Buncombe commissioners tweak homeowner grant eligibility

Phillip Hardin, Buncombe County's economic services director
HARDIN LINE: Phillip Hardin, Buncombe County's economic services director, proposed setting a $5,000 liquid resources cap for recipients of the county's Homeowner Grant Program, a limit commissioners ultimately increased to $60,000. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County

An initiative introduced last year by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, intended to give low-income homeowners some relief from rising property taxes, will work a little differently this time around. As part of adopting the county’s fiscal year 2022-23 budget June 21, the board unanimously approved a number of changes to the Homeowner Grant Program, which will begin accepting applications Friday, July 1.

Mobile home owners can now receive the grants, while those who own multiple dwellings or receive other tax reductions will no longer be eligible. Those with “liquid resources” (cash or financial assets that could be converted to cash within a week) of more than $60,000 will also be disqualified, a change from the terms recommended by county staff.

Last year’s program distributed nearly $480,000 to 1,263 Buncombe homeowners, all of whom had to earn 80% or less of the area median income ($45,000 for an individual or $64,250 for a family of four). However, as noted by county Economic Services Director Phillip Hardin, many of those recipients also had considerable liquid resources, including 157 with reserves in excess of $50,000.

In response to those numbers, Hardin proposed setting a liquid resources limit of $5,000 for grant recipients. But board Chair Brownie Newman took issue with the proposed cap, launching a long discussion among the commissioners.

“That would have eliminated 25% of last year’s recipients if we adopted that threshold,” said Newman of the $5,000 limit. “We are already limiting the applicants to those making 80% AMI. I would be interested in making it more expansive, not [to] create more hoops and further compress it.”

Hardin said staff members had initially considered $10,000 as a cap after examining limits for other public assistance programs — the federal Food and Nutriton Services program, for example, caps applicant households at $2,000 in “countable resources” — but eventually landed on the $5,000 recommendation. “We put a limit so more funds would go to lower-income residents,” added County Manager Avril Pinder.

Because the rules needed to be in place by July for the county to begin accepting grant applications, Pinder continued, board members had to make a decision on any changes during the June 21 meeting.

Commissioner Parker Sloan agreed with Newman, saying, “I don’t support the $5,000 line in the sand.” Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara followed suit, favoring “loosening the cap, as we are still learning how the program works. I would rather us steer to the side of access.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Robert Pressley suggested a tiered grant format that would award more aid to those with greater need. But Newman and other board members argued that the program should be more generous.

“There are people [making] 80%-100% AMI that struggle to keep their heads above water. They don’t qualify for these government programs. They aren’t benefiting,” Newman said.

The board ultimately settled on increasing the liquid resources cap from $5,000 to $60,000. All grant applicants will be required to verify their income and financial reserves before receiving aid.

In other news

Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO Vic Isley gave a presentation to the board, sharing local tourism survey results from MMGY Global, a travel and tourism marketing firm. Isley also warned the board of the dangers of eliminating tourism and marketing funding.

Explore Asheville, which is overseen by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, manages the 75% of county occupancy tax revenue that is required by state law to support tourism-related advertising and public relations. In May, three commissioners had stated dissatisfaction with the current occupancy tax allotment, including Sloan, who said he felt the tax should be abandoned completely.

Isley cited an example from 1993, in which the state of Colorado stopped funding tourism marketing and saw sustained drops in tourism revenue. The state then gradually reinstated tourism marketing throughout the 2000s. (In April, Colorado shifted course again, passing legislation that allows counties to spend up to 90% of the occupancy tax they generate on “housing and childcare for the tourism-related workforce, including seasonal workers, and for other workers in the community.”)

The board also unanimously approved the county’s internal audit plan, which includes an audit committee charter, audit committee bylaws and internal audit charter. The plan seeks to bring a “systematic, disciplined approach” to improve risk management, control and governance.

Commissioner Al Whitesides, one of the board’s two Internal Audit Committee members, praised the work led by Internal Auditor Dan Keister. “We’re more transparent than we have been, and that’s critical. We have everything with the infrastructure now to do it and do it right,” Whitesides said.

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7 thoughts on “Buncombe commissioners tweak homeowner grant eligibility

  1. El Gordito

    Sorry but this guy has got to stop cutting his own hair. Not a good look.

  2. Taxpayer

    So someone barely making it that has a measly $5000 amongst checking, savings, emergency fund (for roof or leaks or medical) is disqualified? Taxes being what they are, combined with inflation, makes $5000 seem like nothing. This will disqualify all the scrimpers and savers who live on a fixed income just trying to get by.

    • John Smithe

      Many people live hand to mouth and may have never been able to save $5000 in their entire lives. There are limited funds so I think it is somewhat wise to limit the distribution of grants to those truly desperate. Just because someone doesn’t have $5000 in the bank doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. Maybe they are single parents working 2 minimum wage jobs. Maybe they aren’t lucky enough to have a well off mommy or daddy to give them cash when they need it, or weren’t fortunate enough to have a rich relative there to leave them a trust fund.

      Not giving it to folks with multiple properties seems like a no brainer.

  3. R.G.

    $5,000 is such a small safety net for homeowners. In most cases, it won’t cover the price of a new roof or HVAC unit, and so someone would be wildly and woefully negligent not to keep at least $5,000 on hand if they could manage it. Shame on this fellow Hardin for being such a myopic indecent idiot who knows nothing about our community and its many realities. Have local leaders considered raising property taxes for those who earn big bucks from short-term rentals to tourists? And what if someone had no savings but had a 60K vehicle? So many ways to game the system and screw over those who are frugal and lead simple decent lives.

  4. NIMBY

    “Isley also warned the board of the dangers of eliminating tourism and marketing funding.”

    Isley obviously hasn’t lived here long enough. Give it a few years and she’ll be on the “death to tourism” bandwagon while also Airbnbing her home, like so many “locals”.

  5. Mike

    Google tells me that while the average American savings is about 40,000, the median is 4,500. In other words, 51% of Americans have less than 5k is available savings. The average is almost 10x higher because of the accrued wealth of the other 49%. This seems like a very reasonable limit that offers the benefits to those who do not have accumulated wealth above 5k.

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