“I think these problems can be solved. It’s not a matter of money only — it’s a matter belief.”
— Asheville City Schools Superintendent Robert Logan on fighting dropouts and closing the achievement gap
Like horses out of the gate, budget requests rushed the lectern at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ May 2 meeting. With the county poised to approve a new budget next month, everyone, it seems, is asking for something. And a lot of those requests collided head-on with the idea of a revenue-neutral tax rate in the wake of the recent property revaluation, which saw the value of property in the county increase by an average of 45 percent.
Among those petitioning the powers that be was Asheville City Schools Superintendent Robert Logan, who was seeking $21.4 million for fiscal year 2006-07 — a $1.1 million increase over current funding.
The Asheville City Schools receive the bulk of their funding from three sources: a general appropriation from the county, a portion of sales-tax revenue, and a supplemental tax on residents within the school district. To fully offset the growth in the tax base, the current supplemental tax rate (20 cents per $100 of assessed value) would have to be lowered to 15 cents. But the district wants to see its tax rate lowered by just 3 cents — raising taxes for homeowners.
The district needs the increase, Logan explained, to keep pace with ever-more-stringent academic standards and mandatory pay increases even as federal and state funding decline. High-school seniors, he noted, face “the highest exit standards in the history of North Carolina” next year.
And though Logan said his district is rated one of the best in the state, he added, “There is always room for improvement.” He emphasized the need to continue to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students and combat dropouts. After declining for four years, Logan said, the dropout rate bumped up 4.5 percent in 2004-05.
“I think these problems can be solved,” the superintendent said. “It’s not a matter of money only — it’s a matter of belief.”
Commissioner David Young asked if the recently enacted state lottery would be putting money into school coffers anytime soon.
“It is so nebulous at this point,” Logan replied. “We just don’t know; we certainly don’t expect to see any of that money in 2006.” (State lawmakers approved the lottery last August but details of how the revenues will be disbursed are in contention.)
The county schools are slated to make their presentation at an upcoming Board of Commissioners meeting.
Fire on the mountain
The bulk of Tuesday’s meeting, though, was given over to budget requests from various county fire departments, each of which has its own supplemental tax. With growth sending its tendrils into a number of formerly rural areas, the need for emergency services — gauged by the rise in annual calls for help — is swelling.
Commissioners heard from fire chiefs in Weaverville, Riceville, Upper Hominy, Enka-Candler, Jupiter, Leicester and Barnardsville. Of those, Enka-Candler is the busiest, according to Chief Steve Elliott, who said he expects to receive 3,000 calls for assistance this year.
Accordingly, his department wants to maintain its current 8 cent tax rate, instead of scaling back to a revenue-neutral 6 cents. Squeezed by rising fuel and insurance costs and a need to fill new positions, Enka-Candler’s budget request is nearly $1.2 million, up almost $300,000 from last year.
Chief Thad Lewis of the Riceville Volunteer Fire Department painted a particularly urgent picture, saying he anticipates a 14 percent increase in call volume in the coming year.
If his department’s total funding were lowered, “We would see a negative impact on the community,” said Lewis. A loss of revenues would mean less capacity to provide mutual aid to other departments, higher fire-insurance premiums for area residents and a decline in the quality of service.
Holding Riceville’s tax rate steady at 11 cents per $100 of assessed value, rather than the revenue-neutral 9 cents, would bring in about $103,000 in additional revenue, a 16 percent increase over last year.
“These budget shortfalls will affect us not only short term, but long term,” said Lewis. “We feel like we have a strong case.”
Other fire officials made similar pleas. Chief Steve Hensley of Upper Hominy said his station has forgone equipment upgrades in order to meet operating costs, leaving it with decades-old fire engines and insufficient space to house them.
“One engine is a 1972 model, and another is a 1983 model. And we’re in a building that’s 50 years old,” lamented Hensley.
Hear ye, hear ye
In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved an agreement with A-B Tech in which the school will convey certain properties to the county and then lease them back. Under the agreement, the school trustees will arrange contracts for facilities upgrades, and the county will pay the contractors. The trustees will also be responsible for any taxes and utility fees associated with the properties.
The commissioners also approved proclamations naming May as both Preservation Month and Older Americans Month (the latter to honor the contributions of the county’s nearly 37,000 residents over 60 years of age). The commissioners designated May 14-20 N.C. Association of Volunteer Administration Appreciation Week and May 4 Respect for Law Enforcement Day.