Buncombe Commissioners: budget, 911 and the Energy Loop

In their June 23 meeting — the last before a month-long break — the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners passed a $327 million budget, a 911 agreement between the city and county and signed off on a new location for the Energy Loop sculpture.

• Despite a declining economy and the need for cuts in every department, Buncombe County staff managed to deliver a budget that keeps core services intact and the tax rate unchanged.

That was the message conveyed by County Manager Wanda Greene’s 11-minute PowerPoint presentation at the meeting. Set to an easy-listening version of the 1983 song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the slideshow detailed the many services the county provides.

Judging by the applause from the board, her message got across, and the board unanimously approved the $327 million budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Down $11.7 million from last year, the spending plan includes $5.5 million worth of cuts: everything from education to public safety to eliminating 86 staff positions. The remaining $6.2 million came from adjustments in the county’s enterprise funds, including items like trash collection and parking decks. Trash collection fees will increase to $14.70 a month. Parking rates won’t increase.

Many of those positions, stressed Greene, were already vacant, and the county “found jobs in other departments or agencies for those that wanted to stay. Some elected to retire or leave the jobs to go back to school.”

The budget keeps the property-tax rate at 52.5 cents per $100 of property value.

The commissioners gave the budget an enthusiastic reception, with Vice Chair Bill Stanley exclaiming, “Pass it, pass it!”

“I want to thank the manager and finance staff who’ve diligently worked on this,” said board Chair David Gantt. “I think this budget faces the harsh realities that everyone else is facing, both individuals and businesses.

“This is not a time to expand programs; it’s a time to take care of working people. I’m really happy to hear that hard-working people at the county aren’t going to be losing their jobs because of what greedy people in another state have done. We’re cutting positions without firing people. I’m glad we could do this without hurting little people — the people we’re supposed to serve.”

Commissioner Holly Jones said she was “as comfortable as I can be” with the budget, considering the general economic turmoil, but she hoped that the nearly $11 million the budget draws from the county’s fund balance wouldn’t be needed.

“We don’t anticipate we will,” Greene replied. “We hope to be able to save enough money that we can put it right back.”

Before the meeting, Jones had voiced concern about a potential conflict of interest she faced in voting on the budget. It allocates about $800,000 for a child care program for low-income families that’s overseen by the YWCA of Asheville, where she is executive director.

But Jones said she doesn’t directly benefit from or oversee the program in question and thus didn’t feel there was a conflict.

“I know this board is committed to the highest level of openness,” she said. “I don’t financially benefit from these funds; none of my salary comes from any of these departments.”

County Attorney Joe Connolly agreed, saying that after investigating the matter, he saw no conflict.

“I’m of the opinion that she does not have a direct benefit, and she can proceed and vote,” he noted.

“Case closed: Let’s get on with it,” Stanley declared.

• The commissioners also finalized an agreement with the city of Asheville to fully consolidate 911 services. Earlier in June, final approval had been delayed (over Jones’ objection) due to a termination provision that many commissioners felt unfairly benefited the city.

Greene said that after discussing the matter further with City Manager Gary Jackson, they’d inserted a provision stipulating that if either party wanted to back out of the agreement, state 911 funds could be used to help pay for a move and new equipment for a separate facility. This, she said, addresses the city’s concern that it could be left high and dry if the county chose to terminate the agreement.

“This will put all the municipalities except Black Mountain and Montreat under one roof,” noted Gantt. “I think this is the sort of partnership our community demands: People will get help faster.”

Jones added, “I don’t think this [agreement] will ever be terminated; they seem on good terms. But I’m glad the city’s concerns have been addressed.”

• With no discussion, the commissioners also approved a new home for Asheville’s first piece of public art.

The consent agenda (a list of routine matters that are approved on a single vote at the start of each meeting) included an authorization for county staff to work out the final legal details with the city to place the sculpture on College Street across from the Courthouse.

First installed in 1983, Swannanoa sculptor Dirck Cruser’s “Energy Loop” long occupied a prime spot in City/County Plaza. But since its removal in 2007 during construction of the new Pack Square Park, attempts to relocate the piece have proved problematic.

In May, however, the city’s Public Art Board approved the move to the county-owned site. And with the commissioners now signing off on the idea, the newly restored “Loop” seems ready to move out of storage and back into the public eye.

—David Forbes, staff writer


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