Asheville residents focused much of a July 15 community meeting with the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on new schools and a possible new shooting range.
The get-together was the second in a series of community meetings being held in each of the three county districts.
About 25 residents attended from District 1, which encompasses the city of Asheville. District 1 commissioners Holly Jones and Brownie Newman led the session, joined by all of their fellow commissioners.
Several attendees praised commissioners for agreeing to spend roughly $20 million on a new Isaac Dickson Elementary School building.
“Thanks for support of school system,” said Gene Bell, who served as chair of the Asheville City Schools Board of Education until stepping down in March. “You all have demonstrated a level of professionalism you all should be proud of.”
Peggy Dalman, who recently took over as vice chair of the board of education, added: “I know how challenging some of the budgets have been, but the support of Asheville and Buncombe County has been incredible over these last few years.”
In turn, Newman, who is serving his first term on the board of commissioners after serving for eight years on Asheville City Council, thanked education leaders who have been advocating on behalf of replacing that building and the one currently housing Asheville Middle School.
“I know I speak for everyone when I say how excited we are,” Newman said. “This is one of the signature things our commission has gotten off the ground.”
Newman and his fellow commissioners cited Jones’ leadership on the board in particular for pushing for the new school construction. Construction will likely begin on the Dickson facility in early 2014.
However, with the price tag of a new Asheville Middle School facility estimated at $41.5 million, commissioners have delayed that project until 2018. Newman noted that “our goal is for it to happen sooner rather than later,” although he didn’t discuss where the funding might come from.
State law dictates that the county divides a special local sales tax to the city and county school systems proportionally by pupil, resulting in the county system receiving most of the money. That’s been instrumental in allowing the the county system to build 15 school buildings in the last three decades. In contrast, the city school system hasn’t built a new building since 1986.
In response to a question on the subject, Commissioner David King revealed that he’s discussed the idea of changing the revenue distribution formula with state legislators.
“The subject has been broached, but we are where we are,” King reported. “Just keep reelecting us and we’ll take care of it.”
King’s District 3 colleague, Commissioner Joe Belcher added: “We’ll figure out a model. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that on our resume, that we figured out a model to make this work?”
In the meantime, commissioners plan to fund most of the Dickson construction with general property tax revenue.
Another potentially costly capital project that was discussed at the meeting: A new shooting range to train law enforcement officers on the use of firearms.
An original plan discussed this spring to spend $10 million on an indoor facility near the Buncombe County landfill is “off the table now” reported Commissioner Ellen Frost.
Jones noted that the message commissioners have been hearing loud and clear from the public is that they should not spend that much money on such a facility – leading them to shelve it in favor of less expensive options.
“You all have been a really important part of this determination to back up, and take another look at it,” she told attendees. “And to our credit, we heard you, and are responding. … it’s a beautiful example of how our democracy should work.”
Jones added: “It is a legitimate need for our public safety officers. .. but the question is, what is the appropriate amount to invest in this public safety need?”
The county is now looking for a site in the county to build a less expensive outdoor range, with costs estimated at $2 million, reported Planning Director Jon Creighton. However, previous attempts to find a suitable outdoor site over the last several years haven’t been successful due to worries about noise pollution and other concerns from potential neighbors, according to Creighton.
Commissioners asked attendees to let them know if they hear of any land suitable for such use. Sounding a hopeful note, Belcher said: “Just because we couldn’t find an outdoor range over the last four years, doesn’t mean we won’t be able to find one in the next four years.”
Here are the details on the commissioners next community meeting:
• July 16, District 2: Commissioners Mike Fryar and Ellen Frost will lead a community meeting at Bee Tree Community Center from 6 to 7 p.m. District 2 encompasses much of eastern Buncombe County, including Fairview, Black Mountain and Weaverville.