For all of Buncombe County’s dire projections at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, its government is currently in healthy financial shape: Fiscal year 2019-20 revenues came in $2 million over budget, and instead of spending a projected $15 million in fund balance, the county actually increased its coffers by $2.5 million. Thanks to a new federal pandemic relief bill, that picture of health is about to get even brighter — over $51 million brighter.
As explained by Rachael Nygaard, Buncombe’s strategic partnerships director, during a March 16 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, the money comes from the recently passed American Rescue Plan, which includes over $65 billion in direct aid to counties across the country. Because the funds are meant to encourage general recovery from the pandemic instead of just responding to its immediate threat, she said, local governments will have substantial spending leeway.
Like a $7.9 million federal grant Buncombe received in February, the new money could be used for direct assistance to households that have been financially harmed by the pandemic. But it could also go toward extra pay for essential workers or investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. “We have some more flexibility to use funds to address the economic impacts of COVID-19, rather than just direct COVID-19 response to the public health emergency,” Nygaard said.
The funds, equal to roughly a quarter of Buncombe’s budgeted property tax revenue for the current fiscal year and more than its budgeted spending on general government administration, represent by far the largest pot of federal support yet provided to the county during the pandemic. Brownie Newman, the county board’s Democratic chair, said he was excited by how the aid might further projects that had long been delayed due to lack of money.
Commissioners will likely schedule a dedicated work session and opportunities for public input on the use of the funds over the next 60-90 days before setting formal spending plans. According to federal law, all of the money must be used by the end of 2024.
In other news
The first reading of a proposed county nondiscrimination ordinance drew several commenters supporting the measure and no speakers in opposition. Those backing the language included Asheville City Council member Kim Roney, Chair Judy Maddox of the Western North Carolina Sierra Club and Tina White, executive director of Blue Ridge Pride.
“Because there were no laws like this ordinance, nor leaders like you, I could never assume safety outside my home,” said White, a transgender woman, regarding her experience after transitioning several years ago. “You too would live in fear if you could not take it for granted that the people and institutions in power were committed to protecting your ability to live.”
And Commissioner Parker Sloan, a Democrat, suggested strengthening the civil penalties for violation of the ordinance from the currently proposed $100-per-day fine. Instead, he advocated for a graduated approach that would levy a fine of $250 for the second offense and $500 for the third and subsequent offenses within a calendar year, levels he said were in line with those of other county ordinances.
Sloan’s colleagues did not share their opinions on his proposal during the meeting. The board is scheduled to further discuss the ordinance on Tuesday, April 6, and may take a vote on the matter then.