In the space of one 45-minute meeting, Buncombe County Commissioners Vice Chairman Bill Stanley sought to put two contentious issues to rest: a hefty proposed tax increase and the specter of countywide zoning.
At the June 29 continued meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Stanley asked to speak just prior to County Manager Wanda Greene's presentation of budget options to the Board. Stanley -- the swing vote on the zoning issue -- then announced that he wouldn't vote for countywide zoning. That prompted a round of applause in the audience.
Citing county residents' division over both the proposed tax increase and zoning, Stanley declared: "It seems to me the most important thing I can do ... is try to return a sense of calmness ... to our citizens."
To top off that unexpected pronouncement, Stanley immediately made a motion to set the tax rate at 59 cents per $100 of property value for fiscal year 2002-03, a rate far lower than had been publicly discussed up to this time.
The motion seemed to catch everyone off guard. But Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey and Commissioner David Young -- who had proposed their own budget cuts and tax rates -- decided to go along with Stanley's proposal in a 3-2 vote. Commissioners David Gantt and Patsy Keever lambasted the proposal and voted against it.
Though the budget action also prompted some audience members to erupt in applause, the $16.6 million in cuts made to Greene's proposed general-fund budget sent everyone, from nonprofit agency leaders to A-B Tech officials, reeling. The adopted budget stripped funding to all community agencies except for Project Access, a highly-touted program in partnership with the Buncombe County Medical Society that provides free medical care for the uninsured. It also reduced funding in Greene's June 18 budget proposal to the county schools by $3.75 million (see "A look at the cuts").
"I just can't believe it," said an ashen-faced Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services, moments after the meeting. "I can't believe they've balanced this budget on poor people. It makes no sense. It costs more later."
And Karen Kiehna, executive director of the Affordable Housing Coalition, added: "All of our folks in Buncombe County need safe, affordable housing. The funding to support that has been completely eliminated on every level."
A-B Tech President Ray Bailey said later: "I'm shocked, like everyone else. But we're going to have to just start working and see what we can pull together."
The funding cuts put the future of AB-Tech's new Enka campus in jeopardy, since the buildings donated to the school by BASF require annual upkeep and utility expenses of about $1 million. Though Bailey said he didn't want to start closing buildings, he admitted that it was a possibility.
But vocal Libertarian Kevin Rollins asserted he was "very happy" with the Board's move, and Don Yelton, a member of Citizens for Change (a local group that opposed the tax increase), offered Stanley a hearty handshake at meeting's end.
The tax rate adopted by the Board is far less than the 63-cent tax rate for the 2001-02 fiscal year. But the numbers are complicated by the county Tax Department's property revaluation this year, which increased the taxable value of county residents' homes an average of 26 percent. A revenue-neutral tax rate would have been 57 cents per $100 of property value, Greene explained later, so the 59-cent tax rate actually generates an increase in county property tax revenues.
On June 18, Greene had proposed a general fund budget of $192.4 million. She had offered two options to pay for it: raising 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 proposed a 69.5-cent tax rate.
Most of the speakers at the June 18 public hearing on the budget berated the commissioners for the proposed increase, which Greene had reported came about because of a combination of increased costs and declining revenues -- including the state withholding $6.2 million in reimbursements.
After Stanley proposed the 59-cent tax rate, Young declared of the move: "I'm just as shocked as anyone else." He then seconded Stanley's motion, which sent the Board on a confusing procedural course.
Acknowledging everyone's surprise, Stanley noted that Ramsey (who floated budget proposals based on a 62-cent rate) and Young (who envisioned a rate around 63 cents) hadn't run their budget proposals by him.
Gantt tried to salvage the programs that would lose funding under Stanley's proposal by attempting to go back to Greene's original budget and examining each item one by one.
Since County Attorney Joe Connolly was out of town, the Board was without its traditional referee on parliamentary procedure. Greene noted later that she tried to convey to Gantt during the meeting that he would have to amend Stanley's motion to set the tax rate at 68 cents in order for the Board to address each item.
"I think it was so abrupt and so shocking that the emotions took over," Greene reflected. (And at one point in the meeting, Greene forgot herself and asked if there was a second for Gantt's motion, immediately apologizing to Ramsey for the lapse.)
The county manager went over a list of cuts to her original budget that would allow the Board to reach the 59-cent tax rate. When Greene got to the schools and the community development agencies, Keever declared: "I don't see how we can morally do that."
Ramsey noted that they could keep Pack Place's funding (since the commissioners had signed a letter promising to fund the institution) and change the Board's funding level to the schools.
"I think it's criminal we're even talking about doing this," offered Gantt, who then tried again to get the commissioners to talk about each item they were prepared to cut.
Young declared that he'd vote for the 59-cent rate -- but said he might want to tinker with the cuts later.
Stanley called for a vote -- and it passed.
"It's a stealth, it's a cotton-candy kind of budget," fumed Gantt to his fellow Board members immediately after the vote. "We weren't straight with people about it. ... I just think we have let the people down tonight, and I'm sorry we did it."
But Young (who said he was prepared to support a tax rate of 62 or 63 cents) said he'd heard from many people who complained that their taxes were too high. "I just think people are hurting out there," he said.
"You cut services that help people," countered Keever. "I am so appalled by what we've done. I'm embarrassed."
After the meeting, Stanley countered by saying: "We can't put all of this on the property owners in this county. ... Maybe they can pay their taxes and buy their medicine, too."
Despite the cuts, Ramsey noted that the Board had just passed a tax increase, adding: "Either way we go, we're hurting people."
Several Board members said they wanted to adjust the brand-new budget at the Board's July 9 meeting. Greene said later that could be done through budget amendments.
A look at the cuts
These are the cuts County Manager Wanda Greene told the commissioners would be necessary to get to a lower tax rate than the one she proposed in her June 18 budget:
Cuts needed to reach a 68-cent tax rate: Delay proposed county employee salary increase until January ($750,000); delay financing of the jail expansion ($500,000) and payment to the Chamber of Commerce for its building fund ($300,000); freeze school employee supplements at fiscal year 2001-02 levels; and continue county hiring freeze ($850,000).
Cuts/additions required to reach a 67-cent tax rate: Cutting all of the above, plus cutting the housing and land conservation trust funds ($750,000), increasing the tax collection rate to 97.5 percent ($550,000) and additional department cuts ($300,000).
Cuts required to reach a 63-cent tax rate (these are scheduled to be put back in the budget when the state releases reimbursements or comes up with another replacement for the funds): Cutting all of the above, plus A-B Tech ($1 million), Buncombe County and Asheville City schools ($1.4 million), reducing salary increase for county employees ($750,000), not changing sales-tax distribution method to the schools ($890,000), Blue Ridge Center ($465,000), N.C. Forest Service ($67,167), county capital expenditures and capital equipment ($814,000), delay Medicaid appropriation ($621,844) and Land-of-Sky Regional Council of Governments ($101,000).
Cuts required for a 62-cent tax rate: All of the above, plus all community agency funding except for Project Access ($1 million), no jail expansion ($700,000) and not purchasing the Enka Library ($200,000).
Cuts required for a 59-cent tax rate: All of the above, plus cuts to the Buncombe County Schools ($1.5 million), the Asheville City Schools ($240,000) and AB-Tech ($766,000), a shared combination of further cuts to the city and county schools ($1.2 million) and a loss in sales tax revenue to recover ($750,000).