Ten days after adopting -- in a surprise move -- a county budget based on a 59-cent tax rate, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners last week restored funding in some areas and made further cuts in others.
But those moves came after about 90 minutes of public comments at the board's July 9 meeting, in which speakers alternately pleaded with commissioners to reinstate slashed funding and urged them to stick with the austerity budget.
The $177 million general-fund budget for fiscal year 2002-03 -- adopted June 29 on a split vote -- eliminated grants to almost all local nonprofit agencies and slashed funding for the city and county schools. The budget also set the tax rate far below the 62-cent figure that had been floated by board Chairman Nathan Ramsey and the 63-cent option Commissioner David Young had tossed out.
County Manager Wanda Greene had raised the specter of even higher property taxes in a June 18 proposal that went to public hearing. Her proposed $192.4 million general-fund budget came with two payment options: boosting the tax rate to 65.5 cents -- provided that the General Assembly gave local governments a substitute for the reimbursements it has taken away for the past two years to help balance the battered state budget -- or raising the tax rate even more, to 69.5 cents.
Further complicating those numbers is the county Tax Department's property revaluation this year, which boosted the total taxable value of county residents' homes by 26 percent. A revenue-neutral tax rate would have been 57 cents per $100 of property value, Greene has said, so the 59-cent tax rate actually represents a modest tax increase.
Last year's general-fund budget was $189 million, with $87.8 million coming from county property taxes; with the revaluation and the new tax rate, the county is looking to take in $96 million in property taxes this year, Assistant County Manager/Tax Department Director Jerome Jones explained later. But revenue from other sources -- including investment income, sales taxes and state reimbursements -- has dwindled. And meanwhile, expenses such as Medicaid have increased.
"I really see this meeting as a crossroads of our school system," declared Wendell Begley, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Education, in a request for more funding. "I would very passionately ask you tonight to do all you can for the Buncombe County Schools."
Similar sentiments were echoed by Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Cliff Dodson, along with his and Begley's counterparts in the Asheville City Schools. But those speeches were backed up by a big stick -- the prospect of formal mediation if school officials weren't satisfied with the commissioners' decision.
In the days leading up to the meeting, both the county and city schools had put the commissioners on notice that -- for the first time -- they planned to seek mediation under a state statute that lays out the rules for resolving budget disputes between school boards and county commissioners. If mediation fails, the next step is a Superior Court trial in which a judge or jury can actually order a county to levy a supplemental school tax.
With that in mind, county-government watchdog Jerry Rice called school officials "weasels" who had come in with "threats in their mouth," adding to commissioners, "I appreciate what you did on the tax rate."
Other speakers included Fred English, who insisted that nonprofits should not get any tax money.
But Bob Smith, director of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, reminded the commissioners that his agency provides a unique service in the community -- investigating cases of housing and employment discrimination.
"Discrimination still occurs every day," Smith told the board.
Amendments galoreWithin the limits defined by the new tax rate, the commissioners unanimously agreed on a package of budget amendments proposed by assorted board members and compiled by Greene.
One set of amendments will take effect only if the state coughs up about $6.2 million in reimbursements that have been withheld yet again for fiscal year 2002-03. In case the state does come through, commissioners tinkered with their June 29 budget, provisionally allocating the following additional funds: $400,000 to A-B Tech, $583,699 to the county schools, and $87,645 to the city schools -- bringing both systems back to or above their actual funding for the last fiscal year. The A-B Tech allotment does the same for the community college's main campus -- though it doesn't provide the extra $1 million the school was seeking for its Enka campus.
Although Begley said after the meeting that he was disappointed, the amendments were apparently enough to satisfy the rest of his board. Ramsey announced the next day that the county school board had withdrawn its request for a meeting to set up mediation. At press time, the city Board of Education was planning to meet early in the week of July 15 to decide whether to pursue mediation, according to Superintendent Robert Logan.
The commissioners also restored nearly $300,000 of the $1 million in funding to local nonprofits that was cut from the budget on June 29. Rather than making direct allocations, however, the county Social Services, Personnel and Planning departments will now contract with selected agencies to provide services. In addition, the board reinstated the $300,000 it had promised to Pack Place -- averting a possible closure of the facility. Some of these allocations, however, are also tied to the receipt of the state reimbursements.
Other budget amendments allocated $110,000 to the Land-of-Sky Regional Council and $78,000 to pay for overtime incurred by the Sheriff's Department for policing the Blue Ridge Bike Bash over the July 4 holiday weekend.
To pay for these additions, the commissioners made the following cuts: $100,000 from the Medicaid budget; $350,000 of the $750,000 allocated for employee pay raises; $110,000 earmarked for several resource officers in the county schools; $250,000 from economic-incentive funds; and $50,000 from contingency funds.
"This is wonderful," said Commissioner Patsy Keever, who was on the losing end of the 3-2 vote to adopt the budget on June 29. "It does restore a lot of what we need."
Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, the architect of the 59-cent tax rate, commended Greene for her work and alluded to the fact that it had caught his colleagues on the board by surprise.
"If we had plenty of money, it wouldn't be a problem," declared Stanley.
And Young said after the meeting that he hopes the community will "step up to the plate" and help fund some of the agencies that the commissioners didn't fund.
Although Keever seemed resigned to the budget situation, she pointed out later that nonprofits such as the Asheville Arts Council are still left without county funding.
"That's a very important part of the community," she reflected.
The budget uproar has largely overshadowed the latest development in the commissioners' continuing struggle over land-use issues. On June 29 -- the same meeting at which Stanley made a motion to set the tax rate at 59 cents -- he also announced that he wouldn't vote in favor of countywide zoning.
Since Stanley had represented the swing vote on the zoning issue, that announcement effectively killed the limited multiple-use zoning that commissioners had been considering. Under the proposed rules, potentially objectionable new projects -- including asphalt plants and adult-entertainment venues -- would have had to obtain a conditional-use permit. The rules also would have required new structures to be set back 10 feet from property lines.
Recent history on the zoning issue dates back to November 1999, when countywide zoning was put to a nonbinding referendum. Only 33 percent of the registered voters actually recorded an opinion that day, but about 56 percent of those who did vote turned thumbs down on the concept.
Stanley's decision set the stage for a resolution on the board's July 9 agenda that called for resurrecting the idea of communities coming up with their own zoning plans through community councils. The plan would have repealed the 1979 county resolution that designated townships as the geographic units for community-based planning. Instead, the resolution called for allowing for people in areas as small as 640 acres (covering at least 10 land tracts) to form a community council, provided that 51 percent of the owners of the affected property signed a petition supporting the move.
Last summer, the Buncombe County Planning Board unanimously recommended a similar plan to the commissioners. They took no action on it, however, instead getting sidetracked on debating the multiple-use zoning that the planning board had also recommended be implemented.
Rather than voting on the resolution, however, the commissioners ended up punting it to the newly appointed Planning Board for a recommendation.
In other action, the commissioners reappointed Darryl Unruh to the Airport Authority and decided to send Stanley as a voting delegate to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners conference, to be held Aug. 22-25.
At meeting's end, the board met behind closed doors for more than 40 minutes to discuss three items: a potential legal matter; the lawsuit Haywood County filed against Buncombe over the leftover proceeds from the former Air Pollution Control Agency (after Haywood pulled out of the interlocal agreement that formed it); and an economic-development matter.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the following items by consent at its July 9 meeting:
• The minutes of the June 18 regular meeting and public hearing on the budget;
• Redefining the term "junked motor vehicle" in the county code of ordinances from one that doesn't display a current license plate to one that doesn't display a current North Carolina license plate;
• Authorizing the board chairman to execute a deed of correction for three tax-foreclosure lots the county sold in 1997;
• Renaming part of State Road 3437 (to its intersection with State Road 3439) as Lake Drive.
• Authorizing the board chairman to execute a sewer easement with the Metropolitan Sewerage District;
• A $665,992 contract with Friends for Animals for animal-control services during fiscal year 2002-03;
• The salary plan for the Blue Ridge Center; and
• A release report correcting Tax Department errors.