The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has some fresh faces, as new commissioners Holly Jones and K. Ray Bailey, along with new chair David Gantt (formerly vice chair) were sworn in this morning before a brief organizational meeting. Members of the board promised action but also said that definite steps to dealing with pressing issues such as the economy would emerge over the next few months, with the county taking a “look and see” or “batten down the hatches” approach in the meantime.
The board unanimously appointed long-time commissioner Bill Stanley, who was re-elected to his fifth consecutive term in November, as vice chair, and, also unanimously, kept County Attorney Joe Connelly, Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes, Finance Director Donna Clark and Tax Collector Gary Roberts in their jobs.
Jones, a former member of Asheville City Council, said she might favor looking at changing the board’s meeting times in the future. Gantt and Connelly confirmed that the board could revisit the meeting time at any point.
Jones was appointed as the board’s representative to the Land-of-Sky Regional Council along with the Transportation Advisory and County Energy Advisory boards. Bailey, the former president of A-B Tech, was appointed to the Economic Development Council and the Tourism and Development Authority.
After the meeting, Gantt told Xpress, “I think everyone on this board knows the buck stops here and we’re responsible for getting things done.”
Asked what specific matters they wished to take action on in the next few months, Gantt said that the goals would be hammered out in the board’s January retreat.
“The first thing we’ll do is have the retreat,” Gantt said. “I anticipate we’ll be mapping out our strategy. There’s been a lot of interest on this board in strategic plans, so we’ll get together all of the ones we’ve had over the years and then give the county manager instruction on where we want to go.”
As for how his method of running the board would be different from his predecessor, Nathan Ramsey, Gantt said he planned to keep “the good parts of what Chairman Ramsey did and tweak them to the way I would do things” including more meetings between commissioners and county staff “to make sure we know what’s going on.” Breakfast events with the mayors of the county’s cities and towns are also a priority.
Of course, the major issue on everyone’s minds is the economy. Jones, Bailey and returning commissioner Carol Peterson all advocated a careful approach.
“My approach is to batten down the hatches for the next six months — plan for the worst, save where you can and wait for a little daylight,” she told Xpress. “With the limited dollars we have it’s important to invest them in ways that get the best services for people: If there are conservative ways to invest in job, creation, energy savings, that sort of thing.”
Bailey noted that “in my conversations with the county manager, they have been planning for a turndown in the economy for a long time. The prior board has done a very good job of putting us in the position that’s what’s mandatory will be met and the services that aren’t mandatory will still be provided, if not at the same level as the past. I think in the next few months it’s going to be a ‘look and see posture.’”
Peterson said that all departments had prepared by mapping out possible 3 to 5 percent cuts, along with a hiring freeze.
“That allows us to set our priorities and adjust as things change — we’re in a better position because of that than most counties across the state.”
As for how her approach would differ from her predecessors, Jones demurred.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it in those terms,” she told Xpress. “I don’t feel qualified to juxtapose my approach with someone else’s. I’m a very inquisitive person, a very analytical person, but I don’t know that differs from past members at all.”
— David Forbes, staff writer