Buncombe Commissioners: Naming names

  • Buncombe County commissioners Feb. 2 meeting
  • Commissioners briefed on Forsyth prayer ruling
  • $500,000 in state home-repair funds
  • County seeks federal grant for Eco-Panels

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners kept its Feb. 2 meeting short, dealing mostly with such routine matters as stepping up efforts to collect outstanding property taxes and handing out unused grant funds.

But the commissioners did discuss one ongoing, controversial topic, albeit behind closed doors. A federal court ruled recently that the Forsyth County commissioners' practice of opening their meetings with a (typically Christian) prayer is unconstitutional, and the decision could have ramifications for Buncombe's similar practice. In closed session, county legal staff advised the commissioners on the ruling's potential impact, but the board has not yet taken any action.

A taxing situation

Tax Director Gary Roberts comes to the board annually seeking permission to make the names of delinquent taxpayers public. This time, however, Roberts said the economic downturn has contributed to a rise in unpaid taxes — some 6,200 to 6,500 taxpayers collectively owe about $11.6 million, and "Many, many more people are setting up payment plans than we've ever had."

Historically, Buncombe County has enjoyed a higher tax-collection rate than the state average, and while the rate has declined to 91.86 percent so far, it should remain well above the state average.

"We still expect to have a good collection year," noted Roberts, prompting board Chair David Gantt to chime in, "because the more we collect, the less taxes have to be."

The board unanimously gave Roberts the go-ahead, with Commissioner Carol Peterson (who made the motion) dubbing him "our compassionate tax collector." On March 21, the county will start advertising delinquent taxpayers' names in local papers.

On another 5-0 vote, the commissioners unanimously approved disbursing $500,000 in state grants to help low-income homeowners repair or improve their dwellings.

The commissioners also unanimously approved applying for $6.5 million in federal recovery funds for the Mocksville, N.C.-based Eco-Panels, which manufactures one-piece, environmentally friendly prefab wall modules. The funding would enable the company to move to Buncombe and provide more than 50 local jobs.

"This sounds like it's a sustainable business," noted Commissioner Holly Jones. "This gives me so much hope: We've got to start making goods in America. This is our future, and I'm glad to help in this and open to finding other ways we can facilitate this kind of investment in our community."

Prayed out

In December, after a magistrate initially ruled Forsyth's prayer policy unconstitutional, Buncombe County Attorney Michael Frue sent out a memo advising municipal governing bodies and other local officials that the board would shift to a moment of silence instead of a prayer. The board then declared that it had made no decision but would discuss the matter during its Jan. 5 meeting.

But that didn't happen either. Instead, Gantt phoned his fellow commissioners individually — in a move that N.C. Press Association attorney Mike Tadych said violated the spirit if not the letter of the state's open-meetings law — and they decided to stick with the current policy. Meanwhile, at their Jan. 5 meeting, board members got an earful from both supporters and opponents of the prayer policy (see "On a Meeting and a Prayer," Jan. 13 Xpress).

And though Frue advised the board on the ruling's implications in closed session during the Feb. 2 meeting, as of this writing, he has yet to reveal exactly what that advice was.

"I just informed the board what they'd done in Forsyth, and laid out some options," Frue tells Xpress.

It's unknown yet whether the board will take any action on those options in the near future — whether by phone call or in a public meeting.

CTS neighbor calls for reassessing property values

During the public-comment portion of the meeting, county resident Aaron Penland, who lives near the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site on Mills Gap Road, called upon the commissioners to reassess property values in the neighborhood, saying that the health risks from ground-water pollution have made it almost impossible for residents to sell or otherwise profit from their homes.

As evidence, he presented the board with a disclaimer from Beverly-Hanks & Associates warning potential homebuyers in the area that "the subject property is bordered by or near the former CTS manufacturing facility, which factory or facility is generally recognized in the community as having environmental contamination issues or concerns."

"If you were looking to buy a property and someone put this in your hands, would you still be willing to buy? I don't think you would," asserted Penland. "These people live in an area that's contaminated; their property values are plummeting. We'd like to ask that a reassessment be done. It needs to be looked at, and their taxes need to be reconsidered."
Gantt thanked Penland for his time, adding that all comments concerning CTS are being passed on to the federal and state agencies overseeing the site cleanup.


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