At the start of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Jan. 17 meeting, Chairman Nathan Ramsey asked that a moment of silence be observed for two local soldiers killed in Iraq.
Army Chief Warrant Officer Mitchell K. Carver, a Buncombe County native and Erwin High School graduate, died Jan. 13 when the helicopter he piloted crashed under enemy fire. Ramsey also mentioned Army Sgt. William Scott Kinzer Jr., saying that the commissioners had failed to note his death a year ago. Kinzer, a graduate of the Fletcher Academy and a Weaverville resident, was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade Jan. 25, 2005.
The board then moved through a jam-packed agenda that ground on for just shy of three hours before being continued to the following Thursday (Jan. 19) for last-minute consideration of balloting options for the May primary election. State law required counties to take action on this by Friday, Jan. 20.
Following brief, poorly attended public hearings, the commissioners approved issuing $60 million worth of certificates of participation to pay for a diverse array of projects. In the course of discussion, Finance Director Donna Clark explained that COP loans differ from the more traditional general obligation bonds in that the property to be purchased or built with the money serves as collateral for the loan, rather than the borrowing government’s power of taxation (and, therefore, its ability to pay). COP funding was recently approved by the North Carolina General Assembly; this is the first time Buncombe County has used the funding method.
The first COP approved involved buying property for the HandMade in America Community Development Corporation, with a maximum loan of $762,500. HandMade will make all debt-service payments on the 10-year loan, during which time the county will retain ownership of the property, part of the new Lexington Commons development on the former Union Transfer & Storage Co. site. The nonprofit provides a support system for craftspeople and the craft sector of the local economy.
“This facility is a business incubator,” Executive Director Becky Anderson explained. “The first occupant [of the new space] will be the Alliance for American Quilts, which is moving here from Louisville, Ky.
“There will be an additional 3,000-square-foot space adjacent to the HandMade offices for development of a showroom for the craft community and for the home-building industry. We will use a portion of the space for a training center for crafters to learn how to work with builders, and to work with builders to show them the crafts that can be used in their work.” HandMade, she said, will be outfitting a high-end home in The Ramble, a gated community bordering Biltmore Forest. The “showcase home [will be] totally furnished by our local craft community. We want it known throughout the country that this is the place to come to for beautiful handmade furnishings and fabrics.”
But Anderson also emphasized, “We believe that everyone is entitled to beauty.” To that end, the group recently completed its first home project with Mountain Housing Opportunities, creating an affordable –and “green” — modern arts-and-crafts home on Clingman Avenue in the River District. A $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation enabled them to hire artists with studios nearby to add tile, stained glass, pottery, paintings, fabrics and other crafts to the $125,000 home.
Handmade, she noted, is working closely with UNCA to design a new home for the school’s chancellor that will showcase local crafts, and noted that the new HandMade facility will create jobs paying $40,000 to $50,000 per year.
“Bottom line, from the taxpayers’ view, what is the net cost to taxpayers?” asked Ramsey.
“There is no cost to the taxpayers; no new money is required,” replied County Manager Wanda Greene.
Ramsey also noted that the project — part of a $20 million development on the former Union Transfer & Storage Co. property (which the county had originally planned to use to site a new jail) — would boost the tax base.
During public comment, north Buncombe resident Alan Ditmore observed: “Beauty is not a human need. And an 1,100 square-foot-house is not green. Green housing should be capped at 1,000 square feet.”
Leicester resident Jerry Rice inquired, “How many jobs are there at the $40,000 to $50,000 level?”
Anderson responded, “During the first year, there will be six jobs, which will change over every three years.”
Tax watchdog Don Yelton of Jupiter asked, “Will there be any taxes paid on it?” He said he liked the sound of the project but added: “I’d like to see annual reports on what has been accomplished. I’d like to see your books totally transparent. Everything sounds good — let’s make it that good.”
Ramsey echoed Yelton’s query about taxes, and Greene explained that part of the project will become taxable in 10 years when the county no longer owns it, but part will remain tax-exempt, due to HandMade’s nonprofit status.
The second COP hearing involved a grab bag of construction projects for the Asheville and Buncombe County school systems and A-B Tech, totaling some $59 million. The loans, said Clark, will be repaid via sales taxes and will therefore have no impact on county property taxes.
“I don’t believe any government has any justification for borrowing money,” Ditmore observed during the hearing. “Taxes can be raised to pay for projects and lowered later. That results in a net tax savings. There is no reason for government to get involved in the credit game.”
Rice, too, made no bones about his dissatisfaction with the handling of the matter. “The public hasn’t really been informed about how you are spending this money; the taxpayers are not being told the truth by the elected officials,” he charged. “You say there’s no tax increase? If you’re building 51 classrooms, you will need 51 teachers to fill them. That is an operating cost the taxpayers have not been told the truth about.
“We’ve got a pay-as-you-go plan, and we’re going to use it to pay the debt on these COPs bonds. Pay-as-you-go was promised to the taxpayers. The school boards lied to us; they promised that they would do that but it isn’t happening. [Between $2 million and $2.5 million] is going to come out of the general fund to pay those operating expenses,” he predicted.
“There’s nothing we do that costs less this year than it cost last year,” responded Vice Chairman David Gantt. “This is an opportunity, Mr. Rice. There may be some operating costs, but this is an opportunity to do things that we’ve talked about doing for years.”
Commissioner Carol Peterson, referring to her years as a teacher, proclaimed: “There’s no project we can vote for that is more important than our schools. I proudly support this resolution.”
The funding proposals were approved 5-0, as were all other matters requiring votes by the commission during the Jan. 17 session.
The county manager’s report included PowerPoint presentations on the Asheville Regional Airport and the county’s upcoming property revaluation.
Airport Director Dave Edwards said passenger volume is approaching the record set in 1994; in 2005, traffic increased 19.2 percent over the previous year. Asheville now handles 622,000 passengers per year, with 26 daily departures to eight hub cities. “The airport is financially self-sustaining,” said Edwards. “Everything currently allocated for operation and capital investment is [from] airport revenue or federal and state grants, with no local taxes involved. We’re doing extremely well and intend to continue on a pay-as-you-go basis.”
Edwards outlined $13.9 million in capital-improvement projects contracted in the last two years, including a nearly finished “green” building project: environmentally friendly floor coverings in the terminal. The airport’s five-year capital-improvements plan includes a new air-traffic control tower, a rental-car storage-and-maintenance facility, additional parking and covered walkways, general-aviation hangars, a baggage-handling facility and a new parallel taxiway. “We don’t see a need for a parallel runway for at least the next 20 years and probably never,” noted Edwards. The airport plans to invest $70 million over the next five to six years, and more than $160 million over the next 20 years. “All pay-as-you-go,” he concluded.
Gantt, who serves on the airport board, said: “I am thrilled at your performance. The only request I have is about the cut-rate carriers. Can you explain why we don’t have them here?”
Edwards responded: “Typically what we find in a low-cost, low-fare carrier is that they are looking for a high-volume airport. Jet Blue would want to put 300 seats per day into Asheville, which they would expect to fill at a 60 percent rate. That means we would have to fill 200 seats per day to JFK; that is very difficult in our market.
“With the number of carriers we have now in the market, you can get anywhere you want to — Europe or Asia with a one-stop connection. We are talking to Jet Blue, but their whole business model is based on volume.”
Next up was Tax Administrator Gary Roberts. The property-tax revaluation had been completed, he said, and the statements were essentially ready to print and mail. “About 103,000 residential owners, 75,000 commercial and 2,000 farms will be getting these notices. The average countywide is a little over a 45 percent increase, with residential going up 25 to 40 percent depending on the market.”
Roberts said his staff has visited every commercial property in the county during the past year. “We have our commercial base cleaned up. We’ve been to every mobile-home park, looked at the quality of the parks as part of the assessment.” Upper-end homes will see some big increases, he noted. The 2002 assessment listed 38 homes worth more than $1 million; today there are 484 homes in that category, with 13 homes tagged at more than $3 million.
Extensive information will be on the revaluation forms to help people appeal if they disagree with the new assessment. “We expect about 60,000 appeals based on past experience, out of which we expect 150 to 200 will go to the [Equalization and Review Board],” said Roberts. Owners will have 30 days to challenge the revaluation.
The paper chase
Election Services Director Trena Parker delivered another update on the county’s continuing voting-machine dilemma. Facing a state-mandated Friday deadline for choosing a voting method, the Board of Elections had scheduled a Wednesday demonstration of machines made by Election Systems & Software — the only ones certified as satisfying new state requirements for security and providing a voter-verifiable paper record. Parker said the Board of Elections would meet at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 19, to consider what should be done and make recommendations to the commissioners.
Commissioner Bill Stanley said: “Wake County is going to use paper ballots. What would it cost Buncombe County to do that?”
Parker replied, “That wouldn’t be very expensive, but we have to have a [Help America Vote Act]-compliant, handicapped-accessible machine in each precinct. So we could lease machines for each precinct. Our board will be looking to make sure it is legal, that it is within the state regulations, and that ES&S will lease machines to us for the May election. The board will want to be very certain that it is the right thing to do for the county.”
Ramsey commented: “I think it would be foolish to purchase millions of dollars worth of machines when we only have one machine available. So I think that paper ballots is a good option.”
And Peterson asked, “Tell us a little bit about personnel as far as counting ballots.”
Parker replied: “The truth of the matter is that if we go this route, we must count the ballots in each precinct before the precinct workers go home. We can expect about a 20 percent turnout for the primary and only a few races, so it is doable.”
When the commissioners reconvened on Jan. 19, Board of Elections Chairman Jones Byrd announced, “The board recommends purchase of DRE machines.” He explained the BOE’s reasoning and handed the commissioners a multipage analysis of the costs over 10 years as well as the perceived advantages and disadvantages of both the direct-record electronic and optical-scan systems (both made by ES&S).
It quickly became apparent that the commissioners had already decided in favor of using paper ballots for the May primary, thereby delaying purchase of new voting machines. Apparently the BOE had foreseen that possibility, and Byrd noted that such a stalling tactic would cost the county about $40,000 for paper ballots and the personnel to count them. After some discussion, however, the commissioners endorsed paper balloting and buying one DRE for each precinct (to provide handicapped accessibility) on a single 4-1 vote.
Stanley, who voted against the measure, said, “I personally prefer the paper option, but I have learned over my 18 years on this board to trust staff recommendations.”
After the meeting, Xpress asked Parker, “Did it appear to you that the commissioners had already decided before the BOE presentation?”
“Yes,” she said. “They must have information we don’t.” (See box, “Back-Room Discussions.”)
A song-and-dance routine
Sidney Powell of the Asheville Center for the Performing Arts, presented ideas for transforming the Civic Center into the Asheville Center for Performing Arts. The plan calls for eliminating the arena space and converting it to a new, 2,400-seat concert hall. The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium would be returned to its original flat-floor configuration for use as a ballroom and rehearsal space, and the current ballroom would be converted into a chamber-music hall. The makeover would create five performance areas, including a voice and television studio, and could accommodate large stage sets that the current configuration cannot handle.
Powell said the project would cost about $60 million (including a $10 million endowment) and that private fund raising would provide about one-third of that amount. She asked the county for a financial commitment within the next few weeks.
“What would the new facility not provide that the old facility does provide?” asked Peterson.
“Arena space,” said Powell. “We would need some other space for arena events, — possibly the Ag Center [or] Biltmore Square Mall, where some space is opening up. Perhaps in the River District, where it could jump-start development.”
Commissioner David Young interjected, “UNCA.”
“Right, or at UNCA,” echoed Powell.
During the public-comment period at the end of the meeting, Fairview resident John Patterson pointed out what he called a flaw in the performing-arts-center plan: It would eliminate most of the revenue currently generated there.
Patterson is president of Western Carolina Productions, which stages RV & boat shows and the Mountain Living Log and Timber Frame Home Show at the Civic Center. He said: “The new facility would only provide the services now provided by Thomas Wolfe, which accounts for 16 percent of the revenue. If this plan goes forward, there won’t be any more downtown concerts. The community needs a facility with a 7,000- to 10,000-seat capacity. Right now, the Civic Center is working over 200 days per year, and there is no other facility that can handle that size crowd.”
“What about the Ag Center?” asked Ramsey.
“That’s a horse ring,” answered Patterson, sparking general laughter.
Commissioner Peterson was quick to point out that, in fact, the WNC Agricultural Center is a horse ring, and it’s busy throughout the year with horse events. “There aren’t many available days to hold any other kind of event there,” she said.
Patterson agreed, saying: “I get so tired of hearing the words ‘Civic Center’ preceded by the word ‘dilapidated.’ It is a functional facility which needs some repair.”
The commissioners also made two appointments: Minnie Jones to the Western Highlands Network board and Julie Strum to the Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee.