A Conversation with Commissioner Joe Belcher

By Leslee Kulba- July is an unusual time for calling a strategic planning retreat for county government, but who could blame new Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder, who is newly responsible for a body whose former managers are under federal indictment, and whose interim manager’s warnings about a structurally-imbalanced budget were met with unprecedented recurring commitments for early childhood education and affordable housing.

Commissioner Joe Belcher was kind enough to share with the Tribune his perspectives from the eight hours of commissioner meetings during the two-day extravaganza. Coming from the business world, he described the exercise as developing a 10-year plan, except this one would be for the next 20 years. The commissioners were asked to define personal and public values and to agree on six or seven trends likely to require a response from government. They also engaged in teambuilding exercises that typically accompany retreats.

Belcher said a lot of the discussion dealt with growth. Unlike Asheville City Council meetings, not much distinction was made between residents and tourists, though how the Tourist Development Authority should participate came up a few times in passing.

There were questions of where the zoning code should allow new apartment buildings and what the county could do to keep the cost of housing down.

As an aside, Belcher, a former vice president of Clayton Homes, said he was happy to see, after several years of advocacy, the commissioners recently voting to relax codes restricting where manufactured homes may be placed. Biases, he said, went away as the housing market got tighter and more and more people couldn’t stay on family lands.

In addition to protecting homesteads, Belcher wanted to protect farmlands. It tied into his faith-based desire to be a good steward of God’s creation. He said he has always professed his faith as a commissioner, so his interest came as no shock to his peers. Others want to save the trees for other reasons, but he said at least everybody could agree on a goal.

Perhaps the most important thing Belcher wanted to conserve, however, was the values and culture of people who have lived here for generations. He said he and the other Republicans on the board, Mike Fryar and Robert Pressley, often look for ways to better respect the rights of elderly, long-time residents.

Belcher sees himself as elected to serve everybody, and that would include those, described by other politicians as “gun-toting Bible thumpers,” often lost in service to the majority and organized, vocal special interests. Belcher aligns with those supporting the victimless free exercise of conscience for all, including the right not to participate in activities that are against one’s personal or spiritual beliefs, through tax contributions or otherwise.

Belcher said there was no discussion about, “bonds/rates/taxes.” It wasn’t like pre-recession strategic planning where local government bodies were egged-on by visioneers to dream big with no concern for costs, either. Belcher said the matter just wasn’t broached, but added, “You know Mike’s gonna hammer every dollar. Me, too.” Belcher said as a conservative, of course he’s always asking, “How do you manage this?” And by “manage,” he seemed to mean “make things work within the allotted budget.”

Belcher faulted discussions on growth for only considering the additional revenue that would be needed for public safety, public schools, and infrastructure; while disregarding any growth new citizens, businesses, and visitors would contribute to the tax base and add to the local economy. (Ironically, government leaders tend only to see the supplementary subset of the economy when promoting economic development incentives.)

Belcher agreed just about every well-intending person in government wants to insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare. Differences of opinion normally concern how those ends should be met, but Belcher said the struggle comes with the execution. He said in government one must go about trying to get a majority on the board to agree about how something ought to be done.

Belcher said the commissioners were also asked, “What’s driving you personally?” and “What’s your legacy, or how do you want to be remembered?” Belcher said his response was, “That I represented the Lord, my family, and my constituents to the best of my ability.” He said he was among those who wanted his tenure to be remembered as, “service-directed.” Others, he said, had specific agendas, on which he wasn’t going to comment.

Other trends commissioners assigned high priority for addressing included rising costs of treating persons with chronic medical conditions including obesity, the widening achievement gap in public schools, and the rising jail population.

Belcher described the meeting as a first step. Members of staff will work with the facilitators in coming weeks to shape input into a vision, values, and strategic plan for a higher level of commissioner deliberation. The facilitators are under a $40,000 contract with the county.

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