Asheville – Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder presented the commissioners with her recommended budget, for which a public hearing will be held June 7. She began by telling about the contest that generated the art for this year’s budget book. County employees and their family members were invited to submit an artistic interpretation of the statement, “Buncombe County is a caring community in harmony with its environment where residents succeed, thrive, and realize their potential. This community is turning 230 years old in 2022. What does Buncombe County at 230 mean to you?” The winner was Joyce Kanavel from Election Services, who used the colors of the county seal in an acrylic pour.
Since math, even in budgeting, can be triggering, Pinder put up a few more colorful slides before landing on one with the title, “Advancing Our Strategic Plan: Budget by Focus Area.” It showed two circles. The first was divided into colored portions with the captions, “Residential Well-Being 46%,” “Educated and Capable Community 29%,” “Foundational 21%,” “Vibrant Economy 3%,” and “Environmental and Energy Stewardship 1%.” For what it’s worth, “Foundational made up the second circle, with portions for “Operational Excellence,” “Resources,” and “Equity.”
More traditionally, Pinder shared budget highlights, and these included $3.82 million for early childhood education, $154,788 for arts and culture, $4 million for solar projects, $1.6 million for low-/no-emission vehicles, $750,000 for conservation easements, $250,000 for what appear to be collaborations with Duke Energy, $120,000 for electric vehicle charging stations, $664,146 on recreation, $326,055 on Community Paramedicine, $4.3 million on corporate welfare, another $2.3 million for affordable housing, $2 million for reparations, $1.5 million on community grants, $278,155 for Community Engagement Markets, and $4.4 million on the creation of 63 new positions across 23 departments.
The budget would increase only 2.7% year-over-year to $399,212,222, with $17.2 million left over the 15%-of-general-fund policy minimum for the fund balance. Debt service would account for 5% of expenditures. The tax rate would remain the same, 48.8 cents per $100 valuation, but as commission candidate Don Yelton cautioned during public comment, the county is already beginning to convene meetings in preparation for another revaluation cycle. Yelton added his estimate that property values were doubling in the county.
During public comment, the commissioners had had to open their overflow room. Most speaking begged for more money for county employees. Tales were told of bus drivers, teaching assistants, librarians, and even IT specialists working second jobs, quitting for greener pastures, and living on government subsidies with help from food banks. Wages were so low, stories were told of kids having to stay home for want of bus drivers and drivers being called in to work on scheduled vacation days.
To address this, Pinder recommended raising entry-level pay for all education positions to at least $15/hour, with accommodations made to avoid compression. Other education employees would receive a 2.5% increase. This fell short of Just Economics’ Vicki Meath’s demand that the county pay living wages of $17.70, with or without benefits; as well as a recently completed compensation study that recommended a floor of $17/hour across all county departments.
Later in the evening, Finance Director Don Warn went through the motions for advancing, to another June 7 public hearing, the bond referenda the county wishes to put on the November ballot. The referenda will be for, “Open Space Bonds: $30,000,000 of bonds to 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;” and “Housing Bonds: $40,000,000 of bonds to 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.”
Combined, the bonds will only cost the average homeowner $32 per year for the next 20 years. Yelton spoke of the irony of the commissioners trying to create more affordable housing by raising property taxes. This and the reval weren’t the only things. Yelton said, the commissioners were doing to raise housing costs. They also voted that night to, “take 20% of the land in Buncombe County out of production.” He was referring to an agenda item about an ambitious goal for putting more land in conservation easements. Yelton asked, rhetorically, what the scarcity of land was going to do to housing prices.
To help pay for it all, the commissioners considered tapping the room tax. This was added to their legislative agenda for the current short session, and comments had been made from the dais about how a greater share of this representation-less taxation should be appropriated in a way that would help the county balance its budget, instead of paying for so much advertising to attract more visiting taxpayers.
Interestingly, the resolution was very vague, mentioning neither a dollar amount nor a percentage of interest. It requested one-third, rather than one-fourth of collections go to community infrastructure, as that much is allowed in other parts of the state. It also requested that the allowed usages of the community infrastructure funds be more flexible. Chair Brownie Newman said, for example, funds are available for new infrastructure, but not for its ongoing maintenance. After Commissioner Parker Sloan slammed the North Carolina General Assembly for breaking precedents and suggesting the county couldn’t, Newman said annual room tax collections had exceeded expectations, rising over $30 million after starting well under $1 million less than ten years ago.