRA Board Chair (and chair of the Buncombe Board of Commissioners) David Gantt.

During several hours of discussions facilitated by Lydian Altman from the UNC School of Government, the new authority decided that its initial steps will be assessing county needs, evaluating capital recommendations from staff, forming advisory committees and hiring a director. They emphasized that getting community input will be key.

In addition to deciding how to handle everyday concerns such as maintenance requests, CRA members face questions over major capital projects recommended by staff. In coming years, plans call for building a new $2.5 million library in east Asheville, implementing $6.1 million in improvements to Buncombe County Sports Park, implementing $3.2 million in improvements to Lake Julian Park, building a $30 million new aquatics facility and more.

The authority is funded by a 3.5-cent property tax, which isn't projected to produce enough revenue to pay for all of the recommendations. CRA members decided to have a draft budget ready by February; final approval will be subject to a vote by the board of commissioners.

Thinking ahead, CRA board member Karen Tessier asked the three commissioners on the board — Gantt, Joe Belcher and Ellen Frost — what their expectations are and "what … they expect of our behavior."

Frost replied, "I would want good stewardship of the taxpayer dollars." However, she quickly joined her fellow commissioners in emphasizing that they want citizen appointees to freely bring their thoughts and opinions to the table.

"We're not going to tell you how to vote," said Gantt. "We want you to use your best independent judgment."

"We're all equals, and we all want this to succeed," noted CRA appointee Matthew Kern. "Because we're not elected, it doesn't make us a lesser part of this board."

"This is exciting," exclaimed Tessier. "This is an incredible creative opportunity."

Altman agreed, noting that it will be the first government authority of its kind in North Carolina (the CRA is the result of a controversial new state law).

"If you get this right, folks are going to come knocking in more ways than one. I'm excited for you," she said.

The authority set its meeting schedule for the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, starting at 4 p.m. The meeting locations are yet to be decided, although several members expressed interest in holding them at different libraries and recreation facilities across the county.

Library Director Ed Sheary and Parks & Recreation Director Fran Thigpen are currently serving as interim directors of the authority. The board set a goal of April 1 for filling the position with a permanent replacement.

In addition to Tessier (founder of a marketing company) and Kern (owner of a contracting business), two other citizen volunteers serve in the remaining seats:  Eleanor Johnson, (a retired librarian) and George Briggs (director of the North Carolina Arboretum).

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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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