The most significant agenda item at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ May 17 formal session was County Manager Wanda Greene‘s presentation of the budget for fiscal year 2005-06 (which begins July 1).
The proposed budget, which calls for a 4.1 percent increase in spending compared to this year, takes into account changes associated with the anticipated termination of the Water Agreement. Dating back to 1981, the complex document addresses such diverse issues as local water rates, law-enforcement costs and ownership of recreational facilities. The city of Asheville gave the county a required one-year notice of its intent to dissolve the pact last June, and in recent months, the two entities have been scrambling unsuccessfully to negotiate a new deal.
Recreational facilities that will revert to city ownership will cost the county $570,000 a year in lost income, said Greene. These include the Western North Carolina Nature Center, Recreation Park, McCormick Field and the Buncombe County Municipal Golf Course. On the other side of the balance sheet, the county will cease making payments that compensate the city for Sheriff’s Department services city taxpayers help underwrite but don’t use. But Greene also noted, “We are going to have to pay for water,” concluding, “The net impact of cancellation is $2.2 million.” The county manager didn’t indicate whether that impact would cost the county more or less.
Next year’s estimated general-fund expenditures total $210,387,221 and will be funded at the current tax rate of 59 cents per $100 of property value. As in past years, education, human services and public safety dominate the budget; together, they account for 85 percent of projected expenses.
Increases in education funding include $2 million to the county schools, $160,000 to the city schools and $620,000 to A-B Tech, to cover higher operating expenses and pay for assorted building and paving projects. Human-services funding will rise by $2.8 million, due primarily to rising Medicaid costs. Overall spending on public safety is budgeted to increase by somewhat less than $500,000. A $1.6 million increase for the Sheriff’s Department (to cover salary increases and the hiring of more patrol officers) and higher debt-service payments (due to the Detention Center addition, now under construction) would be offset by the elimination of $2.5 million in annual payments to municipalities (in connection with the termination of the Water Agreement).
And though the budget does include a 4 percent cost-of-living increase for all county employees, Greene noted, “With the success of our employee health clinic and innovative wellness programs, we have been able to maintain our health-insurance costs at the same level as fiscal year 2005.”
Complete details of the proposed budget are available at the county’s Web site (www.buncombecounty.org) or in the county manager’s and county commissioner’s offices. A public hearing on the proposed budget is slated for Tuesday, June 7, in Room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse, starting at 4:30 p.m. The board is scheduled to vote on the budget on June 21.
On May 19, the commissioners announced that they planned to hold a special meeting on May 24 to discuss the Water Agreement.
The missing meeting
An unusual feature of the May 17 meeting was the fact that the commissioners had never formally adjourned their May 3 session. Instead, they continued that meeting until May 10 so they could consider bids for installing artificial turf on a county-owned ball field. The bids were expected by May 9 and would have required prompt acceptance for the contractor to begin installation on May 16.
The board, however, canceled the May 10 meeting. Asked about the cancellation, Chairman Nathan Ramsey told Xpress: “The bids came in higher than we expected. We expected the fields would cost less than $500,000 each, and they came in at $620,000. We didn’t think it was worth it.”
But how did the board close a still-open meeting without convening? “We just didn’t meet,” Ramsey replied.
When asked if the commissioners had decided ahead of time not to accept a bid above $500,000 — and if so, when that decision was made — Ramsey declined to answer.
Asked the same questions, County Attorney Joe Connolly repeated the information about the bids, concluding, “We just didn’t have a meeting.” Asked again how it was possible to close an open meeting without meeting, Connolly repeated, “We just didn’t meet.”
Commissioner Carol Peterson told Xpress that she was out of town when the decision was made and referred questions to Connolly or Planning Director Jon Creighton. The other commissioners did not return phone calls.
But Fleming Bell, who teaches public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Government and is a specialist in parliamentary procedure, told Xpress, “A board cannot formally take a valid action unless it is meeting in a properly called and held meeting.” He also noted, “Phone calls between individual board members cannot constitute a meeting of the board if the board has over three members.” And while it’s possible for the board to delegate evaluation and acceptance of contracts to county staff, that decision would also have to be made in an open meeting, said Bell.
Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes told Xpress: “The meeting was canceled by the chairman, and as to what happened with the bids, you’ll need to ask Jon [Creighton]. My minutes will reflect an added note that the meeting scheduled for May 10 was canceled.”
Creighton later told Xpress that he had opened the bids and “polled the board. They decided not to consider them.” Asked if that didn’t constitute a meeting, Creighton answered in the negative, saying, “We’ve done this before.”
A moment of contention
In an uncharacteristic fracture of the commissioners’ customary unanimity, there were three nominations for two seats on the Asheville-Buncombe Library System board of trustees. All five commissioners voted to appoint former Commissioner Patsy Keever, but they split 4-1 in appointing Robert Etter. Ramsey cast a lone vote for Larry Modlin.
Shirley Ford was unanimously appointed to the Nursing Home Board, which still has five vacancies. Ramsey encouraged county residents to volunteer for the many open board positions.