A bigger budget: County may dip into reserves, but no tax hike likely

Amid a fierce election-year debate over taxing and spending decisions, the Buncombe County manager presented a $337.7 million budget proposal last week that avoids any property-tax increases for the coming fiscal year.

Instead, County Manager Wanda Greene told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners May 15 that the proposed county budget relies on $8.3 million in reserve funds and projected economic growth to cover a 1-percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year.

A public hearing is set for June 5 on the budget proposal for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The budget holds funding for most departments at roughly the current fiscal year’s levels, “except in the core, mandated services that are experiencing caseload growth,” Greene wrote in her budget message to the commissioners. A loss of federal funding for such required social-service programs is to blame for about $2.5 million of the spending increase, she reported.

Other expenses over the current fiscal year include federal requirements for upgrading radio systems ($700,000); utilities and fuel-cost increases for vehicles ($400,000); economic-incentive grants ($2.5 million); election expenses ($700,000); reappraisal ($200,000); and infrastructure investments in public-safety facilities and the Asheville U.S. Cellular Center ($640,000 and $340,000, respectively), Greene noted.

The county’s property-tax rate has been set at 52.5 cents per $100 valuation since 2006, when it was cut from 53 cents. Unlike last year, when the county cut costs by eliminating 93 staff positions, this year’s proposal calls for no major staff reductions.

The proposed use of $8.3 in reserve funds is an increase over last year’s plan to tap $7.9 million in reserve funds. However, last year – as well as every year since 2003 – the county managed to avoid actually spending those reserve funds, making that amount up throughout the year with various cost-cutting initiatives. Greene said she expects the county to be able to do the same during the upcoming fiscal year.

“I can’t say now how, but … I feel really confident we’ll save the money in 2013,” she told the commissioners, noting that last winter the county made up some of the difference on utility bills that were less than projected because of the unusually warm weather. “Our departments are very frugal,” she added.

The budget also relies in part on projected revenue increases due to expected economic growth. Noting that “we’re seeing some recovery in our real-estate market,” Greene said she anticipates a .8-percent increase in property-tax revenue based on rising assessed values, as well as improved collections. Greene also budgeted in a 6-percent increase in sales-tax revenue, based on growing collections over the past 12 months.

However, Greene emphasized that the county has to take into account that the economy hasn’t yet fully bounced back from the recession.

“These are difficult and uncertain economic times that require discipline and sacrifice in all aspects of government and life in general,” she maintained.

Pay cuts, anyone?

During the budget discussion, Commissioner Holly Jones waded into what could be an explosive political issue this fall, proposing several changes to the county’s personnel policy – including cutting commissioners’ salaries by about 17 percent.

In February 2011, the commissioners voted unanimously to give themselves a hefty pay cut, slashing their travel stipends by 50 percent (from $650 to $325 biweekly) and their technology allowances by 85 percent (from $175 to $25 biweekly). The move came in the wake of a week of heavy public criticism after several media outlets reported that, including the stipends, they were among the highest-paid commissioners in the state (see “Pay Dismay” in the Feb. 22, 2011, issue of Xpress). The issue was first highlighted by Fairview resident Mike Fryar, who’s frequently criticized the board over spending and is now a Republican candidate for the board in District 2.

Since then, commissioners’ salaries have been set at $26,605 per year (including the stipends and allowances). But Jones said that after her independent study of the issue, she feels that cutting the total to $22,000 per year would be more fair.

“I think we did a tremendous job in getting in line quickly – when we realized how out of line that was – but I think if we brought it down some more, than we would really be where we need to be, in terms of other counties,” she said. It was unclear whether she favored any salary changes to the chair’s or vice-chair’s positions, which pay $8,514 and $4,257 more per year respectively than the other commissioners receive.

Jones also pitched decreasing the amount of time new county employees are required to wait to receive health insurance and capping county employee longevity bonuses at a maximum of $3,000 per year.

Greene’s budget calls for lowering the wait for health-insurance benefits from 180 days to 90 days – starting Jan. 1 – a year before the county is required to do so by federal law. But Jones said she wants the county to go further, offering the benefits to employees 30 days after they’re hired.

“I think that would be a great recruitment tool, and I also kind of see it as a justice issue,” she explained.

The cap on longevity bonuses would primarily affect the county’s highest paid and longest working employees, whose bonuses amount to between 3 and 7 percent of their salaries, depending on when they were hired. Calling the proposed cut a “middle ground” approach, Jones said it “recognizes valuable service for an employee. But also, I think it’s just more in tune with what our citizens experience in their lives.”

Jones has been hammering on the issue since late last year, when she says she first became aware that the bonuses were increased without her knowledge. In a December memo to commissioners and the county manager – as well as an e-mail to supporters – she cited the bonuses and condemned what she saw as a lack of transparency in last year’s budget process (read “Pay to Stay” in the Jan. 17 issue of Xpress).

In contrast, however, Jones offered praise for Greene’s May 15 presentation, calling it “very thorough” and telling the staff involved “they’ve done a bang-up job.”

Several other commissioners agreed with her assessment of Greene’s budget, with Commissioner Carol Peterson in particular offering effusive praise for the county manager and her work. However, other than slight grimaces from Peterson and Vice Chair Bill Stanley, none of the commissioners or county staff offered any response to Jones’ proposals.

After the meeting, Jones told Xpress she’s still considering whether she’ll make a formal motion to amend the budget to include the changes to the personnel policy.


Financing redevelopment on “The Block”

The commissioners also delved into redevelopment plans for the historically African-American part of downtown called The Block, a possible trash-pickup rate increase and the county’s sustainability plan.

Commissioners voted unanimously to pass a nonbinding pledge to loan the nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities up to $2 million to fund Eagle Market Place, a proposed development near the corner of Eagle and South Market streets in downtown Asheville. The $12 million development would include renovating several neglected historic buildings and constructing 60 to 70 affordable rental apartments, as well as retail, commercial and office space.

Officials with Mountain Housing Opportunities said the promise from the commissioners could help the project come to fruition by increasing the chances of securing housing tax credits through a program of the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.

The board also instructed county staff to study a request from Waste Pro to allow it to raise garbage-pickup rates by 8 percent. The company contracts with the county to provide pickup services in unincorporated areas of the county; the change would increase the basic monthly rate it charges from $14.20 to $15.34. Officials from the company told commissioners they’re requesting the increase to offset the rising price of fuel, as well as higher labor and landfill costs.

In addition, commissioners unanimously endorsed a five–year county sustainability plan that encompasses a variety of initiatives and goals, from improvements in workforce development and education to land preservation and multimodal transit.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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