- Proposed budget trims $5.9 million, 86 staff positions
- County to draft letter urging CTS cleanup
The still-fragile state of the economy was reflected in the draft budget presented at the May 5 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
The $313 million budget proposed for the 2009-10 fiscal year trims $5.9 million from last year’s total spending, slashing 86 staff positions in the process. The property-tax rate would remain at the current 52.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.
It hasn’t been easy, County Manager Wanda Greene told the board—she required all department heads to cut their budgets by 5 percent—but the resulting document accomplishes its goal of funding vital services during tight times without raising taxes.
“We knew that no matter how bad the economy got, how much our costs rise, we had to bring you a budget without a tax increase,” said Greene.
Despite reduced tax revenues, the county also had to find funding for capital projects—such as the public-safety training facility—that it has committed to completing.
The proposed cuts affect a wide range of programs. Some facilities—such as the health clinic—are being contracted out, with the aim of providing the same services at a lower cost. In addition to the $4.5 million in departmental cuts, noted Greene, the county schools would see their allotment shrink by $1.2 million.
The budget also scales back funding for conservation easements—which the board often uses to preserve farms and other natural areas—from $2 million to $600,000.
Not all of the 86 staff positions cut would cost someone their job. “We’ve had a hiring freeze since August, so many of these positions are already vacant or held by folks that plan to retire at the end of June,” Greene explained. “County employees were offered jobs by the community partner or transferred to another county service, though some have elected to retire or move elsewhere.”
To deal with the rising demand for human services—already one of the largest budget categories—the county is looking to boost efficiency through the use of technology (including transferring paper records to digital form) and better training.
Greene also noted that under state law, property taxes are one of the few revenue sources counties control: Much of the rest of their budget is constrained by the state requirements. And several laws now being considered by the General Assembly, such as a small-business tax exemption for office equipment, could drain millions more from the county’s coffers.
“North Carolina counties are a creature of the state,” noted Greene, adding, “We do what we’re allowed to do.”
Because of uncertainty concerning what steps North Carolina—which is grappling with its own revenue shortfall—may take that would impact the county, Greene advised the commissioners to hold off until June 23 to approve the budget. The board unanimously agreed, calling for a May 19 public hearing.
“It’s an unenviable situation we’re looking at,” Commissioner Carol Peterson observed. “You’ve brought us a budget with dignity, love and a deep, deep understanding of our citizens’ needs.”
And Commissioner Holly Jones noted, “Now is obviously not the time for new initiatives, but in the future I’d like to look at accomplishing the goals in our strategic plan—especially things like affordable housing.”
Limestone Town Council keeps pressure on for CTS cleanup
The commissioners also decided, by consensus, to send a letter to Gov. Bev Perdue asking that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency move ahead with cleaning up the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site.
“Let’s sign a letter telling them to get this thing done,” urged Vice Chair Bill Stanley
Chair David Gantt agreed, saying, “Let’s get this thing cleaned up.” He directed the county’s attorneys to “put that in a letter, that we want this cleaned up and whatever we can do, we’ll do it.”
The move came after Limestone Town Council member James Wilson read a letter reflecting a resolution passed by that body on May 4, calling for the CTS site cleanup and opposing a deal proposed by DENR that would cap the company’s liability for cleaning up the Mills Gap Road site at $3 million.
“The bottom line is that the site needs to be cleaned up so the ground water will not get more TCE [trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen] in it that will make people sick or even [result in] possible death,” Wilson read. “This is an unusual request: You set us up as a council mainly to deal with zoning issues,” he added. “But this is important, and it needs to be fixed.”