Buncombe taxpayers will pay a bit more to fund county services in the coming fiscal year. The spending plan approved June 20 by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners comes with a 2.6-cent property tax hike and lowers funding for some area nonprofits. Fiscal year 2018 begins July 1, and that’s when the new property tax rate goes into effect.
When budget talks began, County Manager Wanda Greene‘s proposed budget was $419 million with a property tax rate of 55.9 cents per $100 of valued property. However, commissioners wrapped up talks with a budget of $431,329,876, up $17.7 million, or 4 percent, from the current budget. It comes with a property tax rate of 53.9 cents, an increase of 2.6 cents from what would have been a revenue-neutral rate.
Greene told Xpress the additional $12.3 million was taken from the county’s fund balance. Some of those additions include:
- $4.1 million for Buncombe County Schools
- $759,987 for Asheville City Schools
- $2 million for an Eagle Market Street Development loan
- $547,500 for court diversion programs including a Justice Resource Coordinator and Administrative Office of the Courts contract services
- $534,283 for MAHEC nursing school contract
- $400,000 for the county’s Clean Energy and Sustainability Office
- $425,000 for Buncombe County Sheriff staffing
- $156,632 for preschool programs
- $150,000 for conservation easements
Greene noted the bulk of the budget’s money goes toward human services, public safety and education. “We only have discretion over about 8 percent of the budget; 92 percent is mandated,” she explained.
Public safety, which includes raises for Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department employees, will get $91 million; up about $2.1 million.
Health and Human Services is in line to receive $114.2 million, an increase of about $7.2 million.
The spending package also includes money for local teacher supplements, something last year’s board promised to fund for two years. Commissioners tapped into the Buncombe County Schools’ and its own fund balance to pay for the second year of teacher and support staff pay raises.
Basically, a fund balance is a savings account that would allow the county, or a school system, to run for about one month should all other revenue sources dry up. North Carolina mandates counties carry an 8 percent fund balance, while Buncombe County policy requires its own fund balance remain at 15 percent. County staff says it will end the current fiscal year with a fund balance of about 16 percent. States do not require school systems to carry a fund balance.
“It will allow us, first and foremost, to fulfill health and retirement benefits for certified and noncertified employees as the state increased [requirements],” said BCS Superintendent Tony Baldwin.
“I don’t think the BCS fund balance is redundant, but I think there’s a fair question about how much they need to carry,” said Commission Chair Brownie Newman in reference to asking BCS to transfer reserves to help cover teacher pay increases.
“This budget process, we started talking about it sooner such that both the commission and the school board got comfortable that they could appropriate some money from their fund balances.”
Before approving the budget, commissioners gave obligatory statements about the process being cumbersome and how they can’t fund every organization that makes requests.
However, Commission Mike Fryar made it known he would not be voting in favor of the budget. “We took $4 million [from A-B Tech] and put into this budget. When we take money from one thing, it’s not good,” Fryar said in regard to pivoting use of a dedicated quarter-cent sales tax from capital projects to operations and maintenance. However, when commissioners voted to change the use of that revenue stream, he voted in favor of it.
Ultimately the budget was approved by a vote of 6-1, with Fryar dissenting.
In regard to the property tax rate, Newman told Xpress: “I hope we can hold it for the foreseeable future. That would be my goal.” When pressed what that meant, Newman responded, “I would hope we could hold it for the next several years. There are a lot of things outside of our control; the economy, what the state does. I hope we don’t need to change it in the near future.”
The property tax rate hike comes on the heels of the county’s newfound value. Earlier this year, the county sent out reassessed property values, and the overall base stands at around $31.5 billion. That’s up by $6.8 billion, a 28 percent increase from the county’s 2013 assessment.
The taxpaying community
Not everyone was happy with how taxpayer dollars were doled out. The Pack Square Cultural Project, an umbrella group including the Asheville Art Museum and Diana Wortham Theatre, had about five people voice displeasure with its share of community funding. It will receive $175,000, but requested $395,000.
“I want to be very clear, we are not asking for additional resources, just continuing funding. The proposed amount would be devastating and reduce our impact and ability to serve the community,” said Diana Wortham Theatre Chair Hardy Holland.
He noted the renovation project will increase annual attendance by 60 percent, and it “will put heads on the beds, as the [Tourism Development Authority] will confirm.” However, commissioners did not move to discuss changing funding.
In fact, many nonprofits saw a reduction as commissioners ultimately approved some $2.5 million in community funding grants, down $135,800 from the last round.
Earlier this month, Xpress looked into community grant funding and found many organizations continue to get funding despite not meeting prearranged benchmarks with the county.
“I recognize [the budget] is not satisfactory to everyone. It is always a work in progress to figure out a budget, to respond to the complex needs in our community,” noted Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara.
“I appreciate everyone working hard. I think it’s been a good process of communicating and listening,” Newman remarked. “It’s always a hard process, I’m happy with where it’s landing. There are parts we’d all do differently, but I think this budget does address key priorities.”