Buncombe County Commission

Pay up — or else

Most Buncombe County property owners have paid their taxes for 1999 (due by Jan. 5, 2000). But 7 percent of them –approximately 8,000 — haven’t, and their bills add up to $5 million that’s owed to the county, Tax Director Jerome Jones reported to the Board of Commissioners on Feb. 1. If those property-tax delinquents fail to pay by March 8, their names may be listed for all to see in the Asheville Citizen-Times, starting March 12, he warned.

That’s not to say the tax office isn’t willing to work with people: “If there’s some reason you can’t pay, please call us [at] 250-4910,” requested Jones. But, barring a taxpayer’s attempt to pay (or at least contact the tax office), the county’s next legal steps could include such things as garnishing wages, taking a lien on the property in question — or, ultimately, foreclosure, he explained.

The name-in-the-paper method works quite well, noted Jones: Last year, just 340 taxpayers wound up in court for not paying their tax bills; a mere 15 of those had their property foreclosed. And most, if not all, of those die-hard delinquents were not county residents.

Commissioners said little in response to Jones’ report. Vice Chair Patsy Keever pointed out that delinquent taxpayers do have a chance to keep their names out of the paper, if they pay by Friday, March 8 (the first listings appear in the Citizen-Times‘ Sunday edition, that weekend). And Commissioner David Gantt asked how the delinquencies measure up to last year’s numbers, and whether people tend to wait to pay until penalties and interest accrue.

At that last question, Commissioner Bill Stanley interjected that he’s heard folks maintain that holding off on paying their taxes “was the best money they ever borrowed,” because the late-payment penalties and interest are so minimal.

Jones replied that the $5 million owed to the county is a little more than the outstanding balance at this time last year, and that people do tend to wait until the penalties and interest take effect, before paying. It’s not true, he continued, that most tax delinquents don’t have the money: Some of the unpaid individual bills come to more than $100,000 — owed by property owners who “can afford to pay,” asserted Jones. And, for those who can’t, there are partial tax exemptions for those over age 65 or 100 percent disabled — plus, it’s possible to pay your bill with a credit card.

With almost no further discussion, the commissioners voted unanimously to grant the Tax Department permission to advertise the names of those who haven’t paid their taxes.

FFA: money and tarantulas

Friends For Animals spent its $600,000 county grant for 1999 in “an appropriate manner,” county internal auditor Sonia Burgin told the Board of Commissioners on Feb. 1. Burgin indicated that she has now completed the report she first presented to commissioners in preliminary form, a few weeks ago — in response to charges by critics that the nonprofit was stockpiling a significant portion of the money it’s paid by the county to provide animal-shelter and animal-control services.

She gave the organization’s finances a clean bill of health, eliciting applause from former FFA board member Bill McKelvy and his companions.

Burgin did note, however, that FFA has not set aside the $21,000 in county funds earmarked for buying a new vehicle. Only $16,498 of last year’s county funding remains.

Commissioners made no comment on Burgin’s findings.

But McKelvy, now president of the nonprofit Humane Alliance, spoke up later at the Feb. 1 meeting. First, he asserted that, every time he watches the commissioners’ meetings on television, he hears his name and reputation being attacked. “I’m sure [the] public-comment [period] was not meant for public attack,” he declared.

Branding his critics — and those of FFA — “tarantulas … people who can’t improve their own place in the world [and] devote all their energy to tearing others down,” McKelvy quoted philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, saying, “Resentment is the least explored of the primary human motivations.” And now, FFA’s critics — who’ve lobbied commissioners to investigate the organization’s management and finances — have turned their attention to the Humane Alliance, McKelvy continued, proclaiming, “I hope the public of Buncombe County will rise up to exterminate them.”

McKelvy ran out of time before he could say much in defense of his maligned reputation (commissioners allow each speaker three minutes during the public-comment period, at the end of every regular meeting). But he did say, in response to accusations that he has undue influence over the commissioners — “that comes of 13 years of trying to build a relationship.”

Row, row, row your pontoon

Carolina Power & Light recently donated $16,421 to Buncombe County Recreation Services, to buy a 24-passenger pontoon boat for Lake Julian Park. Last fall, recreation and CP&L officials met at the park and observed, firsthand, the difficulty elderly and disabled patrons have in using the paddle boats available at the lake, noted CP&L representative Nancy Thompson. The pontoon boat will make a cruise on the artificial lake available to all, while creating educational opportunities for children. “We’re beginning to plan a maiden voyage [for] April 4,” said Thompson, extending an invitation to commissioners.

A place to play

Thanks to substantial grants and donations, Buncombe County’s first soccer complex could be ready for use by this fall, Buncombe County Recreation Services Director Annette Wise told commissioners.

Nearly $500,000 in grants and corporate sponsorships has been received to date. Pepsi Cola gave $150,000 (plus an annual stipend for operating expenses), and the state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund provided $248,737. Other donors include: Ingle’s Markets ($26,000), the WNC Soccer Foundation ($22,500), McDonald’s ($15,000), and the Ramada Plaza Hotel ($5,000). Add in the $600,000 budgeted by commissioners last year, and the county has secured nearly 89 percent of the $1.2 million needed to complete the project, staff reported.

The facility, adjacent to the BASF plant and the Sand Hill-Venable Elementary School in Enka-Candler, will feature seven soccer fields, a walking trail, a concession stand, plenty of parking, and a volleyball court, explained BCRS Athletic Supervisor Marty Standridge, adding, “It’s going to be a great family facility.” He also noted that, this year, BCRS will begin mandatory background checks on all coaches.

More than 2,000 adults and children have already signed up for spring soccer, noted Asheville-Buncombe Youth Soccer Assocation President Mark Jordan. Because the teams are kept small (to ensure that everyone gets to play), those numbers mean that more than 200 coaches and nearly 70 referees will be needed, he said.

Old computers, new tricks

What would you do with an old 486 computer? Even though they’re only five years old, such machines are dreadfully out of date — unsuitable for Internet surfing and not worth much at auction, according to Buncombe County Purchasing Director Wayne Jacklin. Why, they won’t even run Windows ’95 (much less the ’98 version).

So county officials donated 54 old PCs to the Buncombe County Schools. “No one wants [these] PCs, these days,” said Jacklin. The obsolete machines will most likely be used to teach students how to repair computers. Asked by Buncombe County resident Hazel Fobes whether the county had first tried to recycle the old PCs, Jacklin replied, “We are recycling them … to the Board of Education.”

The county regularly rids itself of surplus property, either through auctions or donations to local nonprofits and other organizations. “We still have a lot of [office] desks left, if anyone’s interested,” noted Jacklin.

Public-comment repartee

A variety of Buncombe County residents take advantage of the public-comment period at the end of every Board of Commissioners meeting. In addition to regulars Mike Morgan, Gerald Dean and Don Yelton — all three of whom have filed to run for seats on the board this fall, with Yelton taking aim at Board Chair Tom Sobol‘s seat — many other residents show up to express their particular concerns.

On Feb. 1, the first speaker of the afternoon was Kent Cordell, who argued for putting the Ten Commandments and prayer back in the public schools. “Religious principles are the basis for morality … and must be included in education,” he proclaimed, calling those who “cry separation of church and state … liars.” Arguing that, “Our forefathers were believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Cordell also cited the motto “In God, we trust,” declaring that, if elected officials sided with “those who cry the lie of separation of church and state,” they’d be destroying the nation.

To that, commissioners said hardly a word.

But the next speaker, board candidate Morgan, got a rise out of County Manager Wanda Greene. Morgan brought up the much-ballyhooed proposal that a golf course be built on the site of the former county landfill. Given that the current county golf course appears to have lost $200,000 in the past year, “I don’t think we need to be running golf courses,” Morgan argued. Although the facility’s revenues grew by nearly $90,000 during that time, Morgan mentioned, increased expenses far outpaced that growth. He blamed the shortfall, in part, on an apparent increase in the number of employees (from seven to 17) and their associated salaries and benefits.

“Mr. Morgan did not get his facts together,” responded Greene, adding, “There has been no increase [in employees].” She explained that the employees in question were Parks and Recreation maintenance workers who had been paid out of the general fund until 1998, when “we made a decision to move them to the golf course.”

Budget shifts aside, Commissioner Stanley interjected, “We thought a good way to maintain [the old landfill] would be to [build] a golf course.” That would cost about $4 million, he continued, and several developers had looked into the possibility. “Nobody wanted to do [it]. It’s dead in the water,” said Stanley, mentioning that no county funds had been used to pay consultants’ fees.

But Yelton begged to differ: $105,000 in consulting fees was paid through the golf course — which is structured as an “enterprise fund” (like the county landfill, it’s supposed to pay for itself). Yelton continued his train of thought — firing off points like a machine gun, to fit everything into the allotted three minutes — and further charged that paying employees through the general fund had made it appear that the golf course had turned a profit before 1998. He also asked whether it was true that the county is considering renovating the unused upper floors of the county-owned, former Biltmore Press building (which already houses the county’s Recreation Services), in order to avoid having to rent space in the privately owned One Oak Plaza.

Greene replied that the building renovations had been announced months ago. As for the golf-course employees, they were maintenance workers who also did general work for Recreation Services.

Dean spoke next, joking, “I’ve got to learn how to talk fast” (he almost always runs out of time). He brought up the recently announced closings of Charter Hospital and the Family Services Center, asking, “Did any of you five people go to [these organizations] … and try to negotiate a deal to keep them here?” He affirmed the value of these organizations to the community, both for the services and the jobs they provide.

Sobol answered that a committee would be meeting soon to address the loss of services.

Jumping right back in, Dean quizzed Sobol on his repeated assertion that taxes haven’t been raised in Buncombe for five years.

“The tax rate has not increased,” said Sobol.

“My bill’s going up,” Dean tossed back, hardly looking up from his notes.

“Some bills went up, some went down,” said Sobol, sounding an oft-repeated refrain.

Their regular dance done, Dean concluded with his big point: “What are you doing to get jobs? These $7-an-hour jobs ain’t getting it. [People earning that kind of money] can’t even afford a mobile home.”

Commissioners had no quick answer to that one.

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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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