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.