Commissioners: equity trumps pandering

By Leslee Kulba

From one perspective, it was government as usual. An incumbent identified an opportunity to recognize a voting bloc. A crumb would be advertised as holding great potential for special-interest empowerment. It would supposedly improve a document, the reading of which would be too long and dry an investment to work into most busy schedules these days. The amendment in question hadn’t a ghost of a chance of succeeding; but what mattered was the press that could accompany the candidate differentiation. Media outlets, knowing sensation sells, let it be known that the words in question divided the world into lovers and haters.

At their last meeting, the Buncombe County Commissioners failed to pass an updated ordinance that would be the public-sector equivalent of an employee manual. The subject was sufficiently important for the state to require a second reading if it failed to pass unanimously. The commissioners had their own rules, too, which said an ordinance could not be amended during a second reading. Commissioner Holly Jones had done her homework, and came to this week’s meeting prepared to make a motion to waive the commissioners’ rules. Her objective was to add “sexual orientation and gender identity” to a list of federally protected classes.

Staff had cautioned against the proposed amendment for reasons discussed only in closed session. Jones said numerous legal authorities had weighed in since the last meeting, voicing opinions counter to those offered by Assistant County Attorney Curt Euler. She spoke in the abstract about what was said in closed session, considering the threat to be an improbable scenario; the gains for civil rights being well worth any lawsuit brought against the county. Jones said she was responding to community outcry.

Her motion to amend died for lack of a second. Chair David Gantt said he was sympathetic, but, having discussed the issue with all board members, was not interested in pursuing an exercise in futility. Before the vote on the employee manual, Carol Weir Peterson said she wished to dispel falsehoods circulating about the manual. It did not leave members of the LGBT or any other community working for the county unprotected. The document, in fact, improved the condition of all staff members, as it mitigated existing inequities in compensation.

The county’s personnel ordinance was last drafted in 1996, and it received a new layer of Band-Aids every time a new state or federal law required adjustments. The new ordinance smoothed things out while trying to promote best practices and be compliant with Equal Opportunity law, Americans with Disabilities acts, the Family Medical Leave Act, and other workplace regulations. It also added policies on smoking, IT use, and workplace violence, and worked out more generous leave policies. Drastic step-ups in employee benefit scales were mitigated in the interest of retention, and attempts were made to reduce inequities in perquisites caused by changes in county policy over the years.

The vote to approve the hundred-page ordinance, which had been painted into a gay-rights issue for public consumption, passed on a 4-1 vote. Jones and Peterson reflected the sentiments of those in the districts they are campaigning to represent. Gantt, who voted against the ordinance the first time, flipped his vote, thus making him somewhat reasonable to all interests county-wide. Bill Stanley and K. Ray Bailey, both not seeking re-election, remained silent and voted in favor of the unamended ordinance. Ill, Stanley attended the meeting via speaker phone.

In Other Matters –

County Finance Director Donna Clark requested the commissioners’ approval to save some money. Clark wanted the county to refund $32.8 million in variable-rate bonds, general obligation bonds. The annual average interest on these bonds had varied between 2.50 and 3.55 percent. In addition, there were “hidden” costs. The county had to retain a remarketing agent and pay for a liquidating facility in the event bonds were not resold. Costs were increasing as banks tried to recover losses from a continual onslaught of crushing regulatory burdens. As Gantt put it, “The hidden costs are eating any benefits” the variable-rate loans may have availed.

Clark said the rate she had been offered by a private-sector bank was lower than any public offers. Private-sector banks were, in fact, aggressively pursuing refunding of municipal bonds. Bailey asked the obvious, and the answer was 1.7 percent. Clark said the rate was so low, it could only rise. The commissioners therefore approved re-funding $32.8 million in general obligation bonds. The action followed a recent vote by the commissioners to discontinue dealing with variable-rate bonds.

The commissioners went into closed session to discuss a couple issues; one pertaining to Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac. It is probable they are going to join Henderson County in a class action lawsuit, begun in Michigan, charging the publicly-traded private corporations are not entitled to the real estate excise tax exemptions they enjoyed as federal agencies.

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