Following a brief public hearing at their Feb. 1 formal meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners unanimously approved a three-year financial-incentive package for one of the county’s largest employers. The $250,000 grant to Sonopress LLC was made in response to the company’s recent investment in its manufacturing facilities and the resulting expansion of its work force.
Sonopress, said Chief Financial Officer John Pierce, has invested more than $36 million in its north Buncombe plant during the past year, expanding its CD-production capacity by more than 50 percent and almost doubling its DVD production. The company also added printing and packaging capacity to support the higher product output. “We currently employ 700-plus people and have added over 50 new employees since June, with an average wage of $13.67 per hour,” said Pierce.
Swannanoa resident Eric Gorny wanted to know how a recent court decision in Indiana declaring financial incentives illegal might affect the legality of such grants here. He also questioned the fairness of giving incentives to big businesses but not to small ones, asking, “What is the break-even point for this grant for the county?”
County Attorney Joe Connolly expressed confidence in the process, stating, “My opinion is that this incentive is legal.”
County Planning Director Jon Creighton explained that under county rules, such incentives are “based on a minimum $1.5 million investment and are grants based on taxes the company will pay over three to five years.”
Board Chairman Nathan Ramsey said the payback on the Sonopress grant is expected to be only two years.
Local activist Don Yelton, noting that he’s a near neighbor of Sonopress, said he’s well aware of the importance of the plant to the people who work there. He asked if Weaverville had invested in the deal, saying, “They should have.” (County staff said the town had not done so.) Yelton then addressed the fairness issue, suggesting that the county create a similar grant program for small businesses. A hundred small businesses creating three jobs each is as important to the community as one large employer creating 300, he said.
Drip, drip, drip
The Asheville/Buncombe water agreement, which faces termination July 1, seems as relentlessly present at Board of Commissioners meetings as a steadily leaking faucet in a silent house. Connolly offered an update on the rapidly evaporating city/county agreement, which also covers many non-water-related topics.
“We have executed the deed for Aston Park to the city,” reported Connolly. “Staff continues to explore options as we move toward July 1.” The most immediate effects on county residents, he noted, will be that “the municipal golf course, McCormick Field and the Recreation Park will revert” to the city and “the supply of available water will be affected.”
Connolly then read a letter the county received from Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Cliff Dodson, which read, in part: “I am deeply concerned about a potential rate increase … [because] it will affect current expenses for Buncombe County public schools.”
Ramsey concluded the water discussion by saying: “We commend Mayor Worley and Council for continuing to address the water issue. We’re running out of time.”
County’s credit A-OK
Other new business before the board included a report from Buncombe County Finance Director Donna Clark concerning the county’s AAA bond ratings. “We enjoy a great credit rating,” said Clark. “The higher the bond rating that a county has, the lower the interest paid on bonds, because there is less risk to investors.”
Connolly then presented memorandums of understanding between the county and its two school boards (county and city) concerning pending certificate of participation bonds (see “Full Retreat,” Jan. 26, 2005 Xpress). The memorandums spell out the parties’ responsibilities to the funding plan but do not approve the actual funding. Although COP bonds are not subject to approval by voters (as are general-obligation bond issues), there will be a public hearing, with advance notice given, before the commissioners approve the deals.
County Tax Collection Manager Teresa Proffitt reported that as of Jan. 31, collections of current taxes stood at 94.04 percent, with 10,280 bills still uncollected. This represents a more than 1 percent improvement over last year’s collection rate. She explained that third notices will be mailed Feb. 4 telling taxpayers that their delinquent taxes will be advertised in March. March 11 will be the last day to pay and not have one’s name listed in the newspaper.
Brenda Mills, the county’s director of minority affairs, presented an annual report on her department’s efforts to encourage more county contracts with minority concerns. “There has been a pretty significant increase in minority-business participation in the past year,” she said. “Currently, 155 minority- and women-owned businesses are registered with the program.”
Planner Cynthia Barcklow delivered an overview of the county’s affordable-housing initiative. Since 2000, the county program has supported the construction or purchase of 242 units, she said, with five homes now under construction. As the money loaned through the program is repaid, it is used to support more affordable-housing projects.
Before concluding the session, the commissioners approved the following board appointments. Brian Bartlett, Rod Hudgins, Scott Hughes, Jay Marino, Les Mitchell and David Summey to the Planning Board; Pam Myers to the Downtown Commission; Althea Goode, Karen Ballard, David Price, Althea Gonzoles, Connie Mitchell, Carol Hensley, Marvin Vierra, Lisa Schlechter, Latrella Higgins, Carmella Watkins and Valerie Dennis to the Minority Business Commission; and Joe Connolly to the School Capital Commission Board.