In a story that garnered more than 130 online comments and plenty of follow-up coverage, the Asheville Citizen-Times started out the week reporting “Buncombe County Commissioners Top Pay Scale in North Carolina.”
According to the paper’s analysis, “The average commissioner salary plus stipends is $41,509 — about 37 percent more than the average salary, including travel and technology, for commissioners in Mecklenburg County, which is four times larger than Buncombe and home to North Carolina’s largest city.”
Republican Mike Fryar, who made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Board of Commissioners in 2008, first raised the issue at their Feb. 1 meeting, urging the all-Democrat board to consider cutting its own pay in light of the county’s budget crunch.
In the original Citizen-Times story, Vice Chair Bill Stanley strongly defended the salaries and benefits, asserting that he “wouldn’t work for a penny less” and calling Fryar’s complaint “pure politics.”
But in a follow-up article the paper published a few days later (“Buncombe County Commissioners May Cut Own Pay”), Stanley was quoted as saying that the comments “were in jest” and that he would “be happy to take whatever cut the staff recommends.”
The county subsequently announced a staff proposal that would reduce the commissioners’ travel allowance by 50 percent (from $650 to $325 biweekly) and their technology allowance by 85 percent (from $175 to $25 bi-weekly). If approved by the board, each commissioner would receive $12,400 less annually. The commissioners are slated to vote on the measure Feb. 15, according to the Xpress online post “Commissioners Will Consider Pay Cut.”
In other Buncombe budget news, Xpress reported that “Buncombe County Considers Privatizing Mountain Mobility.” On average, the county transportation system’s 37 vans and five buses serve more than 500 passengers per day, according to the online post. County Manager Wanda Greene said that later this month, the county would begin accepting proposals from private entities interested in taking over operations.
The goal of privatization would be to get more bang for the taxpayer’s buck, she explained, adding, “If we can’t increase the service level, then we need to decrease the cost of what we’re doing.”
The tough times have also put a huge strain on the county’s other human-services departments. According to another Xpress post (“Buncombe County Releases Annual Human Services Report”), 31,011 residents received food assistance during the last fiscal year, which ended last June 30. That’s a 27 percent increase from the previous year. The report also noted that during the same period, 18 percent of Buncombe’s population was on Medicaid.
In brighter economic news — at least for a few lucky salespeople — “Asheville Verizon Store Bustles with First-day iPhone Sales,” the Citizen-Times reported. According to the article, six people camped out overnight in the cold and snow Feb. 9 so they could be the first ones in line at the Tunnel Road store to buy the new iPhone 4. The next day, a stream of eager purchasers kept the store filled; the sexy cell phone had previously been sold only by AT&T, which has a reputation for having a poor signal in the area.
In another offbeat story, the Citizen-Times reported that “2 Plead Guilty to Transporting 1,000 lbs of Marijuana in Horse Trailer in Asheville-area.” According to the article, a Buncombe County deputy recently pulled over a pickup truck and found 1,000 pounds of marijuana in 55 packages and $1.1 million in cash. It was all hidden behind a fake wall in the vehicle’s horse trailer. The perpetrators received sentences of 25 to 30 months in state prison.
Meanwhile, a story happening a world away suddenly felt closer to home as The Blue Banner — UNCA’s student paper — reported, “Students Hold Vigil for Protesting Egyptians.” About 20 people holding candles gathered on the school’s quad to honor those killed or injured in the massive demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak.