A cultural bypass

Amid a contentious behind-the-scenes debate, a bill that would've originally allowed Buncombe County and its cities to consolidate parks and recreation departments was revised June 26 in the North Carolina Senate to exclude municipalities completely. First garnering bipartisan support this spring, recent revisions have highlighted ongoing political tensions between local and state officials over consolidation and control of Asheville's water system.

Pushed by Rep. Nathan Ramsey in the Statehouse, the original bill was met with initial enthusiasm from several members of both the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and Asheville City Council as a way to save costs, improve services and more fairly pay for regional assets. It passed the N.C. House May 6 with strong bipartisan support.

But in recent weeks, Commissioner David King has taken responsibility for lobbying Rep. Tim Moffitt for an amendment that prevents cities from joining the authority for two years. Despite King's original claim that a majority of his colleagues supported the move, several say they weren't consulted and heard about it in media reports. Meanwhile, even King says he was caught by surprise when legislators subsequently altered the bill to exclude cities completely.

The county's current budget proposal relies on the state passing the parks-and-rec bill so that commissioners can levy a special tax and dedicate the revenue to various projects. In recent weeks, commissioners have twice delayed voting on that budget proposal; on June 28, they unanimously passed an interim budget.

That gives commissioners 30 days before having to finalize the county budget and, they hope, state legislators enough time to determine the fate of the CRA bill.

Causes of concern

Although publicly quiet on the matter before lobbying Moffitt, King now says he has a long list of concerns about the proposed bill. "There are so many unanswered questions about how this is going to work,” he says. “We're putting our library people, our parks people, into this thing. I don't want to set this thing up for failure. … There's too much involved in it. There's concerns about how the board would be set up, who's going to control this thing, where is the money going."

Ultimately, however, even King says that once the county works out the kinks, he hopes state lawmakers will finalize the bill and allow cities to join. He also says that the turning point for him this year was hearing that city officials were discussing using the savings from the creation of the authority to funnel $2 million to the Asheville Art Museum.

"That made me livid when I found that out," he reveals.

The city estimated that its participation in the authority could save it up to $5 million a year. Asheville officials did plan on using the savings to fund a variety of projects, including affordable housing, parking decks, street maintenance and renovations to the museum. (For City Council’s budget conundrums related to the bill, see "Gue$$ing game" elsewhere in this issue). Some City Council members have accused legislators of using the parks bill as a bargaining chip in legal negotiations over a measure that would hand control of its water system to the Metropolitan Sewage District without compensation.

The idea of consolidating county and city parks and recreation departments was first discussed almost 10 years ago as a way to compensate Asheville for joining a regional water authority.

Majority rules?

King initially reported that he told Rep. Moffitt that a majority of Buncombe commissioners supported the latest changes to the bill.

But in a subsequent interview with Xpress, King admits that he had only spoken to two fellow commissioners who, he says, supported changing the parks-and-rec bill: Commissioners Joe Belcher and Ellen Frost.

Four members would be needed to make up a majority.

Frost, however, denies that she talked to King before he went to Moffitt. However, she also tells Xpress that she sees advantages to delaying municipalities’ participation in the CRA, noting that it could give the county time to work with the School of Government to craft a well-organized authority.

Commissioner Mike Fryar says he didn't discuss the matter with King or any state legislators before reading about the amendment in media reports. Asked if he supports King’s requested amendment, Fryar says, “Truthfully, I don't know."

Vice Chair Holly Jones reports that she also learned of the change by reading about it in the news and, soon afterward, she sent an email to Ramsey.

"My primary support for the development of a Cultural and Recreational Authority was to build efficiencies into the system, address current tax inequities and demonstrate a model of true regional cooperation,” she wrote. “For the CRA to be developed without these outcomes is problematic. … My support for developing a CRA at this time is only with the understanding that all municipalities, including Asheville, be offered this opportunity in the very near future. Otherwise, I find little utility in an authority."

Commissioner Brownie Newman, her colleague in District 1, which encompasses the city of Asheville, says he also supports the original legislation.

And Board Chair David Gantt says he'd also prefer the original, which lets cities join immediately. However, he says, any version of the bill would be better than nothing. “My recommendation was to let them in right away, but that wasn't followed," Gantt says. "I'm really hopeful that in the future we can add [Asheville], and any other municipality that wants to join."

None of the discussions among commissioners about their CRA bill requests have taken place at public meetings.

In her email to Ramsey, Jones wrote: "I am sure you are sensitive that any official position of Buncombe County would need to be determined in a public meeting."

However, with the extended budgetary deadline looming, commissioners haven't scheduled any time to publicly discuss making an official recommendation to the state on the CRA.

UPDATE (Aug. 12): Rep. Moffitt admitted that municipalities were excluded from joining the CRA as punishment for Asheville lawsuit against the state’s transfer of its water system. Read the story here.

Mountain Xpress senior reporter David Forbes contributed to this report.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or jfrankel@mountainx.com. Senior Reporter David Forbes contributed to this article.

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