Amid continuing tough economic conditions, A-B Tech is looking to county residents for support. Come November, voters will be asked to approve a sales-tax increase to benefit the local community college.
At their Jan. 18 meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners unanimously gave the go-ahead to holding a referendum on a 0.25 percent sales-tax increase to help fund $129 million in building improvements at the school. Voters will get their say Nov. 8; if they endorse the measure, the commissioners would still have to formally enact it. At this writing, it’s not clear when such an increase would take effect.
A-B Tech President Hank Dunn first requested the vote at the commissioners' annual retreat in December, calling the money an “investment in local jobs.” In a subsequent letter to County Manager Wanda Greene, Dunn further explained that the money is needed for building repairs, maintenance and "to expand the capacity of our allied health programs to train employees for one of Western North Carolina's largest employment sectors."
According to Dunn, health-care workers account for 25 percent of the region's service sector. “A-B Tech is currently out of space to add new programs in the existing Health Building,” he wrote, “and our ability to provide work-force training could be substantially strengthened by the construction of a building that would support the growth of our health programs."
Dunn echoed those sentiments when he took the lectern on Jan. 18.
"Our great community college needs help from the community, in that we have infrastructure needs," he said. "We believe that we are an economic engine. But we also think we're an investment in the community. And we think that the community will see that and understand that a strong community college with a strong infrastructure is important for Western North Carolina."
Dunn also cited the school's business-incubator program and the newly formed A-B Tech Entrepreneurial Development Foundation. The goal is "to be partly responsible or responsible for the development of 1,000 new businesses — not new jobs — over the next 10 years," he explained. The additional tax revenue, said Dunn, would give the school "the ability to create more incubation space."
According to Greene, the proposed tax increase would generate an estimated $6 million to $7 million a year. The commissioners said they would probably include a sunset clause canceling the tax after 20 or 25 years. Still, "The annual cash flow would allow us to do most things we think are important," reported Dunn.
Last year, he noted, the school’s enrollment grew by 16 percent, and he expects it to increase by an additional 6 percent to 8 percent in 2011. Currently, A-B Tech has about 8,000 students in degree or certificate programs and another 18,000 enrolled in other classes and programs. Their average age is 27, according to Dunn.
David Wyatt, who chairs the school’s board of trustees, sought to downplay the impact the tax increase would have on county residents, noting that if a person spent $1,000 a month on items covered by the increase, it would cost them an additional $2.50 per month. "A general sales tax doesn't cover everybody,” Wyatt explained. “You don't have to pay it when you go to the grocery store — the food tax is separate. You don't pay it on your mortgage; you don't pay it on your gasoline."
Buncombe's current sales-tax rate is 7.75 percent. But on July 1, sales-tax rates statewide are scheduled to drop by 1 percent unless the General Assembly extends the temporary sales-tax increase enacted in 2009. (Republican leaders have said they intend to let the tax surcharge expire.) So even if A-B Tech’s proposal is approved, local voters might still see the overall tax rate drop.
Nonetheless, the ballot initiative didn't sit well with Jupiter resident Don Yelton, the conservative talk-show host who is second vice chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party.
"Why should Buncombe taxpayers pay to be Mission [Hospitals’] training school?" he asked during the public hearing. "I think it's time we start tightening up the belt rather than expanding it."
Candler resident Jerry Rice also questioned the wisdom of investing tax dollars in A-B Tech's Enka campus, noting that the property is on the state’s list of inactive hazardous-waste sites and asking if potential health threats have been assessed. Board Chair David Gantt promised Rice that the commissioners and county staff would work on getting him answers.
The tax measure found an unanticipated ally in Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, who spontaneously rose from his seat to voice support. "I wasn't planning on commenting but felt moved to," he explained. "A-B Tech is setting the bar for community colleges in training law enforcement."
Before making a motion to pass the resolution, Commissoner Carol Peterson joked that the school just might have found an ideal spokesperson in Duncan.
"It's important that supporters of A-B Tech get out there and sell this program," declared Peterson, who also serves on the school's board of trustees. "I'm personally one to want to see an A-B Tech bumper sticker on every car in Buncombe County. Let's get the voters out to vote, let's sell the story, let’s make them know what they're voting on, and let's have a great turnout."
Commissioner K. Ray Bailey seconded the motion. He worked at the school for 42 years, serving as president for the last 15.
Before Commissioner Bill Stanley cast his vote, he observed, "Taxes are not a very popular thing in this day and time." But, he continued, "A-B Tech is a flagship of community colleges in the country" that's worthy of support.
Gantt agreed, adding, "Education is going to be the key for people to pull out of this economy."
After the measure was unanimously approved, Dunn promised that the school will wage a major get-out-the-vote campaign before the election.
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.