By Leslee Kulba- Two weeks ago, the Buncombe County Commissioners considered a proposal for righting wrongs perpetrated against A-B Tech by former county management, now under federal investigation.
The problem, in short, was that vast sums of $129,000,000 in sales tax revenues, which, by understanding and belief had been dedicated for college capital improvements, were instead used for inflated executive pay ($452,000), operations that should have been paid in addition and out of the county’s general fund ($15,000,000), and capital projects the college neither wanted nor needed ($12,000,000). The school also claimed to have $25,000,000 in deferred maintenance.
The Asheville Tribune reported the proposal, “would start with a $3,125,000 disbursement from the county and escalate annually at 5.54% to accommodate inflation in construction costs. In addition, [legal counsel recommended] capping the county’s transfers of the sales tax revenue to its general fund at $5,000,000 a year, while never transferring enough to allow the school’s CIP fund balance to fall below $2,000,000.
Lastly, all transfers to the county’s general fund would have to go back to A-B Tech to help with operating costs.”
The idea was to get both the county commissioners and the A-B Tech Board of Trustees to approve the agreement, and then ask the state legislature to sign the memorandum of understanding into law. The agreement had come to the commissioners from the trustees on a split vote. Those who voted against it argued the county had taken promised funds away and now wanted to make only partial restitution. Opinions of what should and should not be included in the totals, of course, differed.
When it was the commissioners’ turn, they, on a split vote, approved the measure provided an oversight board, like the public schools’ Capital Fund Commission, be formed. Tuesday, County Attorney Mike Frue merely returned to get a nod from the commissioners on formalized language calling for the creation of the committee.
But, due to pressure sparked by the local daily on the excessive compensation issue, Commissioner Joe Belcher asked that a rider be added to the proposal requiring approximately $452,000 misappropriated for salaries to be reimbursed as well.
Following deliberation and counsel, the commissioners agreed that would best be considered during their budget conversations later this year; when, as Chair Brownie Newman suggested, the board could consider other claims from the trustees.
Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Amanda Edwards reasserted their position from the last meeting that the commissioners needed to take more time. They made not so much as an allusion to what time was supposed to heal, but as they spoke, individuals who had come to the meeting to represent A-B Tech’s interests, but did not speak, nodded in agreement.
Commissioner Al Whitesides had seen enough foot-dragging. “Folks,” he began, “at some point in time, the buck stops.” He said what was before the commissioners was a good solution to a problem, and the commissioners were elected to solve problems. As a former trustee on two university boards, he was still aghast at how the former board had allowed an unnecessary $15,000,000 parking garage to be constructed in an inconvenient place. In not so many words, he accentuated that a single person’s abuse of power had turned commissioners’ meetings into a never-ending circus.
Newman spoke fairly. “Part of the reason, and I’m not trying to relitigate this, I think some of us wanted to take more time at the last meeting, was to talk about issues like the $400,000 and the other buildings; but the motion to take more time didn’t win. The issue that’s on the agenda tonight is just to affirm this clarifying language regardless of where we all fell on that vote, I think we all agree this is pretty good language.”
Newman said he could go either way on the question of whether or not the board should wait until budget deliberations to address more of the college’s grievances; however, “I would also like to be respectful of our commission protocols. It’s always nice to be on the winning side of the vote, but you’re not always.
I think as a person who wasn’t on the majority on that, I don’t think you should always just keep bringing things back up. We voted, and I want to respect the vote that we had at the last meeting. So, unless there is a change from one of the folks who voted for this plan, I think this is the plan until we come up with something different.”
The lack of assurance granted by the thought of codifying one whim before the next came along notwithstanding, the proposal passed back to the college trustees, who met the next day and approved it 7-5. Those in favor indicated it was not everything they wanted, but it set a baseline. They could always ask for more.