The budget bombshell

The words were heartfelt. The concern was obvious. But the hard reality remained that there was nothing anyone could do to change the fact that the Buncombe County commissioners had adopted a tax rate for this fiscal year that slashed funding for public schools and yanked most of the money usually allocated to nonprofit agencies.

About 100 people gathered at a July 3 press conference at the Asheville City Schools administration building called by Commissioners David Gantt and Patsy Keever — who were on the losing end of a vote that set the county tax rate at 59 cents per $100 worth of property. The event was largely attended by agency and school officials.

Gantt started off by explaining how the county had gotten into its funding “mess” — which he said stemmed from a $15.2 million combination of increased costs and reduced revenue. Later in the press conference, he acknowledged that the commissioners were now so bitterly divided they probably couldn’t agree on what time of day it was.

One message reinforced by the speakers was that the cuts would hurt real people.

Tom Prewett told the audience that Pisgah Legal Services helped him keep his house last year after he became disabled. He later said that his mortgage had been sold to a “predatory lender” which had lost his payments and was threatening to foreclose.

But because the county’s adopted budget eliminated $95,500 in funding to Pisgah Legal Services, the agency will be forced to lay off two staff attorneys who help hundreds of people a year, said Kerry Friedman, chairman of the Board for Pisgah Legal Services.

Willie Vincent, board vice chairwoman of Mountain Housing Opportunities, said the elimination of $81,000 in county funding means the agency won’t be able to help as many people buy or rent affordable homes — or assist as many elderly people with home repairs, which allows them to remain in their own homes.

“If you don’t have a place to live, you might as well give up,” Vincent declared.

Other agencies represented by speakers included the Asheville Area Arts Council (which funds projects including an arts curriculum in the public schools) United Way’s 211 call center (which provides information and refers people to assistance), Helpmate (which runs a domestic-violence shelter), and Children First (which advocates for children’s issues).

Asheville City Schools Superintendent Robert L. Logan said the county’s $400,000 reduction from last fiscal year’s appropriation — combined with state cuts on the horizon — could mean larger class sizes and the elimination of 13.5 positions.

“The children are going to receive a double whammy,” Logan predicted — referring to funding cuts to the nonprofit organizations that serve children.

For the county schools, Buncombe County Board of Education Vice Chairman Roger Aiken said the $2.5 million cut from last year’s county schools’ appropriation comes at a time when students’ standardized test scores are improving and when school officials were projecting the need of an addition $1.1 million to open the new Windy Ridge school.

Despite the sobering outlook, Vincent thought their words might have an impact on the commissioners as they tinker with their newly-adopted budget.

“I think they will look closer at who they’re cutting and how much,” she said after the press conference.

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