Buncombe community survey flags trust, development concerns

CONNECTING THE DOTS: Each red dot marks a respondent to Buncombe County's recent community survey, which took the temperature of county residents on government services and transparency. Graphic courtesy of Buncombe County

As customers, Buncombe County residents are generally satisfied with the way county government operates. As political constituents, they feel rather differently.

Those two disparate threads emerged from the results of Buncombe’s first community survey, presented at a Feb. 1 county Board of Commissioners briefing. Conducted by the ETC Institute, a Kansas-based consultancy, the effort aimed to evaluate resident perceptions of the county and its administration.

Over 750 residents filled out the seven-page survey in November, exceeding the county’s goal of 500 randomly selected households. That statistical sampling gave the results a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points with a 95% confidence level; in other words, the results would be expected to fall within 3.5 points of the actual numbers 19 of every 20 times the survey was repeated.

On the positive side, nearly 70% of residents who had interacted with a county employee in the previous year said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the overall quality of customer service they’d received. Buncombe earned similarly high marks for satisfaction with its libraries, emergency responders and recreation services.

When considering Buncombe as a whole, however, residents were much less pleased. Just 32% had a good or excellent “overall image or reputation of county government” — half the national average among respondents to similar surveys conducted by ETC. Positive views of county transparency and public involvement in decisions were also about half as prevalent among Buncombe residents compared with people living in other counties across the U.S.

“That’s just an astonishing difference to me,” said Commissioner Parker Sloan in response to those results.

Although the survey did not explore why residents held their views, ETC consultant Ryan Murray conjectured that part of Buncombe’s reputation problem stemmed from negative media coverage. “Unfortunately, the local TV news, it’s not in their best interest to push out the positive stories; they’re looking for viewership and selling commercials,” he said. “Making sure that we become that [preferred media] source for folks … is going to be really important to making sure that we begin to sway folks into that positive category.”

(Unmentioned by Murray or the commissioners were the potential lingering impacts of a corruption scandal involving former County Manager Wanda Greene and other county officials. As recently as April, former Commissioner Ellen Frost was sentenced to six months in prison for conspiracy to commit federal program fraud.)

A majority of Buncombe residents were also dissatisfied with the “quality of county development, planning and zoning,” with only 16% sharing a positive view. No benchmarking data was available to compare those opinions with those of residents in other counties.

Brownie Newman, the board’s chair, questioned whether that result actually showed dissatisfaction with Buncombe government or instead reflected broader discontent about growth and land use in the county. “Development is fairly unpopular, even though probably, intellectually, people know that we do need more housing,” he said.

Speaking with Xpress after the meeting, Buncombe Director of Strategy and Innovation Rafael Baptista said the survey was meant to set a benchmark for resident sentiment and start a discussion that will continue through the county’s comprehensive planning process. That effort, taking place through spring or summer 2023, will guide Buncombe’s direction on land use and zoning for the next 20 years.

Regarding transparency and public involvement, county spokesperson Kassi Day noted that all Buncombe boards and commissions meetings would be added to a new online platform in the near future. She said that approach would increase the accessibility of county operations and provide new opportunities for public comment.

The full findings report of the ETC survey is available at avl.mx/b70. The benchmarking analysis, which compares Buncombe’s numbers to those of regional and national peers, is available at avl.mx/b71.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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4 thoughts on “Buncombe community survey flags trust, development concerns

  1. kw

    I find it incredibly myopic and tone-deaf when local officials continually spin every conversation back to the need for more housing *at any and all costs* to our natural environment and the quality of life for longtime area residents. A deeper analysis of this survey would likely reveal that locals are dissatisfied by the never-ending stream of tourists who weigh down our infrastructure (absorbing limited APD resources on visitors who (very sadly) OD in pricey hotel suites) and are the root cause of the shortage of long-term rental options.

  2. Lou

    Nobody asked me, if they had, I would have said simply that until we have a government more attuned to the needs of EVERY person who calls Asheville home, nothing will work long term. For every shiny new hotel without character that goes up, another dozen people are likely turned out onto the street because they cannot afford their rent any longer. For every wealthy new retiree who arrives to settle into their recently purchased mini mansion with a mountain view, another child goes to bed hungry. This town is an empty shell of what it could have been.

  3. MV

    And this place is still an absolute bargain for those coming from overpriced areas who will keep their remote jobs and thus take up space needed for teachers and police and nurses and essential workers, thus exacerbating the need for more tax-subsidized ‘affordable’ housing (corporate welfare) that will wipe out our forests…so that we’ll have room to house people to bag our groceries and serve food to tourists who will see this place as a bargain compared to their overpriced cities and buy 2nd homes here to rent out on Airbnb to other tourists who will do the same thing and so on…..at what point will too much really be too much? do you see why building more and more while destroying what we have isn’t the answer?

  4. Hendo Hendo

    And *of course* the consultant thinks the poor survey results are because the news media pushes out negative stories, not because we’re actually unhappy with the way things are being managed in Buncombe Co. Laughable! Why even do a survey if you’re going to spin the results you don’t like instead of digging deeper?

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