Water rates going up
On June 6, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners reluctantly approved a 4-percent increase in water rates.
The Regional Water Authority, which recommended the increase, faces yet another year of reduced consumption -- meaning reduced revenues -- Asheville Director of Water Resources Tom Frederick explained. Since the drought of 1998, the Authority has lost major industrial users to plant closings, and has experienced reduced usage due to conservation measures. Water consumption is simply down, overall, reported Frederick. Adding to the Authority's financial burdens is the ongoing need to replace leaky lines and make other improvements to the system. Authority board members recommended a rate increase, as they did last year and expect to do again in 2001, said Frederick. "We're trying to set a path for the long-term viability of the Water Authority," he explained.
Commissioners offered few objections to the proposal, which must also be approved by the Asheville City Council.
But Commissioner David Gantt observed that the increases in recent years total more than 20 percent. "Are we losing businesses that won't come here because our rates are too high?" he wondered.
Fellow Commissioner David Young -- who serves as vice chair of the county's Economic Development Commission -- replied that Asheville-area rates for industrial users "compare favorably" to those in the rest of the country.
Undeterred, however, Gantt asked for the Authority's five-year plan for rates, saying, "Let's be real."
The plan, said Frederick, is to raise rates by 4 to 5 percent per year, assuming that there's no growth in consumption. "We are very vulnerable, as a water system, to further decreases in consumption," he warned, adding, "We won't be able to absorb future shocks" in the form of additional plant closings among the Authority's major water users.
Former Board of Commissioners candidate Gerald Dean reminded commissioners that 2.5 percent of Water Authority revenues goes into the county coffers (and another 2.5 percent goes to the city). He suggested doing away with that off-the-top cut, instead of raising rates. (This 5 percent total is mandated in the water agreement between the city and county governments.)
The county has dedicated its share of the revenues to economic development and debt service on the airport bonds, countered Chairman Tom Sobol.
The discussion concluded soon after this exchange, and Commissioner Bill Stanley joked: "I voted against [last year's increase], and my water was cut off for a whole weekend afterwards. So I'll vote for it this year."
Seconded by Patsy Keever, Stanley's motion to approve the increase passed, 5-0.
The budget rap
Read their lips: No tax increase for the upcoming fiscal year, said Buncombe County Board of Commissioners at a public hearing on the proposed county budget.
But that didn't stop a litany of complaints, cautions and admonitions from both county residents and a few contenders for seats on the board in the fall elections.
"When will you stop robbing this reserve?" asked Republican candidate Michael Keleher. As proposed, the 2000-01 budget will require commissioners to withdraw about $7 million from the county's fund balance in order to break even, he pointed out. "You are being fiscally irresponsible. ... You are committing financial suicide," Keleher declared. Many of North Carolina's larger counties have reserves approaching 20 percent of annual revenues. Buncombe County's will slip to less than 10 percent, if commissioners approve the budget, as is, he argued. The state recommends that counties maintain a reserve equal to at least 8 percent of annual expenses.
County resident Jerry Rice kept up the assault: "It seems like all you are doing is buying votes," he chided commissioners. Rice cited commissioners' popular pet projects -- such as new public swimming pools and salary increases for teachers. And he pointed out that -- in this, an election year -- education costs account for 51 percent of the overall county budget. "[But] there's nobody holding [schools] accountable," said Rice.
Chairman Sobol interjected that the county has two new schools to pay for, and their staff.
"You knew that was a'coming," countered Rice, adding: "There are two kinds of dogs: one that barks and lets you know it's coming [that describes the Asheville City Council, he explained, whose members have recommended a tax increase and haven't dipped heavily into their fund balance]. Then there's [the dog] that don't bark. It'll sneak up on you. It'll ruin you. That's Buncombe County."
County resident Anna Cannon also demanded that commissioners be more responsible with how they spend taxpayers' money, noting that when she can't afford to pay her bills, "I can't make an 'appropriation' from some fund balance."
Gerald Dean, an unsuccessful contender in the May primary, told commissioners to "stop giving money to everybody," citing the new swimming pools and an affordable-housing trust fund. "You'd give me a grant to study weasel-birds, if there was such a bird," he joked.
The mood lightened further when Board of Commissioners candidate Mike Morgan listed some options for trimming the county budgets, including cutting legal expenses. He asked County Attorney Joe Connolly how much he charges the county, guessing that his hourly rate is about $150.
"If you have a [legal] problem, I'll be glad to charge you $150," Connolly wisecracked. He reported that the county pays him a flat $4,000 per month for legal services, and that he doesn't charge the county hourly beyond that. "If I did, [the rate] would be $110 per hour," Connolly explained.
Morgan laughed good-naturedly, relinquishing the lectern shortly after. On his heels came animal-rights advocate Stewart David, who said, "You've been beaten up enough, so I'll be nice." Referring to the county's contract with Friends For Animals for animal-control services, he urged commissioners to require better accounting of how taxpayer money is spent, and that such organizations have open board meetings.
Sobol noted that he and other county officials will be entering "preliminary talks" with FFA in the coming weeks.
He then closed the public hearing, mentioning that commissioners will vote on the budget at their June 27 meeting.
Amended air agreement
A word here, a word there: On June 6, commissioners agreed to four changes which they called "minor" to the May 30 agreement between the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, which sets up a new interlocal air-quality-control agency:
• The new agency will have a shorter name, removing the word "control": Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency.
• The agreement will take effect either on July 1 or the date of state certification, whichever is later.
• UNCA environmental-science Professor Rick Maas will become the first chairman of the newly created Clean Air Community Trust, which will administer excess agency funds and seek grants for environmental-improvement programs in Asheville and Buncombe County.
Mountain Mobility funding
Cash is in short supply, when it comes to a county program for transporting the elderly, disabled and Work First recipients: The Transportation Division's request for $50,000 to supplement state funding was not approved for the 2000-01 budget, county staff reported on June 6. Meanwhile, the Transportation Division asked commissioners to approve its annual request for state Rural Operating Assistance Funds: $97,989 from the Elderly and Disabled Transportation Assistance Program; $18,096 in Work First Transitional and Employment funds; and $23,917 to pay for limited service to rural residents who live outside Asheville. All three services rely on the county's Mountain Mobility vans -- 34 in all, half of them equipped with lifts for the disabled -- and all transportation must be either employment-related or for medical care. Commissioners authorized the request for state funds.
Sign of the times
What's new at Buncombe County's borders? New welcome signs that include county government's Web address, county staff told commissioners on June 6. Four signs will be installed within the next 30 days, making Buncombe the first county to include its Web address, North Carolina Department of Transportation officials have reported. The signs -- which cost $1,600 -- will replace those at the county's four interstate-highway borders, staff reported.
A little housing money
Asheville City Council members are leaning toward a 1-cent tax hike to fund a new affordable-housing trust fund; Buncombe County commissioners informally agreed to commit a little more than $100,000 to the program.
The money will come from the county's sale, to a conservation organization, of a large parcel on the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier this year. A portion of the money will also be used to fund the administration of a new voluntary land-conservation program, Board of Commissioners Chairman Sobol told trust advocates on June 6.