In these days of electronic communication, receiving a personalized letter in the mail can make a nice change. Alongside bills and advertising flyers, some Buncombe County employees recently received individually addressed political letters in their home mailboxes that specifically referenced their county jobs.
It’s unclear how many of those recipients welcomed the personal touch.
Local political action committee Angry Taxpayers sent the letters to the home addresses of hundreds of Buncombe County’s roughly 1,400 employees, encouraging them to vote for Republican candidates for the Board of Commissioners this year.
Formed in August, the Angry Taxpayers argue that a lack of oversight during two decades of Democrat control of the county board allowed alleged corruption among former county officials (most notably former County Manager Wanda Greene) to go unchecked. The group wants to give Republicans the chance to patch things up.
The PAC raised over $50,000 from Aug. 10-Oct. 20, according to financial disclosure forms. That money has paid for mailings, signs, billboards and radio ads that aim to convince voters to flip the 4-3 Democratic majority on the county board in favor of Republicans.
“If this theft and corruption is not stopped and permanent controls put in place to keep it from occurring again, it could negatively impact your retirement and benefits package,” the letter reads.
County employee Josh O’Conner received one the Angry Taxpayers’ letters; he says the communications cross a line. “I think people have had to put up with a lot of negativity and a lot of just desire to get the organization back in the place it needs to be, which has required pretty significant work on everyone’s part,” O’Conner says, “and [the letter] was … a little bit demoralizing to come home to.”
Speaking as a private individual and not on behalf of his employer, O’Conner, who manages the county’s parks and recreation department, says the letter also represented an unnecessary intrusion into his private life, especially since employee mailing addresses are not available through a public records request.
Mike Summey, the treasurer of Angry Taxpayers, says the organization compiled a list of addresses by requesting a full list of employees and identifying personal addresses through publicly available sources like voter registration lists, county tax records and phone books.
“I don’t see what’s the difference in that and getting any other piece of mail at your mailing address whether it’s a post office box or a home address — wherever you get your mail from,” Summey says. “I mean, anybody can go to the board of elections and get a voter a list of everybody’s mailing addresses and mail them that way.”
The letters were sent to personal addresses, Summey says, because the PAC worried the letters would be intercepted if sent to employees at their work address.
According to county spokesperson Kassi Day, the county does not have a policy controlling how employees receive mail at work. “When mail is addressed to an employee through a work address, it is delivered to them,” she says, “but a majority of employees do not have a work mailing address.”
Day provided Xpress with an email communication sent to county employees about the Angry Taxpayers on Oct. 29. “County administration wants you to know that we did not release your address to the Angry Taxpayers,” the email states. “This letter was not endorsed by any commissioners mentioned. If you have received this letter, we encourage you to treat it just as you would any advertisement from any political organization.
O’Conner also believes the letter implies that employee benefits will be protected only if Republicans are voted into office. “That’s where I kind of felt there was a threat,” he says. “Like, ‘Unless you vote this way, this is probably going to happen to you.’”
Summey says the group didn’t intend for the letter to appear threatening. Instead, the PAC was trying to inform employees that they have a stake in what happens to county money.
Interim County Manager George Wood warned commissioners in August that the county could face a $5.4-million shortfall in fiscal year 2020 and recommended that commissioners reduce spending on health plans and annual leave sales to help make up the difference.
Summey also pointed out that revenue from a ½-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2011 for building projects at A-B Tech has been diverted to balance the county budget, as reported by the Asheville Citizen Times on Oct. 4.
“Down the road, these shortfalls — if they have to be made up, if the money has to be paid back — there’s only two sources to pay them back from,” Summey says, “and that’s either through budget cuts or tax increases.”
Summey says he and other members of the group don’t think tax increases would be a popular decision among county residents, which leaves budget cuts.
In the letter to county employees, the PAC writes that it received “firm commitments” from Republican members of the board and Republican candidate Glenda Weinert “that if they gain a majority on the commission, one of their first acts will be to put [permanent] controls in place.”
But Commissioner Robert Pressley, a Republican running for re-election in District 3, and Weinert say the PAC didn’t approach them before sending the letter.
According to Summey, the candidates and Republican members of the board didn’t meet or otherwise discuss the letter with the PAC.
“There was no formal meeting,” he says. “There was no saying, ‘Here’s what you’ve got to do,’ ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’”
Summey says the PAC’s impression of the stances held by candidates and board members was based on informal conversations.
On Nov. 1, Weinert told Xpress she had become aware of the letter in the last 24 hours.
“I think what they’re referring to is the fact that I’ve been very clear about my support of COSO and putting internal controls in place and looking for better ways to manage our money and resources,” she says.
COSO is an internal control network certified by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
“I would say the benefit of all of that is really for all the taxpayers, of which our employees are critical to the operation of this county, and each and every one of them is a taxpayer,” she says. “So my assumption is that’s what [the Angry Taxpayers] are referring to.”
O’Conner says recent policy changes to strengthen county systems against future fraud and corruption have been made with bipartisan support from commissioners.
“I think steps are being taken,” O’Conner says, “and I think we started some really good conversations about advancing policy into the future and realizing that it’s not anything that’s static. It’s something that requires constant attention and review.”
Although she says it’s difficult to make an assessment of the county’s response from the outside looking in, Weinert believes the Board of Commissioners is moving in the right direction.
“What I want to be a part of is conversations around the budget and around how we spend taxpayer money,” she says, “and I think we certainly have some opportunities to look at that and see where we can improve that.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated with information about county communications to employees about the Angry Taxpayers letters at 5:09 p.m. on Nov. 1.