Buncombe County Commission

By the time you read this, you’ll probably already know who emerged victorious in the much-ballyhooed race for the five seats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

But in the feverish days before the Nov. 7 election, none of that was known — which could help explain the commissioners’ remarks about the county’s financial status toward the end of their meeting on Halloween afternoon, Oct. 31.

All the commissioners were present except for David Gantt, who was out of town, board Chair Tom Sobol announced.

Growing pains

The board’s light agenda was dominated by a disagreement between property owners in the Avery’s Creek community over whether the commissioners should recommend to the N.C. Department of Transportation that two state gravel roads be abandoned and replaced by a paved road to be built by a developer.

Tim Newell, a land planner with Carolina Development Resources, says his group is designing a gated golf-course community called Walnut Cove on about 600 acres off Avery’s Creek Road in southern Buncombe County.

Newell told the board that his company proposes replacing the gravel Avondale Circle and Walnut Cove Farm Road with a new, paved Walnut Cove Farm Road, which would be built to DOT standards. Calling it a “logical solution,” he said the new route would eliminate two unsafe intersections, reduce the state’s maintenance cost, get rid of a loop used by joy riders, and more effectively delineate between public and private roads.

In answer to a question from Commissioner David Young, Newell said proposing that DOT “abandon” the roads is the first step toward closing them. But he added that the roads wouldn’t be closed until the new road was ready.

Several local residents supported Newell’s position. Linda Bishop complained about speeders on Avondale Circle, whom she said make her fear for her children’s safety.

“This road has been all of my life a problem,” Bishop revealed. “To me, it seems like a great advantage to have paved access vs. a gravel road.”

Other neighbors told of dust churned up on the unpaved roads and trash dumped alongside them.

But attorney Jerry Crow, representing neighbors Joe Swicegood and his wife, Peggy, told the board his clients oppose the proposal. By recommending closing the roads, the commissioners would be helping increase the value of one property owner (the developer) by taking away the rights of another (the Swicegoods), Crow argued.

“The Swicegoods are perfectly happy with what’s there,” said Crow.

But Kent Smith of Carolina Development Resources rejoined that, although it’s in the developer’s best interest to relocate the road, it wouldn’t hurt the Swicegoods either. Noting that the developers would build a road to the Swicegoods’ property, Smith added that the development will be a quality community and, as such, will be in the best interest of the community and other property owners.

“This is really about growth,” Smith said. “Inevitably, wherever I’ve gone … people don’t like growth, particularly if it changed their corner of the world. It’s not unusual that people don’t like things to change around them.”

On the recommendation of County Attorney Joe Connolly, the board delayed action so that representatives of the Blue Ridge Parkway could present their opinions. One of the existing roads can be seen from the scenic highway, as can the route of the proposed road.

Financial questions

County Finance Director Nancy Brooks reported that Standard & Poor’s had recently awarded the county an AA bond rating, which helped secure good interest rates on $19.95 million in general-obligation bonds sold Oct. 17.

First Union National Bank was the low bidder for $3.95 million in public-improvement bonds, which will be used to fund such projects as library and health-center construction. The county will pay 4.63 percent interest on the bonds. First Union was also the low bidder for the remainder of the bonds issued that day (to pay for school improvements), which were offered at about 4.97 percent interest, according to the state Treasury Department.

That week’s Bond Buyers Index stood at 5.62 percent. If the county had had to pay that rate on its bonds, it would have cost taxpayers an extra $1.2 million, Brooks told the commissioners.

She also reviewed Standard & Poor’s credit profile of the county. Brooks has noted before that the only North Carolina counties with higher bond ratings than Buncombe’s are the six that are larger. (Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Wake counties have AAA ratings; Orange County has an AA+ rating.)

After Brooks’ presentation, Vice Chair Patsy Keever commented on recent political advertisements charging that the county is in bad financial shape and that taxes will have to be raised 10 to 15 percent (as asserted by an ad placed in the Asheville Citizen-Times by Republican Michael Keleher, a candidate for the Board of Commissioners).

“In my mind, this is all hogwash,” Keever declared, asking Brooks if there is any truth to the claims.

Brooks replied that she didn’t know what they were based on, since the county isn’t very far into the current budget year, and she doesn’t know what demands the county will face in the next fiscal year’s budget. If county staff did propose a tax increase, Brooks said, she was sure it would be a conservative one.

Keever then asked about claims that the county had “bought” Standard & Poor’s bond rating.

“We have to pay for these ratings,” Brooks answered. “They don’t provide these services for free.”

The finance director added that although the county pays a fee, the rating is needed to sell bonds.

“The higher our bond rating, the lower the interest we pay on that debt,” she concluded.

Commissioner Young clarified Keever’s question by asking Brooks whether the county could buy a higher rating.

“Absolutely not,” Brooks stated firmly.

Brooks explained later that the state treasurer’s office requires local governments that have had bond ratings in the past to apply for a new rating with each bond issue.

Besides, Brooks said after the meeting, “Why would an investor want to buy anything without a rating?”

The board briefly went into closed session to discuss a legal matter and two items related to economic development. They took no action following the closed session.

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