For the first time in three months, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners came face to masked face with residents seeking to comment on government business. Over a dozen speakers ventured out on June 16 to share their thoughts on the fiscal year 2020-21 budget during the COVID-19 era’s first county public hearing. The commissioners subsequently gave their unanimous approval to a spending plan little modified from that recommended by County Manager Avril Pinder.
Nearly two-thirds of the 20 total comments on the budget delivered in person, left as voicemails or sent via email called for commissioners to reduce funding for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and instead spend more on public health and social programs. Many mentioned Asheville’s recent protests for racial justice, part of a nationwide movement sparked by the police killing of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd on May 25.
The 2020-21 Buncombe County budget as adopted includes roughly $22.5 million for the Sheriff’s Office, a 3.5% increase over last year’s allocation. In contrast, the public health allocation of about $21.56 million is essentially unchanged, representing less than a tenth of a percent reduction from the current fiscal year’s spending.
“Putting more money to an already bloated sheriff’s department while cutting public health funding tells me that you would rather your constituents live with police violence and die of COVID-19,” said West Asheville resident Taija Ventrella, who spoke in person during the meeting. “You would rather us die than reallocate funds.”
And Asheville resident Katy Estrada, who submitted a comment before the meeting, asked the board to delay its vote on the budget so county leaders could further discuss redirecting money that now goes to law enforcement. “Research shows that a living wage, access to holistic health services and treatment, educational opportunity and housing are far more successful at reducing crime than police or prisons,” she argued.
The commissioners briefly discussed holding off on their decision until the following week, with Democratic Chair Brownie Newman noting that it was not the board’s usual practice to vote on the budget at the same meeting as the public hearing. However, both Republicans and other Democratic commissioners pushed to hold the vote immediately after public comment: Republicans Joe Belcher and Anthony Penland made and seconded the budget motion, respectively, while Democrat Al Whitesides said that “waiting a week wouldn’t change much for me.”
Asheville City Council took a different response to community pressure over the city budget and police funding. After receiving over 3,000 comments prior to their June 9 meeting, Council members now plan to adopt an interim budget, conduct further public input and pass a budget amendment regarding the Asheville Police Department on Tuesday, Sept. 22.
Belcher’s motion did increase funding for K-12 schools over the budget as recommended by the county manager. The Buncombe County school system will receive its full requested increase of $1.49 million over the previous year’s $68.22 million allocation, nearly twice Pinder’s recommended increase of $745,000, and the recommended Asheville City Schools funding increase will go up proportionally to about $272,000. That boost still leaves ACS roughly $898,000 under the $1.17 million increase requested by interim Superintendent Bobbie Short.
Updated at 1:29 p.m. on June 22 to reflect new information about the Asheville city budget process.