Commissioners bicker over early voting, delay benefit decisions

CLOSE VOTE: In a 4-3 decision, commissioners committed to funding 11 early voting sites for the upcoming general election in Buncombe County. Members of the board argued about the process by which the county committed the funding. Photo by David Floyd

Commissioner Mike Fryar wasn’t happy. “You’re a one-man band,” he told Chair Brownie Newman during a Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting on Oct. 2. “That’s all you are.”

Fryar took Newman to task over a letter he wrote to the state Board of Elections and Ethics in August. Newman wrote that commissioners would be willing to invest additional resources to enable the Buncombe County Board of Elections Services to fund 11 early voting sites in advance of the Tuesday, Nov. 6, general election.

“I do not regret sending the letter,” Newman said. “I regret not connecting with each commissioner to get everyone’s input on that.” A majority of commissioners told him they would support additional funding, he said.

Newman, Fryar said, had not reached out to three members of the board — Joe Belcher and Robert Pressley, in addition to himself — before sending the letter to the state board. Belcher, Fryar and Pressley are the three Republicans on the Board of Commissioners.

“Brownie, I don’t care if you didn’t have five minutes to call me and Joe and Robert,” Fryar said. “I don’t give a damn. OK? I’m a commissioner. My name was on that letter that you sent down there.”

Election Services staff had estimated that funding an 11th site could cost about $40,000 more than had been budgeted for the 2018 election.

“The state Board of Elections has made the determination on an appeal that you have to provide 11 sites, and so by law you have to provide those sites,” interim County Manager George Wood told commissioners. “And so the only question now is, is it going to cost up to $40,000 or less?”

Relaying what he had heard from Buncombe County Election Services Director Trena Parker Velez, Wood said the department might be able to absorb some of the cost of the additional site. “What I’m recommending to you is you go on record saying that you are going to fund the 11 sites, but we’ll wait until we see what the cost is and then do a budget amendment if necessary in the spring,” he said.

In a 4-3 vote, with Fryar, Belcher and Pressley dissenting, the board committed to funding the location.

In August, the Buncombe County Board of Elections brought two early voting plans to the state Board of Elections. One plan, endorsed by three of the county Election Board’s four members, called for 10 early voting sites. The other, advanced by county board member Jake Quinn, called for 11 sites. In his letter, Newman told members of the state board that he favored Quinn’s plan because it included the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center as an early voting site.

EARLY BALLOTING: Buncombe County will offer 11 early voting locations for the 2018 general election. Ten spots (marked in purple) were selected by the Buncombe County Board of Elections, but an additional location (marked in red) at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center was called for by board member Jake Quinn. The state Board of Elections and Ethics approved Quinn’s plan. Image from support documents for the majority plan submitted to the state Board of Elections and Ethics, edited by Xpress to include the 11th location

“A high percentage of the African-American community in Buncombe County have utilized the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center as their early voting location, which is within convenient walking distance of several neighborhoods,” Newman wrote. The state board ultimately chose the 11-site plan.

Some commissioners also criticized the location of the extra site.

“My concern is Leicester, Barnardsville, Jupiter, even the Candler area, has a much longer distance to go [to vote],” said District 3 Commissioner Robert Pressley.

Referring to the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, Fryar said funding a site that lies about 2 miles from 30 Valley St. isn’t as critical as another early voting location in outlying areas of the county, where bus service isn’t as readily available, would be.

“You decided to go off on your own, by your little self,” Fryar said to Quinn, who was seated in the audience, “with [Newman’s] letter that says the African-Americans need more things. Well, how about the poor old farmer out in Barnardsville? Or … Sandy Mush? Or these other areas? You didn’t think about them.”

Commissioner Al Whitesides, the only African-American on the Board of Commissioners, said he’s worried about an apparent effort at all levels of government to keep certain segments of the population from voting. “And one of those segments is African-Americans,” he said.

Whitesides said he votes in the precinct that encompasses the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center. The majority of African-Americans in Buncombe County, he speculated, probably live within a 2-mile radius of that precinct. He said the site also serves voters who attend A-B Tech and Asheville High School and those who work at Mission Hospital. “I think we owe it to the people,” Whitesides said.

Quinn told commissioners during public comment that the issue in front of them stemmed from a decision made by the General Assembly. The body, he said, pulled “another rabbit out of its dirty, dirty hat” and gave 100 counties an “unfunded mandate” to operate early voting sites from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday this year. “And if you had one site open those hours, you had to have all sites open those hours,” he said.

The county originally planned 15 early voting sites, Quinn said, which the election services budget would have supported under previous years’ hours of operation.

“What we’re looking at in Buncombe County in this general election is fewer early voting sites and fewer early voting hours,” Quinn said. “I agree with Commissioner Whitesides. Our people deserve much better than that.”

GENERAL CONCERN: Jake Quinn, a member of the Buncombe County Board of Elections, speaks during public comment during the Board of Commissioners meeting on Oct. 2. Quinn brought the 11-site plan to the state Board of Elections for its consideration. Photo by David Floyd

Employee benefits

Against a recommendation by Wood to curtail certain benefits in light of a potential fiscal year 2020 budget gap, commissioners decided to keep current employee health care plans intact for another year.

“On one hand, we say how extraordinary our workforce is, and on the other hand this,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. “We know employees have been through a horrific time. … They’ve borne the brunt of what’s going on with this federal investigation.”

Commissioners said they didn’t want to rush the decision but did leave the door open for changes in the future. In a September memo, Wood had recommended that commissioners replace the three health plans the county offers to employees with two new options. Wood estimated that county health care costs would increase 10 percent next year. The proposed changes to the health plan, he said, would save the county about $1.25 million.

Newman said he’s received many emails asking why the board was considering changes to employee health plans. “I think the reason is that there’s genuine concern about the growing cost of these benefits,” he said, “and the concern is that if they continue on that trajectory, it’s going to consume all the resources for so many other priorities we have for our workforce.”

Commissioners also delayed a decision on cuts to a policy that allows employees to sell annual leave back to the county. Compared to peer counties, the number of hours Buncombe County allows employees to sell — more than 300 — is by far the largest, according to a chart in Wood’s memo. Mecklenburg, the only other peer county with a similar policy, allows employees to sell a maximum of 40 hours.

After discussion about the appropriate number of hours employees should be able to sell, with some commissioners suggesting as many as 80 and others suggesting none, the board asked staff for additional data on how much the county would save by eliminating the policy or setting the maximum at 80 hours. Frost also said she wanted to get employee input. Wood’s memo had initially estimated that the county would save almost $350,000 if it cut the policy back to 40 hours.

Whitesides said the board could use the savings from eliminating the policy to offset the rising cost of employee health coverage.

The board will consider the issue again during its next meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

This article was updated at 5:25 p.m. on Oct. 4 to add that commissioners also asked for data on how much the county would save if it set the annual leave maximum at 80 hours and that Frost requested employee input on changes to the policy.

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About David Floyd
David Floyd is the Buncombe County reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press. Email him at dfloyd@mountainx.com.

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