In a word, Deborah Compton feels crummy.
Compton worked for the Asheville-Buncombe Library System for nearly 15 years, the bulk of it spent promoting and publicizing library programs such as last year's Chautauqua, a summer event that brought literary figures to life.
But not anymore.
Compton was one of 17 employees laid off last month in a "reduction in force" prompted by the state's budget crisis. Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene eliminated 34 positions, half of which were vacant. She also cut capital spending and funding for nonprofit agencies. Both moves were approved by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
"I was absolutely stunned," Compton says. "The thing that kept me in my job here certainly wasn't the money. It was the level of security. It was a real kick in the pants to me."
The effects of the cuts are still rippling through county government and the community at large. County employees who kept their jobs have been given additional duties, making for longer days and more stress. Nonprofit agencies (which already typically operate on shoestring budgets) have scrambled to cope with 11th-hour budget cuts. And projects that had been on track -- such as several county library expansions -- have been put on hold.
"I can't sit here and tell you I'm filled with optimism right now," reveals Library Director Ed Sheary.
Passing the buck?
Compton got the bad news at 4:25 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16. She says she was told she could either leave work right then or work for two weeks more.
"That blew my mind," recalls Compton, who says she's angry at everyone from the state to the county level.
"I think it's a shame and disgrace that, because of politics, this has been passed from politician to politician and I am personally having to pay for it," she complains.
The Buncombe County layoffs came one week after Gov. Mike Easley declared a state budget emergency on Feb. 8 to deal with an expected $791 million shortfall. The state's current budget troubles have been in the making for years, according to a March 4 article in the Raleigh News & Observer. Former Gov. Jim Hunt pushed ahead with expensive projects such as Smart Start and raising teachers' pay, but neither Hunt nor the legislature wanted to eliminate other state programs or raise taxes. In recent years, the state also has lost several costly lawsuits and spent $836 million to help victims of Hurricane Floyd, notes the News & Observer. Factor in the effects of an economic downturn and higher-than-expected Medicaid costs, and the result is a huge (and possibly growing) hole in the state budget.
One of the governor's budget-cutting moves was to withhold $95 million in reimbursements scheduled to be released to cities and counties on April 30. The reimbursements have been a fixture in local-government budgets since the 1980s, when the General Assembly repealed the property tax on business inventories but promised to offset local governments' lost tax revenues with increased state funding.
Counties ended up bearing the brunt of the cuts, says Ed Regan, deputy director of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. Overall, counties saw $63.8 million frozen, while cities saw $31.2 million withheld, according to the association. That's because counties generally saw more of those revenues to begin with, since manufacturing plants (which have large business inventories) are more likely to be found outside city limits, Regan explains.
Buncombe County, one of the hardest hit in the state, had been expecting a $1.3 million semiannual reimbursement. (Semiannual reimbursements to N.C. counties ranged from $26,212 in Camden County on the Albemarle Sound to $6.5 million in Mecklenburg County.)
Around the same time, county leaders learned that counties statewide will have to cough up a total of $22.5 million more than expected to cover their share of Medicaid costs for the current fiscal year, according to the NCACC.
Buncombe County's Medicaid costs are expected to be $700,000 higher than the state had previously projected, Greene has said. The county pays 5.5 percent of the Medicaid expenses of the roughly 22,000 low-income people who qualify for the government-funded health insurance.
And next year, Buncombe County's Medicaid costs may be $1.8 million higher than this year's $7.9 million budget, Greene has said.
The local increases reflect a national trends, experts say. While the federal government's contribution to Medicaid is falling, Medicaid recipients are receiving more services, and the program's hospital inpatient expenditures and drug costs are rising, says Rebecca Troutman, the NCACC's director of research and information technology.
Since Medicaid is an entitlement program, everyone who meets the eligibility requirements receives the services. "You have to find the money," Troutman explains.
Buncombe County reacted to the lost reimbursements and rising Medicaid costs by slashing a total of $3.1 million from its budget, cutting 34 positions ($1,866,104), reducing capital spending ($911,587) and trimming non-profit agency allotments ($396,398).
The cuts exceed the county's added costs because county officials don't believe the budget woes will be over when the current fiscal year ends on June 30.
"It's not only for this year's budget," explains Assistant County Manager/Planning Director Jon Creighton. "We're looking [at] next year's expenditures. We've got to be prepared to trim those costs because definitely nobody wants to raise taxes."
Other counties slashed costs as well. Many froze travel and capital expenditures, notes Regan. Stokes County (north of Winston-Salem) cut four full-time positions and ordered each county employee to take four days of unpaid leave, says Gayle Butzgy NCACC's communications director. Other counties, she notes, are waiting to see if the state budget situation improves before taking cost-cutting measures.
Library Director Sheary predicts that losing Compton and Rob Neufeld (who managed the county's branch libraries) will have long-term effects on the library system.
"We obviously are going to be less visible, because both of these individuals were the folks who worked with the media and planned public programs of different sorts," Sheary laments. "And I think in the long term, it will hurt the library's ability to grow."
Adds Compton, "It's not enough to just sit here and be a book warehouse. We have to constantly remind [the public] how we can help them in their everyday lives."
In addition to publicity, Compton provided the content for the library's Web site, worked on the library system's annual souvenir calendar (a fund-raising tool) and snared a $50,000 grant for a program that provides books to children at the Buncombe County Health Center and encourages them and their parents to read.
Although Sheary has shifted some of Compton's and Neufeld's responsibilities to others, some tasks will simply go undone. In other cases, Sheary may try to recruit volunteers to do things like leading book discussions, which Neufeld once handled.
The effects extend beyond personnel. Although the expansion of the Weaverville library and the new Leicester library won't be affected (both are under construction), other projects aren't so lucky. On hold is a new community room for the West Asheville branch library, renovations and expansion of the South Buncombe branch library, renovations to Pack Memorial Library and construction of a new North Asheville branch, says Sheary.
"For the time being, all of those projects are on hold until the budget resolves itself," says Sheary.
Outside the library system, other workers and departments also are feeling the pinch.
Stan Clontz, the former associate county attorney, was caught off guard by his layoff.
"We knew that there were some budget problems, revenue shortfalls," Clontz said a few days after he was laid off. "I certainly wasn't anticipating anything this drastic to be done, nor did I think any of the other people in positions eliminated were expecting anything like that."
Clontz worked for the county for seven years, spread over two time periods: The first began in 1980, and the second began in 1995. Among his duties were representing several boards as well as defending the county in lawsuits.
When asked how his layoff will save the county money, Clontz said he wasn't sure.
"[The work] will have to be done in some way, and if it's not done by a full-time employee, it will have to be contracted out."
Creighton says the county will save money by not paying Clontz benefits and by putting his former office space to a different use.
At press time, however, Clontz said his former office and equipment are still being used by the Legal Department. The county also is employing a part-time administrative assistant to handle legal clerical work (although that position used to be full-time), he added.
Clontz, who has opened a private practice in One Oak Plaza -- the same building where he worked as a county employee -- continues to do legal work for the county as a contract worker.
Longer hours, more stress
The county's two largest departments -- the Department of Social Services and the Health Center -- lost the most positions (six each).
At Social Services, the agency's welfare-fraud team was gutted when two investigators and a supervisor lost their jobs. Social Services also lost its business officer, a part-time social worker supervisor and an employment-placement specialist, says DSS Director Mandy Stone. All told, five employees in Social Services were left jobless, although two have taken other positions within the department, says Stone.
The county manager and former DSS Director Calvin Underwood (who retired last month) worked together to agree on cuts that either didn't affect direct client services in mandated areas (such as guarding health, safety or well-being) or could be contracted out (if grants are found), she explains.
"We tried to target areas where people's lives wouldn't be directly impacted," offers Stone. "I think we're like most agencies; the choices were just difficult."
Assistant Health Director Nancy Thompson says employees at the Health Center now find themselves working longer hours. That includes Thompson, who's taken on additional accounting duties.
"The bottom line is, it hasn't been easy, and we're still kind of reeling from the effect and just trying to get everything done," Thompson admits. "Fortunately, the staff who left -- even though it was an abrupt leaving -- left things in good order, so we can pick up and move forward."
The Health Center lost two nurses (one of whom worked at the Asheville Lions Club Eye Clinic) as well as an accounting technician, an administrative assistant, physician assistant and a doctor. The Health Center is now contracting with the same physician assistant and doctor to see patients (which saves the county money on benefits), Thompson says. Two other employees were able to transfer to other county jobs.
The county's Finance Department wasn't spared either, losing an accountant and an accounting technician. Finance Director Nancy Brooks notes that 12 people are now doing the job that 16 people did about a year ago, before the Finance and Budget departments were combined.
"We really have had to put on our thinking caps and reassess some of our processes and reassign duties and responsibilities to other staff members," Brooks reveals. "The work load is certainly very heavy. I think a few people are experiencing stress because of it."
Others who lost their jobs include the county's risk manager, a security guard, a courthouse elevator operator, a solid-waste environmental manager and a computer-systems director.
Some county employees now find that their workday has changed. The county's Soil and Water Conservation District office lost its full-time secretary, says Director Gary Higgins. An administrative assistant now works half a day at the county's Training and Development office and spends the other half at the conservation office, which Higgins says is working well.
"It hasn't been a really terrible thing for us," allows Higgins. "It hasn't been that much of a strain. We're very fortunate that it's been that way."
What lies ahead
At the state level, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners is lobbying the governor's office and is supporting a bill that would make an emergency appropriation so that counties and cities receive their $95 million on time, says Regan.
In early April, the state will know how revenue collections were for March, says Regan. And in April and May, the state will learn how income-tax collections are going.
"They're playing it month by month now," he says.
Compton is struggling to adjust to her new situation. Thanks to funds scraped together from The Friends of the Library and the Asheville-Buncombe Library System Trust Fund, she's been able to continue working part-time on the library system's newsletter. And she's planning to volunteer her time for the upcoming Chautauqua literary event.
But Compton is finding the local job market tough for someone with her qualifications (a master's degree) and level of experience. Since she's lived in Buncombe County off and on for 30 years, she doesn't really want to move away.
"My husband and I are committed to staying here," reveals Compton, "unless things get really bad."