Asheville – The Buncombe County Commissioners are accepting live and in-person public comments on their proposed budget at their June 1 meeting. Budget materials are accessible through the commissioners’ page on buncombecounty.org.
County Manager Avril Pinder reported that for the current, COVID-devastated year, sales and property tax collections have exceeded expectations. In addition, the county continues to receive bountiful COVID aid from the generous state and federal distributions.
With property values increasing overall in the 2021 revaluation, the commissioners could have dropped the tax rate to remain revenue-neutral. Yet Pinder wrote in her introduction to the FY2021-2022 budget-in-brief, “I believe a revenue-neutral rate will neither sustain the level of service called for by the community nor help achieve our long-term goals.” She, therefore, recommended a tax rate of 48.8 cents per $100 valuation. This is expected to garner an extra $9,557,240 for what will be a $359,953,720 general budget with enterprise funds bringing the total to $510,371,830.
During a work session a week prior, Chair Brownie Newman spoke at length against any levy higher than the revenue-neutral rate of 46.8 cents. Among many economic arguments, he stressed that he understood the county government’s desires to be strong and vibrant so it could serve its constituents recovering from the stresses and strains of COVID, but there were probably more effective ways to help than taking more money from them.
Be that as it may, Pinder listed the “foundational investments” justifying her recommended rate. At the top was the need to hire about 30 people, the exact number varied among presentations. Among the positions were an equity officer with an associated cost of $167,000, which may or may not include training and community engagement; a coordinator to support putting more privately-held lands into conservation easements; and nine part-time librarians.
Another new hire will be a trainer for election services, a fix that insinuates something may have been broken. The training is described as, “providing voters a better experience by increasing training time, redesigning materials and supplies, shifting from general to job-specific training, creating a learning management system, and adding inclusiveness/equity training, … working with the parties to make poll worker appointments in 2021, and leveraging the list of people showing interest in 2020 to expand recruiting efforts.”
After denying the private ambulance company MEDIC a franchise to continue providing backup services, the county now needs to purchase another ambulance, hire a training officer, and “provide funding to build our pool of as-needed paramedic staff.” This will, “ensure quality of care and improve response time.”
By way of capital expenditures, the county expects to begin design and perhaps construction for recommendations from a comprehensive, 15-year facilities plan. The plan not only identifies and prioritizes maintenance needs but also recommends the physical shifting of departments to realize greater efficiencies. The county will also take care of IT upgrades valued at over $1 million that were deferred due to COVID budget-tightening. Legislation permitting, the county will move forward with a public/private partnership to expand broadband.
The budget will also fund progress on the commissioners’ budget priorities established in 2020. This includes setting aside $3,745,440 for the creation and staffing of new early childhood education classrooms.
As is required, the county will continue to support its public school systems and A-B Tech, but below the levels requested. During the aforementioned work session, Commissioner Al Whitesides, a former school board member, verbally attacked Asheville City Schools’ Superintendent Gene Freeman for always demanding more money and never narrowing the achievement gap. Freeman, defensively, countered he had only been superintendent for a year, and after a few more flaming volleys, Newman put a lid on it. Whitesides joins numerous parents in ongoing accusations of financial mismanagement and obfuscation.
Spending $826,732 on conservation easements is but one green initiative. Others include supporting the Blue Horizons partnership with Duke ($125,000), replacing the rolling stock with alternative-fuel vehicles ($1,285,665), expanding methane collection at the landfill ($350,000), increasing low-income access to solar generation ($25,000) and installing solar panels at the East Asheville Library and the firing range ($400,000).
All politicians promise a more vibrant economy; the commissioners expect to deliver by inserting government as a middleman in activities traditionally transacted by private-sector actors. The budget includes an allocation of $1,461,845 for affordable housing projects plus $850,000 for Mountain Housing Opportunities’ East Haven project.
The county also expects 1,000 jobs paying an average wage of at least $35/hour and investments of $700 million in the community to be generated from economic development incentives in 2022. Contracted beneficiaries are BorgWarner ($80,000), General Electric ($496,333), Ingles ($170,000), New Belgium ($650,000), and Pratt & Whitney ($2,700,000).
During public comment, the commissioners were lambasted for making another corporate welfare grant to Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of Raytheon. After promising them $27 million over 10 years, the commissioners were now going to build them a $5 million training facility. Commenters reiterated their stance that the county should not participate in the murder of children and the environment by taking taxpayer money to subsidize a $56 billion corporation servicing the military-industrial complex.
Ken Jones poked fun of the routine that leaders go through to justify reverse-Robinhood decisions before the public. “Had to do it, or they wouldn’t come. And we need them to come, ’cuz, you know, they promise jobs.” He added, “Jobs are the currency that you bank on for approval and for looking the other way.” He then suggested the commissioners were naïve to let Raytheon extort them so.