The polished hardwood floors of the Ivy Building at A-B Tech speak to the structure’s history as a gymnasium for the former St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines Catholic girls school. It played host to a different type of exercise Dec. 9: the annual budgetary goal-setting conducted by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
Emerging from the retreat was a renewed focus on affordable housing, which six of the seven board members listed as among their top five priorities. Matt Cable, Buncombe’s community development division manager, also unveiled a draft county goal to build or repair 2,800 affordable housing units by 2030.
To achieve that goal — which includes the construction of 1,500 new rental units and 400 new units for purchase at prices affordable to households making less than 80% of the area median income, as well as repairs to 500 current affordable units and 400 new units for households making between 80% and 120% AMI — Cable said the county would have to increase its staff capacity and spending. But Buncombe leaders seemed willing to take up that challenge.
Board Chair Brownie Newman distributed a memo to his colleagues during the meeting that estimated $52.5 million in additional local spending through 2030 would be necessary to meet the affordable housing construction targets, assuming the county took advantage of federal low-income housing tax credits. That amount roughly lines up with the $50 million mentioned in ongoing county discussions regarding an affordable housing bond referendum that could take place in 2022.
“It’s a big investment, but it’s not beyond our community’s capacity,” Newman said, noting that the city of Asheville and Dogwood Health Trust could also provide funding.
Some of the affordable units are likely to be built on county-owned property in downtown Asheville. On Dec. 7, the board unanimously approved hiring three new planners to oversee housing feasibility studies for locations near Coxe Avenue, Valley Street and Woodfin Street; Cable estimated that construction at those properties could begin in fiscal year 2024-25.
Second on the board’s list of priorities was the broad topic of “climate and environmental solutions.” Commissioner Parker Sloan, who chairs the board’s recently created Environmental and Energy Stewardship Subcommittee, said he was particularly interested in preserving Buncombe’s open spaces through conservation easements and other measures as the county continues to gain population.
While Newman, another member of the environmental subcommittee, acknowledged that climate and conservation work aren’t traditionally regarded as core government services, he said residents have been demanding county action on those fronts in recent years. “In the community that we live in and the day that we live in, these are areas where it’s very important to make a difference,” he said.
Rounding out the top three budget focus areas was expanding workforce apprenticeship programs for young county residents, a topic that hadn’t appeared on the board’s list of priorities for the previous fiscal year. Commissioner Amanda Edwards, who also works as executive director of the A-B Tech Foundation, suggested such programs could help the county address staffing shortages in emergency medical services while increasing opportunities for children of color.
Buncombe is heading into the next fiscal year with substantial cash reserves that could be used toward these priorities or other new spending. At an Oct. 19 meeting, County Manager Avril Pinder estimated that between $17 million and $19 million could be spent from the county’s fund balance while still maintaining the nearly $50 million cushion required by board policy.
And as noted by Buncombe budget analyst Rusty Mau, elevated consumer spending continues to yield high sales tax revenues for the county. As of November, he said, seasonally adjusted spending levels were up more than 19% compared with January 2020; actual sales tax revenues for this July through September, the latest period for which data is available, set new county records for those months.