The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners took advantage of their Feb. 21 retreat (continued from the Feb. 7 regular session) to hear reports, weigh proposals and even dream a little. Seated at a U-shaped table and picking at box lunches, commissioners and staff discussed their druthers for the fiscal year 2006-07 budget, ranging from fundamental matters to the various commissioners’ wish lists.
At the outset, all five elected officials rose and exited together as Commissioner Bill Stanley quipped to this reporter and perennial gadflies Jerry Rice and Don Yelton, “We’re not going into secret session; we’re being photographed.” This was in reference to Rice’s discovery that a quorum of commissioners was discussing voting-machine purchases in private before a Jan. 19 Board of Commissioners meeting devoted to that subject (see “Backroom Discussions,” Jan. 25 Xpress).
First up was a proposal that community groups receiving 20 percent or more of their annual budget from the county be required to open their books to the public. This would be in addition to the current requirement that such groups provide annual audited financial statements or reports. Chairman Nathan Ramsey suggested that the proposal should apply to groups receiving $10,000 or more per year, prompting a general discussion.
The board also heard a report from Finance Director Donna Clark on “tax-increment financing,” which she said is now known as “project-development financing,” because the word “tax” has negative connotations. The method, recently approved as an amendment to the state constitution, has been a source of controversy because the money to repay the bonds comes not from general tax revenues but from increased property-tax revenues resulting from the very improvements the bonds are funding. The law also permits implementation without voter approval. Clark offered a proposal that would make such financing less attractive to potential developers — and more secure for the county.
Both proposals were tabled for future consideration.
Lou Mongiovi, Mark Morris, John Menkes, Norman Riddle and Pat Roberts were unanimously appointed to the Board of Equalization and Review.
Costs and benefits
Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton made a pitch for changing the county’s economic-development policy to encourage both new and existing businesses to create more jobs. The current incentives program, he explained, rewards companies for investing in facilities and equipment.
“We want to divide it in half — base half of the incentive on investment and the other half on jobs and wages. This would increase incentives for creating more jobs at higher wages,” said Creighton. He then presented a detailed plan designed to offer qualified companies the same dollar amount they could get now while shifting the emphasis.
Vice Chairman David Gantt asked if a company could average out one very highly paid manager with 100 minimum-wage workers, giving a distorted picture of how much county residents would actually benefit.
Creighton explained that the formula considers both wages and number of jobs created at each level. “The new approach would be a lot fairer to everybody that we’re dealing with. It beefs up our current policy and makes it clearer to the person coming through the door,” he said.
Commissioners Carol Peterson and David Young voiced support for the changes, which would also require companies receiving incentives to provide health-insurance plans for all their employees and to pay at least half the cost.
In the ensuing discussion, Mandy Stone, director of the Department of Social Services, reported that according to DSS figures, a county household with one adult working full time and one infant must earn at least $13 per hour to make ends meet. Households with two adults and one infant require an income stream of $18 per hour.
Below those thresholds, subpar wages begin costing the county money. For employees making $10 per hour or less, public services such as food assistance, medical care and emergency services can amount to a county subsidy of $6.62 per hour, noted Stone. If a family uses daycare facilities, that costs the county another $1 per hour, and county involvement in collecting child-support payments adds an additional $1.27 per hour, bringing the taxpayer subsidy for those low-wage jobs to as much as $8.89 per hour.
After further discussion, the board approved the proposed changes 5-0.
Wearing his other hat as planning director, Creighton discussed possible changes in the Slope Development Ordinance, noting that his department has begun holding hearings on the matter. Under the proposed rules, a developer would be required to hire a geotechnical engineer to evaluate sites with a gradient of 30 percent or more (the current threshold is 40 percent). Density regulations on steep slopes would also be tightened, and slope-related requirements would kick in at a 15 percent grade instead of the current 25 percent.
“How much will this help erosion control?” asked Young.
“A lot,” said Creighton.
“We can’t stop development,” Gantt observed, adding: “I think we owe it to our children and grandchildren to keep [the county] nice. I think these are reasonable compromises.”
After a brief discussion, Gantt’s motion for approval was tabled till a public hearing on the matter could be held at the commissioners’ next regular meeting.
“We’ve got to do something to protect our views,” concluded Young.
Keeping Buncombe beautiful
Ken Reeves, director of the Buncombe County office of N.C. Cooperative Extension, reported on a series of nine community meetings he’s chaired, seeking input on the issues that most concern the public. The forums were held in Avery’s Creek, Fairview, Barnardsville, Jupiter, Spring Mountain, Swannanoa, Buckeye Cove, Leicester and Upper Hominy. Reeves gave the commissioners a two-page summary and a five-page detailed report on citizen response.
“This is not a complete picture by any means of what the communities need, but it is … a solid starting point,” he said. “Communities were well represented throughout the county.”
Reeves cited three common values among the communities he’d visited: sense of community, natural assets and community resources. That prompted considerable discussion of specific issues such as animal control, historic preservation, annexation and support for community centers.
Peterson, who’d attended some of the meetings, said: “There was a strong sense of people wanting Buncombe to stay the way it is today. They like the natural beauty and the mountains, and they look to us to accomplish that.”
Reeves rejoined, “The difficult thing you will have to deal with is that the same person who will tell you that they want to preserve the land will tell you that they don’t want to be told what to do with their land.” The final meeting in this series will be held Monday, March 20, at the Stephens-Lee Center, starting at 6:30 p.m.
At that point, County Manager Wanda Greene invited individual commissioners to speak up, saying, “What we want to hear now is what you want to see happen in the next year.”
Stanley was brief, saying he’s happy with the county’s current direction. “I think we just need to keep supporting the staff in doing what they are doing.”
Young also looked to the staff, speaking about the need for restraint. “I’m feeling that we need to really focus on a few key areas. We’ve had so many requests for funds from different groups that it is staggering. Wanda, your staff is going to have to make a concerted effort to tell us what we have to do. We’ve got to address a few of those key areas, fund them the right way, and have to start saying ‘no’ more often than we would like to.”
Peterson agreed, saying: “We have a real obligation to our citizens to look at the services we provide for them and the taxes they pay and to be sure we provide them in the most cost-worthy manner. Education is huge: We’ve got to make sure our population is well-educated. We’ve got to make sure that our population is healthy and that people who need health care are getting it. Once we see that tax money is used for the services we need to supply to our citizens, then let’s look at the other areas. We can’t do that unless we make sure that our citizens are taken care of.”
Gantt, however, took a markedly different tack. He began by asking Greene, “What rank is Buncombe County in the state as far as tax rate?”
“No. 70. We have the lowest rate in the top 10 [most populous] counties,” Greene replied.
“What I do in my office,” countered Gantt, “is look at what services we provide and then see what that will cost. I don’t believe we should set the tax rate and then decide what we should do. We should look at what we need to do and then set the rate.
“We need to provide the health care, the teachers, the schools; we need to have the county employees being paid adequately.”
Gantt then cited some new things he feels should be addressed, saying: “I think the time has come to hire a public-information director. I’d like to look at getting a lobbyist, as long as Congress is earmarking funds. And I’d like to implement a lands-legacy program. Let’s do it systematically, and let’s look at what makes sense for the people here. Either we’re going to have a Parks and Recreation Department or we should consider merging it [with Asheville’s].”
Gantt also emphasized the importance of financial planning. “We need to have money in the budget so that when something happens with the Civic Center and arena … we can participate. We’re going to have to have money for whatever is going to be done there, and to go to the General Assembly for help.”
Then it was Ramsey’s turn to weigh in. “First of all, no matter what tax rate we agree on, a lot of people will think it is too much,” he noted. “There is a growing disparity between our citizens; we are going to see more wealth coming into our community in the next 10 years than in the past, unless the sky falls.
“Specifically, on education, we need good public schools. Certainly the dropout rate is a problem, but for the money we spend, they’re doing a great job.
“I’d like to see a more seamless system between A-B Tech and our public schools. Perhaps we can offer a free ride through A-B Tech for at-risk students who graduate from high school.
“I hope we can come up with some settlement concerning water, and I think we should merge Parks & Rec. Long term, we need to have more merged services in our community as the line between city and county becomes less clear.”
During a general discussion of education (including what the county might do with its eventual share of lottery money), Ramsey observed: “The state is going to have to make a fundamental change in how education is funded. It is unfair that the poor counties have so much less than the wealthy, urban counties.”
That prompted Young to bring up bonds issued by two of those more prosperous counties, Wake and Orange, for things like open-space preservation, conservation easements, and parks and rec. “I’d like to look at that — how they did it, what resources are available,” he said.
Ramsey replied, “I think there is consensus in the county about preservation, even if there isn’t always agreement about land-use planning or zoning.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Gantt asked, “Why don’t we pass some resolutions to support the concept of an expansive preservation program: the three-county French Broad bikeway and connecting our green spaces to the Appalachian Trail and [Mountains-to-Sea] Trail?”
Following further general discussion of revenues, tax relief for farmers and foresters under present-use rules, and the impact of taxes on the elderly, the two-and-a-half-hour meeting moved into closed session. After citing the appropriate laws, County Attorney Joe Connolly said, “I don’t anticipate that the board will take any action on these matters.”