The N.C. General Assembly is looking for new ways to help businesses that have been hindered by COVID-19. But in doing so, Buncombe County officials suggested during a March 2 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, state legislators might hurt the county’s ability to serve residents.
Tim Love, Buncombe’s director of economic development and governmental relations, explained that the county was particularly worried about House Bill 119. The legislation, filed on Feb. 19 by a bipartisan group including Western North Carolina Reps. Mike Clampitt, R-Swain; Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe; and Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, would allow businesses that saw their revenues decrease by at least 25% during the pandemic to seek lower property valuations, thereby reducing their property tax burden.
As is the case for counties throughout North Carolina, property taxes represent the bulk of Buncombe’s general fund revenue. For the current fiscal year, the county budgeted property tax receipts of more than $212.2 million, or about 62% of its entire general fund. While Love hesitated to provide a specific figure for HB119’s impact, he called the potential loss of revenue due to lower business property valuations “substantial.”
Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman, a Democrat, echoed those concerns. Should the bill pass, he said, hotels and other businesses with high exposure to the pandemic could receive millions of dollars in tax breaks — funds that would no longer be available to support core county services.
“We would end up basically having to raise taxes on everyone else to fund these rebates to businesses that we understand have had a tough year, but many of which have had a great decade ahead of this year,” Newman said. He added that many firms had already received substantial support from federal efforts such as the Paycheck Protection Program and local initiatives like the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s Tourism Jobs Recovery Fund.
Although the board did not pass a formal resolution opposing the bill, Newman said he and other commissioners would speak with the local General Assembly delegation on the matter in the coming weeks. Love noted that the Henderson County Board of Commissioners had passed such a resolution on March 1 and that the N.C. Association of County Commissioners also stood against the bill.
In other news
At a briefing of the board earlier on March 2, Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara proposed that the county adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance. The measure, which would be the first of its kind in Western North Carolina, would authorize civil penalties of $500 per day for discrimination against people based on race, sexual identity, gender expression and other criteria.
Beach-Ferrara, Buncombe’s first openly LGBTQ commission member, said the ordinance would apply both in matters of employment and “public accommodations” such as restaurants, hotels and homeless shelters. She noted that the county had not previously been allowed to pass such a measure due to state law but that the relevant statute expired in December.
LGBTQ children especially, Beach-Ferrara continued, need to hear that they are valued and belong in the community. “That may not be a message they’re getting at home or at school or in other parts of their lives, but I think it’s a message we can make sure they’re getting as they grow up in Buncombe County,” she said. Commissioners are expected to discuss the ordinance at their meeting of Tuesday, March 16, with a final vote on Tuesday, April 6.
The move came the day before Beach-Ferrara announced that she would seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives District 11 in 2022. That seat, which represents most of WNC, is currently held by Republican Madison Cawthorn.