Regardless of the final vote tally, at least one new face will join the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners after this year’s General Election.
Republican Glenda Weinert and Democrat Amanda Edwards are running for the District 2 seat that Commissioner Ellen Frost, a Democrat, will leave at the end of her term.
A Facebook Live forum hosted by Blue Ridge Public Radio and the Mountain Xpress on Wednesday, Oct. 17, offered Weinert and Edwards an opportunity to address issues like affordable housing, opioid abuse, and the omnipresent criminal investigation into former county officials.
The candidates also discussed how their backgrounds would guide their decision-making.
Edwards touted her master’s degree in public administration, which she said has informed her approach to county government. She has previously served in leadership positions at the Literary Council of Buncombe County and the Asheville-Mountain Area Chapter of the American Red Cross.
“I took over the Red Cross after an employee had embezzled almost 10 percent of its revenues,” she said. “I restored trust and accountability there, and I’m ready to do that from day one with Buncombe County.”
She now serves as the executive director of the A-B Tech Foundation.
Weinert has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and master’s and doctorate degrees in business administration, but said “more importantly,” she is a small-business owner. “I know what it takes to run a business. I know what it takes to take care of my employees. I also know the personal sacrifice that that takes to be able to own and operate a business,” she said. Weinert owned Little Beaver Child Care Centers until 2009 and now owns Firehouse Subs franchise locations in the Asheville area.
Stewarding taxpayer money is the most important responsibility of the Board of Commissioners, Weinert said, and she believes her skill set makes her a good fit for that responsibility.
The Wanda Greene investigation
Former Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene and other officials have been indicted on charges of misusing county money.
Weinert said the county needs to identify the policies that Greene formulated to abuse the system for personal benefit. “I think that when intentional deceit occurs, you have to go back and evaluate those policies,” she said. Separation of duties can be critical, she said, in breaking up centralized authority. “When you have centralized control like Wanda had,” she said, “you have what we are now faced with.” One step commissioners have taken is to implement the COSO internal control process, Weinert said, which “asks employees and … departments what can they do to better manage their pieces of the puzzle.”
Weinert said the Board of Commissioners has patched up many of its compromised policies and procedures. “They have addressed 43 of the 45 policies that were created that allowed Wanda to take some of the liberties … for the use of the money,” she said. To be good watchdogs, commissioners must be able to understand each piece of the budget, a skill that Weinert said she has developed by creating and analyzing budgets as business owner. “It is a critical piece to not just look at revenue but look at how we’re using our expenditures and then who’s responsible.”
Edwards said commissioners need to be willing to ask hard questions and admit when they don’t understand something or need more information to make an informed decision. She gave board Chair Brownie Newman credit for leading commissioners in making changes to policies that didn’t follow best practices for county government.
“However, I really think we’re missing the forest for the trees if we fail to address what had to be changed and what has not changed,” she said. Edwards claims that commissioners across the political spectrum failed to reign in bullying, secretive and cliquish traits Greene exhibited during her time as manager. “Our commissioners lack the basic knowledge of county government management, and that is what I bring to the table,” she said.
In an effort to address an estimated $5.4 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2020, interim County Manager George Wood suggested that commissioners consider cuts to certain employee benefits, which in some cases are more generous than those offered by peer counties.
Wood recommended that commissioners change the county’s health care and annual leave sale policies. Commissioners ultimately opted to keep employee health plans unchanged for another year but did place a cap on leave sales.
Wood also pushed commissioners to move to a merit-based system of adjusting salaries rather than an automatic cost of living adjustment. While acknowledging the system’s flaws, commissioners decided to keep the practice in place.
Edwards said the county does offer “incredibly generous” benefits, but noted that it’s important to consider employee morale. “They don’t feel respected,” she said, citing conversations she’s had with county employees. “They don’t feel that their work is important. They feel that, because they work for Buncombe County, the community and sometimes each other in their own departments view them as just as guilty of things as Wanda Greene.”
Edwards did, however, highlight the high pay that commissioners in Buncombe County receive compared to elected officials across the state. Buncombe County is the seventh-largest county, but commissioners receive the second-highest salary among commissioners in the state. Newman made an unsuccessful push during the FY 2019 budget process to cut those salaries to bring them into proportion with the county’s size.
Commissioner pay and benefits need to be discussed alongside employee benefits when it comes to cutting costs, Edwards said. “I’m not hearing those discussed hand in hand.”
Weinert said the county’s “greatest asset” is its employees, and it’s important for commissioners to pay attention to the benefits that the county has already provided them. “I think that there are ways to go back and look at grandfathering in our current employees,” she said.
While cost is always an important consideration, Weinert pointed out that the county relies heavily on its employees. One of the unfortunate side effects of the Wanda Greene investigation is that citizens view the entire county staff in a negative light, she said.
“As a commissioner, it is very important for us to listen, understand and work to protect our employees and to make sure we are being good stewards of not only their service but the resources it requires to take care of them,” she said.
A-B Tech funding
A recent investigation by the Asheville Citizen Times found that Buncombe County has been using sales tax revenue approved by voters for A-B Tech capital projects to balance the county budget.
Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, Weinert said, but the county should have had the foresight to specifically designate that money for projects at the educational institution. “Any time money is specifically set aside or earmarked for a particular function, we have to make sure that that occurs,” she said. “Back to budget process, I think it’s really critical to understand the budget, understand where the dollars come from, what they’re allocated to do, and then the commission’s responsibility is to make sure that happens.”
Edwards works for the A-B Tech Foundation. “No one can see the impact of this more than I can,” she said. “I can see how situations like this have a real cost and a lost opportunity. Not only for our community but for our students.”
Edwards said the problem stems from a lack of county transparency, a lack of understanding about the budget, and an unwillingness to ask questions. She noted that it’s also important to consider how the Board of Commissioners ended up overseeing those projects, which she said were supposed to be controlled by the office of state construction.
In closing, Edwards said that while she is a lifelong Democrat, she is not partisan and is proud to have voters across the political spectrum supporting her campaign.
On her way to forum on Oct. 17, Edwards said, she was contacted by a Republican voter who told her how excited he had been to vote for her that morning.
“I’m incredibly proud of that, I’m incredibly proud of reaching across the aisle, and I will continue to do that as a county commissioner,” Edwards said.
Weinert said her experience as an accountant, business owner and early educator allows her to offer a well-rounded set of attributes to the Board of Commissioners.
Weinert said she’s a strong advocate of broadening access to early childhood education, which makes it possible for parents to work.
“One of the things that is critical to that is for us to be good stewards of our money, to create a broad tax base and be able to create revenue that allows us to support all of the things that we believe in,” she said.