Buncombe County commissioners appeared poised, on May 30, to adopt an interlocal air-agency agreement that contained substantial differences from what county and city officials had agreed to during a May 22 meeting. But last-minute negotiations, carried on both before and during the commissioners' meeting, yielded a new draft, which proved acceptable to both sides. Commissioners unanimously adopted the modified agreement before rushing it over to the Asheville City Council, for its approval that same evening.
The version of the agreement that County Attorney Joe Connolly had planned to bring to the commissioners would have gutted the agency board's authority to approve air-pollution permits, determine its own budget, and hire and fire staff inspectors and engineers, according to documents obtained by Mountain Xpress on Friday, May 26. These functions would have been placed under Buncombe County's control -- echoing an earlier proposal by County Manager Wanda Greene to bring the agency in-house as a county department. In the past few months, the commissioners had backed away from this proposal, faced with heavy criticism by city officials and residents who argued that the pollution-regulating agency's board of directors should retain its independence and autonomy.
During the May 30 meeting, Connolly revealed that, earlier that day, he had removed the paragraph giving staff members authority to grant or deny emissions permits without the approval of the agency's board (based on input from current air-agency chairman Nelda Holder). Other changes had also been agreed to that day, some only minutes before the meeting, after a series of telephone and fax exchanges between Connolly and Asheville City Attorney Bob Oast.
But still other changes were to emerge during heated exchanges between commissioners and members of the public.
As commissioners convened for their pre-meeting on May 30, Chair Tom Sobol mentioned that the air-agency issue was on the evening's agenda, emphasizing, "This [interlocal agreement] has to be in Raleigh by Thursday." He was about to drop the matter and let county staff present their final draft at the regular meeting, slated to start at 4 p.m.
But Commissioner David Gantt wanted more details beforehand, including an update on what Sobol and Commissioner David Young had hammered out during their meeting with Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick and Council Vice Chair Chuck Cloninger. "So, you're saying, 99 percent, the city and county agreed?" asked Gantt.
Sobol said they had. He noted that the draft document is "surprisingly close" to the soon-to-be defunct agreement involving Buncombe County, Haywood County and Asheville, adding, "But it sure took a lot of hours to hammer out." Sobol did concede that a few disputed points remained.
Those points of contention emerged during the meeting, when Connolly read the proposed agreement out loud, precipitating several rounds of objections from current air-agency board members and county residents.
Arriving late to the regular meeting, Connolly distributed the latest version of the agreement -- intended to replace the one nullified by Haywood County's unexpected withdrawal. Commenting on the back-and-forth talks between himself and Oast, Connolly said, "We have tried to make every effort to preserve an independent agency." He also alluded to decisions remaining to be made by commissioners, noting that he and Oast are merely attorneys, not elected officials.
But no sooner had Connolly started reviewing the proposed agreement point by point, than the process became mired on a technical consideration: Should appeals of agency fines be heard by a quorum of air-agency board members or -- as is currently the case -- reviewed by one board member, who makes a recommendation to the full board? Current air-agency board member Arlis Queen and his wife, Rachel, argued against requiring at least three board members to hear appeals -- citing the board's satisfaction with the current arrangement. But Connolly reported that the city's proposed agreement called for all board members to hear appeals.
For nearly 10 minutes, the discussion teetered back and forth on this issue, until Commissioner Bill Stanley intervened -- declaring that, in the "interest of moving forward ... I think we'd like to keep things the way they were."
Fellow commissioners nodded their agreement, and the appeals issue was settled. Connolly jotted down the first of many notes that were to mark the margins of his copy of the agreement. But more contentious points remained.
Connolly went on to explain how the proposed agreement deals with the agency's personnel. The air-agency director (who would be hired by the agency's board) would hire employees, and would make recommendations for firing employees to the county manager.
"It's as though you're trying to get control of that agency," declared Hazel Fobes, chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air. (Fobes had previously objected to a section of the agreement that stated the new air-agency board would "assist [the board's director] in planning budgets for the agency"; at her strong suggestion, the word "assist in" was changed to "approve.")
Sobol shook his head at Fobes' assertion, maintaining that agency employees will simply be protected by the same grievance procedures and other privileges as other county employees.
Connolly emphasized that new employees will be hired by the director, not by the county manager or the air-agency board.
Also generating considerable debate was a sentence in the county's draft agreement stipulating that the air agency would be "immediately terminated" if either the city or the county declined to provide funding, in the event of a budget shortfall (the agency is expected to be self-supporting, funded by revenues received from inspection and permit fees and federal grants). Commissioners Gantt and Young huddled with a legal pad, producing this rewrite: "If either party declines to provide such funding, this failure to contribute shall be considered withdrawal of that party to this agreement." Withdrawals are covered in another section of the document, which says that the parties can withdraw only on June 30 of any given year, and only if notice is given by March 1.
The last change -- which emerged after objections from the public and Sobol's observation that the Asheville City Council objected to the county's wording -- pertained to the newly established Clean Air Community Trust, which will inherit the existing agency's excess funds and spend them on programs for improving air quality. The draft document stipulated, "After initial appointments [of trustees by the city and county], the trust will become self-perpetuating and appoint its own future trustees." But after Fobes argued that, under this rule, the trust would not be accountable to either the public or local government, the commissioners agreed that the city and county should appoint all future trustees.
The Board of Commissioners agreed 4-0 to adopt the agreement, as revised during the discussion. (Commissioner Patsy Keever was out of town.) In the final version, City Council will appoint two agency board members, and the county commissioners will appoint three. Those board members will serve staggered, six-year terms and elect their own chairperson.
After a short closed session to discuss economic-development items, the board came back into open session and adjourned the meeting. Then Connolly rushed off to the Asheville City Council's community meeting -- already under way in Oakley -- to present Council members with the reworked version.
-- by Margaret Williams and Steve Rasmussen
Although Buncombe County's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year involves spending more money, it contains no tax increase, County Manager Wanda Greene told commissioners May 30. But the proposed budget does call for dipping deep -- $7 million deep -- into the county's fund balance.
The proposed general-fund budget (including county, state and federal dollars) totals $179.8 million -- a 5.7 percent increase over the current year, Greene reported. In addition, the non-general fund operating budget -- which includes self-sustaining departments, such as Solid Waste -- totals $32.4 million (up from $29.3 million this year).
The proposed general-fund budget allows the tax rate to remain at 63 cents per $100 of assessed property value. But the document calls for using nearly $7 million of the county's fund balance as a revenue source.
The budget also hinges on property-tax revenues increasing from $78.3 million to about $82 million, based on a 4 percent growth in the $13.2 billion tax base and a 98 percent collection rate, Greene said. And sales-tax revenue is expected to increase to $23.8 million ($2 million more than in the current year).
County watchdog Jerry Rice asked whether a tax increase might be waiting down the road, since some of the items being funded are not one-time expenses -- and the county's fund balance isn't a bottomless money source.
Although that question was not answered directly, Greene did note that the county's unreserved, undesignated fund balance stands at $25 million, which is 14.2 percent of budgeted expenditures. Counties are supposed to keep 8 percent in their fund balances, she told the audience.
The county manager also allowed that county staff members would work hard not to spend all of the nearly $7 million in the coming fiscal year. "We think just our practices will keep us in decent shape," she offered.
After the meeting, Greene pointed out that the county had allocated $4.7 million from the fund balance for the current budget, but had spent only $4 million.
Education expenditures consume $57.2 million, the largest budget category (and a $4.8 million increase). The extra moneys will be used to increase teachers' salaries (to meet the national average) and open a new middle school on Cane Creek Road, a new elementary school in Enka, and a new A-B Tech facility (on the BASF campus in Enka), Greene reported.
The proposed budget also devotes $59.5 million to human services -- the second-highest spending category -- which includes social services, health care, child care, mental health and other services. Medicaid is one of the fastest growing expenses, noted Greene.
Public safety consumes the third-biggest share of the proposed budget, adding up to $29.4 million. That category includes law-enforcement patrol and investigation, jail services, court support and animal services.
County employees are also slated to receive a 3 percent cost-of-living increase under the proposed budget, effective in July, and a 3 percent market-rate adjustment, effective in January. And the budget sets aside $600,000 for a health-insurance contingency fund.
At the request of local fire districts, fire-district taxes would increase in the following areas: Upper Hominy (from 10 to 11 cents), Enka (from 4 to 6 cents) and North Buncombe (from 9 to 11 cents).
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners rescheduled their regular June 20 meeting to June 27.