An 11th-hour reduction in the county property tax rate, a proposed pay cut for members of the Board of Commissioners, a decision to withhold — at least temporarily — part of a funding increase for local school systems: It’s difficult to fit all the changes considered at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting on June 19 into a single sentence.
A series of last-minute amendments to the FY 2019 budget galvanized spirited debate among Buncombe County commissioners during the board’s last meeting before the end of the 2018 fiscal year.
Two pivotal items on the board’s agenda were the approval of the FY 2019 budget and the appointment of an interim county manager after the sudden departure of former manager Mandy Stone. Stone notified board Chair Brownie Newman of her intention to retire on June 8, a few days after a new indictment was released charging former County Manager Wanda Greene with misappropriating $2.3 million to purchase whole-life insurance policies for herself, her son, Michael Greene, and eight county employees, including Stone.
The county said all employees except Wanda and Michael Greene assigned their policies to the county after discovering that the board had not approved the policies and that Greene did not follow legal requirements in issuing them.
“None of these county employees had any knowledge or access to information that would have informed them that these policies were not approved nor of the actual cost involved,” the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners wrote in a statement released on the evening of June 5. “It is believed the Dr. Greene misled them as a vehicle for her own financial gain and that of her son.”
Stone’s official retirement date is July 1, but she will be taking time off until then.
Bridging the gap
After singling him out as a candidate in a press release on June 18, the Board of Commissioners officially appointed George Wood as interim county manager in a unanimous vote.
Commissioners, who received help in their search from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, said they received glowing reviews from Wood’s references leading up to their decision. “I’m going to take you out to Lake Julian,” Commissioner Al Whitesides told Wood from the dais, “because … I want to see you walk on water.” Wood previously served as the county manager for both Wayne and Lincoln counties and has 35 years of experience in county and municipal government.
Wood’s appointment will last until Feb. 28, 2019, or until the board selects a permanent county manager. The county said Wood will not be a candidate for the permanent position.
Reading from an engagement letter, Newman said the board would compensate Wood at $83 per hour, and that due to Wood’s status in the N.C. Local Government retirement system, Wood’s maximum pay cannot exceed $83,111, and he cannot work longer than 999 hours.
“I think the role of interim manager is to come in and obviously try to settle things down,” Wood told Xpress after the meeting. “You want to make sure that all of the ongoing projects and initiatives stay on track, give some guidance to the staff, be there to advise the board as they need it and generally do what a manager does normally, just on a temporary basis.”
Wood said part of his responsibility will also involve briefing the board’s official choice for county manager on his perception of where the county stands, which he hopes will facilitate a smooth transition once the county has a permanent pick.
The counties he’s worked for haven’t specifically experienced the kinds of problems Buncombe County is facing, “but they’ve had their share of turmoil,” Wood said.
Thanks to a last-minute show of generosity (or contrition) from commissioners, Buncombe County property owners will see a 1-cent reduction in their property tax rate, which will drop from 53.9 cents per $100 of valuation to 52.9 cents.
A 52.9-cent tax rate had originally been proposed earlier in the budget process but was dropped to accommodate an increase in school funding requests. One cent equals about $3.7 million in county revenue.
“I think we owe it to the people of Buncombe County to drop this tax rate,” said Commissioner Robert Pressley.
Two commissioners, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Newman, voted against the decrease, cautioning that this decision could have a financial impact on the county in the long-term.
“I think the county can get by with a tax rate change of that amount or probably even more,” Newman said, “but the question is what is a sustainable tax rate, and I’m just concerned a 52.9 cent tax rate may very well not be sustainable.”
Beach-Ferrara estimated that the cut would only bring property owners a reduction of $15 to $35 in their annual property tax bill, and Newman cautioned that the decision could cut into the county’s fund balance, dropping it from 15.6 percent to 13.5 percent in two years, a projection he said takes into account the $8 million in revenue the county could see from increased property tax payments following HCA Healthcare’s planned purchase of Mission Health. County policy requires that its fund balance stay at or above 15 percent.
Newman suggested that reducing the property tax rate this year could limit the opportunity presented by the financial windfall from the Mission sale.
Supporters of the decrease countered that this was a deliberate decision on the part of the board.
“This was not willy-nilly, this was not out of the hat, this was after a lot of conversations with budget and our finance team,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. “I think our citizens need a break. I would never suggest this if it were not sustainable.”
Commissioner Joe Belcher said $15 to $35 is a lot of money for some people. “For most of the people I know, every little bit helps,” he said.
Newman led an unsuccessful push to cut annual compensation for commissioners in the FY 2019 budget.
Currently, the chair of the board receives $37,650 annually, the vice-chair receives $32,548 and commissioners each receive $28,916.
“When you look at the amount county commissioners are compensated across North Carolina and other locations,” Newman said, “there’s a very strong relationship between the size of the county that they’re serving and what their compensation is.”
Buncombe County is the seventh-largest county in North Carolina, but Newman says Buncombe commissioners receive the second-highest salaries among commissioners in the state — more than commissioners who represent Wake County (which encompasses Raleigh), Guilford County (which encompasses Greensboro) and Forsyth County (which encompasses Winston-Salem), according to an email Newman circulated to commissioners before the meeting.
“This is not going to move the needle a lot in terms of where we land in this year’s budget,” he said, “but we have really been wrestling with issues around the county’s financial management for the last year.”
Newman said commissioners have made a lot of progress in changing county policies to ensure county tax dollars are spent responsibly. There is, however, a perception in the community that too many people in county government are in it for the money, he said. While that perception isn’t true, Newman continued, reducing commissioner pay would communicate that people work for the county for the right reasons.
Newman’s proposal would have cut pay for the chair of the board to $24,300 and pay for the commissioners and vice-chair to $21,098, reductions that Newman said would put commissioner salaries in line with Buncombe’s status as the seventh-largest county in the state.
The proposed amendment drew support from one other commissioner, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, but encountered pushback from the remaining members of the board.
Commissioners against the amendment pointed to the heavy workload associated with serving as a commissioner and concern that a cut in pay would deter those who aren’t wealthy from seeking elected office.
Pressley said commissioners have been required to attend numerous meetings throughout the past year, tallying 24 regular sessions, 18 work sessions lasting four to five hours each, meetings before each regular session, and special meetings organized in response to the fallout from investigations into Greene’s alleged financial improprieties.
“You get what you pay for,” Pressley said. “If we want to work for nothing, maybe we need people to run this county that don’t know nothing.” Pressley later volunteered to take the pay cut by himself to save other commissioners from the decrease.
Frost, who will be leaving at the end of her term this year, expressed concern about the impact the reduction would have on the makeup of the board, limiting participation to wealthier citizens.
“It’s a token gesture, and I think we need a board of real people to represent our community,” Frost said. “After the last year, people might not think a lot of us, but I know how much work we’ve put in to rightsize the county.”
Beach-Ferrara said she wrestled with this issue before making a final decision, acknowledging the concern about how the change might impact the composition of the board.
“While we’ve done a lot of good hard work this year,” Beach-Ferrara said, “we have a lot of work left to do to make sure we’re fully upholding the fiduciary responsibility that we have.”
The proposal ultimately failed by a 5-2 vote with Newman and Beach-Ferrara voting in the minority.
In another 5-2 vote, with Newman and Beach-Ferrara again on the losing side, the board approved an amendment to the budget to hold about $1.86 million of the proposed $3.2 million increase in funding for Asheville City and Buncombe County schools in contingency.
“I believe that the school systems should be funded at a level sufficient to meet the educational need of students and to support a terrific workforce of certified and non-certified staff,” said Whitesides, reading the motion from a piece of paper. “In that spirit I believe, however, that we must assure the goals and requests of the county are fulfilled.”
The board will require school systems to make a formal request and presentation to the board to receive all or part of the money held in contingency. The money will be held in the county fund balance until dispersed. Commissioners did not discuss the amendment during the meeting before casting a vote.
The decision drew a rebuke during the period of public comment at the end of the meeting from Amy Churchill, a member of the Buncombe County School Board.
“At some point I’d really love to sit down … to hear exactly where your concerns are with how we handle things in our schools, because there are several people who I believe are sitting here right now that could tell you differently,” she said.