- Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting May 18
- Adult protective services demand up 62 percent
- City, county schools to get additional $231,000
At their May 18 meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners confronted a budget proposal that strives to reconcile dramatically increasing demand for human services with shrinking tax revenues.
The $252 million general fund budget presented by County Manager Wanda Greene for the 2010-11 fiscal year reflects a 1.1 percent increase in spending compared with last year. (An additional $75 million in restricted county spending, mostly derived from fees and other special revenue sources, wasn't the focus of the meeting.) And though sales-tax revenue is down 10 percent this year and property-tax revenue grew by only 1.2 percent, her proposal calls for tapping the county's fund balance to the tune of $6.9 million to avoid raising taxes.
"People are under enough stress right now — this is just not an environment where you need to be raising taxes on people," said Greene. "We have people getting services that have never had to rely on government services, and you don't want to put extra pressure on them if you can find a way not to."
Calling it "basically a flat budget," Greene emphasized that any increases in funding that the county can afford would be directed toward such core areas as education, human services and public safety. And though both local school systems would be getting significantly less than they requested, she noted that the Buncombe County Schools' allocation is up $169,000 from last year, and the Asheville City Schools would receive a $62,000 boost. The plan also calls for pumping an additional $1.3 million into recycling, public safety and technology support programs, which Greene said save money in the long run by helping county employees be more productive.
"Our goal is to provide our employees with quality tools to help them streamline their work and manage those growing caseloads," she explained, noting that the county now has fewer employees than it did 10 years ago. "It's really important to give them the resources they need, because with better tools — and we consider technology a significant tool — we can do more work with fewer staff." In addition, the plan includes a 2.7 percent pay increase for county workers to offset inflation.
Greene also rolled out the annual "State of the County" report, which spells out in more detail the magnitude of the challenges confronting the county's human services. Demand for various county services has soared in recent years, the report notes, including:
• a 62 percent increase in individuals served through adult protective services;
• a 76 percent increase in food-assistance caseload;
• a 23 percent increase in Disease Control visits;
• a 12 percent increase in Medicaid/Health Choice cases; and
• a 9 percent increase in WIC caseload.
To deal with these pressures, Buncombe County is banking on new partnerships that Greene said will help leverage community resources. "It's through these partnerships that we've been able to expand access to services and to increase program capacity," she explained as she unveiled the report. "We would not be able to build such a solid network of services without smart partnerships with agencies in our community."
Successful partnerships cited in the report include:
• Transferring administration of the county's Community Child Care Center to the Irene Wortham Center. According to the report, this has increased capacity by 20 percent, allowing an additional 10 special-needs children to be served within the first year.
• Transitioning primary-care services from the Buncombe County Health Center to the federally qualified Western North Carolina Community Health Services, which the report says has created 90 additional walk-in, acute-care slots per day.
• Teaming up with the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, the Eblen-Kimmel Charities and the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry to deliver $1.6 million worth of shelter and utility assistance.
Several commissioners expressed strong support for the plans, heaping praise on Greene and county staff for drafting a proposal that doesn't raise taxes or significantly cut services.
"This is my 21st budget message, and where we are now with the economy in our whole country and in our area, unfortunately, this is unreal," declared Vice Chair Bill Stanley. "You've done a great job. Thank you very much."
Commissioner Carol Peterson said she's already been getting positive feedback from residents about the plan, which had been released online a few days earlier. "Folks are saying thank you for keeping the tax rate where it is. Thank you for the core services you provide. Thank you for seeing the needs of the community and responding to those needs," she noted.
Board Chair David Gantt also weighed in, saying, "What I look at is, when times get tough, do we take care of people who don't have as much as we do? Everybody has to cut back, and we have, and you've done it in a way that I think shows a lot of compassion for people."
A public hearing on the budget will be held Tuesday, June 1, in conjunction with the Board of Commissioners' regular meeting.
Jake Frankel can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 115.