Tax hike on the table as Buncombe County faces tough budget

Photo by Max Cooper.

Dealing with lower property values and increased funding requests and mandates, Buncombe County faces a tough picture as it prepares its budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Because overall property values in the county have dropped roughly 2.4 percent since 2006, the last time they were evaluated, Buncombe commissioners would need to raise the tax rate just to bring in the same amount of revenue collected last year. During commissioners’ April 13 budget retreat, County Manager Wanda Greene reported that the “revenue neutral” tax rate would be 57.84 cents per $100 of property value. That’s up from the current rate of 52.5 cents.

And that does nothing to make up the difference in an estimated $2.4 million reduction in state and federal money the county previously used to pay for mandated social services, said Greene. Other required expenses the county needs to find a way to pay for include $1.2 million in operating and staffing costs for its new downtown court building, and roughly $928,000 for mandates required by the federal Affordable Care Act, she said.

Plus, a number of local nonprofits such as Helpmate are requesting millions more in county funds from what they received last year, according to Greene.

A request by the Asheville City School system for $65 million in county funds to replace the aging buildings housing Isaac Dickson and Asheville Middle schools wasn’t discussed.

In fact, commissioners stayed mostly mum on what they thought should be done to balance the books as Greene concluded her presentation.

However, she implied there was no rush to make any hard decisions, with so much in the North Carolina General Assembly at play that could further change the the county’s financial picture. State bills don’t usually shake out until May, she noted.

With the future of the Western Highlands Network in question, Greene’s biggest financial worry at the state level, she said, is if legislators require changes to the mental health system that end up costing the county more money.

She said a bill recently sponsored in the Statehouse by representatives Nathan Ramsey and Tim Moffitt that would allow the county to consolidate parks and recreation facilities with the city of Asheville has the potential to help reduce costs, but would require more study.

Greene said she plans to present a more comprehensive budget proposal to the commissioners in May.

The commissioners didn’t take any votes at the retreat. But in addition to the budget, they did discuss a number of other issues that they’re likely to act on over the year, including:

• Strengthening zoning rules in the 80 percent of the county that’s currently designated for open use;

• A plan proposed by Commissioner Joe Belcher to provide more oversight and county funding caps for local nonprofits;

• A “Buncombe County Energy Independence Initiative” proposed by Brownie Newman that would commit the county to reducing its carbon emissions by 2 percent per year until it reaches a total reduction of 80 percent;

• An idea presented by Board Chair David Gantt to work with the city of Asheville to provide a “Voluntary Conservation Density Bonus” that incentivises high density urban development and rural land preservation;

• Working with other local organizations to help make small-business micro loans more accessible;

• Working with the sheriff’s department and school systems to increase student safety.

• Creating a support system or team to help private property owners clean up graffiti on their property.

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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