Commissioners unanimously voted Aug. 6 to begin transferring management of Buncombe County’s libraries, parks and recreation facilities to a new Culture and Recreation Authority (CRA). Their first move was appointing themselves to serve as the new board — an act that highlights questions over how the new entity will implement its power.
Authorized this year by a state law pushed by Rep. Nathan Ramsey, who previously served as chair of the commissioners, the CRA will be the first of its kind in North Carolina. On July 18, as part of the county’s overall budget, the board approved a special 3.5 cent property tax that funds it. “You are actually creating a government,” County Manager Wanda Greene noted.
Although commissioners will maintain budgetary oversight, the law dictates that they appoint a seven-member board to oversee CRA actions. During the Aug. 6 meeting, Vice Chair Holly Jones pitched the idea of temporarily filling those seats with the seven commissioners until other applicants are identified. “We do this just to get the paper work rolling while we advertise the open positions,” she suggested.
Her colleagues then unanimously gave the idea their votes of approval.
Board chair David Gantt subsequently directed staff to “get that advertising full blast.”
“I think there’s going to be a lot of interest from the community,” responded Greene.
But during the discussion, Commissioners Brownie Newman, Ellen Frost, and Joe Belcher joined Jones in revealing that they ultimately hope to stay on the Culture and Recreation Authority board, which would give them a majority of its seats. Nothing in the new state law prevents them from legally being able to do that, but, Greene advised, the idea of the new authority is for it to be “an arms length” away from them. If four commissioners choose to stay on the board, she cautioned, “I think that would be a problem.”
The initial CRA bill proposed by Ramsey would’ve allowed Buncombe County government and municipalities to consolidate parks-and-recreation departments and library services, with the hope of saving money and sharing costs. But during behind-the-scenes negotiations, the final bill was altered to bar cities from participating, leading some prominent critics to question the point of creating a new bureaucracy.
Despite claims to the contrary, Statehouse Rep. Tim Moffitt later admitted that cities were barred from participating in retaliation for Asheville’s lawsuit against the state’s measure to transfer its water system to the Metropolitan Sewage District.
At a recent community meeting, Buncombe Library Board of Trustees chair Kim MacQueen asked what the point of creating the CRA was now that cities can’t participate. Belcher responded that putting libraries and other departments under a new authority would “take some of the politics out” of administrative and funding decisions. And on Aug. 6 he added, “It’s probably not in the best interest of the community to have four commissioners [on the CRA board].”
Frost said, “I’m still in favor of three commissioners and four members from the community, because we need that input.”
However, none of the four commissioners indicated that they would be willing to bow out.
In any case, on Aug. 9, commissioners met in their new dual role as members of the CRA board. The meeting only lasted about five minutes, however, as they unanimously appointed Gantt as chair and authorized him to sign any remaining paper work needed to create the authority.
“We will continue to have extensive conversations about the composition of the board,” Gantt noted. But in the meantime, he said, “We will move forward.”
He also sought to reassure library, parks and other county employees who will be overseen by the new agency. “This is not a demotion. … This is not a job cutting measure … We want employees to have the same benefits or more,” Gantt said. “The bottom line is, it’s going to make everything a whole lot better.”