Up close and personal

Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, county government can’t get no respect. Like Dangerfield, it isn’t particularly sexy, and if it isn’t as bug-eyed as he was, its meetings have occasionally been known to make some observers bug-eyed with boredom.

Of course, the reason for all of the above is that county government, like Dangerfield, is often misunderstood. In actuality, there is no government entity that impacts more of your life more of the time than this, the largest municipal entity created under North Carolina law. (Some other states have different rules.)

In Buncombe County, the commissioners oversee a budget of roughly $250 million and distribute another $250 million in state and federal funds. This includes a substantial portion of K-12 education funding for both the county and the city schools. The Sheriff’s Department, the principal law-enforcement entity, also operates on a county budget (although sheriffs, under state law, are not subject to commissioners’ oversight), and the core of North Carolina’s judicial system functions in close association with county government. Public-health services, the mental-health system and animal control (which is also, in many respects, a health function) operate under county auspices. Food stamps, Medicaid and other public assistance flow through county channels. As was seen during the September floods, the Emergency Services Department is responsible for coordinating all municipalities within the county during catastrophes. Economic-development and land-use decisions also emanate from county offices, and courthouse files include all of our vital records — from birth to death, deeds to marriages, mortgages to criminal histories.

Then, too, the county collects the lion’s share of the taxes on property, sales and rooms.

The guiding philosophy of our county commissioners has a tremendous influence on our lives, both today and in the future. In recent years, as the state and federal governments have backed away from funding local governments, counties have faced increasing pressure to make painful decisions concerning taxation and services. When Buncombe’s commissioners decided to cut taxes and therefore slashed funding for numerous nonprofit and government programs in 2002, the impact rippled through the community: Services for the homeless and the blind took a hit, public-library hours were curtailed, support for battered women and rape victims was trimmed, and all manner of social services were reduced.

Regardless of whether you agree with such cuts in either taxes or services, they’re a fact of life — and your big chance to help influence these and other aspects of our common destiny comes around only once every four years. To help voters understand what manner of government each of the 10 candidates for Buncombe County commissioner or board chairman proposes, Xpress asked a handful of questions touching on critical issues. But if the following questions and answers don’t satisfy your need to know, we urge you to attend candidate forums or contact the candidates individually. After all, this is also their chance to answer to you.

And whether you vote early or wait until Nov. 2, if you’re tempted to just skip over the local contests after casting your ballot for a presidential candidate, remember: You’ll be living with the results of these races for the next four years.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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