A vacuum has opened at the top of Buncombe County government, one commissioners say they will plug with a temporary patch during their meeting on Tuesday, June 19.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will vote on a resolution appointing a new interim county leader in light of County Manager Mandy Stone‘s recent decision to leave county employment. The board will also render a final decision about the county’s FY 2019 budget, which includes a boost to education spending.
The county announced on June 11 that Stone would retire from her position on July 1, echoing the July 1, 2017 retirement date of her predecessor, former County Manager Wanda Greene. Stone told board Chair Brownie Newman about her plan to retire on June 8, just three days after a new federal indictment levied additional charges against Greene.
The indictment alleges that Greene misappropriated $2.3 million in county money to purchase whole-life insurance policies for herself, her son and eight other county employees. An annuity was purchased for an additional employee.
Commissioners met in closed session for more than three hours on June 13 to discuss a legal matter and a temporary replacement for Stone.
Newman told Xpress the selection of a new county manager could take four to six months, but there is the possibility it could take even longer. Newman hopes the board will be able to receive input from community members and county staff. “I think the point would be that we really want to do it right,” he said. “Speaking for myself, I really don’t want to rush it.”
Newman said Stone will be taking time off until her effective retirement date of July 1.
In the absence of a county manager, Newman said, county department heads have been empowered to make operational decisions needed to run the government. Newman said he has also told Assistant County Manager Jim Holland to come to the board for guidance if an issue arrises that he feels is outside his decision-making authority during this time period.
Passing the budget
Even though her time at the county is done, Stone’s impact lingers. Commissioners have indicated approval of Stone’s leadership of the budget process this year, noting that it has been far more transparent and accessible than in previous years. This is the first budget process the current board has gone through without Greene at the helm.
“This year, for the first time, we have a budget that I feel comfortable voting on because I know what’s in it,” said Commissioner Al Whitesides on May 15. This is his second budget process with the county.
The county will make a final decision on Tuesday, June 19, about its $318 million proposed general fund budget for FY 2019, which is about 3.6 percent smaller than its budget from the previous year. The proposed budget also includes almost $108 million in spending outside the general fund, a broad category that includes fire service districts and transportation.
The budget maintains a flat property tax rate of 53.9 cents per $100 of assessed value. Stone had initially prepared a budget that would have reduced the property tax rate to 52.9 cents, but the rate remained at 53.9 cents to accommodate funding requests from the Buncombe County and Asheville City school systems, as well as A-B Tech. The increase in funding for the local school systems would help pay for salary and benefit adjustments, textbooks, graduation initiatives, new behavioral health positions and utilities.
The county has increased its contribution to public schools from the general fund by $20 million over the last five years. “This is almost $4 million a year in increases,” Stone told commissioners on May 15. “It has, if you look over that same period of time, outpaced your growth, and if that level of growth in the increase continues, it will take increasing your property tax rate to support that.”
Commissioners still need to decide whether to approve requests for tax rate increases from 12 fire districts in Buncombe County. Leaders from many of the fire departments said they were requesting the increases to boost salaries to address retention issues.
Swannanoa fire chief Anthony Penland told commissioners on May 8 that his department has lost more than 25 firefighters to other departments since he became chief in 2001.
If all of the requests are approved as submitted, those additions would tack on $2.7 million to the budget.
Addressing domestic violence
With eight homicides attributed to domestic violence in 2013, Buncombe County saw the same number of domestic violence-related killings that year as Wake County, which has nearly four times the population.
To enhance existing efforts to address the issue, Buncombe commissioners will consider a resolution asking the N.C. General Assembly to allow the county to establish a domestic violence fatality review team. According to the resolution, the county would charge this team with improving coordination between community partners involved in curtailing domestic violence. The team would meet quarterly to review domestic violence homicides as a means of improving communication between local agencies.
Buncombe County’s Coordinated Community Response and its Family Justice Center, which offers a safe place for victims of domestic and sexual violence, are among current initiatives that seek to support victims of domestic violence and decrease violent incidents perpetrated by intimate partners and family members.
The Board of Commissioners will meet Tuesday, June 19, at 5 p.m. in the meeting room on the third floor of 200 College St. in downtown Asheville. You can read the board’s full agenda here.