Enka barn raises questions about Buncombe special interest funding

Enka High student on tractor
RAISE THE ROOF: An agricultural education facility partially funded by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Oct. 6 would replace an older storage structure currently used as a barn by students at Enka High School. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Schools

The only hammer in the room was Chair Brownie Newman’s gavel, but the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners nevertheless helped with a barn raising on Oct. 6. The board voted unanimously to award $15,000 toward the construction of a roughly $75,000 agricultural education facility at Enka High School that will house cows, chickens and other livestock.

Prior to that vote, however, some board members expressed concern with how the funding request had been presented. The item had been added to the meeting’s agenda by Republican Commissioners Joe Belcher, Anthony Penland and Robert Pressley.

As Newman, a Democrat, pointed out, recommendations to support such projects are usually made by Buncombe’s School Capital Fund Commission or Board of Education and funded as part of the county’s regular budget cycle. And Democratic Commissioner Amanda Edwards suggested that supporting one special project would open the board up to a flood of similar asks that would overwhelm county resources.

Edwards added that she’s repeatedly advised her husband, a high school principal, to take his own funding requests through established budget channels. “I’m just really afraid if we don’t dig in and start looking at this that we’re really setting ourselves up for multiple requests that are really difficult to say no to,” she explained.

Belcher agreed that the board needed a better process but argued that unexpected opportunities such as the barn, which would receive $25,000 in additional grant funding if construction started by the end of 2020, would always require some flexibility. “This is the proper way, and it is extremely transparent. We’re in front of everybody,” he said.

Meanwhile, Pressley referenced a $20,000 allocation for a horse barn at Owen High School in 2014 that was allegedly made without board approval by former Democratic Commissioner Ellen Frost and former County Manager Wanda Greene. Frost pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit federal program fraud in a different equestrian matter on Aug. 10, while Greene is currently serving a seven-year federal prison sentence for unrelated corruption charges.

“If Owen would’ve went through the channels, this could’ve been a lot easier,” Pressley said, staring at Newman. “Maybe we could’ve done something four years ago or put something in place for this.”

Pressley is running to replace Newman as the commission’s chair in the November election. Both Pressley and Belcher, who is defending his seat against Democratic challenger Parker Sloan, represent the county’s District 3, which includes Enka and much of Buncombe’s rural southwest.

County Manager Avril Pinder said she and her staff would begin researching potential policies to create a more structured process for funding special budget requests immediately following the vote. She suggested that language might be available for the board’s review at its next meeting of Tuesday, Oct. 20.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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3 thoughts on “Enka barn raises questions about Buncombe special interest funding

  1. Harold

    “…begin researching potential policies to create a more structured process for funding special budget requests…”

    Here’s the policy needed.

    Stop using taxpayer money to fund bullshit like this.

    Long story short. Problem solved.

  2. Big Al

    I have a lot less problem with this kind of funding for schools than with the over funding of school athletics (especially football) which only benefits a small handful of students, the overwhelming majority of whom will NEVER play after HS and therefore produce little or nothing to the community at large, unlike future farmers and related agriculture careers. Take the $15-20K out of the athletics budget. Give some to whatever the computer club is now called, too. We need more nerds and farmers, not jock wannabes.

  3. A Pissed Off Taxpayer

    So transparency in Buncombe County government means still doing whatever they want without the public’s consent. How about freezing salaries for employees or removing longevity pay? How about making raises and longevity solely dependent on the CPI? How about any school related money request must be a part of schools main funding and then they can decide how to budget for it? How about reviewing current employee salaries against job requirements and lower or raise them based on that since that’s how you hire? How about making tax rates be revenue neutral for the next decade, actually neutral meaning tax bills don’t change and the budget remains the same, and requiring departments to have to budget by the same funding from the same money the received the prior year? You have totally been bad stewards of the taxpayers money and had embezzlement and secret money flowing to various places that you need to pay for by cutting costs to the extreme, not by promising fake promises of better practices. You need to stop draining the economy and people’s back pockets to pay for things and make do with a budget. Stop wasting the money you collect. That’s the only way the public will ever have respect for you.

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