County residents opposed to a proposed property tax increase came out by the dozens last week to urge the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners not to raise their taxes.
The county's annual public hearing on the budget, held on June 18, drew about 75 people to the large fifth-floor courtroom of the county courthouse.
While most speakers railed against a proposed tax increase, a few went against the tide to advocate a housing trust fund.
Just before the public hearing, Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene formally presented the commissioners with a recommended general-fund budget of $192.4 million for fiscal year 2002-03, which represents a 1.13 percent increase in spending over the 2001-02 fiscal year's budget.
She offered two options to pay for it, both of which would raise taxes from the current rate of 63 cents per $100 of assessed property value. One option would raise the tax rate to 65.5 cents -- provided that the General Assembly gives local governments a substitute for the reimbursements it's taken away for the past two years to balance the state budget. Without the substitute, Greene proposes a 69.5-cent tax rate.
"I realize that these recommendations don't make anyone happy," Greene told the board.
The proposed increase also is coupled with this year's county property revaluation, which increased the taxable value of county residents' homes an average of 26 percent, according to Greene. So even if the tax rate were to stay the same, people whose property increased in value on the county's books would still see their taxes go up.
The combination galled many of the 41 speakers who waited more than an hour for the public hearing to start.
"I don't have confidence in my county government, who is not just raping me at this point, but is sodomizing me," declared county resident Joan August, who criticized salary increases in county departments.
And Reems Creek resident Jim Mundy berated county officials for suggesting a tax increase during a recession, adding: "You just don't seem to get it."
But Karen Kiehna, executive director of the Affordable Housing Coalition, held a bottle of Pepsi aloft and urged the board to support a housing trust fund that could help address the county's shortage of affordable housing. The half-cent tax increase needed for the fund would amount to the price of a bottle of Pepsi a month for someone who owns a $150,000 house, she said.
"This one bottle of Pepsi will help us address that," Kiehna told them.
But Bill Lack, who said his taxes would increase $350 overall under the county manager's plan, proclaimed: "That's pretty expensive Pepsi! ... For god's sake, don't raise my taxes."
Plans and alternatives
Greene told the commissioners in their formal session that a combination of revenue shortfall and increased costs totaling $26.9 million led to the recommendations in her proposed budget.
Gov. Mike Easley's state budget for 2002-03 withholds all of the reimbursements local governments traditionally have relied on. For Buncombe County, that equals $6.2 million. However, a bill that passed the Senate this month would give counties the power to raise local-option sales tax by a half cent in August, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh. If adopted, that would increase the combined state and local sales tax from 6.5 to to 7 cents on the dollar for at least one year.
The rest of Buncombe County's revenue shortfall results from the following: a $2 million loss in sales-tax revenue due to the economic downturn and a change in how the county distributes sales-tax revenue to the schools; a $1.4 million reduction in investment earnings; $7.6 million in fund balance that can't be used; and a $1.6 million loss because of increased tax exemptions for the elderly.
Increased county costs include $2.4 million more Medicaid costs, $3.1 million more for education, $1.9 million in debt service increases to pay for county library expansions and other projects, $500,000 for the affordable housing trust and $200,000 for a land conservation trust. The education increases in part reflect $1.4 million budgeted to open the county's new North Windy Ridge School as well as $1 million in funding for A-B Tech's Enka campus.
In fiscal year 2001-02, county employees didn't get a cost of living increase. For the upcoming fiscal year, Greene's budget proposal calls for giving all county employees $1,000 pay increases. But she also eliminated 38 vacant positions.
Though last week was the formal presentation of the budget, commissioners have been contemplating the budget issue for weeks.
The previous Friday, Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey circulated an alternative proposal that called for a 62-cent tax rate that cut out a total of $12 million from Greene's budget. Among his proposed changes were eliminating funding to all outside agencies except for Pack Place (which commissioners had made an agreement to fund earlier), eliminating proposed housing and land conservation trust funds, reducing the amount of increases for education and delaying county pay raises. However, he also added $500,000 to pay for additional emergency medical services workers to be stationed at four volunteer fire departments, and to boost the pay for EMS personnel.
The numbers are still in flux -- and will be until the board adopts the budget on June 29, Greene said late last week. For example, county officials had decided that they couldn't appropriate $7.6 million in funds to balance fiscal year 2002-03's budget since that money had been appropriated in the current fiscal year. But they determined by the time of the formal meeting that the county was actually only going to spend $5.1 million of that amount in the current fiscal year -- freeing up $2.5 million in fund balance for fiscal year 2002-03, Greene said.
Cutting to the quick
Greene said she cut county department's revised funding requests by $6.7 million to help trim the budget.
Several department heads (whose presentations were coordinated with Greene's), appeared before the commissioners to let them know what the impact to services will be. The city and county school superintendents and the president of A-B Tech also made presentations.
Because of earlier belt-tightening, "there's really nothing left but service cuts," reported Health Center Director George Bond.
To help plug a $500,000 hole, the Health Center will have to eliminate its adult dental clinic (which serves 2,000 people per year), reduce its hours and refuse to take new patients. The latter will cause problems for Mission St. Joseph's Health System, Bond noted, since the 25 new patients a day the Health Center sees will likely wind up at the emergency room, which will cost the hospital four to five times as much as the county would pay.
"In practical terms, it's going to swamp them," Bond told the board.
And Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone reported that because of state funding reductions, several programs were scheduled to be eliminated, including one that oversees adult-care homes and another that provides intervention services to at-risk families. The elimination of "family preservation" services may mean that more children are sent to foster care, which costs five times as much money, Stone said.
More to come
The day after the public hearing, Ramsey circulated a revised alternative budget that left the tax rate at 62 cents per $100, but reinstated $190,000 for the Health Center to pay for part of a physician team (so that the Center could still take new patients) and reinstated some funding for the Buncombe County Medical Society to keep Project Access going. Project Access has been touted nationwide for providing free medical care for low-income uninsured patients in the county.
The commissioners will reconvene at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 29, to make the final decision on the budget. The unusual meeting time is to accommodate commissioners' schedules and to incorporate the latest budget information from the state, Greene said after the public hearing.
In other action during the board's formal session, commissioners unanimously adopted the Regional Water Authority's proposed budget for fiscal year 2002-03. The $22 million budget does not include a water-rate increase, though it does increase impact fees for developers to bring those fees in line with what other water authorities charge, reported David Hanks, Interim Director of Water Resources.
The commissioners also unanimously appointed Reba Sharpe to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee, Mary Alston to the Land of Sky Regional Council's Advisory Council on Aging, and Angel Banks to the Avery's Creek Sanitary District Board.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the following items by consent at its June 4 meeting:
• The minutes of its May 21 regular meeting.
• Extending the county's cable TV contract with Charter Communications until Aug. 6.
• Budget amendments for the county schools.
• Pyrotechnic experts for fireworks displays at Biltmore Lake, Lake Julian, Big Ivy Community Center and Biltmore House, for Independence Day celebrations.
• The Juvenile Crime Prevention Council's annual plan.
• A release report correcting Tax Department errors.
• Capital projects ordinance amendments.
• Budget amendments for the following: Sheriff's Department ($145,000); Mountain Mobility ($11,250); fire districts ($865,421); occupancy tax to the Tourism Development Authority ($680,000); Sheriff Department's Metropolitan Enforcement Group ($13,160); and transfer of Animal Services funds to the Planning Department ($36,565).