Retreat and advance: Commissioners set priorities for 2012

Retreat and advance: Commissioners set priorities for 2012-attachment0

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners huddled with staff Jan. 31 to discuss past accomplishments and current priorities. Here’s a look at some of the considerable ground they covered during their four-hour retreat.

Where we’ve been

County Manager Wanda Greene began by handing the commissioners a 33-page list of successes since fiscal year 2009, such as progress in implementing the Parks, Greenways and Recreation Services Master Plan, building new schools, improvements at the landfill and consolidating the Health and Social Services departments.

The commissioners, meanwhile, emphasized their efforts to bring jobs to the area, citing their involvement in the expansions of Arvato Digital Services in Weaverville and Ingles Markets in Black Mountain, as well as luring Linamar to Skyland.

“Citizens really care about jobs,” noted Greene, “and I think this shows we’re making progress.”

Several commissioners touted the Linamar deal, noting that the roughly $10 million in incentives the county kicked in was contingent on the Canadian auto-parts manufacturer providing at least 400 local jobs. Commissioner K. Ray Bailey, who chairs the Economic Development Coalition and was instrumental in arranging the deal, said the company might wind up hiring twice that many people if business is good. Unlike Volvo, which abandoned the Skyland facility the Canadian company now occupies in March of 2010 after the construction market tanked, “Linamar is here to stay,” asserted Bailey.

What’s next?

As the commissioners brainstormed priorities for the coming year, economic development and job growth again led the conversation. Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes scribbled the commissioners’ ideas on a big piece of paper; they then affixed sticky notes to their preferred goals.

Other top priorities included work-force training, holding the tax rate steady, farmland preservation, school funding and continuing public/private partnerships.

“The majority of those things we already have in process,” noted Commissioner Carol Peterson. “I think that says a lot about what we’ve been accomplishing.”

Vice Chair Bill Stanley arrived 45 minutes late due to a previously scheduled volunteer commitment with Meals On Wheels. Stanley missed much of the brainstorming but said he agreed with the resulting list.

Commissioner Holly Jones, though, urged her colleagues to add two items to the list: Updating the county’s employment-nondiscrimination policy (particularly concerning sexual orientation) and funding building improvements at Asheville Middle School on French Broad Avenue. Conditions at the school (a neighbor of the YWCA, where Jones served as executive director for nearly 16 years) are “horrendous,” she said, adding,

“That beats any capital need now that A-B Tech has their way out of capital problems.” In November, voters narrowly endorsed a quarter-cent sales-tax increase to fund improvements at the community college; the commissioners subsequently approved the measure.

Looming school needs

Jones again hammered home the idea of funding renovations at Asheville Middle during presentations by city and county school officials, calling the old building “our county’s dirty little secret.”

Superintendent Allen Johnson of the Asheville City Schools agreed that repairing Asheville Middle and Isaac Dickson Elementary should be top priorities. Greene, however, cautioned that the work could cost about $80 million, adding that this would probably require either a tax hike or major cuts in other services. And county Finance Director Donna Clark said investing so much money in Asheville schools rather than those in unincorporated parts of the county would be “unprecedented.”

“I don’t care that it’s in the city: It’s in the county too,” countered Jones, urging staff to scrutinize the budget to find the needed funds without raising taxes or cutting services.

“The need is just screaming,” she maintained. “I know everyone wants to fix it. … I think we can do it.”

Meanwhile, Tim Fierle, director of facility services for the Buncombe County Schools, said the recent completion of two new intermediate schools has gone a long way toward supplying the needed capacity. But the Enka District, he warned, is growing fast and may need a new $22 million middle school within the next decade.

Other capital projects

Planning Director Jon Creighton briefed the commissioners on other capital projects. Courthouse renovations should be finished this fall, he said, and construction of a 125,000-square-foot courthouse addition on College Street will begin in a matter of weeks. Together, those projects are expected to cost about $70 million.

Renovation of the Health and Human Services Building on Coxe Avenue is also almost complete, noted Creighton. Meanwhile, A-B Tech hopes to break ground this summer on a $5 million Public Safety Training Center and classroom facility, the first project funded by the sales-tax increase.

Creighton also said the Parks Department will have increased capital needs in the coming years as it develops plans for a new aquatic center and tries to continue implementing the Parks and Greenways Master Plan.

Legislative update

County Attorney Michael Frue reported on several recent state-government developments that could significantly affect the county. A House committee established by Rep. Tim Moffitt, noted Frue, is considering whether to recommend handing off the Asheville water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District.

“MSD’s position is, they don’t really want it,” he said. “But if it’s given to them, they’ll be good soldiers and take it.” Frue added that such a transfer would raise a host of financial and legal issues that would have to be worked out.

Jones said she’d like the commissioners to formally recommend leaving the water system with the city. “I just want to acknowledge the city’s very good oversight of that system in recent years,” she explained.

Jones also expressed concern that the current debate could discourage “another major new brewery from locating here,” since a good, well-managed water supply is critically important to the industry. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. recently announced plans to build a major new production facility in Mills River; New Belgium Brewing Co. is also strongly considering building a brewery here.

Jones also took aim at a bill Moffitt co-sponsored that would hand off control of the Asheville Regional Airport to an independent authority, calling it “a dumb piece of legislation.” Having representatives from Buncombe and Henderson counties as well as the city of Asheville manage the airport, she said, would be “very bureaucratic; it doesn’t seem like it will help.” The airport bill didn’t make it out of committee in 2011 but could resurface in this year’s short session.

Frue said Moffitt had recently created a special committee to see how the state could help clean up contamination at the former CTS plant on Mills Gap Road. The Environmental Protection Agency is refusing to participate, said Frue, adding, “There’s no telling where it’s going to go.”

At the request of neighborhood residents affected by the contamination, the county recently demolished the old factory building.

On the horizon

Creighton floated the idea of requiring all county residents to pay for trash and recycling pickup.

Only 51 percent of residents in the county’s unincorporated areas currently use the services provided by Waste Pro USA, he reported, paying $14.20 a month for curbside trash and recycling collection. Making participation mandatory would amount to a new tax for the other 49 percent — but it would also probably reduce illegal/improper trash disposal, which hurts everyone, Creighton explained.

Expanding the customer base might also reduce the cost “for folks who’ve been paying and doing right thing,” noted board Chair David Gantt. Any change would require revisiting the contract with Waste Pro, he added, encouraging staff to look into it.

Stanley and Jones voiced strong support for the idea.

The commissioners also directed planning staff to continue researching “inclusionary zoning” rules (requiring residential developers to provide a specified percentage of affordable-housing units in their projects).

Frue, however, warned that any such rules would be fraught with legal complexities. Orange County studied the issue for eight years before adopting rules, he noted, adding, “I think great care and patience is required for this one.”

Jones said that while she understands the need for caution, creating more affordable housing is imperative.

Creighton said the Planning Department would spend a couple of months exploring the possibilities and report back.

Photo by Bill Rhodes

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