Only two county residents were on hand for a public hearing during the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ April 19 formal session. The hearing concerned a proposed $8 million cash advance for the city and county schools, part of a $51 million funding package (for the Asheville and Buncombe County school systems plus A-B Tech) that the Board of Commissioners intends to approve next fall. The cash advance will enable work on planned projects to begin before the bonds that will fund it are officially approved. Both Jerry Rice and Don Yelton raised questions about the funding deal that went more or less unanswered by the commissioners.
Buncombe County’s dropout rate ranks among the worst in the state, noted Rice, adding that hiring more teachers should be a higher priority than new buildings. Furthermore, “We were promised that we wouldn’t have more bond issues after the last bond had ended,” he reminded the commissioners.
And Yelton, while not expressing outright opposition to the school projects, wondered: “What if the economy tanks? Who holds the bag?” The projects are to be financed using certificates of participation — special bonds (funded by sales taxes) that don’t require voter approval.
“There is a funding source,” noted Chairman Nathan Ramsey.
That’s fine in good times, said a clearly unsatisfied Yelton, grimly repeating his earlier question: “What if the economy tanks?”
With no further discussion, the board unanimously approved the funding.
“The county gets $11 million in sales taxes each year. Why don’t they want to pay as you go?” Rice said in a later interview. “This is a slick way of saying we can get money without voters’ approval.”
Passing the bag?
During the public-comment period preceding the formal meeting, Shoji spa owner Carl Mott told the commissioners about his company’s ongoing difficulties with construction and the role played by county inspectors (see “The Buck Stops Where?” March 9 Xpress). Noting that his family has been in Buncombe County for more than 150 years, Mott said he’d never before had a reason to question the ethics of county officials.
But in this instance, multiple significant structural defects — all of which had been approved by county inspectors — were found late in the contruction process, he explained. Associate County Attorney Keith Snyder had promised the Shoji partners that the county would take full responsibility for the errors, Mott said. “But County Attorney Joe Connolly refused to participate in discussions about the problems … and then claimed sovereign immunity.”
The legal doctrine holds that governments can’t be sued for mistakes made in the course of doing work required by law.
Past decisions by North Carolina courts have stipulated that claims of sovereign immunity are invalid if a municipality has purchased insurance to cover such lapses, noted Mott.
Buncombe County holds such a policy, according to Connolly’s “Answer of Defendant” filed in the district court in response to Shoji’s lawsuit against the county.
Water, water everywhere
Connolly delivered a brief report on behalf of County Manager Wanda Greene detailing upcoming closed-door negotiations between the county and city on the unraveling Water Agreement, slated for April 26. The Board of Commissioners and the Asheville City Council planned to meet in separate rooms at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel, with the city and county attorneys and a mediator shuttling back and forth between the two. No explanation was offered as to why the gatherings would not be open to the public, as is generally required under North Carolina’s open-meetings law. (See “Behind Closed Doors”.)
In other business, the board proclaimed Roy Williams Day (May 1) and Clean Air Awareness Week (April 24-30). Williams, an Asheville native, is the head coach of UNC-Chapel Hill’s championship basketball team. The commissioners also heaped special recognition on the month of May, declaring it Foster Care Appreciation Month, Motorcycle Awareness Month and Older Americans Month.
In addition, the board heard a report from the county’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, including recommendations for fiscal year 2005-06 funding. The Eblen Foundation gave an update on its charitable work in the region. And Marsha Bate and Chris Eller were reappointed to the Board of Health.