Sparks fly after referendum

Cheers for A-B Tech: Supporters of a quarter-cent sales tax for the community college spent most of Nov. 8 holding their breath, then celebrated when the referendum passed. photo by Bill Rhodes
Cheers for A-B Tech: Supporters of a quarter-cent sales tax for the community college spent most of Nov. 8 holding their breath, then celebrated when the referendum passed. photo by Bill Rhodes

The rancor over the quarter-cent sales-tax increase to fund capital improvements at A-B Tech didn't end when the polls closed on Nov. 8.

After months of contentious debate, voters approved the measure by less than 500 votes, according to unofficial results released by the Buncombe County Board of Elections (the final results will be certified Nov. 15). With no countywide races on the ballot, fewer than 20 percent of the county’s registered voters turned out; 16,795 people (the vast majority of them Asheville residents) supported the increase and 16,303 opposed it.

Initially, the results from city precincts showed voters supporting the measure by a 10- to 12-percent margin. But the mood among the roughly 100 supporters gathered on the A-B Tech campus remained tense.

"The strategy was to kill it in the city," noted Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt as he mingled on election night. "I don't know if we're going to make it," he fretted, watching the margin shrink as county precincts began reporting.

Earlier this year, the commissioners unanimously approved putting the referendum on the ballot and passed a resolution promising to use the sales-tax funds exclusively for capital improvements at A-B Tech. School officials have said the money — estimated at $6 million to $7 million a year — is desperately needed to serve a growing enrollment and fund projects such as a $55 million Allied Health and Workforce Development Building.

Both sides said much of the opposition to the measure stemmed from fears the school wouldn’t get the money. And each side had harsh words for how the other had run its campaign.

An ongoing argument

Former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, who co-chaired the push to get the measure approved, singled out fellow Republican Robert Malt. The former county GOP chair is executive director of the Sales Tax Opposition Partnership, which waged a grassroots campaign to defeat the sales tax.

"I don't go around with that end of my party," said Bissette, indicating he meant Malt. "I don't fault him for having very conservative ideas. … I just fault him for his tactics and his treatment of other people," Bissette explained, saying that when A-B Tech President Hank Dunn pitched the tax increase to the party’s executive board, he was met with screaming and accusations by Malt.

"To treat the president of A-B Tech with that kind of disrespect when he comes out to make a presentation, what does that tell you about the people that were doing this?" asked Bissette, adding, "These people were lying; it's crazy. I think the opposition threw up a lot of stuff on the wall, and some of it stuck. It's irrational, but I think there's a lot of distrust of public officials."

Reached by phone later that evening, Malt said mistrust of the commissioners is well warranted. By scheduling the vote for a year when many county residents wouldn't have anything else on the ballot, he argued, "The county commissioners knowingly disenfranchised thousands of county voters, and they're going to have to deal with the repercussions of that. Because there's a lot of unhappy county voters out there, particularly tomorrow when they realize there was an election they didn't know about."

He also called the pro-sales-tax committee’s fundraising "unethical" and labeled Asheville Citizen-Times reporters "propagandists."

"We put up a good fight. It was nearly enough to win, and had the other side not cheated, we would have won," asserted Malt, noting that his group raised slightly more than $2,000, while supporters of the increase raised more than $140,000.

Next steps

Malt said his group is considering a petition drive to force an appeal referendum next year, which would require 16,000 signatures. "Any fool can see that in a countywide year, we win easily," he maintained.

Buncombe Forward, another group he started, will focus on unseating the current commissioners next year. "We're going to be looking to recruit, train and help candidates get elected,” noted Malt. "There were many people who wanted to give to A-B Tech but … said, 'I voted against it because I don't trust the commissioners.'"

Gantt, however, said he "would resign before a nickel of that money went anywhere except A-B Tech, and I think the rest of the board feels the same way.

"That was just an argument the opponents used, a last-gasp effort to try to derail it," he added. "We're never going to divert money. But I'm glad people saw through it."

The commissioners, said Gantt, will move "as fast as possible" to levy the tax and issue more than $50 million in bonds to be paid off by the sales-tax revenue.

After the polls closed, Dunn told jubilant supporters that during the campaign, "The word 'tax' became a four-letter word instead of an investment. But when voters actually see … the transformation that will happen at A-B Tech on behalf of the community, they'll be very pleased."

— 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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