Let the sun shine

Back in business: After taking most of July off (excluding a special session to wrap up economic incentives for the Canadian manufacturer Linamar), Buncombe County commissioners got back to work on Aug. 2, taking such actions as approving a solar-panel installation at Enka High School. photo by Christopher George

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Aug. 2, 2011 meeting

  • 2010-11 tax collections on track
  • Carolina Ready Mix property rezoned

Amid a tight economy, the Buncombe County commissioners are looking on the bright side. At their Aug. 2 meeting, they unanimously approved installing solar panels on Enka High School’s roof, with an eye toward saving both energy and money. The county is reviewing proposals from various developers, and installation is expected to begin next month.

In a complex transaction, the board of education will lease the roof to a solar developer, who will install and maintain both photovoltaic and solar water-heating systems at no cost to the county. In exchange, the developer collects the federal and state tax credits and gets to sell the energy produced by the system to Progress Energy. (See “Up on the Roof,” March 9 Xpress). The county first had to determine that the roof space wouldn’t be needed for any other purpose during the lease period (which is expected to be 20 years).

“That electricity will not be directly used at Enka High School,” Tim Fierle, director of facilities for the Buncombe County Schools, explained. The school will use the hot water produced by the solar-thermal system, and the developer will be able to claim a credit from Progress Energy for the electricity it would otherwise have taken to heat the water.

In addition to the lease payments, Buncombe County Schools will have the option to buy lower-cost hot water from the developer.

The school board, noted Fierle, “has directed staff to find ways to save operating costs. … This is one initiative of many that we’re looking at.”

In six years, the school system would also have the option of buying the system outright. “After that time, Buncombe County Schools would receive all those benefits of electric-power production [credits] that have already been pre-negotiated … and receive the full benefit of the solar-thermal output,” continued Fierle.

Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt applauded the plan, saying, “I salute you. Smart, smart program: It costs nothing, you get a benefit, it’s a triple win.”

A taxing situation

The commissioners also heard an annual report from Tax Director Gary Roberts. As of June 30, he said, the county had collected 98.67 percent of the roughly $153 million in total taxes due for the 2010-11 fiscal year ($143.3 million in regular property taxes, and $7.6 million in vehicle taxes). An additional $400,000 taken in since then leaves some $1.6 million still outstanding.

The percentage of taxes collected is close to the county’s average going back to 2004, noted Roberts, and it’s 1.5 percent higher than the state average. Buncombe County draws up its annual budget based on a 98.25 percent collection rate.

A key difference this year, he said, is that the county has “more payment plans than we’ve probably ever had” to accommodate the larger percentage of county residents facing bankruptcies, foreclosures and unemployment.

After hearing the report, the commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the start of collections for the current fiscal year. Roberts said his office plans to start mailing out this year’s property-tax bills the week of Aug. 8.

Set in concrete

In other business, the commissioners unanimously:
• approved a request by Richard Kubica of Carolina Ready Mix to rezone its 5.2 acre parcel on Old U.S. 70 from R-3 (residential district) to NS (neighborhood service district). The property’s current use did not conform to its zoning designation. Seven of the property’s neighbors had previously presented a letter to the county Planning Board opposing the rezoning, citing concerns about noise and dust produced by the company, whose products include formed-concrete walls. But the Planning Board had nonetheless recommended the change, and at the commissioners’ meeting, no member of the public spoke either for or against the rezoning.
• approved a $1.67 plan to pave about 2.6 miles of unpaved secondary roads.
• reappointed Capi Wampler and Joseph Carvey to the Historic Resources Commission and Ron Morin to the Tourism Development Authority.

— Christopher George can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cgeorge@mountainx.com.

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