Can the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners undertake $68 million worth of school-improvement projects, while holding the line on property taxes? At the board’s Dec. 15 meeting, no one could really say; all the commissioners could do was look at the existing data, using educated opinions and past projections, and hope for the best.?
County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bob Bowers presented the commissioners with the Board of Education’s Five-Year Facilities Plan, which would appropriate nearly $68 million for various construction and renovation projects. Much of the funding would come from a $40 million bond referendum, which would pay for heating and air-conditioning renovations to five elementary schools and five middle schools, as well as adding auxiliary gyms to three high schools. The remaining projects, which include additions to several middle and elementary schools, would be financed primarily on a pay-as-you-go basis, using sales-tax revenues and other previously allocated state funds.
If approved, the referendum would come before county voters in May.
Bowers detailed the Board of Education’s planning methodology — including estimated construction, renovation and operating costs — along with estimates of student growth and migration.”[We] feel comfortable we’re off to a good start, with solid planning … that will enable us to make wise decisions,” he asserted.
But though the school board’s numbers seemed to add up, some commissioners remained touchy about the superintendent’s “no tax increase” assurance. “How can we do this without raising taxes?” Commissioner David Gantt asked, late in the meeting. “That’s something we’re all going to have to answer, time and time again.”
Bowers maintained that the state will provide adequate funding to cover the construction costs, and that the bond-issue projects are limited to energy-saving renovations and the gym additions. “The operational side is always a concern and an issue,” he conceded, arguing that more energy-efficient schools would greatly reduce operating costs.
County Attorney Joe Connolly acknowledged that there’s no guarantee a tax increase won’t be needed. “But there’s a lot of good history that strongly suggests there would not be a tax increase, based on this model,” he said. The Board of Education’s cash-flow and interest-rate projections are quite conservative, Connolly explained. “So far, we’ve been able to properly satisfy the bond issues the voters have approved — without a tax increase,” he reported.
But others remained unconvinced. “To me, this sounds like a car-salesman pitch,” said longtime board observer Jerry Rice. Reading a prepared statement, he said, “I don’t argue with the capital needs; I just want the school board to be honest about the additional operating costs … and to admit they will need the commissioners to increase taxes as early as 2001 — by 2 cents to 4 cents [per $100 worth of property value] — to pay for these new costs.” Rice also speculated that the HVAC projects additions were earmarked for bond funds in order to boost the referendum’s chances of passing.
Commissioner David Young countered that it’s “very premature to say that this board will have to raise taxes in 2001. We have no idea what kind of growth we’re going to have; we have no idea what kind of needs we’re going to have. To say that we’re going to have to raise taxes, I think, is grossly inaccurate.”
Commissioners will revisit the issue in mid-January, when the Asheville City Schools present their case.
Earlier in the meeting, General Services Director Bob Hunter updated the commissioners about the Environmental Protection Agency’s Dec. 8 inspection of the county landfill. A concerned citizens’ group had alerted the agency when it was revealed that Buncombe County officials were speculating about using the landfill for recreational purposes — “a golf course or some other kind of recreation,” Hunter explained. But the inspection revealed that the landfill is up to par. “We’re doing what the state required,” he said.
Giving the commissioners a little history, Hunter explained that the EPA had tested the landfill for groundwater contamination in 1989, and had found that the site’s contamination was contained. Since then, the facility has been under the state’s jurisdiction, though it is still not considered a health risk, Hunter said. Precautions include monitoring the 36 on-site wells every six months, and sampling the river above and below the landfill site. When the EPA inspected the landfill, accompanied by county and state officials and members of the citizens’ group, the assessment was that the site has no current environmental problems.
“As far as the EPA is concerned, [they won’t] file a report on this,” Hunter said. “The EPA has determined that what we’ve done all along is correct. In 1989 it wasn’t considered a problem, and today it’s not considered a problem.”
A done deal
County Manager Wanda Greene also updated commissioners on the pending purchase of the Marcus and Charter cable-TV companies by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen‘s Vulcan Ventures. Commissioners were considering whether to approve the transfer of its current franchise agreements with Marcus and Charter to Vulcan. At the commissioners’ request, Greene had contacted nationally prominent media specialist Joe Van Eaton for advice on the complex issues involved in the deal, and found that his recommendations were not much different than what her team had already accomplished. Van Eaton’s suggestions included, notably, looking at any relevant past performance issues — which were minimal — and conducting an audit of the franchise payments, which the county did in April and May 1998.
“These were the main points that Mr. Van Eaton made for us,” Greene said, “and we’ve [either] incorporated his suggestions into the transfer document, or we had already taken care of the other issues he had brought up.”
Young thanked her for her good work, and Gantt agreed, commenting that ” … it sounded like there wasn’t a whole lot else we could do, but we wanted to know that,” before the deal was final.
Both Charter and Marcus’ transfer agreements passed unanimously.
Ellie Franklin, Beth Lazer, Lynn Reynolds, Spike Gram, Andrea Stolz and Wendy Atkinson were appointed to the Women’s Involvement Council, and Bob Selby was reappointed to the Metropolitan Sewerage District board.