- Buncombe County Board of Commissioners June 1 meeting
- Homelessness down but so is funding
- URTV going broke
The June 1 public hearing on Buncombe County's proposed $327 million budget for fiscal year 2010-11 was marked by a lack of public input.
County Manager Wanda Greene summed up the budget plan, highlighting the fact that it doesn't call for raising taxes. As she had May 18 when she first presented the proposal, Greene also emphasized that any spending increases would focus on core areas such as education, human services and public safety. Both the Buncombe County and the Asheville City Schools, she emphasized, would get more money than they received last year.
To help pay for the increases without raising taxes, the proposal calls for drawing $6.9 million from the county's fund balance. The plan also includes a 2.7 percent pay increase for county workers to offset inflation.
But that didn't sit well with Candler resident Jerry Rice — the only member of the public to speak up during the hearing. "We need to look at the taxpayers," he observed. "The county employees have got an increase, but the taxpayers haven't seen a decrease in quite a while."
Rice also took issue with Greene's presentation, saying the county manager should have gone into more detail about her taxing and spending decisions.
"For the 17 years I've known our county manager, Dr. Greene, and her office, this is the first budget message I've ever seen that I have to give her an F on," he noted. "She's an intelligent woman, and she's done a great job for the county, but to not give the citizens of this county a message that should be given — the details, I think, are lacking. To brag about a 15-minute message that has nothing but big numbers in it, without ingredients, just blows my mind."
Although Board Chair David Gantt, Vice Chair Bill Stanley and Commissioner Carol Peterson had all expressed strong support for the plan when it was first unveiled, the commissioners were largely silent during the public hearing.
As the hearing ended, Gantt scheduled a vote on the budget for the commissioners' June 15 meeting.
Good news, bad news on homelessness
In other business, Homeless Initiative Coordinator Amy Sawyer updated the commissioners on the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program.
An outgrowth of the joint city-county 10–Year Plan to End Homelessness, the federally funded program supports public-private partnerships that provide housing for homeless people and help stabilize at-risk households.
According to studies conducted by the local program, Asheville has about 550 homeless people on any given night, and an estimated 2,000 residents experienced homelessness over the course of last year.
Of that group:
• 26 percent are veterans;
• about 20 percent are chronically homeless;
• 15 percent are in families;
• 12 percent are overcoming domestic violence; and
• 14 percent have a severe and persistent mental illness.
To help improve the situation, Sawyer said the program stresses prevention, working with local groups such as Pisgah Legal Services and Homeward Bound to provide services to those at risk before they end up on the street.
"The focus is on prevention first, because it costs less and it's less disruptive for the family," she explained.
To be eligible for assistance, participants must be earning no more than 50 percent of the area's median income and exhibit risk factors such as facing imminent eviction or discharge from an institution. Despite the tough economic times, Sawyer said the efforts to help those in dire need are working.
"In implementing this plan, we've seen a reduction in chronic homelessness, and we have even seen a reduction in our overall homelessness," she said, noting that chronic homelessness in Asheville has been reduced by 36 percent since the program was launched last September. "However, due to the economic environment that we're in, we're seeing a lot of families who are on the verge of homelessness."
Lacking adequate funding, said Sawyer, there have already been "115 folks who were referred but had to look for services elsewhere because the program was at capacity."
In response to the presentation, Rice once again took to the lectern, observing, "Having homeless veterans is a very sad situation."
Producers urge support for struggling public-access station
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, several Buncombe residents expressed concern that local public-access channel URTV — part of the WNC Community Media Center — is on the verge of shutting down due to lack of funds (see "Broke" elsewhere in this issue).
URTV producer Matt Howard told the commissioners that the station had announced the problem to the producers in a meeting the night before.
"URTV has a genuine, proven track record as a tool for the community, for communication, for education," said Howard, as he and others urged the commissioners to take action. "It's helped people change their careers. … It's being used now more than ever. … It's an amazing resource."
In response, both Stanley and Peterson expressed surprise that the station was close to going broke.
"I hadn't heard that," said Stanley. Peterson concurred, saying, "They had not told us that yet."
In a May 24 memo addressed to both the city and county, the nonprofit spelled out its predicament. Greene, however, says she never received the memo.
Gantt said the commissioners would explore the issue in more detail at their June 15 meeting, promising, "We will definitely check out as much as we can about the financials, some of the issues you folks have raised."
Jake Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 115.