Asheville – Buncombe County’s Director of Economic Development and Governmental Relations, Tim Love, received little input from the commissioners after reviewing a draft of this year’s legislative agenda. The agenda is a list of priorities for the county’s lobbyists, a team from Ward and Smith, PA, to take to the North Carolina General Assembly.
Love began with a review of Ward and Smith’s accomplishments during the short session last year. Among these were getting the legislature to change the percentage of occupancy tax proceeds that must be spent on advertising for tourism from 33% to 25%. They also procured supplemental pay for noncertified school personnel paid by the state, more money for affordable housing, and preserved the regulatory powers of local governments over short-term rentals and the expansion of broadband. Love said Ward and Smith even tackled the short-term rental issue “unbeknownst to us.”
The 2023 agenda was divided into two tiers. Love said the tiers represented the amount of support staff hearing for the issues, but items in both tiers were important. The policy priorities that rose to the top were the establishment of revenue streams for Pre-K capital and operations, allowances for more revenue collected from occupancy taxes to offset general fund expenditures, greater protections and/or expansions of local government authority to regulate short-term rentals, and differential property tax rates that place a greater burden on persons operating short-term rentals or owning second homes.
The list of direct appropriations was longer but still prioritized education funding, particularly for Pre-K. Requests included general increases in salaries and bonuses for school personnel, the restoration of supplemental pay for educators with master’s degrees, increased allocations for K-12 and community college capital projects, and permanent and extended subsidies for early childhood childcare.
Under the category of resident wellbeing, staff wanted to increase, or at least sustain, state funding for affordable housing programs such as the North Carolina Workforce Housing Loan Program and spend more on housing for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. To better care for the environment, the county was interested in getting the state to fund water and sewer extensions for the development of Ferry Road, among other projects; the purification of French Broad River waters; the removal of manmade garbage from smaller streams and rivers; and stormwater mitigation in floodplains. They also wanted more state funding for broadband and improvements to McCormick Field.
There was greater diversity in Tier 2, where, as in Tier 1, most requested policy changes amounted to expanding sources of indirect funding. Exceptions included granting the attorney general oversight over hospital mergers, which was listed under resident well-being, and changing wet signature requirements for Medicaid applicants. Wet signatures are those provided with pen and ink attesting to comprehension of the statements above, as opposed to the current practice of being asked on the spot to electronically put one’s signature in a box, necessarily lying about having read and understood pages and pages of frequently updated legalese with cross references and technical errors, which the clerk never seems to have handy.
Other healthcare items included changes to procurement procedures for emergency vehicles and equipment, the designation of emergency medical services (EMS) as “essential,” and making EMS services Medicaid-reimbursable. When pressed to provide more information about what was meant by “modernize 911 statutes,” Love said he did not know but would get back to the commissioners.
Looking after the immediate needs of the poor, the county wanted to lobby for increasing the minimum wage of essential workers and expanding access to state grants made available to only the most impoverished counties in the state. Love explained that Buncombe, even though it has many pockets of utter destitution, is now ineligible because it is grouped with the wealthiest of counties, the system only looking at average income.
On housing in particular, the county would like the state to approve property tax exemptions for the elderly and/or people who have lived a long time in their homes but are being forced out by property tax hikes. At the same time, the county would like the state to restore its powers to enforce minimum housing standards. For those entrepreneurial spirits trying to generate a little money to keep their homes by renting out rooms, the county would like more regulatory oversight. It would appear the preferred method of making housing affordable is to raise taxes so the government can gain a larger share of the residential construction market, as illustrated by another request that the state turn over some of its property to the county so it can build more affordable housing.
The county, of course, has a few environmental items on the agenda. More conventional ideas include adding tools for enforcing existing anti-litter laws and establishing a statewide bottle exchange program. More progressive measures include modifying state commercial building codes to require more energy-efficient design and using state funds for green energy projects and green banking. The latter, which is becoming quite popular, requires organizations to invest in green businesses or remove from their investment portfolios all corporations that put profits over the environment, like “Big Oil.”
Criminal justice considerations included making it easier for drug felons to get food stamps, clarifying the role of the county and the courts in automatic expungement, and allowing civilians to investigate traffic crashes in the City of Asheville. Miscellaneous items included helping A-B Tech set up and operate “high-level” workforce training programs and requiring more transparency about the state’s broadband grant process and its recipients.
Tier 2 items for which the county is seeking direct appropriations from the legislature include the creation of an active aging facility, which was discussed at a recent commissioners’ meeting, as well as a Western North Carolina History Museum. To promote a healthy environment, the county would like more money for its soil and water districts, electric vehicle charging stations, a trust fund to prevent the subdivision and/or development of farmlands, and staffing for Pisgah View State Park. The state park, which has yet to come online, will be the first in Buncombe County and will be in the Candler area.
To promote a vibrant economy, the county wants more funding for small business support programs and better alignment with A-B Tech’s course offerings and “essential and emerging” technologies. Standing alone in the “Which of these is not like the others?” category, the county would like state aid for the creation of a meat packing facility in Western North Carolina.
Terri Wells was the only commissioner to weigh in at any length on her preferences. Her somewhat lengthy list leaned toward rural and agricultural interests. When asked to “elevate” any preferences, she was the only one to speak, and her priority was the meat packing facility.