Buncombe County Commission

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners deadlocked last week over whether to sue the state for withholding millions of dollars in reimbursements.

At their Nov. 5 meeting, Chairman Nathan Ramsey and Commissioner David Gantt supported the politically dicey move, with Vice Chairman Bill Stanley and Commissioner David Young opposed. Commissioner Patsy Keever (who could have broken the tie) was absent due to family illness, Ramsey announced.

The chairman opened the discussion by noting that 20 North Carolina cities and counties had signed onto the lawsuit, filed in September by the Raleigh law firm of Boyce & Isley to recover the lost funds and to prevent the state from withholding any more. All told, Buncombe County has lost about $4.4 million, Ramsey noted later.

In fiscal year 2000-01, Gov. Mike Easley withheld local-government reimbursements to plug holes in the state budget but eventually returned the money, Ramsey recalled after the board meeting. In fiscal year 2001-02, the state wound up withholding $1.8 million from Buncombe County. In the current fiscal year, the General Assembly adopted a budget that provided none of the $6.2 million in reimbursements the county has traditionally received from the state, although a new half-cent sales tax that kicks in Dec. 1 is expected to deliver $3.6 million to county coffers.

The commissioners, proclaimed Gantt, have been elected to represent Buncombe County residents and their interests, no matter who’s in power in Raleigh. The county’s current bare-bones budget makes it hard for the commissioners to fulfill their promise to the Buncombe County Board of Education to bring school funding back up to its pre-2001 level. The austerity budget also denied county employees a long-overdue raise and ended years of county partnerships with local nonprofits, he noted.

And though Gantt insisted he didn’t like the lawsuit, he nonetheless declared, “I think we ought to go with this” and made a motion to that end.

But Stanley said he believed (based on a conversation with a lawyer for the Association of County Commissioners) that the state’s Balanced Budget Act gives the governor the authority to take the money.

“I just hate to see money go down the drain for something we cannot win,” observed Stanley. And even if local governments did win the suit, Stanley raised the specter of the state looking again to local governments for the money to pay the judgment.

Ramsey said he wouldn’t feel so strongly about the lawsuit if the General Assembly hadn’t passed a budget that provided no reimbursements for local governments. He also insisted that the lawsuit does not have partisan overtones. (Ellis Hankins, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, sent a letter to members in September accusing Boyce & Isley of having “partisan political motivations” for filing the suit just before the election, although Hankins apologized to Gene Boyce in a subsquent e-mail, saying some of his comments had been “intemperate and inappropriate.”)

Young feared that the county would jeopardize its working relationship with the state. And echoing Stanley, he asked: “Where do you think that money’s going to come from? It’s going to come from you and me.”

Although Ramsey conceded after the meeting that there are legitimate reasons for not joining the lawsuit, he also suggested, “What are they gonna do to us next year if we don’t raise holy terror with them?”

And even if Keever had been able to attend, the move would probably have failed anyway, since she had stated her opposition to the lawsuit, both Gantt and Ramsey said after the meeting.

“They’ll get a thank-you note from Raleigh,” Gene Boyce told Xpress last week after hearing about the split vote. Boyce (who’s won about $1.4 billion in lawsuits against the state) says local governments that don’t sign onto the suit won’t get a cut of what he expects will be a settlement approved by the General Assembly.

Cable franchise approved

With little fanfare, the commissioners unanimously passed a second reading of a 12-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications. The county expects to collect $12.5 million in franchise fees from the contract, which will also provide funding for launching local public-access TV. The contract contained two minor revisions from the version adopted by board members on Oct. 1, county negotiator John Howell told the commissioners (See “Sights and cents,” Oct. 9 Xpress,.

But the approval came only after county resident Fred English had questioned the commissioners during the public-comment session about why the public, educational and government channels (collectively called PEG) are mandatory for subscribers.

“What if I don’t want them?” he asked. English also questioned the concessions Charter had made to the county, describing the cable giant as having “significant financial problems.”

The contract concessions, noted Howell, would be funded by “subscriber reimbursement” — in other words, passed on to customers. The county, he added, needn’t worry about Charter’s financial health.

At the board’s Oct. 1 meeting, however, Howell had highlighted the fact that Charter had agreed not to pass along about $1 million in costs and services. Both statements are correct, Howell said later, but his shorter presentation last week didn’t touch on the $1 million figure he’d discussed at the board’s October meeting.

Affordable-housing challenges

A spokesman for a developer complained to the commissioners about the lack of incentives for building affordable housing in Buncombe County.

Neal Booker, the chief financial officer for the Meadows of Bradley Branch, noted that eight of the 24 houses his company had built in a development near Airport Road would be considered affordable housing under the city of Asheville’s guidelines. But because the development is in the county — even though it’s served by city water and Metropolitan Sewerage District lines — it doesn’t qualify for city incentives such as loans and reduced permitting fees, he said.

“That’s why we’re trying to push the county to help us out,” Booker said after the meeting.

Although affordable-housing advocates had championed the idea of a $500,000 county trust fund for affordable housing last summer, the board’s pared-down 2002-03 budget didn’t allocate any money for it. However, Planning Director Jon Creighton told commissioners that the county is working on a proposal to ask MSD to partially reimburse developers for the tap fees for newly built affordable homes. And just last month, commissioners made appointments to a new Asheville-Buncombe Housing Task Force that presumably will look at such issues.

But Booker’s main hope, he said later, is that the commissioners will push the banks to make it easier for people to qualify for loans. “If you want to help people,” he said, “help ’em.”

Tweaking the law and more

Board members unanimously approved changes to the county’s animal-control ordinance so that minor violations could be addressed by fines rather than sending those cases through the criminal-court system.

The commissioners also gave three local boards an infusion of new blood with the following appointments: Melissa Fender to the Women’s Commission; Robert Burcham, Ellen Frost, Teresa Ingle (the lone reappointment), Sherwin Peraroff and David Waltrip to the Animal Control Appeals Board; and Robert Middlemas (as a full member) and Deborah Ladd and Kenneth Powell (as alternates) to the county Board of Adjustment.

In addition, commissioners took care of some ceremonial business. They congratulated Department of Social Services Supervisor Becky Kessel on receiving an NAACP Presidential Circle Award for her community work on adoption awareness and recruitment. Stanley (who noted that he recently took the helm of the troubled Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center, a state juvenile-detention center) proclaimed November as Adoption Awareness Month. The board also recognized the county Finance Department for receiving an award from the Government Finance Officers Association for outstanding achievement in popular annual financial reporting.

At meeting’s end, the commissioners met in closed session for about 25 minutes to discuss a personnel matter.

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 19 in room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse. The work session (including time for public comment) starts at 4 p.m., followed by the 4:30 p.m. formal session.

Consent agenda

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the following items by consent at its Nov. 5 meeting:

• the minutes of the board’s Oct. 1 regular meeting;

• the Buncombe County Solid Waste Management Plan;

• donation of surplus property to the Avery County sheriff’s office, the Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center and Blue Ridge Homes;

• changes to the Minority Business Plan;

• pyrotechnics experts for a fireworks display at Biltmore Estate on New Year’s Eve;

• a release report correcting Tax Department errors;

• the commissioners’ 2003 meeting schedule;

• authorization for the chairman to execute quitclaim deeds to Jason Butler (for $30,000) and Rex Davis (for $1,000);

• a $30,000 workers-compensation settlement with former Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Bruce Fore for an injury to his right arm;

• authorization for the chairman to execute an easement agreement with Carolina Power & Light to extend electrical service to 175 Rumbough Place;

• permission for Mountain Mobility to apply for a grant through the N.C. Department of Transportation;

• permission to have the shared county lines with McDowell and Rutherford counties surveyed (at no cost to Buncombe County) by the N.C. Geodetic Survey, and appointment of Buncombe County Land Records Supervisor Mary Monteith as the county’s special commissioner of boundaries;

• the following budget amendments: Day Reporting Center ($111,610); Workforce Investment ($184,666, reduction in funding); Sheriff’s Department ($20,014 in grant funds); Recreation Services ($6,421 in grant funds); Planning ($2,431 for equipment); Youth Services ($15,500 in Juvenile Crime Prevention Council funds; Inmate Commissary correction ($65,460); Social Services ($447,497 in grant funds); various departments’ salary savings ($495,112); special revenues of cable fees ($10,000); and

• a capital-projects budget amendment.

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