Buncombe County Commission

Commissioners give $7,500 for Pack Square

If you’re driving around the Vance Monument anytime soon, take care: The ground is sinking at one corner of Pack Square.

Appearing before the Buncombe County commissioners on Jan. 18, Downtown Commission Chair Carole King asked the county to pitch in $7,500 to help fund an aesthetic redesign of the square, once city-of-Asheville crews fix the hole.

“How bad is it? … Is the Vance Monument in danger of falling [over]?” queried Commissioner David Gantt.

“They [city staff] are concerned a car will fall through,” King replied — but the monument itself appears safe, since the hole doesn’t seem to extend that far into the square. The sagging brick pavement, though — stretching at least from a crack at the edge of the fountain to the opposite curb, King explained — sinks lower almost every day. Within the next month, city crews will cordon off the area and dig to discover what’s causing the sinkhole, then fix it. More than 40 concerned citizens, meanwhile, have formed a committee to investigate whether a redesign of or improvements to Pack Square could be tied into the repair project, which the city is paying for, King continued. But, she added, the city has no money available “for aesthetics.”

She also noted that most of the funding for the design work and improvements would come from the private sector — not taxpayers. “The [$500,000 to $2 million estimated] cost is too high to ask the governments to foot the bill,” King declared, adding, “We expect the money to come.” A newly hired city grants writer will be assisting the committee in the hunt for funds, she mentioned.

On a motion by Vice Chair Patsy Keever, seconded by board Chair Tom Sobol, the commissioners voted 4-0 to make the $7,500 contribution (Commissioner Bill Stanley was absent).

The property became a public park in 1903, when the old county courthouse that had occupied the site was demolished. Local philanthropist George W. Pack donated land for a new courthouse nearby, on the condition that the former courthouse site be “forever” dedicated to public use. The city of Asheville maintains both the brick drive and the monument; the owners of the adjacent Biltmore Building have, historically, volunteered other maintenance, such as replacing burned-out lights.

FFA: Follow the money

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will seek an independent audit and investigation of Friends For Animals, the private organization that contracts with both the city of Asheville and the county for animal-control and animal-shelter services, county Animal Services Director Mike Bradley indicated on Jan. 18.

That didn’t seem to reassure animal-rights activist (and former FFA board member) Stewart David, who claimed, “[FFA] is keeping county funds to build their own coffers.” David, an accountant, told commissioners he is “appalled” that the FFA appears to be stockpiling funds, instead of spending more on the care of the animals in its charge, or the salaries and training of its employees. David alleged that the FFA has retained nearly $150,000 in county and city funds. (Together, the city and county pay the group about $600,000 a year.)

But County Auditor Sonia Burgin countered that a preliminary examination of the FFA’s books showed less than $1,000 of city/county money remaining. Most of the unspent funds appear to be from donations, spay/neuter fees and the like, she said.

County Manager Wanda Greene added that the county has advised the FFA to keep some money in reserve to replace an aging vehicle, which hasn’t yet been done, she noted. However, FFA should be accumulating reserve funds as it raises money to build a new animal shelter, Greene asserted. The current facility Awaiting Call From Greene Or Bradley.

Burgin repeated her assertion that no significant amount of county or city money remains unspent.

From his seat in the audience, David retorted, “That’s not true.” And as Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol cautioned David that his three-minute public-comment allotment was up, David insisted that he could show how moneys are being stockpiled. Sobol recommended that he and David meet later, to discuss the issue further.

David also noted that the commissioners recent appointments to the new Animal Advisory Board include no FFA critics or animal-rights activists. He urged commissioners to give new advisory-board members the authority to review FFA financial records, attend FFA board meetings, and visit the animal shelter.

Other commissioners made no comment on the issue.

Change the meeting day?

Mike Morgan doesn’t like trying to be in two places at once: He wants the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the Asheville City Council to schedule their meetings on different days (both now meet on Tuesdays).

In response to a question Morgan had posed on Jan. 4, Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene reported on Jan. 18 that commissioners had switched from Monday to Tuesday sessions some 27 years ago. More recently, they pushed back the starting time of meetings, to make it easier for people to attend. “We saw no increase in attendance,” Greene noted. But with commissioners’ meetings now televised, it’s easier for county residents to see them and “feel connected” to county government, she observed.

Morgan, a county resident and outspoken advocate of more open government, is seeking a seat in the state legislature in this fall’s elections.

Taxes a sure thing

Some states — Virginia, for one — have “independent” cities whose residents don’t have to pay their respective county taxes, in addition to the city ones, noted Buncombe County Associate Attorney Stan Clontz at the commissioners’ Jan. 18 meeting. But, “In North Carolina, there is no such animal,” he said.

Clontz was responding to a question posed by Mike Morgan a few weeks ago: Why do Asheville residents also have to pay county taxes? “We’re all citizens of some [N.C.] county. … Everybody receives services from a county,” he explained, citing state statutes that give counties the power to levy ad valorem taxes.

Morgan thanked him for the information, but said, “I’m still concerned about the burden on city taxpayers.”

Find those boats

Buncombe County’s annual tax revenue has grown by more than $23 million over the past five years, county resident Mike Morgan told the Board of Commissioners on Jan. 18. But despite that increase, the county’s general fund — a sort of backup stash that all local governments must maintain — has shrunk dramatically, he pointed out. And, as he has at many past Board of Commissioners meetings, Morgan questioned the county’s policy of “revenue-neutral” budgets — in which, supposedly, there’s no change in the tax rate. The increase in tax revenues seems to indicate otherwise, he implied; and the reduction in the General Fund balance is a sign that expenses are outpacing revenues each year.

Board Chair Sobol said it’s “absolutely true” that taxes haven’t been raised in the past five years. The increased revenue, he said, stems from a combination of growth in the county and a high collection rate (nearly 98 percent of taxes owed).

County Manager Wanda Greene added, “We did have a good year [in 1999].” County staff had projected about $75 million in tax revenues, but assessors actually collected almost $80 million. Some of that extra money came from taxes on property the owners had failed to report.

For example, a Tax Department employee figured out how to track down the taxes owed on boats, noted Tax Director Jerome Jones. Many residents had registered boat trailers with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but hadn’t reported the boats as property. “If you have a [boat] trailer, you probably have a boat,” Jones explained, adding that notices were sent to those trailer owners, requesting an estimate of the value of their boats — on which they were subsequently taxed.

That’s all well and good, but Buncombe resident Jerry Rice wanted to know about the county’s contingency fund. Several budget-amendment items on the Jan. 18 agenda (such as $45,000 for an air compressor) involved drawing on the county’s emergency moneys, he pointed out, asking, “How much [money] is left?”

“It’s dwindling fast,” Greene replied. At the start of each budget year, the board sets aside money for the contingency fund — about $250,000 in the current fiscal year. She told Rice she would get the exact amount remaining by the next meeting.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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