How low can you go? That’s the question Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder posed to the Board of Commissioners at its April 30 budget work session regarding the county’s projected fund balance — the difference between its assets and liabilities — for the next fiscal year.
The board’s current policy, Pinder pointed out, requires the county to keep a fund balance of at least 15%, or $47.35 million. However, the projected fiscal 2020 budget would put the balance at 14.76%, and if a $5.25 million sale of county property on Ferry Road is delayed or falls through, the balance could drop to as little as 13.09%.
As presented by Jennifer Barnette, the county’s budget director, Buncombe would need to dip into its reserves because projected expenditures for fiscal 2020 exceed projected revenues by $19.89 million. Major new spending items in next year’s budget include about $3.56 million more for A-B Tech, city and county schools; $2.65 million for early childhood education; $2.44 million for early retirement incentives; and $2.33 million for affordable housing.
Commission members were generally comfortable with taking a more aggressive tack to the fund balance, noting that the county had reduced the gap between revenue and expenses by nearly $6.3 million over the course of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Barnette confirmed that Buncombe now only expects to spend approximately $212,000 in fund balance for fiscal 2019.
Commissioner Joe Belcher gave his approval while expressing trust in county staff to manage the budget wisely. “The fund balance is a tool,” he said. “We get what y’all do: Y’all work within that to make sure that the needs are met and the taxpayers are protected.”
Chair Brownie Newman, however, seemed more hesitant to sign off on a budget that projected a use of fund balance in violation of county policy, at least on paper. “I definitely don’t want it to actually go below 15%,” he emphasized. “I would only be open to considering that [budget] if there’s a very clear understanding that active management of the budget will result in staying above 15%.”
The commission did not take a formal vote on the fund balance issue, but its guidance led Pinder to say she would bring a recommended budget including a lower-than-15% projection to the board’s Tuesday, May 21, budget session. Members of the public will be able to comment on the budget during the board’s 5 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, June 4, in Room 326 at 200 College St. in downtown Asheville.
At the end of her presentation, Barnette noted that the spending from fund balance still wouldn’t fully fund departmental requests for personnel, salary and operating expenses. The budget omits 44 requested new staff positions, including six administrative assistants at the Board of Elections, 11 library assistants and two sheriff dispatchers.
Finally, Barnette added, pulling money from the fund balance isn’t a long-term solution to Buncombe’s needs. Planning for the next fiscal year, she said, “has not identified a sustainable revenue source to balance the budget.”