Buncombe County commissioners may likely delay their vote today on a $337 million budget. The source of the postponement appears to be the contentious behind-the-scenes debate over state legislation that would allow them to create an independent Cultural and Recreation Authority that consolidates services offered by the county and municipalities within Buncombe. Some commissioners say they weren’t consulted about a recent amendment to the CRA bill, and it’s unclear whether a majority of commissioners supported the amendment.
The budget has long been scheduled for a vote later today, June 25, but with the CRA bill still unapproved by the N.C. Senate, commissioners find themselves unsure how to proceed, board Chair David Gantt reports.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do. Because we can’t set a rate for the CRA in the budget. … We won’t have all the pieces of the puzzle together,” says Gantt.
The current budget proposal relies on the Senate passing the bill in order to empower the county to be able to levy a special tax and dedicate the revenue to a long list of projects. The next fiscal year begins July 1, and commissioners are required by state law to pass a budget before that date. Assuming the Senate does give approval to the recreation authority before July 1, Gantt adds: “I think we’ll have to set a special meeting … and then we’ll have all the cards on the table, so to speak.”
Pushed by Buncombe County Rep. Nathan Ramsey through the Statehouse, the original version of the CRA bill would’ve allowed municipalities in the county to join the authority. But a recent amendment makes them wait two years before participating. That change throws a wrench in the city of Asheville’s own budgetary plans. The city has estimated that its participation in the authority could save it up to $5 million a year.
Some members of Asheville city council have accused legislators of using the bill as a bargaining chip in legal negotiations over a measure that would hand control of its water system to the Metropolitan Sewage District without compensation.
However, Commissioner David King says that he took the lead on requesting the change, working with Statehouse Rep. Tim Moffitt to make it happen. King says he has a long list of concerns about allowing municipalities to join the authority. And he maintains that Asheville’s fight with the state over the water system wasn’t a factor in his decision.
Instead, he says a turning point was hearing that city officials were discussing using the savings from the creation of the authority to funnel $2 million to the Asheville Art Museum.
“That made me livid when I found that out,” he reveals.
City officials did plan on using the savings to create a fund that will support a variety of projects, including affordable housing, parking decks and renovations to the museum.
“There are so many unanswered questions about how this is going to work,” King says. “We’re putting our library people, our parks people, into this thing. I don’t want to set this thing up for failure. … There’s too much involved in it. There’s concerns about how the board would be set up, who’s going to control this thing, where is the money going.”
When making his recommendation to Moffitt, King says he told the legislator that a majority of his colleagues on the board supported his request to delay municipalities’ participation.
However, in a subsequent interview with Xpress, King admitted that he had only spoken to two of his colleagues who he says supported his request before talking to Moffitt: Commissioners Joe Belcher and Ellen Frost. Four members would be needed to make up a majority.
Meanwhile, in comments to Xpress, Frost denies that she talked to King before he went to Moffitt. However, she said she does see advantages to the delay, noting that it could give the county time to work with the School of Government to craft a well-organized authority.
Commissioner Mike Fryar says he didn’t discuss the matter with King or any state legislators before reading about the change in media reports.
Asked if he supports King’s requested amendment, Fryar says: “Truthfully, I don’t know.”
Also learning of the change through media reports, Vice Chair Holly Jones sent an email to Ramsey in which she expressed strong support for allowing cities to join the authority immediately. “My primary support for the development of a Cultural and Recreational Authority was to build efficiencies into the system, address current tax inequities and demonstrate a model of true regional cooperation,” she wrote. “For the CRA to be developed without these outcomes is problematic. … My support for developing a CRA at this time is only with the understanding that all municipalities, including Asheville, be offered this opportunity in the very near future. Otherwise, I find little utility in an authority.”
Commissioner Brownie Newman, her colleague in District 1, which encompasses the city of Asheville, says he also supports the original legislation.
And Gantt says he’d also prefer the version of the bill that lets cities join without pause. However, he says the amended version of the bill — with the automatic two-year delay — would be better than nothing. “My recommendation was to let them in right away, but that wasn’t followed,” he says. “I’m really hopeful that in the future we can add them, and any other municipality that wants to join.”
He adds: “I think there was a pretty good chance there would be no cultural resource authority without the two-year wait.”
None of the discussions among commissioners about the recommendations to state legislators and the CRA amendment have taken place at public meetings.
In her email to Ramsey, Jones wrote: “I am sure you are sensitive that any official position of Buncombe County would need to be determined in a public meeting.” However, with the budgetary deadline looming, commissioners haven’t scheduled any time to publicly discuss making an official recommendation to the state on the CRA amendment.
UPDATE (Aug. 12): Rep. Moffitt admitted that municipalities were excluded from joining the CRA as punishment for Asheville lawsuit against the state’s transfer of its water system. Read the story here.
Mountain Xpress senior reporter David Forbes contributed to this report.