The headline in the front section of the Asheville Citizen-Times on Jan. 11, “Buncombe County Officials Seeking New Offices,” should raise concerns with every citizen/taxpayer of Buncombe County. Please consider the following:
1. The current owners of Biltmore Square Mall paid around $20 million three years ago and are now asking $37 million (a 76-percent increase in a period where housing and commercial values have dropped roughly 20 to 25 percent). As a matter of fact, one of the principal owners of Biltmore Square Mall has put off plans to develop the Weirbridge Village project in South Asheville due to current economic conditions [see note below].
2. In December, the commissioners—citing uncertain economic conditions—cancelled plans for a parking deck and an addition to the adjacent Human Services building on Coxe Avenue. A few days later, the “for sale” announcement of the Biltmore Square was made, and two weeks after that, the commissioners decided that the county needed 440,000 square feet of office space. Did the economic conditions get that much better in less than 30 days?
3. Chairman David Gantt was quoted in the AC-T article as saying, “A tax increase is not on the table.” All of Buncombe County’s revenue is in some form of taxes and fees (property tax, personal property tax, sales tax, school tax, state tax, federal tax, permit fees etc.). Financing a $50-million project, even in a low-interest environment (i.e., 3 percent would require a year’s minimum expense of $1.5 million in interest for the county). According to Wanda Green, Buncombe County manager, the county is currently paying $300,000 a year for leased space. As you can see, the additional $1.2 million will have to come from either increased taxes/fees or reduction of other services.
4. According to the tax departments, at the present tax value of $20 million for the Biltmore Square Mall, the city of Asheville collects $84,000 and the county collects $105,000 in annual property taxes. If the county were to purchase this property, this revenue will be lost forever.
5. Ms. Green was also quoted as saying, “We have some departments where if we had one more person, we’d have to put them in the closet.” In these hard economic times, where every business is reducing employment and individuals are losing their jobs and homes, only government can afford to expand on the back of its citizens.
In summary, I urge the present Board of Commissioners not to commit the same [type of] error that the previous board committed in 2008—purchasing the Leicester Crossing property for some $4 million from another well-known group of local developers for “use of county offices.” A year later, $4 million has been removed from the tax base and not a single county employee works in the complex. The landlord, Buncombe County, leases it to Land-of-Sky Regional Council, Flowers Bread Company, U.S. Cellular and Virtual Ambush.
— Andy Apostolopoulos
Editor’s note: Weirbridge Village developer Rusty Pulliam explained to Xpress that the South Asheville project is not on hold—it’s just been slowed down by the difficulty of getting financing in the current market. He says he expects to have financing in place by April or May.