When the Buncombe County commissioners beat their budget-cutting axes into pruning hooks, they probably didn’t expect the county’s gardeners to come after them with pitchforks and shovels.
Immediately before the budget hearing that took up most of the board’s June 1 meeeting, Commissioner David Gantt told Xpress: “We really heard from the agriculture people. They rose up en masse: the Master Gardeners, the 4-H’ers, the Extension people.
“We were going to cut the Extension Service budget by $76,000, but after we heard from all these folks,” he continued with a nod toward the several dozen people waiting in the commissioners’ chamber, “We are only cutting it by about half that amount [$31,923].”
But those passionate citizens weren’t finished: As soon as the hearing began, the commissioners started hearing from the agriculture people once again.
First up to the lectern was County Extension Director Kenneth Reeves, who discussed at length the likely outcome of even the smaller, compromise cut in the agency’s budget proposed for fiscal year 2004-05. Lamenting what he called “misperceptions” about the Cooperative Extension Service and the extent of its involvement with the public, Reeves said his staff “wants benchmarks to measure our progress” but added, “We don’t want to be bean counters.”
To date, the Extension Service is one of the few county departments to have undergone an efficiency audit (in the coming months, all departments will be subject to similar analysis), and Reeves said he welcomed “the opportunity for others to tell our story.”
As a result of the budget cut, one secretarial job will be eliminated, said Reeves, adding that while this will slow down the agency’s response time, it won’t compromise the level of service provided.
John Schnautz chairman of the Extension Service advisory council, was less ready to concede the point. Speaking for the advisory group, he said, “We respectfully request that no budget cut be made without a full analysis of the situation.” He then read a proclamation extolling the benefits the Extension Service provides.
And when Schnautz appealed to the audience, at least two-thirds raised their hands to express opposition to the budget cut.
A steady succession of Extension supporters also chimed in: Master Gardener Kathleen Griffin; Bill Edmondson, manager of the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center; Vice President Billy Johnston of the Buncombe County Farm Bureau; 10-year 4-H member Kristen Gossett, a rising senior at Erwin High School; Nellie Jo Maney, a member of the Buncombe County Extension and Community Association; and Rebecca Winebarger, a home-schooler and 4-H adult volunteer.
Eric Gorny, who owns a small farm in Swannanoa, sounded a slightly different note. While voicing support for the Extension Service, he also observed, “An internal audit is a good thing; if departments of the county can be run more efficiently, it is good.”
Hazel Fobes put the most personal spin on support for the Extension Service with a circuitous tale about a peach tree beset by fungus and the dedicated efforts of Extension staff to help her stave off the blight. She also complimented the board, saying, “I’m impressed that people talk and you up there listen.” The Asheville City Council, she observed, could learn something by attending commissioners meetings. In conclusion, Fobes urged the board to stand its ground during upcoming water negotiations with the city.
Leicester farmer Alan Ditmore expressed appreciation for the help the Extension Service had given him when he suddenly came into possession of a working farm. He then ripped into the county’s budget, suggesting that two-thirds of the proposed expenditures be thrown out. Ditmore questioned a $70,000 allocation for the JROTC, saying that if we’re going to allow a military presence in our schools, the military should fund it. Other levels of government spend enough on defense, he noted, adding that it’s not county business. The only appropriate expenditures are for human needs, said Ditmore, arguing that “we should gut non-human-need spending.” Among many other criticisms, he also observed that every penny spent on roads should come from gas taxes.
Krishna Murphy, a candidate for chairman of the Board of Commissioners, observed that the budget is more than a lot of numbers and that each expenditure represents programs that affect people. Concerning the budget for the city and county schools and particularly for the school-lunch program, he said: “The quality of the food is so poor that we are causing trouble in the schools. In other states, when food has been changed, behavior has changed.” The county, noted Murphy, should support community agriculture by buying fresher, better-quality local food for the schools.
Perennial county gadfly Jerry Rice also took the board to task on school funding. “The school budget is the biggest item in the budget and the least-talked-about,” he chastised, adding, “You sit there big-eyed and don’t do a thing about the biggest item on your agenda.” A great deal of attention, noted Rice, had been paid to the Extension Service budget, “which doesn’t amount to a gnat in a windstorm compared to the school budget.” Furthermore, he asserted: “We have the highest SATs for home-schoolers in the nation, which is great. But it is because people take their children out of our schools.”
One area of particular concern, Rice noted, is the “fund balance,” which is money kept in reserve for emergency expenses. He questioned why the school board fund balance should continue to grow, when the county also maintains a fund balance for the same purpose. The school fund is now close to $8 million. “Why should the school board have that money while the county goes broke?” he asked.
Rice then took aim at two Board members concerning budget talks with the school board, declaring, “Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Young, you are not good negotiators.” Neither Chairman Nathan Ramsey nor Commissioner David Young responded.
After a final call for more speakers, Ramsey declared the hearing over. A final vote on the fiscal year 2004-05 budget is scheduled for the June 15 Board of Commissioners meeting.
Commissioner Patsy Keever asked that four items be removed from the consent agenda, though only one of them elicited discussion: creating a county/city task force to develop a 10-year plan for ending local homelessness. Keever asked whether the proposed resolution simply created the task force or if a vote to approve it also meant approving the nominees for the new group’s steering committee.
Robin Merrell of Pisgah Legal Services explained how the nomination committee had arrived at the 33 proposed names, prompting Keever to repeat her question.
After Ramsey indicated that the vote covered both matters, Gantt wondered aloud if that wasn’t a pretty big group.
Merrell said, “We thought so, too.” But she assured the commissioners that the proposed chair, former Assistant County Manager Jerome Jones, is good at keeping people focused.
The task force and all other consent items were passed unanimously; the city has already approved the task force).
Shuffling the boards
The commissioners also made the following appointments: Janice Brumitt, Bill Mance and Paula O’Hara (Economic Development Commission), and Scott Riviere (Historic Resources Commission). Appointments to the Clean Air Community Trust were postponed, and candidates for the Airport Authority will be interviewed before the June 15 board meeting.
For more information or to view the proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, visit this Web site: www.buncombecounty.org/default.asp.