In the eyes of college President Dennis King, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College is wonderful — but it hasn’t yet achieved greatness.
If proceeds from a 2011 quarter-cent sales tax increase — sold to voters as dedicated to improving the college — had flowed to A-B Tech construction projects from the beginning, King suggested at the Feb. 19 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, the institution would be well on the way to “the next level.” Instead, the college faces a $25 million maintenance backlog on its campuses.
Commissioners voted 4-3 to approve a plan that dedicates $3.13 million in Article 46 tax revenues in fiscal year 2020 for capital expenses at the college. The money would keep coming in each of the next seven years, increasing 5.5 percent annually to account for anticipated increases in construction costs. The county would also cap transfers from Article 46 tax revenue to the general fund at $5 million and would limit the use of that money to operations at A-B Tech.
Commissioners added a provision to create a new joint subcommittee to ensure coordination between A-B Tech trustees and the county board on capital spending priorities at A-B Tech.
An investigation by the Citizen Times found that almost $16 million of the money produced by the Article 46 sales tax has been transferred to the county’s general fund. That includes about $400,000 in salaries for county officials — including former managers Wanda Greene and Jon Creighton.
According to commission Chair Brownie Newman, the plan approved on Feb. 19 will leave A-B Tech roughly $15 million short of the funding promised at the time of the referendum.
“There have been things that have been mishandled with these funds,” Newman said, referencing money that had been spent on salaries. He also cited a $15 million campus parking facility as one example of a project the county pushed despite A-B Tech’s not seeing it as a priority. The garage, he said, is vacant for significant stretches of time.
“I would be supportive of not only assuring that there’s a plan to invest the $130 million in A-B Tech capital,” Newman said. “I think there should be a plan to invest more than that.”
Speaking after the vote, trustee Matt Kern said he was disappointed.
The measure doesn’t accomplish the original intent of the referendum, which was to spend the tax revenue only on A-B Tech capital projects, Kern said.
“In the next eight years, this proposal has $40 million for A-B Tech operations,” Kern said. “That’s $40 million that could have gone for capital projects. It’s disappointing that [commissioners] weren’t willing to look at this further and see that that alone is a mistake.”
Commissioners Newman, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Amanda Edwards voted against the plan, saying they wanted more time to consider.
“This is just such an important relationship,” Beach-Ferrara said. “It’s such a large amount of money, so I continue to think that this process would be best served by methodically moving forward.”
Edwards said interim County Manager George Wood had done a good job putting together an initial proposal but noted that he won’t be seeing this plan through to fruition.
Wood’s tenure as interim manager ends on March 4. Avril Pinder, selected earlier this month by commissioners, will take over after his departure. “She will be the one working with us so closely to ensure we really are following it,” Edwards said.
Commissioner Mike Fryar, who also sits on the college’s board of trustees, urged his colleagues to approve the plan. “I want to vote on it tonight, I want it passed tonight, and I want it settled down so we can get the things done over there,” Fryar said.
Siding with Republicans, Commissioner Al Whitesides, a Democrat, said he’s ready to see the issue resolved. He made creation of the joint subcommittee a requirement of his vote in support of the measure.
“We need them to sit at the table,” Whitesides said. “And more important than that, they’re the ones that need to tell us when they need a building.”
Laying the groundwork for the Board of Commissioners’ vote on Feb. 19, the college’s board of trustees considered the funding plan on Feb. 7. At that meeting, the trustees added a provision requiring that any money generated above expenditures must flow into the Article 46 fund balance, which would have to be spent on capital projects at the college.
College trustees then voted 9-4 in favor of the plan.
Since commissioners added an amendment to create the joint subcommittee on the use of capital funding, the proposal will now return to the board of trustees for another round of consideration.
A-B Tech will have input on the structure of the committee, which Newman said he envisioned as similar to the county’s five-member school capital fund commission.
“The trustees are still going to be able to have their say-so,” said Mary Ann Rice, chair of the Board of Trustees. Like Kern, she voted against the plan on Feb. 7.
Once the plan has been finalized, the boards will ask local representatives to the N.C. General Assembly to introduce a law to bind the agreement for eight years.
In his remarks to commissioners, King said he hopes to see more updates like A-B Tech’s new Allied Health Building, which involved tearing down an inadequate building and replacing it with a “beautiful,” “state-of-the-art” facility.
“I’m satisfied that the maintenance is one of our top priorities,” he said. “The need for a new building will come, and it will come soon if you want to do what I just said, which is take us from good to great.”