Commissioners consider consolidating county offices, televising public comment

It’s far from the easiest time to be a Buncombe County commissioner. As the economy sinks (and, with it, tax revenues), demand for the array of social services the county provides is rising.

Those were just a few of the issues on the commissioners’ minds as they gathered Jan. 9 and 10 for their annual retreat.

After a lengthy review of county-owned and -operated properties on Jan. 10, the board instructed county staff to investigate consolidating all or most county offices into a single location. The move could cost anywhere from $30 million to $60 million, depending on whether the county buys or builds the facility.

“We’re way too spread out,” asserted board Chair David Gantt, and Commissioner K. Ray Bailey concurred. “Why can’t we get it all in one place?” wondered Bailey. “It seems like it would be a lot more efficient.”

The board instructed County Manager Wanda Greene to come back with several options for consolidating county services in a facility with easy access and room for growth without a tax increase.

That could prove a tall order. Earlier on Jan. 10, the commissioners reviewed a series of desperately needed facilities, including a $20 million-plus public-safety training center, an addition to the county courthouse (also more than $20 million) and more offices for human services.

As if that weren’t enough, Tax Director Gary Roberts informed the board that increased tax exemptions under new state laws and a looming property revaluation could leave the county strapped for cash.

“We will enforce the state laws, of course, and it’s not my place to opine on them,” Roberts told the board. “But this does have me concerned.”

The county was already gearing up for an across-the-board 5 percent budget cut in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. Greene will be presenting the various departments’ budget proposals, reflecting the cut, to the commissioners in the next few weeks.

“The thing is that we’re in the people business,” Gantt told Xpress after the retreat. “And in tough economic times, demands for these services are going to go up.”

“A tax increase is not on the table,” he added after a pause. “Not with this board.”

And though the county has committed to focusing on core services, many of the above needs fall into that category. When asked how the county will prioritize among them, Gantt said, “We will have to mull that over and consider all the options.”

Proposals that clearly don’t fit that description—such as a $30 million recreation-and-aquatic center—are probably on hold for now, added Gantt.

Whatever approach is taken, consolidating county offices would be costly. Greene said the county would need 300,000 to 400,000 square feet of space, including room to grow. One possibility is Biltmore Square Mall, which is for sale.

Ending the blackout

The day before, the board had broached the idea of once again televising the public-comment period—which hasn’t been done for years—and shifting it to the end of the commissioners’ meetings.

Currently, there are two public-comment periods: one before the formal meeting and one at the end. Neither is televised, though the rest of the meeting is.

“We should keep it civil, and we should televise it,” Vice Chair Bill Stanley observed.

This marked a significant shift for Stanley, who has historically opposed such a move. During last year’s primary campaign, however, he’d told Xpress that the public-comment blackout should “perhaps” end. At that time, Gantt and Commissioner Holly Jones ardently supported such a change, while Bailey said he would support it with clear guidelines. Commissioner Carol Peterson was the only candidate who opposed such a move outright.

The blackout has long been a sore point for activists across the political spectrum, who’ve asserted that it inhibits government transparency. Back when the commissioners instituted the blackout, they said it was intended to end political grandstanding onscreen.

The commissioners will vote on the changes at their Jan. 20 meeting.

 

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