If Buncombe County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was all hands on deck, its plan for the 2022-23 fiscal year is many more hands on deck.
As presented to the Buncombe Board of Commissioners during a March 29 work session, County Manager Avril Pinder hopes to expand her current staff of over 1,600 employees by more than 70 in the next budget cycle, which starts in July. Most of those workers won’t be used to establish new county functions, she explained, but would instead bolster existing services.
By comparison, Buncombe added just 11 new employees supported by general tax revenue in the fiscal year 2020-21 budget, a constrained move that Pinder attributed at the time to worries over the coronavirus’s economic impact. The 2021-22 budget added 27 new positions.
“We’re going back to our foundational departments. We have not funded them the way [they] should have been funded in the past,” Pinder said March 29. “The pandemic has really exposed to us the gaps that we have in service that we’re not providing. And staff is burned out.”
The new staffers would be spread over a range of county departments at an estimated annual cost of $6.1 million. The single biggest increase would be 14 positions in Emergency Services, including eight paramedics to support a new ambulance.
Other proposed additions include five workers to improve the county’s 911 operations, five human resources staffers to boost recruitment and retention, five library employees and five Sheriff’s Office positions. Buncombe’s Planning Department would get four new staffers to support implementation of the impending Comprehensive Plan 2043, while two additional hires would round out the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
Brownie Newman, the Buncombe board’s chair, noted that the proposed growth in county government staffing significantly exceeded the county’s annual population growth rate of around 1%. He said such increases wouldn’t be sustainable on a regular basis but agreed with Pinder that the county needed to adjust its workforce in line with community demands.
“Our past history has finally caught up with us, because we’ve been holding those numbers down,” added Commissioner Al Whitesides. “But now that we’re getting to this point … hopefully it will level off and it’ll just be normal. We won’t have as many [new positions] every year.”
The county also estimates additional spending on its existing employees. Workers would see a raise of nearly 4.7% to cover cost-of-living increases, more than double the 1.9% increase approved in the 2021-22 budget, at a cost of about $5.7 million. Pinder noted that further pay increases could be proposed in April pending the results of a county salary study.
Buncombe’s next budget work session is scheduled for Tuesday, April 26. Local school systems and fire districts will present their requests Tuesday, May 10, and Thursday, May 19, Pinder will present her recommended budget.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Tuesday, June 7. The Board of Commissioners will then vote to approve a final budget at their regular meeting Tuesday, June 21.
In other news
A new program designed to provide property tax relief to Buncombe homeowners distributed nearly $480,000 in aid to 1,263 households last year, according to a March 29 presentation by Phillip Hardin, the county’s economic services director. But administering the Homeowner Grant Program cost taxpayers an estimated $208,000 — about 30% of total spending on the effort.
That ratio far exceeds allowable administrative spending for other programs managed by the county. For example, rental assistance made available through federal COVID-19 relief funds must cap administrative costs at just 10%-15%. The state of North Carolina set a 5% cap for administrative costs on rent relief funds it provided to counties in 2021.
“This was my biggest concern. … That’s a big burn rate on admin for the actual public benefit we’re able to provide for it,” said Newman. “I would really love to see [the program] continue going, but to me, it’d be hard to justify that much cost to the taxpayers when the goal here is to help the taxpayers.”
Hardin also noted that much of the Homeowner Grant Program funding went to households with significant financial reserves. At least 518 recipients had reserves of $5,000 or more; at least 157 recipients, or more than 12% of the total, had at least $50,000 in excess resources.