Amid economic turmoil, county considers borrowing $37 million

  • County grapples with gas crunch
  • Commissioners get earful on Parkside

Despite the current national economic crunch and continuing bleak financial news, the Buncombe County commissioners made a tentative commitment to borrow up to $37 million to fund capital projects.

In the pipeline: An artist’s rendering of the proposed Coxe Avenue parking deck. The commissioners initiated the process of borrowing $37 million, part of which would fund the deck. Photo Courtesy Buncombe County

“I know you have to be concerned about the environment we’re operating in, financial and economic, and I’m sure you want to know if those projects are really needed,” Finance Director Donna Clark told the commissioners during their Sept. 16 meeting. “The financial sector is in disorder, and that’s putting it mildly. If we were doing this today, my recommendation would be to wait until calmer times. But we’re not pricing [the buildings] until December. My hope is whatever is going on in the markets will have calmed.”

Clark promised, however, to keep an eye on the financing package as the exact terms are worked out. Both facilities would support economic development in the area, she maintained, and consolidating now-dispersed county agencies under one roof would enable them to function more efficiently while opening up space in the courthouse.

“If our economy keeps going the way it’s going, we can back out, right?” Commissioner Bill Stanley asked Clark.

“You’re not committed until you award the bids,” she replied, adding, “I think this part of the economy will stabilize.”

Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey also voiced some hesitation, noting, “Thirty-seven million dollars is just a lot of money.”

“But I think you’ve answered concerns of the public that there’s still a point where we could back off, or certainly delay it,” said Commissioner David Young. “I think that’s a good philosophy. The markets now are terrible, but it’s good to have things in the pipeline.”

The resolution was approved unanimously.

There’s still a ways to go before the financing gets final approval; the resolution simply initiates the process, asking a financial team that includes state Sen. Martin Nesbitt as special co-counsel to work out the details. A public hearing will be needed before the debt—which could include a mix of loans and bonds—could be approved. The county will also have to get the financing package approved by the state’s Local Government Commission.

“We all have concerns—the state of the economy is pretty fragile,” Ramsey told Xpress about the package. “The most redeeming part of this, from the taxpayer’s standpoint, is the parking deck on Coxe. That will be a huge boon to the economic growth of that area. It will also free up a lot of space at the health center. Right now we’re really packed for space in the courthouse, so that will open up some office space.”

Such large funding packages are common for capital projects, said Clark. “This is how we’ve done it in the past—we’ve done this many, many times,” she told Xpress, though she conceded that the current economic turmoil is a concern.

“We’ve had Lehman Brothers, AIG, all these companies collapsing,” Clark said. “But the bids won’t go out until December. We hope things will stabilize by then.”

The board will hold a public hearing on the financing package during its Oct. 7 meeting.

Not out of gas yet

In the wake of the local fuel crunch caused by successive hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast, county government is trying to find ways to conserve, County Manager Wanda Greene told the board.

“It seems like we’re dealing with hurricanes on a really regular basis—we kicked into a conservation mode last week,” she said. “This week we’re kicking more into reducing our consumption considerably. [Biltmore Oil] has set aside a station just for us—they’ve given us priority. Critical services have to roll.”

To that end, county employees were asked to modify their schedules “so we can reduce the amount of fuel we’re consuming overall. Our objective is to make sure we can make the fuel that’s in the ground last five to seven days, until we know what the situation really is.”

Greene said it was her understanding that power had already been restored to some pipelines.

Things haven’t really changed,” Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton told Xpress on Sept. 22. “We’re still encouraging all departments to conserve as much as possible. We hope things will get better by the end of the week.

The oil companies, Greene noted, “have told us that we shouldn’t panic, but it’s going to take some time to get the fuel back in the tanks.” In the meantime, she explained, “We will cover critical services. You might not see as many employees in the office, because we’re having them work a little closer to home.”

The issue that wouldn’t die

For the Buncombe County commissioners, Parkside seems to be shaping up as the issue that just won’t quit. During the Sept. 16 meeting, still more residents blasted the board over its role in the 2006 sale of public parkland to developer Stewart Coleman, part of whose planned nine-story Parkside condominium tower would occupy the disputed parcel.

This time, however, the criticism came on the heels of a court ruling declaring that the land cannot be used for private development. The county and Coleman’s company, Black Dog Realty, came out on the losing end, and more than one resident present was encouraging the county, at least, not to wade back into the fray by appealing the decision.

“Yesterday, a Superior Court judge confirmed that yes, you all really did screw up when you sold that piece of public parkland,” Asheville resident Steve Rasmussen said during public comment. “Only one of you [commissioners] has had the courage to admit that and the integrity to try to do something about it. The rest of you stayed in stubborn denial or silent avoidance up until the very end.”

Rasmussen, who’s helped lead vigils at the magnolia tree that’s become a rallying point for Parkside opponents, has been a vocal critic of both the land sale and Coleman’s plans for the property.

“Listening to the criticism and complaints expressed over and over about their government by everyone from the homeless to the superrich, I heard again and again how people blamed you far more than they blamed Stewart Coleman,” Rasmussen told the commissioners. “People wonder how long you’ll continue to take disastrous real-estate and legal advice from county staffers that behave more like private lobbyists than public servants. If you hope to be re-elected this November, I urge you to move quickly on buying and establishing protections for both the parkland and the Hayes & Hopson Building.” (The adjacent property, which Coleman purchased from a private seller after the county declined to buy it, would supply the bulk of the Parkside site.)

Ramsey cautioned Rasmussen “not to make inappropriate comments about our staff,” saying that would run afoul of the county’s policy on public comment.

The official policy is vague, noting only that “the Chairman may rule out of order any comments made during this part of the agenda that are rude, inappropriate or intended to harass any person or group of people.”

Asheville resident Coleman Smith, who also spent time under the magnolia tree, said: “You have to admit, it started here—and I don’t for one minute believe there wasn’t anyone in the county government who didn’t know what piece of property you were talking about. But you understand the way the winds blow. With respect to the judge’s ruling on the Parkside agreement, I would present to you that it would be ill-advised to support Coleman’s appeal: Twice-burned and all that. You’re human—the body politic can forgive—but you have to show it; you have to prove it back to the people now. This is an election year.”

Local activist Clare Hanrahan, who also played an active part in the now-intermittent Parkside vigil said: “Folks actually wept at the base of that tree, at the thought of it being cut. It wasn’t just the tree—it was the sense they’d been betrayed” by the commissioners and county staff. “Listen to the judge’s ruling; abide by that ruling,” Hanrahan exhorted the board. “Whatever you do, act: Protect our sacred spaces. If a conservation easement needs to be set up, get the support for that.”

Whether due to legal or electoral concerns, the commissioners decided later, in closed session, not to appeal Judge Marlene Hyatt‘s ruling (for details, see “Judge Rules on Parkside; Coleman to Appeal Alone” elsewhere in this issue).

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