A dose of hip infused the Feb. 19 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting, as local folks involved in film, television and multimedia work pitched public-access TV as a tool for economic development.
Loosely organized by Asheville-based digital-media consultant David McConville, the group urged commissioners to push for more money from Charter Communications in the county's contract negotiations with the media giant.
A well-funded public-access TV station could offer a training ground for young Ashevilleans who now must leave town to get practical experience in the multimedia sector, McConville said during the board's (nontelevised) public-comment session, held before the formal meeting.
In light of the state's recent budget cuts (which the commissioners dealt with later in the meeting), the deal could boost economic-development efforts without requiring additional county funds, McConville argued.
"We could be getting a lot more money than we're currently asking for," McConville told the board.
The county is negotiating a new 12-year contract with Charter (see "Who's afraid of public-access TV?" and "Our just desserts" in the Feb. 13 Xpress) covering the unincorporated areas of the county. County officials want the deal to include funding for public, education and government (PEG) channels, as well as an institutional network that would enable designated county facilities to transmit and receive video, data and voice communications.
On the dollar side, the county is seeking a franchise fee of 5 percent of Charter's gross revenues. They also want the company to provide $750,000 for equipment and operating costs for all three PEG channels -- to be divided between Asheville and Buncombe County -- within the first six months. Beginning in the second year, the county is seeking annual payments of $500,000 to be divided among the three channels.
But McConville thinks the commissioners should ask for at least $1 million more. He reported that 289 people had signed an on-line petition calling for a well-funded, high-quality, public-access TV operation (see www.blackboxstudio.com/patv).
The Hollywood connection
McConville was joined by a parade of other speakers and supporters who collectively lowered the average age of the audience by about 10 years (while simultaneously bumping up the leather-jacket-wearing quotient).
Sachie Godwin (a recent UNCA mass-communications grad) told the commissioners that many talented young filmmakers, writers and others are working in Asheville's food-service industry because they can't find local jobs in their fields. If high-tech jobs are a priority, she suggested, how can the commissioners let this golden opportunity pass them by?
"Our community deserves nothing less," Godwin declared.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey responded by mentioning the commissioners' funding goals for the contract.
"We're going to do everything we can to get it," promised Ramsey.
Rob Labrecque -- who said he's been in the film and television business for 25 years -- explained that a well-funded public-access TV channel could help build a trained crew base that could better position Asheville as a place to produce TV series and smaller projects. Most of the productions that have shot in Asheville, he pointed out, have been big Hollywood movies that brought in their own technical people. Increasing the number of smaller projects shot locally would provide work for the existing Asheville talent base and training for people seeking careers in the field, Labrecque said.
"Public-access television is the groundwork that we can lay to get them trained," he said.
After the meeting, Labrecque noted that a CBS-TV pilot called Jo -- featuring Andie McDowell -- is scheduled to start shooting in Asheville, possibly as soon as April.
Kurt Mann of the Ironwood Media Group (a local film-and-TV-production outfit) told the commissioners that he gets six or seven calls a day from young people looking for jobs. Of those he does hire, he spends an "enormous amount of time" training them.
"I really encourage you to think about the young people," Mann told the board.
"Fight for us"
Most of the commissioners appeared to listen intently to the speakers, and several stopped to chat with audience members in the hallway during a break.
After the session ended, most of the public-access supporters milling about in the corridor seemed heartened by the commissioners' reactions. These advocates said they hoped the board would focus on the economic possibilities of public-access TV, rather than worrying so much about programming content -- which several felt had unduly dominated community discussion of the issue to date.
Local film director Chris Bower said he thought the show of support had enabled the discussion to focus on more pertinent issues.
"I feel like there was strong public support for it," said Bower.
Mann said Commissioner Patsy Keever had told him the group's presentation was compelling.
"I think that reflected the passion and the commitment and the intelligence of the young people in the community," reflected Mann, saying he hopes the county will be "very fierce" in their negotiations. "Fight for the people," he urged. "Fight for the jobs."
Commissioner David Young (who also chairs the Economic Development Commission) stopped by to shake Mann's hand before returning to the meeting chamber.
"Fight for us, all right?" Mann asked.
"We will," Young replied.
The trickle-down effect
The state's budget crisis and a nationwide economic slowdown hit home last week: The commissioners unanimously approved sweeping cuts on Feb. 19 to help plug a gaping $6.2 million hole in the county's budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. (Commissioner David Gantt was absent.)
Their action was prompted in part by Gov. Mike Easley's Feb. 5 decision to once again withhold tax reimbursements to cities and counties, this time to the tune of $209 million all told ($64 million from counties statewide). The move was part of the governor's strategy for dealing with a state-budget shortfall estimated at $900 million.
North Carolina is one of at least 16 states expected to have budget shortfalls of $500 million or more, according to statistics from the National Conference of State Legislatures as reported by the Associated Press.
And though misery loves company, the fact that North Carolina is not alone in its fiscal distress offers little comfort locally. In Buncombe County, the state withheld about $2.1 million, County Manager Wanda Greene told the commissioners. That includes $1.3 million in business-inventory reimbursements, $230,000 in homestead-exemption reimbursements, and $524,000 in beer-and-wine taxes.
A slowing economy also means the county is facing a shortfall of almost $1 million in sales-tax revenues, a $1.4 million drop in investment earnings and a $150,000 shortfall in intangibles-tax collections. In addition, the county's share of Medicaid costs is at least $788,000 higher than state projections -- and could rise by an additional $1 million.
The financial dilemma also means that the county will have to dip into its savings, or fund balance. A revenue shortage at the start of the fiscal year prompted county officials to balance the 2001-02 budget with $6.5 million from the county's fund balance -- though at that time, they were optimistic that they wouldn't actually have to use all of it. Instead, they were hoping that higher-than-projected revenues plus the money typically left over in departmental budgets at the end of the fiscal year would make up the difference, Clark explained later.
But thanks to the combined effects of the economic downturn and the state's action, it now appears that the entire $6.5 million will have to be spent, said Clark. That will put this year's fund balance at 10.5 percent of the total expenditures. Counties are urged by the state Local Government Commission to maintain at least an 8 percent fund balance; they also risk having their bond ratings downgraded if the fund balance drops too low, which makes it more expensive for them to borrow money.
In some ways, the situation is a repeat of what happened last year, when Easley withheld $1.3 million in local reimbursements to Buncombe County because of the state's 2001 budget crunch.
Last year, however, part of Buncombe County's response to the crisis was to eliminate 34 staff positions; 14 people lost their jobs (the rest were transferred to other positions). But this year, county leaders opted not to eliminate more jobs, despite the much deeper state cuts.
"First, we were stunned," Greene revealed. "We've been angry, we've been tired, and we've just been struck with the whole inequity and unfairness of having these actions to deal with a second year in a row."
Affecting "real people"
Following Greene's recommendations, the commissioners voted to cut county-department spending by 5.5 percent, trim education spending by 3.5 percent (though A-B Tech volunteered to take a 5 percent cut), and take back $50,000 allocated for mental-health services. They also cut payments to community agencies by $305,272 -- eliminating those agencies' their third- and fourth-quarter county allocations, Budget Officer Mamie Scott explained later.
All told, the net effect of those cuts plus fee increases approved for various departments takes care of $5.2 million of the budget shortfall, Finance Director Donna Clark said after the meeting. County officials are still looking for another $1 million in cuts to balance the budget.
One result will be a reduction in services. One county ambulance will be idled, county libraries and pools won't be open as many hours, and less maintenance and repair work will be done on county facilities. A county hiring freeze has also been instituted, and county officials are hoping the savings on salaries will provide the extra $1 million officials need to balance the budget.
And slated expansions of other programs will be delayed, including an enhanced mental-health program in the county schools.
Commissioner David Young said he was sorry about cutting funding to community agencies.
"I think it's going to affect real people, and I'm sorry for that," offered Young. "Obviously, we're not excited today to pass these recommendations."
"I'll say 'aye,' but I'll do it reluctantly," said Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, adding that he was mad at the state for precipitating the county cuts.
After the meeting, community leader Minnie Jones bemoaned the loss of $17,187 to Western North Carolina Community Health Services, whose programs mostly serve people who have AIDS or are HIV positive.
"That's ugly," said Jones.
Greene, meanwhile, is already looking ahead to the next fiscal year, though she declined to say whether she'll propose a property-tax increase.
"We'll bring them a responsible budget and hard choices," she predicted after the meeting.
In other business, Library Director Ed Sheary updated the board on the installation of software to block sexually graphic images from the library's public computers, prompted by a federal mandate.
And the commissioners unanimously appointed the Rev. Buddy Corbin to the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council and Sonya Friedrich and Louis Barlow-Marley to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee.
The board also recognized retiring county employees Frank and Ginger Odum (who logged a combined 30 years of service to the county Recreation Services Department) and proclaimed Feb. 21 as 570 WWNC Radio Day, in honor of the local station's 75th anniversary.
The commissioners will meet again March 5 in Room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse. The administrative session (including opportunity for public comment) will begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by the formal session at 6:30 p.m.
The Buncombe County commissioners approved the following items by consent at their Feb. 19 meeting:
• The minutes of the board's Feb. 5 regular meeting;
• A resolution authorizing a $12,900 sole-source purchase from SimplexGrinnell: an electronically controlled gate for the judges' parking area;
• An ordinance amending Limestone's zoning ordinance (second reading);
• A resolution of intent to close Walnut Place (an "unopened" street that exists only on a plat) in the Mount Royal subdivision (a public hearing to consider the matter is scheduled for March 19);
• A request to upgrade a Jailer I position from pay grade 64 to pay grade 65 (no money requested);
• A report correcting Tax Department errors;
• Fee changes in the following departments: Land Records (eight fee increases); Planning, Election Services ($25 fee for large requests); and Child Care Services (increases and other changes);
• A resolution approving pyrotechnics experts for fireworks displays on April 4, July 1 and July 3 at McCormick Field;
• The following budget amendments: Youth Services, Governor's Crime Commission ($44,924); Health Center grant ($493,025); Sheriff's Department ($28,000, inmate commissary supplies); Solid Waste, Landfill Enterprise Fund ($701,119); Carolina Access II funds ($34,720).