Residents raised a wide variety of issues and concerns with Buncombe County commissioners during a July 9 community meeting in Enka.
The get-together was the first in a series of community meetings planned in each of the three county districts over the next week.
About 20 residents attended from District 3, which encompasses much of the western part of the county, including Enka-Candler, Leicester and Biltmore Forest. District 3 commissioners David King and Joe Belcher led the session, joined by all of their fellow commissioners except for Mike Fryar, who couldn't attend due to illness. Over the course of an hour and half, residents asked them about the possibility of creating a new Cultural and Recreation Authority, a proposed property tax hike, economic incentives and more.
The first question came from Kim McQueen, who serves as chair of the Buncombe County Library Board. She asked about a state bill that would've originally allowed Buncombe County and its cities to consolidate parks and recreation departments – including libraries.
However, the latest version of the law, which passed the North Carolina Senate July 9, excludes municipalities completely. And McQueen questioned the logic of creating a new Cultural and Recreation Authority if it doesn't have the ability to consolidate services and save costs, amounting the move to "creating another bureaucracy."
Commissioners Belcher and King sought to ease her concerns.
Having the libraries and other departments under the direction of the new authority could "take some of the politics out" of administrative and funding decisions, Belcher said. King, who called himself a "heavy supporter of libraries," added that commissioners will continue to have strong oversight powers, noting that it will be up to them to approve the new authority's funding and budget.
Still, not everyone in attendance was convinced by their arguments. Jerry Rice, a Candler resident and frequent critic of the county commissioners, worried about the impact of a tax that would be levied to fund the new entity.
The county's budget proposal for the next fiscal year calls for raising the property tax rate by 15 percent. And Rice called the increase "absolutely too high," worrying that taxpayers are "going to be hit hard here pretty quick."
King countered that "there's not a member of this board that wants to raise the tax rate." But with lower property values, increased funding requests and federal mandates, commissioners were "faced with the hard choices," he added.
"I don't like the tax rate situation either," said Belcher, maintaining that he works "everyday to save money for this county."
Board Chair David Gantt said that the tax revenue is needed to maintain good schools, and provide popular services that make the county a good place to live and grow businesses.
But how to grow the local economy also emerged as a contentious topic, with resident Gail Harding questioning the fairness of the commissioners approving millions in economic incentive grants to GE Aviation and other businesses.
"In the bottom of my mind, it bothers me how you determine who's going to get the incentives and if it's fair," she told them.
However, faced with intense competition from other counties and states trying to lure the same pool of companies, King countered: "We don't choose who gets the incentives, they choose us."
"Just getting on their radar is hard," he added, arguing that commissioners should do whatever they can to bring companies and their jobs to the county. In the long run, companies more than make up for the incentives they get through those jobs and by generating tax revenues, King said.
On another front, Candler resident Michelle Pace Wood, who unsuccessfully ran for commissioner last year, urged commissioners to take steps to fight crime in her neighborhood.
"We have a real crime problem," she asserted, citing ongoing problems with vandalism at local businesses. Much of the problem is the result of allowing people to loiter in parking lots at night after businesses are closed, she reported. Wood asked the commissioners to pass an ordinance specifically banning such behavior, which they said they would look into.
In addition, commissioners heard from residents who were concerned about possible contamination at the former BASF plant, a recent decision not to expand where motocross facilities can be located in the county, and the wisdom of conservation easements.
However, a civil tone reigned throughout the discussion of those contentious issues, and the last Enka resident to speak, Philip Pritchard, said he was walking away from the meeting with more confidence in the commissioners than when it started.
Throughout the meeting, both Belcher and King urged attendees to read media reports about their work with skepticism, arguing that many of their positive achievements don't get covered. And Pritchard echoed that sentiment in his remarks, expressing appreciation to the commissioners for addressing their constituents in-person.
"Thank you for the reality check, because so much of our information comes through the media, and that can be a little skewed," Pritchard maintained.
Here are the details on the commissioners remaining community meetings:
• July 15, District 1: Vice Chair Holly Jones and Commissioner Brownie Newman will lead a community meeting at Pack Library in Lord Auditorium from 6 to 7 p.m. The borders of District 1 roughly align with those of the city of Asheville.
• July 16, District 2: Commissioners Mike Fryar and Ellen Frost will lead a community meeting at Bee Tree Community Center from 6 to 7 p.m. District 2 encompasses much of eastern Buncombe County, including Fairview, Black Mountain and Weaverville.