The newly formed Buncombe County Culture and Recreation Authority met for the first time Oct. 29, drafting an ambitious list of goals for the months ahead. The board is charged with governing a powerful new agency that will manage the county's libraries, parks and recreation facilities.
Over the course of several hours of discussions facilitated by Lydian Altman from the UNC School of Government, the new board decided that its first steps will be assessing county needs (incorporating community input), evaluating capital recommendations from staff, forming advisory committees, and hiring a director.
Library Director Ed Sheary and Parks & Recreation Director Fran Thigpen are currently serving as interim directors of the authority. The board set a goal of April 1 for filling the position with a permanent replacement.
Over the course of contentious deliberations earlier this month, Commissioners Joe Belcher and Ellen Frost were appointed to the authority board; Commission Chair David Gantt was also appointed to do double-duty as chair of the authority board. Four citizen volunteers serve in the remaining seats: Eleanor Johnson, (a retired librarian), Karen Tessier (founder of a marketing company) Matthew Kern (owner of a contracting business) and George Briggs (director of the NC Arboretum).
In addition to deciding how to handle everyday concerns such as maintenance requests, the leaders face questions over major capital projects recommended by staff. In coming years, the capital plan recommendations call for building a new $2.5 million library in east Asheville, implementing $6.1 million in improvements to Buncombe County Sports Park, implementing $3.2 million in improvements to Lake Julian Park, building a $30 million new aquatics facility and more.
The authority is funded by a 3.5 cent property tax, which isn't projected to bring in enough revenue to pay for all of the recommendations. The authority board decided to have a draft of its budget ready by Februrary; final approval will be subject to a vote by the board of commissioners.
But first, noted Gantt, "We're going to have to set the priorities on how we set the priorities."
Thinking ahead, Tessier asked the three commissioners what their expectations are and "what … they expect of our behavior."
Frost immediately responded: "I would want good stewardship of the tax payer dollars." However, she soon joined her fellow commissioners in emphasizing that they want each of the citizen authority members to freely bring their thoughts and opinions to the table.
"We're not going to tell you how to vote," noted Gantt. "We want you to use your best independent judgement."
Although four commissioners originally wanted to serve on the authority, the boarddecided only to allow three of its members to do so, with the goal of not dominating decisions with a majority of the votes.
"We're all equals, and we all want this to succeed," noted Kern. "Because we're not elected, it doesn't make us a lesser part of this board."
"This is exciting," exclaimed Tessier. "This is an incredible creative opportunity."
Altman agreed, noting that it will be the first government authority of its kind in the state (It's the result of a controversial new state law).
"If you get this right, folks are going to come knocking in more ways than one. I'm excited for you," she said.
The authority set its meeting schedule for the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, starting at 4 p.m each time. The meeting locations are yet to be decided, although several members expressed interest in holding them at different libraries and recreation facilities across the county.