County strains at gnats while city chokes


By Leslee Kulba –

At Commissioner Joe Belcher’s initiation, the Buncombe County Commissioners approved, unanimously, amendments to guidelines for funding outside agencies. Both Belcher and Chair David Gantt stressed the changes were not intended to harm anybody, but would only “strengthen” nonprofits. Belcher said the revised guidelines would stretch the public dollars awarded to local nonprofits through “greater efficiency, greater accountability, and greater taxpayer oversight.”

To begin, County Manager Wanda Greene wished to clarify there was no truth to rumors claiming nonprofits did not have to open their books for public scrutiny. The agencies submit reports to the county’s finance department annually and submit to financial reviews on-demand if something looks suspicious.

The amendment would require nonprofits seeking public funding to sign a performance contract, which would only be renewable if its goals have been met. The worthiness of applicants will be judged on the basis of “need and community impact.” As a general rule, a cap of 12 percent of public funding will be allowed for overhead. Funding for capital projects will be limited to the lesser of 10 percent of project costs or $500,000. Although grants for capital projects are to be spread over at least five years, Greene said if there was an immediate need, as in the case of Pack Square, the county would pay a lump sum upfront.

The new guidelines require nonprofits interested in receiving county tax dollars to apply only during the commissioners’ annual budget process. Applicants may only solicit public funding as matches for sums awarded by foundations. County commissioners are no longer allowed to serve on the boards of organizations receiving county funding. Commissioner Brownie Newman requested an edit, as the jumble of words presented could have been interpreted to forbid commissioners from “volunteering for humanity” at all.

In another vote, the commissioners approved the NC DOT’s Secondary Road Program. The vote was required by law. For the coming fiscal year, the DOT has set aside $1,376,525 for secondary road improvements in Buncombe County. $390,000 of the total is carryover from the current fiscal year. Rising to the top of the list are about a dozen projects. Representatives from the DOT explained roads were prioritized on the basis of how many addresses were on the street, traffic volumes, and whether or not the roads were used by school buses. To date, the DOT has paved all secondary roads on its initial list, except for forty rural roads and 109 residential streets for which it has not been able to procure rights of way.

Don Yelton and Jerry Rice were the only citizens to take advantage of the public comment period. Both complained about taxes. Rice told the commissioners he could tell them how to patch their budget gap. He wanted to start with outside agency funding. For visual impact, he held up a list of all nonprofits currently receiving county funding, brandishing a big, fat red X on both pages. Ceasing all funding would save the county about $1 million annually. He next suggested eliminating the fund balance retained by Buncombe County Schools. Rice thought road funding should focus on safety. Beautification projects could wait.

Yelton complained that public funding thrived by defunding private-sector initiatives. He claimed the 5-cent property tax increase would amount to a 10 percent increase for people living in unincorporated areas. He heard a rumor that the proposed regional parks and recreation authority could impose its own taxes, with numbers being floated as high as 7 cents. Yelton said people live in the county because they can’t afford to live in the city. And, while the poor folks in the county are running out of places to go, Yelton complained that revals came in advantageous for the wealthy in Biltmore Forest, and Mission Hospitals continues to gobble up land, making it tax-exempt and increasing the tax burden on those who still pay.

Meanwhile . . .

At the conclusion of the commissioners’ meeting, County Attorney Mike Frue was asked if there had been a change to his former assertion that there would be no closed session. He replied it was too early to know anything, possibly alluding to the meeting running concurrently at City Hall. In a most expeditious manner, H488 sailed through the General Assembly, and now awaits Governor Pat McCrory’s signature. H488 is the bill that would seize the city’s water system and deliver it to a yet to be created regional authority.

Mayor Terry Bellamy had already discussed her intentions, with the full backing of council, to sue the state should they demand the authority be up and running by May 15. Taking a selfish perspective, city council would just hand the train wreck of impossible demands unmet over to those ambitious to take it. Instead, the mayor appears to be putting her highest priority on ensuring reliable, uninterrupted water service.

But there is another concern. The resolution signed by members of council states, “The forced transfer of the water system as provided for in HB 488 may affect the city’s c ontractual obligations, including bonded indebtedness, such that contracts may be breached and defaults may occur, with potential impacts upon the city’s credit ratings.”

The city is now appealing to the judicial branch to declare H488 invalid and provide injunctive relief until it can be invalidated. That failing, the city wants to at least be compensated for its losses. The city’s decision to buy time, although it uses tax dollars to fight tax dollars, would not only protect water consumers, it would save face for Asheville’s antagonists.

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