Buncombe County Commission

If the new county budget were a piece of steak, it’d be a Weight Watchers special.

That’s right, folks, it’s budget time in Buncombe, and commissioners ordered this one lean and well done. What county budget staff have put on the table is a $190 million, revenue-neutral spending schedule for the coming fiscal year (which begins July 1) that Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Sobol declared “99 percent fat free.”

Even so, it’s nearly $10 million more than this year’s budget.

Under the proposed budget, county schools won’t get the $1 million they wanted for new technology, and county-supported do-gooders such as the Council on Aging won’t receive a penny more than what they got last year. And if you owe the county any money, it’s “going to be a lot more aggressive about collecting it,” promised County Manager Wanda Greene at the June 9 Board of Commissioners meeting. It was her first budget as county manager, her fifth as a county employee, and the toughest one to date, she said.

Why the tight fists? Back in February, new property revaluations arrived in mailboxes countywide. The value of many properties had skyrocketed since the last assessment four years ago, and county residents raised an uproar. The county Tax Office registered 18,000 appeals of the new values, and there was a tax rally at City/County Plaza, with one speaker calling for commissioners to resign.

Commissioners quickly pledged to reduce the tax rate to a “revenue-neutral” level for the coming fiscal year. Revenue-neutral means that the county won’t collect any more money in real estate and personal taxes in 1998-99 than it did this year. That magic number is $75.2 million.

In the current fiscal year, the county got that money by taxing property owners at a rate of 73 cents for every $100 of a property’s worth. In the coming fiscal year, the county’s revenue-neutral tax rate — as calculated by the county budget office — would stand at 63 cents per $100.

(Actually, the 63-cent tax rate is not entirely revenue-neutral. According to Greene, a truly revenue-neutral rate would have been 62.78 cents. And a reduced tax rate doesn’t guarantee that individual property owners won’t face tax increases.

The revaluation determined that Buncombe real-estate values have risen an average of 27 percent over the last four years. In other words, a house and lot in Buncombe that were worth $100,000 four years ago would, theoretically, be worth $127,000 today. And even with the rolled-back tax rate, the home’s owner would pay $70 more in property taxes in the next fiscal year than she or he did in this one.)

Property taxes would cover only about 42 percent of the budget. Another $4.6 million would come from the county’s fund balance, a “piggy bank” of county money. The current year’s budget drew $2.3 million from the fund balance, which left $18.8 million remaining. Over the past year, however, the fund balance has grown by nearly $7 million; even with $4.6 million going to next year’s budget, the fund balance will stand at $25.5 million.

Other revenue would come from our local sales tax; county sales and service fees; and grants and reimbursements from the state and federal governments.

The lion’s share of the budget (77 percent, or $146 million) goes for education, human services (including the Health Center and the Department of Social Services) and public safety (including law enforcement and running the jail), said Greene.

While the county school system would receive about $3 million less than the $33 million it requested, the proposed budget allots the Asheville City Schools a smidgen more than the $5.4 million it asked for. That’s because of a state law that requires counties to distribute a certain percentage of county property tax dollars to the schools, based on enrollment. In the coming year, with enrollment high, that percentage works in the city school’s favor.

Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College would get all but $40,000 of the $3.9 million it requested.

Under the proposed budget, most county departments will also receive less than they requested. The Finance Office, for example, asked for $820,000; the proposed budget would dole out $788,000.

Other county offices would have to get by with less than they got this year. Land Records Management operated on nearly $1 million this year, and requested $979,000 from commissioners for the coming year; the proposed budget allots them about $600,000.

The contingency fund, which the county uses for emergencies and hard-to-budget items like repairs, would also face hard times. Besides money set aside for school staff salaries, the fund would contain only $400,000.

By comparison, the current year’s contingency held about $1 million in the beginning. During the year, the county has withdrawn about $900,000 of this and used it for everything from repairs to McCormick field to paying workers compensation insurance claims, said Greene.

The proposed fund is “slim,” admitted Greene, but she added that, “We think we can live with that amount, if we’re frugal.”

One budget item that isn’t suffering under the proposed budget is funding for economic development.

Economic development, said Greene, is a real priority for commissioners, and the budget reflects that.

Next year’s economic-development budget would be roughly $1 million ($200,000 more than this year’s figure). About two-thirds of the money ($650,000) would be for incentives; the rest would be used for marketing the county.

Incentives pay off for the county, reasoned Greene. Since 1994, the $2.7 million the county has spent on incentives has boosted the tax base by $88 million and created more than 2,000 jobs, she said.

The county has been preparing for the slim budget year. A hiring freeze has already saved about $500,000, and an early-retirement plan accepted by 18 county employees in September will save another $50,000, said Greene.

Commissioners will adopt a budget on June 30, after a June 23 public hearing.

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