An attempt by Buncombe County Commissioner David Gantt to divert more money to the city and county schools flopped last week.
At the Board of Commissioners' Feb. 4 meeting, Gantt -- with the support of Commissioner Patsy Keever -- proposed that board members honor a pledge they made in 2001 to return to the way the county used to distribute sales taxes.
"I've given my word I'd do so," said Gantt.
But Chairman Nathan Ramsey, Vice Chairman David Young and Commissioner Bill Stanley defeated the proposal by voting to table Gantt's motion.
For years, the county used the "gross sales tax" distribution method, which gave the city and county schools their percentage of sales taxes off the top -- leaving the county, the fire-service districts and other entities to take their cuts out of the remaining amount. But in the 2001-02 budget, the county switched to the "net" method, in which all the entities entitled to a share receive their percentages of sales taxes at the same time. The net method was also employed in the 2002-03 budget.
The result was a substantial cut in capital-projects funds for the schools -- $780,930 less for the county system and $119,070 less for the city schools, in the current fiscal year. The county, however, comes out ahead under the net method, County Manager Wanda Greene acknowledged last week, saying she couldn't recall by how much since she didn't have the numbers in front of her.
In the meeting, Gantt pointed to a letter he and the other commissioners had written to Wendell Begley, then chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Education, on Nov. 8, 2001. The letter said, in part: "The Commissioners have instructed our County Manager to prepare the Fiscal Year 2003 budget using the gross sales tax distribution method. Once the budget is adopted, we will not make any further changes to the sales tax distribution method in the balance of our current term in office. ... We regret the misunderstandings and erosion of trust that seems to be developing between our two boards. For the future of our children, it is important that we have a relations based on trust between both the boards and our staffs."
At Gantt's request, Finance Director Donna Clark told the board that switching methods for the remainder of this fiscal year would cost the county $300,000, with the county schools receiving $260,310 of that amount. The money could come from the county's fund balance, she said.
"I think it's the right thing to do, and I hope that we will," said Keever.
But Ramsey cautioned that it's been a "difficult year" for the county. Last year was no picnic, either. In fiscal year 2001-02, the state wound up withholding $1.8 million from Buncombe County, Ramsey noted in an interview last year. In the current fiscal year, the General Assembly adopted a budget that provided none of the $6.2 million in reimbursements the county has traditionally received from the state, although a new half-cent sales tax that kicked in Dec. 1, 2002, is expected to deliver $3.6 million to county coffers over the remaining months of the fiscal year.
Referring to the letter written to Begley, Ramsey observed that board members hadn't adopted the county manager's recommended budget last summer.
That didn't sit well with Keever, who asked sharply, "Are we going to keep our word or not?"
Ramsey reiterated what he'd said, prompting Keever to retort: "So there is an intended loophole here, and we're not going to honor our intent."
"I hate that this came up on the agenda," Ramsey said heavily, adding a moment later that anyone reading the letter will see that the commissioners did what they said they'd do -- instruct the county manager to prepare the budget that way (even though that's not what was eventually adopted).
Young maintained that the matter shouldn't be discussed now, when the county's in the midst of the current fiscal year and hasn't yet begun discussing next year's budget. Plus, he noted, what the schools need is operating money, not capital funds. Indeed, back in December, the commissioners unanimously approved an emergency measure allowing the county board of education to move $933,700 in nonrestricted capital funds to the school system's current-expense fund to partly offset the loss of county and state funding.
To change the sales-tax distribution method, Young insisted: "We've got to have more money ourselves to do that. ... To me, this is not efficient or fiscally responsible."
County Manager Greene told the board that during preparations for the 2003-04 budget this spring, the school boards and their respective superintendents will have the opportunity to have input on what they want.
Keever asked Young if he had information indicating that the schools don't want the sales-tax distribution method changed.
"They want it all," Young explained matter-of-factly. "They want as much money in capital, as much money in current as we can give."
Gantt, however, noted that even though Buncombe County has one of the biggest school systems in the state, the county ranks somewhere between 20th and 26th (depending on the category) among the state's 100 counties in per capita spending on schools.
Nonetheless, Young made a motion to table Gantt's proposal; the motion passed 3-2.
Afterward, Keever said she thought the attempt was worth a shot, fuming, "The reason we don't have the money is because we set the tax rate so low."
Stanley, however, said later that Gantt's proposal would have taken funds away from the fire-service districts.
On his way out of the meeting room, Timothy Amos, the chief financial officer for the Asheville City Schools, said diplomatically that he could see both sides of the debate, adding: "Obviously, we would like to have more money. We have plenty of needs for the money, and I think ... Vice Chairman Young was right. We will take all the money they will give us -- and put it to good use."
After the meeting, a defeated Gantt complained: "I feel like we let the kids down. There's never a wrong time to do the right thing."
City/county money tiff
In another fiscal matter, Greene told the commissioners that the county had received a letter from the city of Asheville saying the county owes the city $602,699. According to the letter from City Manager Jim Westbrook, the county underpaid the city for law enforcement reimbursements over the past two years. Under the 1987 water agreement, the county pays a reimbursement to the city because city taxpayers help support the Sheriff's Department, which provides patrol and investigation services only to residents of the county's unincorporated areas, the letter states. The county and city are now at odds over whether the reimbursement has been calculated properly. After reviewing the matter, Greene told the board she had sent off a check to the city for $18,178.
"We'll pay 'em what we owe 'em -- no more, no less," declared Ramsey.
Only four people addressed the commissioners during the public-comment portion of their work session, held immediately before the formal meeting.
Among them was county resident Hope Herrick, who noted that she'd attended a meeting of the Buncombe County Planning Board (which is working on a proposal for communities to come up with their own zoning plans). Consequently, Herrick told the commissioners: "I would like to remind you, the majority of the people voted no on zoning."
And frequent speaker Jerry Rice asked the commissioners why the county hasn't sent a letter to the Blue Ridge Center as requested by the county's Mental Health Reform Advisory Task Force, of which he is a member. (The letter, Rice said later, was in part to ask Blue Ridge to give the task force requested information so that members can make more informed recommendations to the commissioners about how best to restructure mental-health services locally as part of mental-health reform.)
Assistant County Manager Jerome Jones acknowledged that communication between the task force and Blue Ridge isn't what it should be, and he probably should have sent the letter.
Keever, though voicing appreciation for Jones' work, said, "If it steps on someone's toes, so be it."
The commissioners also heard a report from Tax Collector Gary Roberts and voted unanimously to advertise all unpaid property taxes in an upcoming issue of the Asheville Citizen-Times. The county, noted Roberts, has little choice in the matter: State law requires all tax departments to advertise unpaid taxes.
In other action, the board appointed Chuck Tessier to the Board of Equalization and Review and reappointed the following people to that body: Cynthia Eller, Frances Naeger, Garrett Ramsey and Gerald Stevenson.
After the board's public session -- which lasted only about 40 minutes -- the commissioners went into closed session to discuss a potential legal matter. The closed session, which included an appearance by EMS Director Jerry VeHaun, adjourned after about half an hour.