Buncombe County Commission

Commissioners David Young and Bill Stanley jumped the fence and voted to approve the Regional Water Authority’s 1998-99 budget at the Buncombe County Commissioners’ June 30 meeting. Both had voted to reject the budget one week earlier.

Stanley’s vote was so quiet that Sobol had to ask him which way he had voted.

Young made the motion to pass the $19 million water budget, which raises user fees by 9 percent. Commissioner Patsy Keever seconded it, and Board Chair Tom Sobol tossed in a “yes” for a 4-1 vote.

Commissioner David Gantt, however, stuck to his guns — firmly repeating what he had said the week before, in opposing the budget: that water rates are already too high.

“I represent the citizens and business owners,” Gantt said after the meeting. He was “very disappointed” that his colleagues had approved the budget, and said he sees raising the rates as an “easy way out” for the Water Authority’s budget problems.

On June 23, Gantt, Young and Stanley had voted down the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson’s proposed budget, after a medley of citizen complaints about water bills that they say are already too steep.

At that meeting, Gantt had also questioned why commissioners should approve a larger budget for the Authority when most other county departments had trimmed their requests for the upcoming fiscal year (which began July 1).

According to Assistant City Manager Doug Spell, who served as interim water resources director from September of 1997 to this March, the Authority had already “diligently” trimmed its budget — or it would have needed a 16 percent increase.

Water Authority Board Chair Charles Worley told commissioners on June 30 that a computer-software glitch had thrown off the budget calculations of Authority staffers and board members last year.

That glitch led the Authority to believe it had $2 million more in revenue than it actually did, Worley explained. If the agency had had a more accurate picture of its financial situation last year, he said, it would have asked for a smaller fee increase then.

Worley also indicated that the Water Authority will seek another 4 percent fee increase in next year’s budget.

One small but critical item in this year’s water budget is the $33,000 earmarked for moving several pesticide-mixing stations farther away from the Mills River — a project that swayed Young to reverse his budget vote, he said. A new water-treatment plant is being built just downstream from the mixing stations.

“The mixing stations will not be moved unless we approve this budget,” Spell warned on June 23.

“There’s no way that I wanted to see a 9 percent increase,” said Young in a later interview. “The main thing was the pesticides going into Mills River: We had to move those things.”

Gantt and Young have both said that they think the Water Authority could have found the money to move the mixing stations without a 9 percent fee hike. But Young pointed out that if commissioners had not passed the budget, they would have had no leverage to make certain the Authority moved the stations.

Stanley, on the other hand, cited a more personal reason for changing his vote: He was impressed with new Water Resources Director Tom Frederick, who addressed commissioners at the June 30 meeting to ask them to adopt the budget.

“He just impressed me as a courageous man,” Stanley said after the meeting, noting that he couldn’t recall any prior water director ever having appeared before commissioners to ask for budget approval.

Nevertheless, Stanley added, “They don’t want to come up here with an increase next year.”

The commissioners also want to see the budget earlier next year. Gantt, Sobol and Young have all stated that commissioners did not have enough time to look over either the Water Authority’s or the county school system’s budget very carefully.

Commissioners received the water budget in mid-June, and had to pass it by June 30 (the end of the fiscal year).

Worley said that his board had approved the budget in mid-May. And the commissioners, Worley and County Manager Wanda Greene all said they didn’t know why it took a full month for the budget to arrive at the commissioners’ doors.

Buncombe budget passes

With a little less hoopla, commissioners also passed Buncombe County’s own 1998-99 budget.

Nearly every county department’s allotment in the $190 million budget has been trimmed or maintained at last year’s level. More than 40 percent of the budget — $77 million — goes toward education, health and public safety (law enforcement and maintaining the county jail).

Despite the recent revaluation of property in the county, the commissioners’ commitment to a “revenue neutral” tax rate means that this fiscal year’s total county property taxes will be the same as last year’s: $75.2 million (about 42 percent of the budget).

But county spending this year will increase by about $10 million.

Nearly half of the money to cover those expenses –$4.6 million — will come from the county’s fund balance, a kind of emergency fund. Last year, the county transferred $2.3 million from the fund to help balance the budget.

The county’s fund balance now stands at $25.5 million.

The rest of the new spending will be funded by federal and other grants, an increase in tax collections and some county fees, and a new county sales tax , said County Manager Wanda Greene.

A hike in inspection fees and greens fees (at the county golf course) will generate about $140,000, said Greene.

Settling for less

The Buncombe County Detention Center was completed in 1995, but several disputes stemming from the construction have yet to be settled.

Commissioners took action to resolve one of the three lawsuits, approving a $40,000 settlement with Mechanical Industries, Inc., a Georgia-based company that installed the jail’s plumbing.

Mechanical originally brought a $450,000 suit against the county in January. Because of disputes that the county and the private contractor had been unable to resolve, the county had been withholding $28,000 worth of payments to Mechanical since 1992.

The total amount of Mechanical’s contract with the city was $2 million, according to County Attorney Joe Connolly.

One of the two remaining jail-related cases is a suit brought by the county against one of the architects; the other is a suit brought by one of the construction contractors against the county.

Connolly could not speculate as to whether the county will settle these suits, or go to court.

Construction of the jail began 1992 and ended in 1995.

Board appointments

Commissioners appointed Richard Rice and Ken Helmes to the Manufactured Home Park Advisory Board.

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