Asheville – Affordable housing, climate and environmental solutions, apprenticeships for paramedics and minorities, universal pre-K funding, and broadband internet access were identified as the top priorities of the Buncombe County Commissioners for Fiscal Year 2022-2023. At the first of several budget worksessions to be held in coming months, the commissioners agreed on their selection from a list of commissioners’ personal priorities, which also included hiring a lobbyist, deciding how to use funding from the opioid settlement, establishing a dedicated source of funding for sidewalks and bike lanes, providing homestead tax exemptions for the elderly, investing in community centers, establishing sustainable funding for museums and cultural resources, filling staffing vacancies, and bolstering disaster preparedness.
Staff had already proposed increasing funding for, “911 consolidation, affordable housing, conservation easements, early childhood education, emergency services expansion, greenways, homeowner assistance grants, and library maintenance.” The county is also conducting a community survey to identify additional opportunities for expanding departmental budgets.
The survey does not ask direct questions like, “What government services are lacking, and how much more are you willing to pay in taxes or fees to receive them?” or even, “Which county services would you like to see cut?” Instead, it asks about perceptions and feelings, the proverbial “hopes, wishes, and dreams,” for a utopian society, without regard to whether the respondent wants government or some private-sector entity to address the problems. The fact that respondents want everybody in the community to enjoy adequate food and shelter does not translate to a mandate for government to raise taxes to “invest in” no-barrier shelters. Questions are leading, in that the only one that links a possible property tax increase to a service is the one pertaining to waste convenience centers. That question is followed by one that, for sympathy or excess specificity, tacks on, “as part of the COVID-19 recovery in the county.”
Going back to the top priorities, the commissioners could undertake a range of initiatives under the umbrella of affordable housing. For example, they have discussed land banking and buying hotels for shelters; they support an Affordable Housing Services Program that has awarded hundreds of thousands to developers; they oversee pass-through grants for affordable housing from the federal government; and at their last meeting, they approved adding three fulltime employees, funded at $164,125 for only half the year, to help address the county’s shortage of affordable housing and in particular help with feasibility studies for building affordable housing on county-owned land. For a sense of what can be done for affordable housing, in 2016, the City of Asheville floated $25 million in affordable housing bonds, of which it has spent $13.4 million. It also awards low-interest loans of up to $1 million from its Affordable Housing Trust Fund. And it still has an affordable housing crisis.
Climate and environmental solutions is another category in need of focus. The county has already launched a $10 million initiative to equip about 40 public buildings with solar panels. It has also been investing in renewable energy, with many of the projects paying for themselves over time. As the “low-hanging fruit” is harvested, though, returns on new investments should diminish. The Buncombe County Strategic Plan 2025, under the category of Environmental and Energy Stewardship, calls for “high-quality air, water, farmland, and renewable energy.” Proposed initiatives range from educating farmers about conservation easements to replacing the county’s fleet with alternative fuel vehicles. The county’s Environmental and Energy Stewardship Subcommittee reported at the worksession that its future goals include improving water quality, providing alternatives to fossil-fuel vehicles, placing more land in conservation easements, “building climate resiliency,” and financing commercial-scale renewable energy projects. Hopefully, the county will at least break even with its apprenticeships.
As for universal pre-K, the 2025 plan, prepared in 2019, stated that, at the time, 4,087 of 14,319 “children ages birth through five” were already enrolled in licensed early childhood education programs. Providing pre-K for all eligible four- and five-year-olds would, conservatively and ceteris parabus, then capture about 3,000 students. The 2019 cost of enrolling a four-year-old in licensed care per year, $7,920, surely underestimates today’s costs, and the population has increased and is expected to continue to do so. So, the county should spend well over an additional $24,000,000 on this in the first year. Acquiring facilities may cost more, as may payrolling the quality of educators the commissioners have expressed an interest in recruiting and retaining.
The broadband expansion could include small things like the pods it set up for disadvantaged children to do their online classwork, or the laptops and hotspots the libraries are now loaning. The bulk of the spending, however, will be on partnering with a provider to provide infrastructure and services to the 10-15% of residents who could not receive access because (1) it was too cost-prohibitive for corporations, and (2) federal broadband programs were designed only for persons in rural areas. This changed just weeks ago when Governor Roy Cooper, with the signing of the state budget, enabled local governments to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand broadband. The county was expecting the approval, so $4.5 million of its $51 million in ARPA funds had already been dedicated to broadband infrastructure. The county is looking to forge partnerships for all of the above.
To their credit, staff provided the commissioners with context for fiscal prudence. Significantly, with ARPA, the opioid settlement, HCA grants, and more, the county’s budget is heavily padded with grants that may not be renewed.