Already facing a lengthy agenda — and the challenge of getting through it all by 6 p.m. (when they were expected at an annual dinner) — Buncombe County commissioners seemed surprised when they entered their chambers on March 10 and found the room packed with agitated county residents waiting to comment on their tax revaluations.
Commissioners denied a request to start the 4 p.m. meeting with a public-comment period, and Commissioner Patsy Keever announced that, when the time for public comment did arrive, people who had come to speak on specific agenda items would get first dibs. Citizens who had come without “warning” would get what time was left, she said.
“Are we supposed to let you know if we’re going to come?” asked resident Bob Gettys, when the public-comment period finally arrived.
“You could have let us know,” answered Keever.
Gettys was unrelenting, however, telling the board that it’s “obligated” to arrange its meetings so that people leaving work can attend and — if they like — speak what’s on their minds.
“We’ve never left people sitting in their seats,” objected board chair Tom Sobol, who later told Mountain Xpress that commissioners would probably take heat for the time shortage. But Sobol defended the Board, saying commissioners are almost always more than generous when it comes to public comment.
Buncombe County residents Dick Rice and Richard Nantelle Jr., who left the meeting when it became clear that public comment would be limited, said they believed commissioners did know people were coming to speak about the property revaluations.
It was “no secret,” said Nantelle, who wants a public hearing on the reassessments.
“I think it was planned,” charged Rice.
Cash for Champion, Vanderbilt
With an eye on the clock, the commissioners rolled through their agenda items, which included two groups asking for county cash. They voted to give $50,000 to the employees of Haywood County’s two Champion International paper mills, to help with an employee-buyout plan, and they reluctantly earmarked $22,500 for repairs to the Vanderbilt Apartments in downtown Asheville.
The $50,000 award to Champion employees is based on a state statute that allows local governments to protect their tax bases; though the money will come from the county’s economic-development budget, the award is not considered an economic-development incentive (which usually requires a public hearing), according to County Manager Wanda Greene.
Greene estimated Champion’s economic impact on Buncombe County as $75 million annually. That’s a “tremendous impact,” she said.
Champion, which announced the pending sale of its Haywood County mills in October, employs about 1,600 people from western North Carolina; 202 of them live in Buncombe County. In December, members of the United Paperworkers International, Smoky Mountain Local 507 — which represents workers at the Champion mills in Canton and Waynesville — announced that they would try to buy the two paper mills.
Buncombe County resident Jerry Rice expressed skepticism about commissioners’ handing over the money, and he questioned whether the decision wasn’t setting a dangerous precedent by giving the employees an “unfair advantage” over other potential buyers.
“I hope we are giving them an unfair advantage,” Commissioner David Young replied, citing Champion’s “tremendous economic impact.”
“An employee buyout is a tool for keeping jobs in western North Carolina,” said Local 507 chair Alton Higgins, who assured the commissioners that plant employees would be more concerned with the mills’ environmental impact on the area than the current Champion management is.
Commissioner Bill Stanley expressed no doubts about which way to cast his vote. In his 10 years as a commissioner, he said, “I think this is one of the best things we’ve ever done here.”
The commissioners were less pleased about the prospect of parting with $22,500 to help fix the brick facade of the Vanderbilt Apartments, a low-income housing complex for the elderly. But in a 4-1 vote (Commissioner David Gantt dissenting), they tentatively agreed to set the money aside in the county’s fiscal year 1999 budget. However, they clearly stated that the money might not be there by the time the final budget is passed, and Greene urged the apartment board to seek funding elsewhere.
Members of the apartments’ board had asked commissioners for money back in February. Because of a shoddy renovation in the ’60s, board members said, the building’s brick shell has come loose from its inner steel structure, and the bricks may soon start dropping randomly from the nine-story building (though none have fallen yet).
The $22,500 is a fraction of what the apartment board originally requested from the county — and an even smaller fraction of the repair job’s reported $2.3 million price tag. A U.S. Housing and Urban Development loan will cover most of the cost, but that loan won’t be approved without a show of local financial support, according to Vanderbilt Apartments board members.
Can’t get ahead of property taxes
As the remaining minutes before the annual A-B Tech culinary-school dinner slipped swiftly into history, commissioners turned the floor over to public comment.
County resident Mike Smith used his opportunity to tell the commissioners that he can run — but not fast enough to outpace his property taxes.
“I can’t keep up with the taxes in Buncombe County,” complained the 37-year-old Weaverville man. He argued that property taxes are rising faster than pay raises and inflation, and that the increases are making it difficult to raise a family here. “I’m a native of this place. I’ve almost been rooted out,” said Smith, whose comments garnered applause.
Smith owns two pieces of land in Buncombe, and both were assessed at about 50 percent higher than the last revaluation, he said.
Nantelle told Mountain Xpress that his property assessments have doubled. Dick Rice, calling the revaluations “unjust and inaccurate,” suggested dumping the new figures entirely.
Speaking on behalf of county government, however, County Real Property Manager Linda Brown admitted that the county makes mistakes in its reassessments, but said that property values do rise. She mentioned a piece of property that was assessed at $30,000 higher — to $93,000 — in just two years.
Residents like Smith, Nantelle and Dick Rice have barraged commissioners and the county tax office with complaints about their property revaluations. Many residents — including Rachel Queen, the chair of the Taxpayers for Accountable Government — are calling for a public hearing to talk about the revaluations. Many also are calling for new, revenue-neutral tax rates.
The county’s tax base has swelled from about $6.6 billion in 1994 to $8.4 billion in 1998, according to Buncombe County Tax Director Jerome Jones.
Board of Commissioners Chair Sobol is on record promising that part of that increase will be rolled back — meaning that the tax rate applied to the new property values will be lowered, though not necessarily so much that tax revenues would be held to 1994 levels. “The cost of government goes up,” Jones told the Xpress.
People who own property in hot real-estate areas, primarily the north and south ends of the county, may end up paying a bigger share of the total. Complicating the picture is the fact that, legally, any roll-back of property taxes would have to be matched by one on personal property such as cars, boats and campers, Jones explained, saying, “It’s a little bit of a juggling act.”
Since the commissioners’ meeting, Sobol has announced a series of revaluation question-and-answer sessions with commissioners and county staff during the week of March 23. (At press time, dates and times had not been finalized.)
Finally, mere minutes before 6 p.m., commissioners declared the meeting over and plunged anxiously into a closed session. Reappearing a scant 10 minutes later, they scurried out of the courthouse, already late to dinner.