School of hard rules: Commissioners get crash course in county government

Photo by Max Cooper

With revenue down and increased demand for services due to the stuttering economy of recent years, newly elected local and state officials face a crisis.

That was one of the more daunting messages delivered during a crash course for county commissioners organized by the UNC School of Government Jan. 9-10. The Buncombe County commissioners joined roughly 75 of their counterparts from across Western North Carolina for a two-day series of workshops at the DoubleTree Hotel in Biltmore Village. Designed to teach elected officials the “essentials of county government,” the sessions focused on such topics as ethics, open-meeting rules, budgeting and what state law says commissioners can and can’t do.

In an initial orientation class, UNC lecturer Vaughn Upshaw pulled no punches, declaring that the political rhetoric of the campaign trail must now give way to the realities of governing.

“You may have an interest in getting rid of government,” she told the assembled officials. “But guess what? You’d be getting rid of yourself. … You are government now. … Anarchy is not a good option, really.”

Upshaw then asked people to raise their hands if they’d “used public health service today.”

No one did.

“Every one of you should be raising your hand right now if you’ve had food or water,” Upshaw continued, emphasizing the key roles various government agencies play in ensuring the safety of what we consume.

Kara Millonzi, an assistant professor of public law and government, also sought to give the assembled commissioners a reality check. Summing up the relationship between county government and the North Carolina General Assembly, she said bluntly, “They tell you what to do, and you do it.” With counties legally considered “arms of the state,” she noted, the General Assembly can replace any county commissioner at any time, for any reason.

That’s rarely done, however, and day to day, commissioners often do wield tremendous power to help shape their local community, the workshop leaders stressed.

“You are in leadership positions now, unlike you ever have been before,” Upshaw maintained, urging her audience to prepare for “life in the fishbowl” as their views and decisions attract intense public scrutiny. “People don’t want to pay more taxes, but they’ll be begging you for more services.”

The controversial issues confronting these officials, she continued, will elicit passions because they involve people’s core values. Often, she noted, those value judgments can be boiled down to an age-old predicament: “How free do we want to be versus how equal do we want to be?”

“Even with all the facts,” continued Upshaw, “Some problems have no right answer. You have been elected to make those decisions for us.”

“It’s OK to have different values,” she added, imploring everyone to “treat each other with a level of respect and civility.”

“Your behavior at meetings is key to the public’s trust,” asserted Upshaw. “Our job as local elected leaders is thinking not just about our needs but our neighbors. This is what you’ve got to do, and you may not have known this, but I’m here to tell you.”

Lessons learned

Despite the facilitators’ somber warnings, Buncombe County’s commissioners said the workshops were helpful as they gear up for the year ahead.

“It was great. I think it was very important for everyone to get the same information about what county government can do and not do,” board Chair David Gantt observed.

The Democrat has served on the board since 1996, but five of his now six colleagues are newcomers. Republican Joe Belcher, who won a four-year term in District 3, called learning more about how “the county interacts with other agencies of government” an “awakening” experience.

“A lot of the things people ask you to take care of, and you would like to — you learn later that you may not be able to,” he noted. Belcher added, however, “I didn’t leave [feeling] down. I left engaged and excited: I think that’s what information does for me.”

Fellow Republican Mike Fryar, who’s starting a four-year term representing District 2, reported a similar experience. Before the workshops, he revealed, “One thing I kept thinking about was how to help charter schools. And it helped me figure out there’s just no way” due to “the way the law reads.”

Democrat Brownie Newman, beginning a two-year term from District 1, compared county government with the Asheville City Council, where he served for eight years.

“It’s a lot of the same issues, but the county has a slightly different role to play,” noted Newman. And despite the statutory hurdles, he thinks the board’s decisions can still have a big impact. “Although there are [state] mandates for what we have to do … there’s still a degree of flexibility and discretion. I don’t feel like every decision has already been made for you.”

Tough challenges ahead

The new, expanded board will have to grapple with some difficult issues. Until all the seats were filled, said Gantt, the commissioners were in “a holding pattern,” putting off as much business as they could until all parts of the county were represented. But with Ellen Frost sworn in Jan. 15, he predicted that the board “will get cranking pretty hard.”

One challenge will be setting the property-tax rate in the wake of the first reappraisal since 2006. “I don’t think anyone is pushing for a tax increase,” said Gantt. “So I think it’s very unlikely, unless there’s something crazy with the revaluation.”

Newman says he wants the county to start working toward clean-energy and carbon-reduction goals “right away.” Fryar, however, says his biggest priority is cutting spending — particularly on support for nonprofits and A-B Tech capital projects.

A philosophical divide

The biggest proposed capital projects are new buildings for Asheville Middle School and Isaac Dickson Elementary. At Commissioner Holly Jones’ urging, the board authorized $2 million last year for studies and architectural plans. Like Jones, Newman feels these should be high-priority, despite the estimated $40 million to $50 million price tag.

Gantt, too, says he’s “very supportive,” adding that “Everything’s on the table” in terms of funding options, including a supplemental tax or a bond issue.

Frost also strongly supports those projects, saying her research has shown “There’s no county school in anywhere near the rough shape those schools are in. … We should want more for kids.”

Belcher, however, said: “Those are really not on my radar. … I don’t know enough about those schools to be able to talk about them.”

And Fryar, told the estimated cost, said: “Wow. … Do we have to have a brand-new, shiny thing that’s LEED-certified — all that the city asked for? I’m not sure about that. I just don’t know where it’ll come from without going up on taxes,” which he says he’s “dead against.”


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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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