It’s a rare opportunity for most people in Western North Carolina to invest $70 million.
But on Tuesday, Nov. 8, Buncombe County voters will get that chance as they consider two referendums on issuing general obligation bonds. The first would authorize the county to raise $30 million for spending on farmland and open space conservation initiatives, as well as greenways. The second would allow local government to raise $40 million for affordable housing projects.
The $70 million in bonds — long-term loans repaid through property taxes — are designed to help the county achieve two goals the Board of Commissioners set in March. Its members aim to protect 20% of the county’s land from development and increase affordable housing by up to 3,150 units, both by 2030.
A poll of approximately 400 county residents conducted by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land in April found that 71% of voters were likely to vote yes to the conservation bond, with 63% likely to vote yes for the housing bond. This support suggests that many Buncombe voters are willing to pay higher taxes to address what they see as major concerns. Recent public input on the Buncombe County Comprehensive Plan identified cost of living and loss of undeveloped land as the county’s top two issues.
Jennifer Billstrom, owner of Velo Girl Bikes and co-chair of the Better with Bonds: Buncombe Says Yes campaign, has examined the comprehensive plan input closely. “I realized that there is tremendous support for what these funds can do for the county,” she says. “That ignited my passion about getting involved in the campaign.”
Dollars and cents
According to a feasibility study conducted by TPL and presented to the county commissioners in April (avl.mx/bht), approving both bond issues would cost the median homeowner about $32 in additional property taxes per year for 20 years. Assuming a 4% interest rate, Buncombe would pay an estimated total of $103 million to borrow the money.
County Commissioner Terri Wells points out that the $32 figure assumes no change in the county’s population and that the full $70 million would be borrowed at once. “That is highly unlikely,” she says, and taxpayers would likely pay less than that estimate.
Wells argues that bonds are the best option for the county to support long-term goals like housing and land conservation. Although Buncombe could also raise capital directly through higher property taxes, she says, that option can’t raise as much money at one time. Work then gets funded on a “pay-as-you-go” basis in which prices are more subject to economic fluctuations, and projects can be stripped of funding if newly elected government officials want to redirect money elsewhere. (The county currently spends about $2.3 million per year for pay-as-you-go housing projects.)
Marc Hunt, co-chair with Billstrom of the Better with Bonds campaign, tells Xpress that the big upfront guarantees of bonds often allow governments to attract larger amounts of outside funding than they could with smaller annual budget investments, as grantmakers have greater assurance that work will actually get completed. He gives the example of the $4.5 million parks and recreation bond approved by Woodfin voters in 2016 to support the town’s greenway and blueway project, which has since leveraged $17.5 million in additional funding.
“There is no scenario where the project could be realized under pay-as-you-go for Woodfin, a town with a total annual budget of about $8 million,” he says.
Billstrom notes that some county residents may have doubts about the upcoming bonds due to the last tax-related referendum they were asked to approve. In 2011, 50.8% of Buncombe voters approved a 0.25% sales tax increase meant to fund $130 million in improvements to A-B Tech.
However, under then-County Manager Wanda Greene, more than $15 million of those funds were diverted to the county’s general fund, leaving the college with a financial shortfall. (Greene was later convicted of unrelated federal corruption charges.)
“The legacy of collusion [and] corruption during Wanda’s tenure is going to haunt us for a while,” Billstrom says. But she says things are different this time around, praising the county’s transparency in posting documents about the bond proposal online at avl.mx/bw9.
“I have very positive feelings about the way our county commissioners are running the county at this point in time,” Billstrom adds.
Building for the future
A presentation delivered to commissioners June 7 by Assistant County Manager Sybil Tate laid out some details of how the bonds would be used. On the land conservation front, the county’s Agricultural, Land Conservation and Recreation Advisory boards would oversee projects to protect an additional 6,036 acres of farmland and open space. The Recreation Advisory Board would also work with the N.C. Department of Transportation and the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization to advance greenway projects, with the Woodfin and Enka Heritage greenways identified as priorities.
The commissioners’ three-member Affordable Housing Committee — currently consisting of Amanda Edwards, Parker Sloan and board Chair Brownie Newman — would be the main body reviewing proposals for affordable housing. That committee would pass along funding requests to the full board for review and approval. The affordable housing goals agreed to in March aim for 1,500 to 1,800 rental units affordable to residents making an average of 60% of the area median income, 400 for-purchase units affordable at 80% AMI, 400 for-purchase units affordable at 80%-120% AMI and repairs for 500 existing affordable units.
Each bond would also have a dedicated project manager reporting regularly to the board of commissioners. Yearly independent audits would be conducted to examine the spending of bond proceeds. And as of press time, the Board of Commissioners was slated to vote Tuesday, Aug. 16, on creating a community oversight committee for use of the money.
Both Wells and Billstrom say the two bond areas are highly complementary. Billstrom suggests that residents in denser developments could use greenways to commute to work and access essential services like schools, medical clinics and grocery stores, potentially eliminating their need for a car.
“Over the past three years, I consistently hear from folks about both of these issues,” Wells says. “We need to balance the growth that is occurring with the need for conserving our natural resources.”
Reaching out to voters
Supporters of the Buncombe bonds are optimistic about their chances. Since 2000, according to the TPL feasibility study, North Carolina voters have approved 38 of 43 land conservation bond referendums, authorizing over $594 million in borrowing. In 2016, the same year Woodfin passed its parks and recreation bond, Asheville voters approved $74 million in bonds for transportation, parks and housing. Both local measures passed with at least 71% support.
Xpress was unable to find any advocacy group speaking against the bonds. The most prominent public figure to come out in opposition has been Clint Parker, a senior contributor to the Tribune Papers, who questioned the county’s promises of transparency and objected to public money funding conservation easements and private developers.
As the election approaches, the Better with Bonds campaign is using its $100,000 budget to increase its outreach efforts. Billstrom says informational mailers will be sent to county residents, and 10 campaign members — including Billstrom — have formed a speakers bureau available to speak about the bonds by request.
“There are services that we want; we want to continue to live in a beautiful place; and we want to be able to have places to get out and recreate,” Billstrom says. “It doesn’t come for free.”