Prior to the Tuesday, Jan. 19 Buncombe County Commissioners’ retreat, staff in various departments sat down and took a good look at the county’s priorities, coming up with ideas and alternatives of how to accomplish these goals in 2016 (and beyond).
Those topics? Examining the budget and core county services, continuing to look into affordable housing, implementing a public pre-Kindergarten program, connecting the greenways, using bonds to fund capital intensive infrastructure or IT projects, reducing county waste production, using zoning to promote sustainable development and promoting the living wage.
“As we go through and look at things, we, every year, prepare a budget focusing on priorities,” said County Manager Wanda Greene. “We serve over 250,000 citizens and we touch over one million individuals with the services we provide.”
That being said, it’s extremely important to focus on the county’s needs, she said. “Ninety-two percent of our budget goes to core services. We do everything as efficient as we can, and then we go back and look to see if we got it right” when considering the next year’s budget.
And while the county began the fiscal year with $9.6 million in the fund balance, the $8.6 million wrongful conviction lawsuit settlement puts the county “kind of on guard for the rest of the year to make sure we save all we can,” Greene said during the meeting.
“People have asked about the settlement, and one clarification is: This came from a previous administration,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. So why is the current iteration of the Board being held responsible?
Of the five individuals, answered Greene, “two were wrongfully convicted, and our attorney spent many, many hours working on this. We thought since it was the [former] sheriff’s issue, it would be a responsibility of his. But the court did not agree with that. After a tremendous amount of legal work, we did make a determination that it was better to settle this case than take our chances in court, and I believe that was a rock solid choice.”
County Attorney Bob Deutsch added that, because the Board of Commissioners is a “perpetual organization,” current officials can be held responsible for the decisions of previous elected bodies. “It has nothing to do with what you did or did not do,” he said. “It’s all about the timing.”
However, Greene pointed out, the previous board also had “nothing to do with this,” and, she said, it was “strictly a sheriff’s issue.”
The five men ultimately served six to 11 years behind bars, and, explained Chairman David Gantt, “They were not only found not guilty — they were found innocent, which is a whole other legal definition. They should’ve never even been charged.”
After that, the room full of county officials moved on to the next bullet point on the list: affordable housing.
Affordable housing strategies
Some good news? Since 1997, $8.4 million in county funds have been spent on affordable housing projects, leveraging $103 million in funding from other sources. This means that for every $1 the county spends on affordable housing, $12.26 is brought in from elsewhere.
The living wage is actually $500 a week, explained Donna Cottrell, who works on affordable housing issues with Buncombe County. This amounts to $26,000 per year — or $22,880 per year if the employer offers benefits.
And according to affordable living standards, a citizen making $26,000 per year can afford $650 per month for housing — or $570 per month for an employee making $22,880 with benefits.
But when taking a look at HUD standards for fair market rent, Asheville’s median prices exceed fair levels in the one and two-bedroom categories.
In a topic that was discussed at length later on, Cottrell pointed out that 54 percent of the county’s net new jobs average below the living wage, meaning many of the county’s residents are faced with cost burden and severe cost burden when it comes to paying the bills. (Cost burdened means paying more than 30 percent of one’s income on housing; severely cost burdened individuals pay 50 percent or more of their income on housing.)
How many residents, exactly? 44.5 percent of renters are cost burdened, with 21.7 percent severely cost burdened. On the other hand, 26 percent of homeowners are cost burdened, with 9.9 percent being severely burdened.
“For someone who’s making $900 a month, that’s a serious problem,” said Commissioner Joe Belcher.
Citing the Bowen National report from last year, Cottrell also mentioned the county’s vacancy rate, which sits at 99.2 percent. This would mean that the number of new units needed in the county — per year until 2020 — is 457 rentals for those making up to 80 percent of the area’s median income level and 259 rentals for those making 80-120 percent of the AMI.
For fiscal year 2016, Buncombe spent $675,000 on housing programs. If the county were to invest $3 million in affordable housing initiatives for the next budget cycle, 135 new homes could be built in a year. With $4 million, that number becomes 190 new homes. Other funds from this investment would be used for tenant-based rental assistance, maintenance and other housing issues.
“No one entity will be able to solve this problem,” said Cottrell. “There will be multiple forums that get together to address how to address affordable housing in Buncombe County.”
The county will consider the following options to increase its stock of housing: bonds, a one cent tax increase, additional general fund allocation, incentive grants, public-private partnerships, continuing zoning density changes and land donation in order to increase the county’s stock of affordable housing.
“For us, a penny would generate $2.9 million” that could be used toward affordable development, she continued. “We could [also] look at affordable housing incentive grants — much like economic development incentive grants.”
Greene added, “We want to identify all the alternatives so you can think through them.”
But while the county is throwing out numbers like $3 million and $4 million, these figures only work if funds are leveraged from other sources as well — and amounts from other entities are still uncertain.
However, “the numbers that we do know [show that] low paying jobs cost county taxpayers lots of money,” Frost said. “And until we can get everyone’s head wrapped around that, we’re going to be looking at these two big things, [wages and housing]. … It’s frustrating when our two biggest [industries] create these horrible wages that create these horrible statistics.”
The topic was then filed under “to be continued,” and the Board moved on to the next topic: county pre-Kindergarten programs.
While there is definitely a relationship between childcare and pre-Kindergarten programs, the two entities are not one in the same, explained Mandy Stone, assistant county manager and director of Health and Human Services.
“The research clearly says that pre-K does … improve school performance,” while the cost of childcare continues to increase, Stone said. “There are clearly some [educational] elements in quality childcare centers, but [in pre-K], this would be a standard. It targets all rising Kindergarteners, and pre-K teachers have to be certified teachers.”
“Layer that on top of the discussion you just had about affordable housing,” and childcare costs put a huge burden on working parents, Stone mentioned.
And studies have shown that children who attend pre-K develop social and intellectual skills at a faster rate than their peers who begin school in Kindergarten.
“They feel like Kindergarten is much more comprehensive,” she continued. “Children who complete pre-K programs are more likely to graduate high school, more likely to go to college — and more likely to make a living wage without needing government assistance.”
If Buncombe County Schools initiated a pre-K program, it would also free up daycare centers to take on younger children.
“So 480 kids in Buncombe County are in pre-K now,” said Gantt. “Do you have any idea what the [extra] need is?”
Stone responded that the number of preschool-aged children in Buncombe County is about 4,410 — with 2,100 of them attending a childcare program during the day (and not pre-K).
And because pre-K programs make the greatest impact in high-risk, low-income areas, one possible option would be to begin a pilot program for just those areas to test the waters.
Or, the Board discussed, the county could go all-out and invest in pre-K countywide.
A pilot program would cost the county between $145,939 and $1.3 million annually, depending on enrollment numbers — and adopting a program throughout the county would cost up to $43.3 million per year, in the event that every child in the county attends the class.
Buncombe County Partnership for Children and Children First/CIS will hold a “core team” meeting on March 17 to determine if and how to conduct a planning process for public pre-K education.
Moving along with greenways
“It’s a pretty bad day to talk to you all about greenway systems,” joked Joshua O’Conner, manager of Buncombe County Recreation Services, on the icy Tuesday morning.
The ultimate goal is to connect the greenways, creating both a transportation system and leisure destination with one project.
The next two projects slated to make this happen are the Lake Julian/Bent Creek and French Broad greenways, which would eventually connect Lake Julian to Bent Creek and the Asheville Outlets — and Carrier Park up Riverside Drive to the MSD offices along the river.
But before any of that gets started, the county must conduct extensive research and planning — and greenway planning does not receive a dedicated stream of funding.
Commissioner Brownie Newman made the point, however, that there is plenty of interest in greenways from many different sources. “When it’s all interconnected, you have this thing of significant value for all members of the community,” he said.
Feasibility studies for the Bent Creek/Lake Julian greenway cost the department $50,000 each (totaling $100,000). For that greenway project, the Friends of Connecting Buncombe organization gave $20,000 and the NCDOT provided $80,000. The French Broad project received a $660,000 grant, and the county is responsible for matching the grant for 20 percent (or $132,000).
But with initial estimates for greenway construction coming in at $1.2 million per mile (with the preferred alternative for the Bent Creek project spanning 10-12 miles), O’Conner says, the unsteady funding stream of grants isn’t enough if we want to move forward with the project.
Options to move along the greenway projects include using county sales tax revenue for public transportation systems — which has been implemented in 29 N.C. counties; issuing bonds to fund the project; and allocating money from the county’s general fund.
“A fund allocation of $500,000 annually could be used for 1 mile of strategically placed greenway” with a 50 percent grant match, and “2.5 miles at 20 percent match,” reads the presentation.
And while the actual construction is costly, Newman suggested that they continue to have this discussion in the future as the vision progresses and becomes closer to a reality.
“It takes a lot of money to run a landfill,” explained Jon Creighton, assistant county manager and director of the planning and development department.
The Buncombe County Landfill currently holds around 2.6 million tons of solid waste — and it’s got room for another 3 million tons. But with improved technology and design for increased efficiency, Creighton says, he hopes the station will “last at least through 2050.”
A landfill might not sound very “green,” but the one in Buncombe currently produces enough electricity to power 1,150 homes. Even more green: Creighton suggested the county look into alternative ways to reduce waste production to ensure the facility lasts as long as he hopes.
The cost of waste reduction programs would be distributed equitably across all households, and it would provide additional revenue for other waste reduction programs, such as composting, or for collection programs.
Household waste fees are typically collected on property tax bills, so under potential problems of the program, the county lists “could be seen as an additional ‘tax,’ [and] municipal residents could push back, saying that they don’t benefit” from the program. The fee may also have to be raised if programs are expanded or added in the future.
On the entirely different topic of zoning, Creighton explained that the planning department has been looking at changes to the county’s zoning ordinance and zoning map, explaining that “things come up, and you just need to change it [to focus on] community-oriented development.”
Zoning Administrator Debbie Truempy took lead of the discussion, starting with changes to the handling of two-family residences and other changes to increase efficiency in development.
The more controversial suggestion is that attached two-family residences should be allowed in districts that allow detached two-family residences.
“The mistake I made was to put ‘duplex’ as being allowed in Beaverdam,” Creighton said of the two-family residence rule. Residents were pretty quick to speak out against potential rental or vacation homes in their neighborhood.
But the change is under consideration as more of a mother-in-law unit situation — and to create a separate but attached unit would be more compact, with less of an environmental impact.
Another topic to consider, Newman suggested, is that with “no more annexation in North Carolina, there will be urbanization [creeping into] Buncombe County that will never be inside municipal boundaries. There will be areas [in Buncombe] that look like towns and cities but aren’t towns or cities — and they’ll need services that a town or city would need to have.
“We’re going to have to think about what services to look at in the future that have not traditionally been county responsibilities,” he said.
Commissioner Mike Fryar, however, stated that, for something like transit, the county would either need to consolidate all bus services into one countywide system — or let the municipalities run their own systems — in order to keep things simple and useable. And as far as sidewalks in the county go, he hasn’t heard any complaints. Instead of working on wants, the county should focus on its citizens’ needs (such as homes, wages, childcare), he said.
Promoting a living wage
On to the living wage, the Board discussed whether to incentivize employers who provide some high-paying or living wage jobs — while bringing in other jobs well under the living wage standard.
While the tourism industry generally gets a bad rap for providing low wages, that’s not always the case.
“Some hoteliers pay the living wage and some wouldn’t dream of it,” Frost said. “There are good grocers and there are bad grocers. You can’t just paint industries with a brush” and say that it’s low-wage.
Gantt then asked what’s cost of not paying a living wage? When low-income residents require government assistance to meet their needs, is bringing in employers with half high wage jobs and half low wage jobs worth it? While he didn’t get an answer during the retreat, he requested more information on what that cost would look like.
Newman asked: If 25 percent of a particular employers’ jobs are “just adding to this big pool of [low wage] jobs that need public assistance,” where would the county draw the line?
Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl, a small business owner, pointed out that small business owners often have higher operation costs, and, if a business were to raise all of its employees’ wages, those costs would end up coming out of somewhere. “I just want the county to be careful,” she said.
Final thoughts and next meeting
At the end of the retreat, Gantt suggested that the county give its employees and its teachers a raise, mentioning the hard work these employees do.
The next regular Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 4:30 p.m., on the third floor of 200 College St. To review any of the presentations in more detail, click here.