Buncombe to pull back spending in 2021 budget

Buncombe County fiscal 2020-21 budget by expenditure
SLICING THE PIE: Education represents the single biggest expense in Buncombe County's proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budget, at a cost of more than $91.68 million. Graphic courtesy of Buncombe County

Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder garnered high praise from county commissioners as she presented her fiscal year 2020-21 budget proposal. “To keep the [property tax rate] flat at 52.9 [cents per $100 of valuation], with municipalities struggling to do that — I think the word my grandson would use is ‘awesome,’” said Commissioner Joe Belcher, during a June 2 meeting of the board.

But that success comes at a price, both in terms of delayed opportunities to invest in Buncombe’s services and in substantial spending from the county’s fiscal reserves. The proposed general fund budget of nearly $335.65 million marks a 1.1% decrease from the current fiscal year’s $339.46 million total. To support those expenditures, the county would use more than $11.33 million of its fund balance, down roughly 23% from the $14.79 million in reserves spent this year.

Pinder explained that her approach to the budget was driven primarily by the coronavirus pandemic and its uncertain economic effects. She noted that the proposed budget had been reduced by more than $25 million, or 7%, from the initial staff request of $360.88 million.

“We were eagerly anticipating a budget process where we could focus on addressing much-needed infrastructure and staffing,” Pinder said of her goals at the start of the year. “However, with the descent of COVID-19 in our country and our community, coupled with the realization that this crisis would be long term with significant impacts on our economy and our revenues, we revisited our budget planning.”

Omitted from the proposed budget were 23 new county staff positions that had been recommended in the first pass, including 11 library workers, six paramedics, an internal auditor, a technical specialist for Election Services and an evidence and property technician for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office. Pinder suggested that some of these positions could be filled if next year’s revenues came in higher than projected.

The county would still add 11 new staffers supported by the general fund: six paramedics, three 911 telecommunicators, a public health nurse and a part-time EMS medical director. Justice Services would add a grant-funded position, while Solid Waste would add five new employees supported by revenues from the county landfill and transfer station.

Also cut from the budget were numerous “pay-as-you-go” capital projects, such as design services for the Woodfin Greenway and Blueway and HVAC automation for the Buncombe County Detention Center. The county would forgo a $400,000 comprehensive plan and would not commit any money toward rooftop solar power, for which it issued a joint request for proposals with Asheville city government and local schools in April.

Buncombe’s fund balance spending is projected to leave the county with over $55.86 million in reserves, or 16.6% of the general fund total. County policy is to maintain a fund balance of at least 15%, a target meant to protect core services against unanticipated emergencies or revenue declines.

“A lot of counties in the state would love to be where we are now,” said Commissioner Al Whitesides about the budget proposal. “Sure, we can’t satisfy everybody — it’s unfortunate. But we’ve done a good job.”

Members of the public can offer comment on the budget (no more than 350 words) through 5 p.m. Monday, June 15, via email at comment@BuncombeCounty.org or by phone at 828-250-6500. The board is also planning an opportunity for in-person comment, in compliance with COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, at its 5 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, June 16. The full budget may be accessed at avl.mx/78o.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and a reporter for Mountain Xpress. 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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