Commissioners Puzzle Over Gov. Funds - TribPapers
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Commissioners Puzzle Over Gov. Funds

Commissioner Parker has had it with the room tax.

Asheville – The Buncombe County Commissioners approved expediting the selection of and awarding Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to three projects. The county had held up disbursing funds for a year, explaining they had to develop a fair and equitable process. The program allocated $50,733,290 to Buncombe County for disbursement, deliverable in two tranches. Following a request for proposals (RFP) process, the county disbursed $23,093,499 from the first tranche. The RFP process for second-tranche funding generated 108 proposals with a total ask of $121,546,886. The proposals are currently being evaluated, with awards to be made on a “rolling” basis.

The three projects, were in urgent need of funding, however, and thus was cut to the front of all others. One, from the Buncombe Partnership for Children entitled, “Building Capacity in Buncombe County to Expand NC Pre-K Availability & Accessibility,” needed $3,201,546 for a pilot project prior to the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year. Two other requests were for help in constructing affordable housing, but they had to beat a May 13 filing deadline for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). One, from the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville (HACA), requested $935,286 to construct 80-82 residential units for the first phase of “Reimagining Deaverview.” The other, from Mountain Housing Opportunities (MHO), requested $718,616 to build 120 residential units in what will be known as Lakeshore Villas. Chair Brownie Newman said average rents across the two projects would be affordable to persons earning 60% of Area Median Income.

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara presented how the $3.2 million would be used to pay early childhood educators “with dignity.” She said these teachers should be licensed and paid the same as K-12 teachers. Commissioner Amanda Edwards agreed; she said what she hears most from Pre-K teachers is that they want to be paid and respected like other teachers. Beach-Ferrara supported the statewide goal of enrolling 75% of eligible children in Pre-K, a “bold step” that might require services like school buses. Commissioner Al Whitesides clarified: This step was toward universal Pre-K. He recounted his astonishment when his grandson told him kids in kindergarten could neither, “answer to their name,” nor spell “cat” or “dog;” knowing neither their alphabet nor the names for primary colors.

Chair Brownie Newman said the housing projects would satisfy 10% of the county’s goal for creating affordable housing by 2030. They offered a range of housing for families of different sizes, and vouchers that would be accepted for all units. The two projects in question would actually not receive their full asks. MHO is also applying for 4% LIHTCs, and it also has a request for funding from the Dogwood Health Trust that has not yet been finalized. HACA is applying for 9% LIHTCs, and a request for additional funding from the City of Asheville is already in the pipeline. Newman said the 9% LIHTCs are very competitive, and HACA’s executive director, David Nash, has indicated he will continue to reapply should he be denied this year. Newman said sometimes it takes two or three cycles before a project is selected.

The Deaverview development would cost over $16 million, but it would leverage over $7 million through tax equity. The Lakeshore development would cost over $25 million, and it would leverage almost $10 million in tax equity. The leveraged tax equity, he explained, made the “significant” taxpayer investment worthwhile. Commissioner Parker Sloan added that for every $1 invested by the county, the Deaverview project would leverage $12.71; the MHO project, $17.44. The MHO grant would be in addition to a previous ARPA grant that could be as large as $2.5 million. Newman said he hoped many of the other applicants proposing high-quality but affordable housing projects that weren’t time-sensitive would receive ARPA funding as well. 

Following the approval of funding for all three projects, the commissioners went through the legal motions required to put a referendum for “space bonds” and “housing bonds” on the November ballot. The space bonds, valued at $30 million would, “pay the capital costs of acquisition and improvement of land or interests therein for conservation and protection of natural resources and preservation of farmland, including but not limited to, the development of greenways and trails for recreation purposes.” The housing bonds, valued at $40 million, would, “pay the capital costs of housing for the benefit of persons of low or moderate income, including construction of related infrastructure improvements and the acquisition of related land and rights-of-way.”

Later in the meeting, a budget amendment mentioned occupancy taxes, opening the door for the commissioners to vent. As of 2015, visitors lodging in hotels or even Airbnbs in Buncombe County must pay a 6% hotel tax, 75% of which goes toward promoting the area as a vacation destination, with the remainder funding capital projects that attract tourism. The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is now projecting $40.8 million in room tax revenue for FY2022-2023, and the commissioners would like a greater share to help fund their strategic initiatives, like building new, affordable housing, and enrolling more children in certified Pre-K programs.

Beach-Ferrara called for restructuring the distribution of funds, but Commissioner Parker Sloan went further. He said it was too late to believe the TDA was negotiating in good faith. They have been advertising for a decade, attracting people of means to the area, where they buy-up housing stock and, “have turned our housing crisis into an emergency.” He wanted, “to end the collection of the hotel occupancy tax as soon as possible.”

Newman agreed. He said, “The current distribution of these taxpayer dollars is outrageous, and it is such a disservice to this community.” He said one reason he so strongly supports the hiring of a lobbyist is to restructure hotel tax distributions so more funding goes toward “true community needs” instead of television ads.

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