In a contentious June 17 session, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners adopted a spending plan for fiscal year 2003-04.
The decision to adopt the $194 million general-fund budget came on a split vote, with Commissioner David Gantt opposed.
The vote, however, came only after Gantt’s last-ditch attempt to divert more money to the city and county schools had been shot down in a heated volley of words led by Vice Chairman David Young, who branded Gantt’s proposal “fiscally idiotic” and political grandstanding.
Gantt countered later that if wooing voters is your aim, it’s safer not to suggest more spending.
Politically speaking, all five board members are in the third year of four-year terms; the next election is set for November 2004. Candidates compete against one another for four seats, with a separate race for the chairman’s seat.
An economic engine
The meeting started cordially enough, with the commissioners taking care of both ceremonial and substantive business.
County Manager Wanda Greene then revisited the proposed general-fund budget of $194,157,423, which called for maintaining the same property-tax rate as in the current fiscal year — 59 cents per $100 of assessed value. (That rate is based on a $17.7 billion tax base and a 98-percent collection rate.)
Since Greene first presented her recommended budget (on May 20), the county has received its third-quarter sales-tax proceeds, which she noted were much less than expected. The county’s investment earnings were also lower. She was able to offset those losses, however, by using $800,000 of $1 million expected in a one-time federal reduction in Medicaid costs, she told the board.
In answer to a question from Gantt, Greene said the unrestricted fund balance stands at 13 percent of the current budget.
Chairman Nathan Ramsey commended staff members (including former Budget Officer Mamie Scott) for having put together a budget that included extra money for schools, as well as paying for renovations at A-B Tech’s Enka campus, funds for economic development, mandated program increases, and construction projects (including the North Asheville Library) — all without raising the tax rate.
Young echoed Ramsey’s praise, noting that Buncombe County school officials are pleased at the prospect of receiving the full $2 million in new funding that they’d asked for — a request he’d initially thought would be impossible to fulfill. Young, who chairs the county’s Economic Development Commission, also called the A-B Tech renovations a “tremendous economic engine.” (The campus will house two business “incubators” — one aimed at biotech companies and one for small businesses.)
“The bottom line comes out to this: What does this mean to me?” he observed. “And I think what this budget means to you is, you’re not going to pay any higher taxes and you’re gonna get more services in our community, and we’ve got an economic engine that we can build upon — which is new jobs, better wages, more folks employed, and try to offset some of the jobs that are leaving us. We gotta take care of our people. If we can’t take care of our people, you know, we’re doomed.”
In a recession year, said Young, the county can’t increase the burden on county taxpayers.
Gantt, however, maintained that the commissioners are charged with looking after the interests of both property owners and low-income people who don’t own property.
Although Gantt called the budget “good in a lot of ways” (such as allocating more money to the schools), he also pointed out that the county hadn’t increased school funding in the previous two years. That gap, he said, can’t be made up all at once.
“It’s kind of like the dog that you don’t feed for two or three years,” suggested Gantt. “When you do give him some food, he’s pretty happy to get whatever he can get.”
In the meantime, he continued, the schools have increased class sizes, cut cultural-arts programs, charged students to participate in athletic events, and held off on giving raises to noncertified employees (such as janitors).
The county, said Gantt, has fallen below the state average in current-expense funding for schools. Even Transylvania County, he noted, now spends more per pupil than Buncombe does.
Gantt then made a motion to revive a school-funding proposal the commissioners had set aside back in February. The proposal called for honoring a pledge they’d made in 2001 to return to the way the county used to distribute sales-tax revenues.
For years, the county used the “gross sales tax” distribution method, which gave the city and county schools their percentage of sales taxes off the top — leaving the county, the fire-service districts and other entities to take their cuts out of what remained. But in the 2001-02 budget, the county switched to the “net” method, in which all the entities entitled to a share receive their percentages of sales taxes at the same time.
The result was a substantial cut in capital-projects funds for the schools. The county, however, comes out ahead under the net method, Greene has said.
Not surprisingly, the move proved unpopular with school officials. And on Nov. 8, 2001, Gantt and the other commissioners wrote a letter to the Buncombe County Board of Education. The letter said, in part: “The Commissioners have instructed our County Manager to prepare the Fiscal Year 2003 budget using the gross sales tax distribution method. Once the budget is adopted, we will not make any further changes to the sales tax distribution method in the balance of our current term in office. … We regret the misunderstandings and erosion of trust that seems to be developing between our two boards. For the future of our children, it is important that we have a relationship based on trust between both the boards and our staffs.”
Despite that pledge, however, the net method was employed once again in the 2002-03 budget (costing the county schools $780,930 and the city schools $119,070).
Returning to the former approach would cost the county $861,000 in fiscal year 2003-04, reported Gantt (which, he said, amounts to less than a half-cent on the property-tax rate). And although the commissioners can’t tell the schools how to spend their money, Gantt said he would suggest that the additional funding be used to boost the wages of noncertified school employees.
Commissioner Patsy Keever, a retired schoolteacher, seconded Gantt’s motion. But Young (who’d led the move to table the proposal back in February) questioned whether Gantt’s move was procedurally copacetic.
After that, Young went on to attack the substance of Gantt’s proposal, calling it “fiscally idiotic.”
“I just think it is irresponsible to talk about that at the 11th-and-a-half hour,” Young proclaimed. “Quite honestly, I think it’s a political move to gain votes.”
Keever, however, reminded Young of what had happened when the board adopted last year’s budget. A year ago, Commissioner Bill Stanley surprised his fellow commissioners by suggesting that the tax rate be set at a much lower rate (59 cents per $100 of assessed value) than had been publicly considered up till then — a move that Stanley, Ramsey and Young all proceeded to endorse.
“Talk about the last hour,” chided Keever, as county-government watchdog Don Yelton burst out laughing and tried to egg them on from the back of the room.
This year’s proposed $2 million boost, noted Ramsey, is the biggest funding increase the county has given the schools in a decade. And the fiscal constraints faced by both the county and its schools, he continued, are tied to the ongoing state budget crisis.
Ramsey also mentioned (as he had during the discussion back in February) that the commissioners’ 2001 letter to the school board stated that the budget would be prepared using the gross-sales-tax method — not that the commissioners would adopt the budget using that method.
After a bit more discussion — during which Ramsey and Gantt clashed over Gantt’s tone — Ramsey asked County Attorney Joe Connolly whether they could vote on Gantt’s motion to bring up the sales-tax issue once again. Connolly (who’d already opened Robert’s Rules of Order at the beginning of the meeting) said they could.
The board then voted on whether to bring the sales-tax distribution matter up for a vote again. Gantt’s motion failed 2-3.
Ramsey also reminded the board — perhaps by way of assurance that Buncombe County has not been neglecting its schools — about the ongoing $45-million capital-improvement plan for the county schools financed by a 1999 bond issue approved by voters.
After that, Young made a motion to adopt the budget presented by Greene, which passed 4-1 (with Gantt opposed).
Immediately after the meeting, however, Young apologized to Gantt and the two shook hands.
Young later chalked up his harsh words to the “heat of the moment,” telling Xpress, “We disagree — but we’re friends, and we don’t have to be disagreeable.”
Gantt voiced a similar sentiment after the meeting, saying there’s a “difference of philosophy” at work.
Water Authority budget redux
Apart from the budget fireworks, several other significant issues also got a hearing.
Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks presented the Regional Water Authority’s revised $22.7 million budget for 2003-04.
Last month, the commissioners had declined to even vote on the Water Authority’s budget because of a new capital-improvements fee it contained. Absent the commissioners’ blessing, the budget couldn’t take effect, since the Water Agreement mandates that it be approved by the agency’s own board, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the Asheville City Council, says Hanks.
The proposed fee, based on the size of the meter feeding a given residence or business, ranged from an additional $12 a year for the average residential customer all the way up to an extra $3,600 per year for a customer using the largest size pipe. The $1.2 million the fee was expected to generate each year would have funded major capital improvements — including replacing old water lines.
This time around, however, the budget Hanks presented did not contain the controversial charge — meaning the Authority won’t be able to pay for some planned capital-improvement projects, he said. The commissioners approved the revised budget unanimously. The Water Authority board had already approved the revised budget ,and City Council was scheduled to take up the matter on June 24, Hanks explained later.
Cleaning things up
In other business, board members also heard a report from Ron Townley of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council about $266,000 in grant money Land-of-Sky can use to help with environmental assessments of “brownfields” — unused or underutilized property with “real or perceived” contamination” — that could be rehabilitated.
And during the public-comment section of the commissioners’ work session (held just before the formal session), board members heard a complaint from Leicester resident Ethel Boyd about problems she and her husband, Glen Boyd, have had with storm-water runoff caused, she charged, by development above their land off the New Leicester Highway.
The unincorporated parts of Buncombe County have no storm-water regulations, although the Buncombe County Planning Board is considering taking up the issue, Planning Director/Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton told the commissioners.
“Unfortunately, that’s not going to help the Boyds,” said Creighton.
Although staffers and the commissioners all seemed sympathetic, they agreed that the Boyds’ only recourse is the court system.