Buncombe Commissioners: To cut or not to cut?

  • No tax cut in budget, “non-core” services a lower priority
  • Commissioners extend development moratorium
  • Health Department responding to H1N1 flu threat

Hard times are here.

That was the feeling that pervaded the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ May 19 meeting, as both members of the public and some commissioners weighed in on the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Reflecting an uncertain economy, the budget projects declining tax revenues, balanced by $5.9 million in spending cuts. It also eliminates 86 staff positions, many of them already vacant. The property-tax rate—52.5 cents per $100 of assessed value—will remain the same.

“I think everyone up here believes in helping people, and we’re going to do the best we can under the circumstances,” said board Chair David Gantt. “You’re counting on us, and we’re not going to let you down.”

But that didn’t satisfy conservative activist Eric Gorny. Sporting a shirt declaring, “David Gantt hates poor people,” he called for a 5-cent reduction in the tax rate.

“A lot of people are hurting right now. A lot of my friends are in construction; they’re out of work and suffering right now,” noted Gorny, adding, “You have the ability to affect our monthly budgets.”

No stranger to spectacle, Gorny has previously appeared before the board with a large stuffed monkey on his back and, in another instance, dressed up as medieval Scottish rebel William Wallace (as portrayed in the movie Braveheart) to protest what he believes are exorbitant tax rates.

Enka resident Jerry Rice also advocated a tax cut, while praising County Manager Wanda Greene.

“I think she could run it without any of you, she’s that good with numbers,” Rice observed. “I’m just asking for a little tax break: 5 cents isn’t too bad to ask in a recession.”

Commissioner Holly Jones voiced concern about some of the services deemed “non-core” and thus lower priority.

“These include some things I think are vital community services, such as libraries and public-health educators,” said Jones. “I just want to be really clear that I’m not all about that anymore. I don’t know that I really understood we were heading down just a core-services route. Hopefully we’re not; hopefully we can roll up our sleeves. There’s a lot of jobs related to each of those non-core services, and a lot of citizens really need them, like child health and maternity outreach. They’re vital to our viability as a provider of human services.”

Gantt agreed, asserting, “We have a moral obligation to do more than core services. When times are tough, we still have to take care of poor people.”

Zoned out

On another front, the commissioners unanimously approved extending the temporary moratorium on development that they enacted back in April. The moratorium bans new facilities such as junkyards, firing ranges and slaughterhouses—which are deemed “undesirable land uses”—until the county can reinstate its 2007 zoning ordinance, which was thrown out by a judge several months ago.

The extension keeps the moratorium in place until the end of the year.

In March, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the county had failed to follow proper procedure, not allowing enough time for the Planning Board to consider the zoning maps and holding a public hearing too quickly.

Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue said it could be “a matter of months” before the county could get zoning back in place.

“Staff have been working diligently to try and meet a target date of June 2,” noted Frue. “We have, however, hit on several factors that will make it impossible to meet that deadline.”

Those factors include the need for Limestone and Beaverdam townships, which had voluntary zoning before the countywide ordinance was approved, to work out the technical details of zoning in their areas.

“The best thing is to do a consolidated plan at once, instead of just going around those areas,” Frue advised. “Also, there’s the sheer magnitude of mailing we have to do,” including sending notices to more than 14,000 property owners outside the county.

All this, he said, will push the re-establishment of zoning back to August, at the earliest.

Fending off the flu

The commissioners also heard about steps the county Health Department has taken to prepare for an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, commonly known as “swine flu.”

“As of today, there are 5,669 cases in the United States since this started—this hasn’t gone away,” reported Health Director Gibbie Harris. “Fortunately, this outbreak seems to be fairly mild, though more lethal than the seasonal flu, but nothing like avian flu.”

To date, there have been no cases in Buncombe County, though North Carolina as a whole has had 12. Only people sick enough to require hospitalization are being tested by the state for H1N1.

“We had one probable case, but that turned out to be the seasonal flu,” said Harris, adding, “We’ve been lucky,” particularly in “the partnerships we have that allow us to respond the way we did.”

Those partnerships with local hospitals, emergency services and community groups have helped to get information out, speed up testing, and ensure that possible H1N1 victims remain isolated in their homes while they’re contagious, a legal process requiring an isolation order.

“We had one case where the police had to be called, but otherwise those went smoothly,” said Harris. “It’s helped us ensure that our systems for an emergency like this work well.”

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