With the Buncombe County commissioners mere weeks away from the start of a new fiscal year, their June 6 meeting was glutted with 11th-hour digs and bids by county agencies, nonprofits and concerned citizens anxious to get a word in before next year’s budget is finalized.
“I got excited when I came in here and saw all these people, and then I realized they all wanted my money.”
— county resident Don Yelton on the budget
The meeting room was packed with humanity, and during the public-comment period that preceded the formal meeting, county residents griped about the sting of the latest property revaluation and took aim at various line items in the proposed budget.
Don Yelton blasted several items, including the City/County Plaza redesign. “They wanted $2 million before, and at the time said, ‘Oh no, oh no, that’s all we’ll need.’ Now they’re coming back and asking for $600,000 more? And all we’ve got to show for it is a bunch of torn-up roads out there?
“I got excited when I came in here and saw all these people,” continued Yelton, “and then I realized they all wanted my money.”
(Apparently Yelton was mistaken. The county’s contribution to the project is being paid out over four years: $250,000 in fiscal year 2005-06, and $600,000 in each of the next three fiscal years, according to County Manager Wanda Greene.)
As the meeting approached the two-hour mark, the proceedings bogged down as the commissioners seemed to lose control of a public hearing on the budget, failing to hold speakers to the usual four-minute limit. In midstream, however, Chairman Nathan Ramsey suddenly began enforcing the rule.
Foremost among the budgetary concerns was funding for the Buncombe County Schools. Superintendent Cliff Dodson asked for a $4.36 million increase, which he said is needed to reduce the number of dropouts, reach out to the non-English-speaking student population, and provide mandated mental-health services.
Last year the district lost more than $800,000 due to state funding “reversion,” a euphemism for budget cuts. For several years, the state has approved disbursements on the condition that schools give back a portion of the money by means of whatever cuts they chose to make. In the last five years, this practice has cost the county schools about $6 million, Buncombe County Schools Communications Director Stan Alleyne told Xpress. But the state Senate has removed the reversion from this year’s budget, said Dobson, adding that if the House follows suit, the district will need $806,000 less than the requested amount.
Candler resident Jerry Rice, however, was not impressed with Dobson’s nod to restraint. Standing at the lectern with a series of hand-written placards, Rice lambasted the commissioners for handing out money and asking little in return.
“Over the last 10 years, the county has spent more than $1 billion to improve education,” he said. “During the last 10 years, there have been 4,846 dropouts from Asheville and Buncombe County schools.
“You drilled the city superintendent [David Logan] when he stood up here [with a funding request],” added Rice. “Today you just sat there like a bunch of puppets on a string.”
What’s that about?
But the meeting’s tensest moment came when Sheriff Bobby Medford made his way to the lectern to fume about an e-mail the county manager had sent to the commissioners recently ( “It’s Not Easy Being Greene“). Citing the need to cut 11 deputy positions, it noted that “many employees … just sit around.”
Medford, however, was incensed by the allegation that there is dead weight in his office. “Every four years I get this sort of thing,” he said, noting the hardships his officers face: low pay, personal danger, insufficient equipment and mushrooming calls for service.
“I’m sorry to get ill,” said Medford, adding, “I think it’s a damn shame that this thing [Greene’s e-mail] ever hit the county commissioners’ office.”
Asked about the matter later, Greene said: “That’s the purpose these meetings serve. I encourage anyone who has something to say to say it during public comment.”
The eyes have it
Putting an end to a long-running debate, the commissioners quickly and unanimously approved the Buncombe County Board of Election’s proposal to purchase voting machines employing optical-scan technology (Commissioner Bill Stanley was absent).
Although the touch-screen machines used during this year’s primary and runoff elections can be returned for credit, the new machines will still cost the county about $750,000, according to Board of Elections Chairman Jones Byrd.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “it is not exactly a buyer’s market.” (Only one manufacturer, Election Systems & Software, sells optical-scan machines that meet state criteria.) The state has required all N.C. counties to switch to machines that leave a paper trail in time for the November election.
The Board of Elections had originally recommended buying touch-screen machines, but the commissioners rejected the idea during a May 23 special session, insisting on the optical-scan technology. A majority of N.C. counties use this technology, and public opinion at the May 23 hearing opposed touch screens (see “Paper Money,” May 31 Xpress).
Nonetheless, Commissioner Carol Peterson hailed the decision, declaring, “There is no bigger topic that we have discussed here today.” Peterson went so far as to predict that the new voting machines would increase voter turnout.
“I hope you’re right,” said Byrd.
Last but not least
With budget matters behind them, the commissioners moved swiftly through a series of other decisions. They unanimously approved a resolution transferring the former Red Oak School building from the Buncombe County Board of Education to the county, which plans to sell it to the nonprofit ReCreation Experiences Mission and Ministries (see “Charting the Year Ahead,” May 24 Xpress).
The board also made the following appointments before going into closed session: Lucille Hestir (reappointment), Jane Hatley and Pat Whalen (library board of trustees); Mandy Stone(reappointment, A-B Tech board of trustees); Bruce Peterson (Agricultural Advisory Board for Farmland Preservation); John Cram, Mack Pearsall, Bill Massey (ex officio), Pat Smith, John Hunter, Jack Cecil and Janice Brummit (Community and Economic Development Alliance).