As housing prices and the cost of living in Buncombe County continue to rise, county employees may be getting a little relief. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to increase the minimum wage for all full- and part-time government workers from $15 to $17 per hour during its May 19 meeting.
As presented by Sharon Burke, the county’s human resources director, the move comes after a two-year examination of employee compensation across 16 other government agencies comparable to Buncombe County for 177 types of job. The study also reviewed wages for Buncombe’s nearly 1,200 employees and found that salary changes were needed for 649 positions.
Burke explained that departments with the lowest earners will see the greatest increases overall. Salaries will also be adjusted to account for employees’ years of experience and their jobs’ levels of expertise and complexity. Implementing the wage increases is expected to cost $5.1 million per year, with the new rates effective Sunday, May 21.
During public comment, 15 people — most of whom said they were current Buncombe County employees — spoke out about the rate of pay. Alexandra Duncan, who has worked for Buncombe County Public Libraries for 14 years, said her department is one of the county’s lowest paid, with most employees making $11-$15 an hour.
“Many of us have reached a breaking point. I have colleagues who can no longer afford housing, who go to food banks to feed themselves, who work multiple jobs to make ends meet,” Duncan said. “I know stellar librarians who have left the county because they could not live under these conditions. Two of the seven staff at my library resigned this week to seek better opportunities elsewhere. And we have another position left unfilled since February.”
Meanwhile, Chris Kingsley, a bus driver and instructional assistant at Hominy Valley Elementary School, argued that his current hourly wage made it “impossible to live” in the county without multiple jobs, He said low pay was creating a staffing shortage across his department.
“I’ve worked at several schools and I have not met a single hourly employee at any school I’ve ever worked at who doesn’t either have a second job to make ends meet or live off the income of a spouse, a loved one or a roommate. It can’t be done,” Kingsley said. “This staff shortage that we’re talking about: It’s not speculation, it’s not something that’s coming. It’s happening now. There are no bus drivers.”
Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics of Western North Carolina, also spoke during public comment and advocated for the county to meet the $17.70 hourly living wage set by her organization. She said the higher pay would help employees offset Buncombe’s housing costs.
But board Chair Brownie Newman explained that the commissioners had settled on the $17 hourly rate in part because they also planned to vote on a 4.6% wage increase for all employees as an adjustment for inflation. If approved as part of the fiscal year 2022-23 budget, Newman said, that increase would boost the county’s minimum wage to $17.79 starting in July.
Pinder presents county budget recommendations
During the May 19 meeting, County Manager Avril Pinder presented her recommended fiscal year 2022-23 budget. General fund spending is estimated at $399.2 million; expenses are anticipated to exceed revenues by roughly $16.8 million, requiring the county’s to dip into its fiscal reserves.
The budget includes a property tax rate of 48.8 cents per $100 of valuation, unchanged from the previous year. New spending includes funding for 60 new positions across 23 departments, $2 million for reparations, $2.3 million for affordable housing support and a $10.3 million increase in education spending.
Representing a 10.9% growth over last year’s education spending, the boost exceeds the 6.2% growth rate in projected county revenue. But the Asheville and Buncombe school systems had asked for increases of up to 32%, citing challenges with staff recruitment and retention. Commissioners also did not approve a request by Asheville City Schools for a 13% increase in the supplemental tax assessed on property within the school district.
A public hearing on the recommended budget is scheduled for Tuesday, June 7. The board is expected to vote on adopting the budget Tuesday, June 21.