The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved a $413,574,951 budget, but not before a proposed tax decrease and an outdoor gun range failed to get approval during the more than five-hour meeting on Tuesday, June 21.
The spending plan for fiscal year 2017 holds the property tax rate at 60.4 cents per $100 of valued property. However, property tax revaluations were approved earlier this year, and reassessed real estate property values are slated to be delivered in January.
Overall, the county’s three biggest expenditures are education, public safety and human services.
Before finalizing the budget, Commissioner Tim Moffitt, a Republican, floated an alternate budget that would take advantage of Senate Bill 888, a measure the General Assembly recently approved that allows the county to restructure school-based debt and freed up about $5 million for the county. Highlights of Moffitt’s budget included reducing the property tax rate by 1 cent, giving raises to teacher assistants and asking Buncombe County Schools to use its $12 million reserve fund to pay for teacher raises.
BCS Superintendent Tony Baldwin addressed commissioners and said they are not required by state law to maintain that reserve fund but says he does so as a “best practice” in order to have a month’s worth of operating expenses in case of an emergency.
Commissioner Ellen Frost, a Democrat, said the property tax decrease would only save tax payers $20 on a $200,000 home and noted her constituents favor funding education more than an incremental tax decrease.
Moffitt’s budget failed by a vote of 3-4 with Democrats Frost, David Gantt, Holly Jones and Brownie Newman voting against it.
Newman then proposed approving a budget that kept the original tax rate, provides $500,000 for teacher assistants at BCS and Asheville City Schools, calls for an increase in local teacher supplements over two years with $1.6 million going to both districts in FY 2017 and bumps up greenway spending by $100,000 to a total of $400,000.
Increasing the local teacher supplements addresses a concern that BCS is struggling to attract and retain educators because its salaries aren’t competitive with neighboring school districts.
Moffit said, “I like the budget but … I think it’s incumbent on us, as elected officials, when we have surpluses … and have an opportunity to return that back to them; regardless of it’s $10 or $20, it’s important that we do so.”
Gantt, who is not seeking re-election, said, “This is my 20th and last budget, and it’s an amazing process. … There’s a lot of factors we have no control over such as state and federal [legislation], and we have to respond to that. … It’s not perfect. It’s not what I would have done line by line. … But it’s a good budget, and I think it’s got what we need to make Buncombe County a better place to live.”
Commissioners approved the budget by a 4-3 vote with Commissioners Joe Belcher, Mike Fryar and Moffitt voting against it. FY 2017 starts July 1.
Guns vs. art
Commissioners also voted down a measure to supplant $500,000 from the Asheville Art Museum to an outdoor firing range. The resolution, spearheaded by Fryar, had pointed wording stating, “The Asheville Art Museum continues to ask for funding to renovate the Pack Place and expand the museum, but has not made significant progress to accomplish this project without creating further burden on county taxpayers.”
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission would also match the funding with its own $500,000 contribution for the target range.
“We have 11,600 people in Buncombe County that carry concealed weapons,” said Fryar, citing the need for a gun range. He argued money for the museum is “giving the city more property at no cost to them” and then questioned the organization’s sustainability adding, “I haven’t seen the Grove Park Inn go bankrupt and stand in here asking for money.”
Fryar added that he feels sorry for the victims of mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and Orlando, Fla., but added, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” That statement garnered outbursts from several people in attendance, leading Gantt to gavel down onlookers and threaten any further disruptions with removal from the meeting.
Frost then raised an objection to the gun range, saying there was no location selected, no business plan or a reason for the outdoor gun range. “I have horses. Should the government put up a stable for people to ride? I mean, this is absurd,” she said.
“Anything is absurd to you. It’s absurd that you decided we needed sheds for horses,” countered Fryar.
Jones then noted the local community is still mourning the victims of the Orlando shooting and said, “This is really poorly, poorly timed. I ache for the people that this touches too close to home for. I’m sorry for that pain and angst that has been put upon you.”
County staff members noted, in the past, they spent more than a year searching for a location for an outdoor gun range but couldn’t find a suitable location where neighbors didn’t object to the project. The motion failed by a vote of 3-4 with Frost, Gantt, Jones and Newman voting against it.
Nonprofit public hearings
Over the course of 13 public hearings, leaders of various community nonprofits stated their case for funding in the now-approved budget for FY 2017. The organizations and amounts requested and approved are as follows:
- Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project: $30,000 requested — $27,500 approved
- Asheville Area Arts Council: $35,000, requested — $20,000 approved
- Asheville Art Museum: $2,175,000, requested — $225,000 approved
- Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission: $75,000 requested — $30,000 approved
- Asheville Downtown Association: $25,000 requested — $25,000 approved
- Colburn Earth Science Museum (Asheville Museum of Science): $175,000 requested — $75,000 approved
- Economic Development Coalition: $300,000 requested — $300,000 approved
- Folk Heritage Committee: $4,275 requested — $4,275 approved
- Just Economics: $15,000 requested — $12,500 approved
- Pack Square Cultural Partnership: $395,000 requested — $350,000 approved
- The Support Center: $100,000 requested — $50,000 approved
- WNC Communities: $45,000 requested — $35,000 approved
- YMI Cultural Center: $40,000 requested — $40,000 approved
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will not convene again until Aug. 2.