- Activists call for still greater government transparency
- Property-tax collections down slightly
Activists across the political spectrum have long maintained that the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' refusal to televise public comment along with the rest of its meetings has hampered local-government transparency. And at their Jan. 20 meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved a series of rule changes, many of them designed to address that concern.
Besides ending the long-standing blackout, the commissioners eliminated the pre-meeting comment period and took other steps to remove barriers to public participation. There will now be just one public-comment period, at the end of the board's meetings; residents will no longer have to sign in before the meeting in order to speak, and the comment period will be open-ended, though individuals will still be capped at three minutes (or 10 if they're speaking on behalf of a larger group).
During last year's re-election campaign, Commissioner Carol Peterson said she opposed such a step, but on this day, she voted for the changes along with the rest of the board. Vice Chair Bill Stanley has similarly shifted his position on the issue. In last year's primary election, he was ambivalent about televising public comment, but he advocated it during the commissioners' Jan. 9-10 retreat. The other three board members had all voiced support for televising public comment during the campaign.
Enka resident Jerry Rice, a frequent speaker at the commissioners' meetings and a longtime critic of the ban, praised the change, though he maintains that still greater transparency is needed.
"If it means grandstanding to speak here behind the podium and you use the comment to better your policies, you ought to be patting people on the back for grandstanding," Rice told the commissioners. "We might be little, we might not be elected, but we're human and we deserve to be heard -- and you need to listen."
Not everyone was satisfied by the new rules, however. During the final pre-meeting public-comment period, Jupiter resident Don Yelton, who has also long denounced the blackout policy, pointed to a provision in the rules requiring members of the public to address the entire board rather than individual commissioners.
"I think that is restricting freedom of speech," said Yelton. "You run for that office to represent the people, so you should be willing to sit up there and be addressed individually. When you put that in your rules, it smacks of not being open."
The new rules will take effect at the board's Feb. 3 meeting.
The taxman cometh
Tax Director Gary Roberts reported on the county's collection efforts to date.
"There's a total of $145.2 million in tax revenue, and we've collected $131.9 million," he told the board. That leaves $13.2 million outstanding, and Roberts was asking the board for permission to go after it by various means -- including placing a large ad in a local newspaper listing the names of all delinquent taxpayers. In an effort to cut costs, the county is taking bids from different local papers on running this year's ad.
"We don't like having to print that list, but it's very useful," noted Roberts. "There are some people we can't reach by phone or mail that see their names on that list and pay. Sometimes people will see relatives on that list and tell them they need to pay their taxes."
Permission was quickly granted. But the flagging economy has also affected the strategy Roberts' office is using to collect outstanding taxes.
"We're not being as aggressive with a lot of foreclosure cases as we once were," Roberts told the board. "We're doing a lot of payment plans this year."
He also emphasized that although the collection rate is down somewhat from last year, it still far exceeds the statewide average.
That's good news for the county. During the board's recent retreat, Roberts reported that the property-tax revaluation slated for later this year could cut into the tax base, since many homes have declined in value, and changes in state law have created more exemptions. Roberts said his department is considering ways to minimize the impact of those changes, as the commissioners have publicly stated that raising taxes is not an option.