It’s official: Buncombe County is set to spend roughly $455.5 million over the next fiscal year. The Board of Commissioners approved the county’s budget — including over $334.5 million in general fund spending, the portion primarily funded by property taxes — in a 6-1 vote at its June 18 regular meeting.
Several commissioners praised County Manager Avril Pinder and her staff for assembling a budget that avoided a property tax increase while still allocating substantial funds to Buncombe’s strategic priorities. The county’s spending includes $3.7 million on affordable housing projects and $3.6 million on early childhood education, increases of $1.6 million and $1.9 million, respectively, compared with last year’s budget.
“I really appreciate the fact that this commission has set some priorities and then, along with our staff, worked really hard to identify opportunities to really advance them in a meaningful way,” said commission Chair Brownie Newman. “Those issues are reflected as priorities in this budget.”
Commission Vice Chair Jasmine Beach-Ferrara called attention to some of the specific projects funded through the allocation for early childhood education. New classrooms for high quality preschool, a workforce development pipeline for teachers and mental health support, she said, were all made possible through the expanded budget.
Only Commissioner Mike Fryar cast his vote in opposition to the plan. He expressed concern that the county would spend nearly $13 million of its fund balance, the difference between its assets and liabilities, to cover expenses exceeding its projected revenues.
Although Buncombe would be left with roughly $48.24 million in reserve at the end of fiscal year 2019-20, slightly above the 15% of the general fund required by board policy, Fryar worried that spending the fund balance would lead the county down an unsustainable path and might require a future property tax increase. “This is Peter robbing Paul this year. But next year, does Peter have any money from Paul to rob again?” he asked.
Fryar also argued that too much of the county’s money was going to Asheville-based projects, instead of being equitably distributed in more rural areas. “We’ve got three districts, and it all seems to be going into one,” he said; Fryar serves District 2, most of which lies in the eastern part of the county.
Other budget highlights included 10 new employees for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office — numerous members of which were present for the vote — and an increase in compensation for all county employees to at least $15 per hour. The latter move impacts 15 staffers, primarily library employees, and is expected to cost slightly over $27,000.
The only change commissioners made to the budget before approving it was removing a 1.77% increase to their own pay. Budget Director Jennifer Barnette confirmed that her office had built in the raise as part of the cost-of-living adjustment for all county staff; the board voted unanimously to keep their salaries at their previous levels of $37,650 for Newman, $32,548 for Beach-Ferrara and $28,916 for the remaining commissioners.
Buncombe County offers an interactive budget explorer webpage at avl.mx/68c. The commission will not meet on Tuesday, July 2, but will return for a regular meeting on Tuesday, July 16, at 5 p.m. in Room 326 at 200 College St. in downtown Asheville.