The freezing temperatures didn't stop North Carolina Treasurer Janet Cowell from laying out her take on the state of the economy. The frigid weather also didn't prevent a crowd, including many local notables, from showing up to hear, and ask questions, packing the Chamber of Commerce's conference room this morning.
"There's been a lot of change that everyone has to incorporate," Cowell said. "My job as treasurer is to keep a long-term view, to look at the underlying stability for the state, to maintain a calm operating environment despite whatever is happening short-term."
Both City and County managers, Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioner members, government staff, heads of local businesses and nonprofits were among the crowd gathered to hear Cowell.
Cowell, a Democrat, was first elected treasurer in 2009. She's recently been in the news because of a debate about how best to overhaul the state's $84 billion pension fund to ensure it will grow even during tight times. Last year, the general assembly gave her more authority to oversee the fund, and she said at her Asheville appearance that it's necessary to "diversify" it in the current environment by broadening outside of bonds and into "low-risk real-estate" investments and other areas.
While "the business climate is improving," she noted that tax cuts will subtract from the state's revenue, so "I'd expect tight budgets in the public sector" for some time.
She said that low teacher salaries and the need for infrastructure to deal with growing populations pose a major challenge.
"My mother was a teacher, so I know very personally how hard teachers work and how fortunate one is if you get a really good teacher in your classroom," Cowell said. "I think everyone is recognizing that we have to get more competitive on teacher salaries...I think the intent is there, but we need to find the dollars."
Issues with teacher pay (North Carolina has among the lowest in the country) have prompted marches and protests locally, criticizing the general assembly's conduct on the issue. Gov. Pat McCrory has said that raising teacher salaries is a priority during the coming legislative session. Bobbie Short, the interim superintendent for the Asheville City School System, later thanked Cowell for her support of better salaries, noting "if we don't improve teacher salaries I don't know what shape we're going to be in...whoever thought we would be losing teachers to South Carolina?"
Cowell also wants to see more options for regional and local infrastructure investment, asserting local governments need "flexibility," and noting that might mean toll roads and other methods to accommodate building needed to cope with a growing population.
She praised Asheville's low unemployment as a source of strength. Though she noted that some of that is due to people dropping out of the labor force or being unemployed, "I'm glad those numbers are down."
Asked about the area's advantages, Cowell cited wealthy retirees, the "human capital" of a creative population, and "scenic beauty," though she noted the last also tied with a geography that poses challenges for developing infrastructure and the tech and manufacturing sectors.
"You've got universities, you've got a lot of energy," she said. "I think this area has tremendous assets."
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer asked Cowell about discussion of new laws that could require cities to have a referendum for any amount of borrowing.
Cowell replied that "non-voter-approved debt" is a necessary tool for local governments to deal with emergencies or some infrastructure matters, "it's critical to preserve that." But she added that it's important to balance that approach by going to the voters for some other matters, "like a town hall or a stadium." She noted that her sense was that the state wouldn't go so far to severely restrict the ability of cities to raise funds without a referendum.
State Rep. Nathan Ramsey asked Cowell about her department's innovation programs for investing in business, and if there was any state that had a better model that North Carolina could learn from.
She replied that the state could do a better job of linking with research and development at the state's universities as well as looking at investing in smaller companies, especially in areas like Asheville. While states like California, New York and Florida have some similar programs, "I'm not sure anyone has really cracked the code."