On Tuesday, April 21, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners held two workshops: one to hear nonprofit funding requests and the other to facilitate discussion with the Buncombe County Fire Chiefs Association.
The first of the two meetings began at noon, where staff from 45 nonprofits packed into the crowded third floor commission chambers, waiting patiently for the chance to present.
Each nonprofit had three minutes to speak about the organization, its funding needs and which project(s) the county’s money would help fund. The presenters received an extra two minutes per additional project.
Combined, the list of nonprofit requests would cost the county $4.2 million if approved as-is. But, last year, 48 nonprofits requested $6.6 million in funds from Buncombe County and received only $2.3 million — just more than one-third of the money requested and less than 1 percent of the county’s $368 million operating budget as a whole.
If the county takes the one-third route again this year, the organizations would receive around $1.4 million in funding, but first the commissioners will discuss the options with County Manager Wanda Greene. A proposed budget plan will then be presented by Greene at the May 19 meeting, and the budget will come to a vote on June 16.
Asking for the biggest chunk of the budget is the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, the Asheville Area Chamber, the Pack Square Cultural Partnership, Pisgah Legal Services and Homeward Bound of WNC.
These five groups make up about half ($2.2 million) of the $4.2 million in budget requests. Click here for a more detailed summary of these five organizations’ funding needs. For the full list of organizations, scroll to the bottom of this story.
Following the nonprofit presentations, the commissioners met with the Buncombe County Fire Chiefs Association to discuss the various issues from fire departments across the county.
The chiefs discussed the problem with volunteering. Fire stations need volunteer firefighters and get plenty of applications, but usually, after realizing the tremendous amount of time and effort it is to begin volunteering, most applicants drop out of the training process.
Chief Randy Ratcliff of the West Buncombe Fire Department said he has 14 full-time staff members and 15 part-time slots with four vacancies — and the department struggles to retain reliable volunteers.
“Out of 20 applications, we usually only see two or three dedicate themselves to volunteering after the interview process alone,” Ratcliff said.
Fire Chief Ted Godleski of the Leicester Fire Department said he volunteered with his department for 30 out of the 32 years he’s worked there. He’s heard some volunteers asking, “‘Is there a possibility of me getting hired?’ That’s the mindset of volunteers nowadays,” he said.
Ratcliff added, “When I first joined, it wasn’t what you got out of it; It was what you gave back to your community.”
The chiefs all agreed, however, that the alliance of the Buncombe County Fire Chiefs Association is “phenomenal” in that it brings together all the departments — everyone looks out for each other. There used to be a time “when you wouldn’t see a city fire truck sitting at a county station,” said one of the chiefs. “Now that we have this group in place, we’ve been rapidly integrating the teams. We work together all the time.”
County Chair David Gantt replied, “Well, that’s music to our ears. We love hearing that.”
Another major concern of the association is the possible drastic funding cut from a proposed North Carolina sales tax bill. The bill would redistribute millions of dollars from Buncombe to counties with smaller budgets, closing the monetary gap across the counties. Many of the chiefs said that the impact of the bill, if it should pass, would be “catastrophic” to departments in Buncombe County. Several city and county governments across the state plan to take a stance against this bill, including Buncombe commissioners (who will vote on the issue at their May 5 meeting).
Conversation turned to the cost of living in the county — some firefighters must live far outside their districts, which could also be a factor in the county’s lack of volunteers. Gantt admitted that he knows the cost of living and housing in the area weighs heavily on citizens. “There’s just such a gap between housing and salary because everybody wants to live here,” Gantt said. “It’s a big problem, and we’re aware of it.”
But even though the county is making efforts to fix the inequity between cost of housing and wage, implementing small solutions little-by-little is “like spitting in the ocean,” he continued.
Among many other topics, the Black Mountain/Ridgecrest fire from earlier this month came up: “If that fire had happened in any other county, it would have been catastrophic,” said Reems Creek Fire Chief Jeff Justice. “And I’m not saying anything bad about the other counties, but they just don’t have the resources [that Buncombe has]. People would have been talking about it for years to come.”
Discussion circled around the room until each chief got to address the issues at each department, and then the meeting adjourned.
Check out the full list of nonprofit budget requests here: