Leslee Kulba- At their last work session, the Buncombe County Commissioners reviewed a “second pass” for next year’s budget. The main question was whether or not the commissioners were willing to bend their policy to drop the county’s fund balance below the precedented minimum of 15% of general fund expenditures.
While the commissioners aren’t allowed to vote in worksessions, a majority directed County Manager Avril Pinder to prepare the budget with a fund balance of 13.09%.
Under former management, the county would balance its annual budgets at the time of adoption by borrowing from fund balance, with the intention of paying the amount borrowed back with managed savings to be determined as the year progressed. The commissioners expected they could do the same this year, Commissioner Joe Belcher noting the county tends to consistently underestimate sales tax revenues. Even so, Pinder and Finance Director Don Warn thought 15% was a very low fund balance for a county the size of Buncombe.
Belcher said the commissioners always get spun as hating education for suggesting cuts to the education budget, but he asked if it was typical for schools to have fund balances, as Asheville City and Buncombe County schools do. Pinder indicated it was not necessary, as the schools could always ask the county for more money in an emergency. The county had agreed to set working budgets with the school systems as continuation budgets escalated at the rate of growth. With this year’s 4.24% growth rate, the schools were reportedly already gearing up to ask for more. In light of historic school requests, Commissioner Robert Pressley suspected the policy would not wear well.
Big-ticket changes to the county’s continuation budget included the creation of an Early Childhood Education and Development Fund, which will begin with a $2,648,422 appropriation. The commissioners also created an affordable housing fund. A recent meeting of the county’s Affordable Housing Committee reported receipt of $5,687,576 in requests, but the county has budgeted only $2,325,000 for FY2020, the most notable expenditure being the $925,000 for Mountain Housing Opportunities’ East Haven project.
Other added expenditures were strategic partnership grants, which will only partially fund around $3 million in requests; 21 new positions; a $75,000 strategic planning process requested by the county manager; a first phase of salary adjustments to remediate inequities across departments; and the across-the-board cost of living adjustment the commissioners preferred to merit-based pay raises. During the meeting, the commissioners supported a new request to raise the minimum wage paid county employees to $15/hour.
As for capital needs, Budget Analyst Matt Evans said next year’s priorities would require an estimated $7,582,671 in debt financing. The largest line item was $1,651,174 for refreshing the sheriff’s department’s fleet. Commissioner Mike Fryar said he was looking out for taxpayers and was familiar with the fleet, and those vehicles were not needed. Staff explained their decision was data-driven and based on a point system; but Fryar alleged only four people were driving the request.
Another capital request coming down the pike originated with Election Services and was for a new building; as is, storage and training are spread throughout the county. Budget Director Jennifer Barnette said instead of just building something new, the county started looking for how it might make space in an existing building for all voting machines, records, and activities to be housed under one roof. Commissioner Al Whitesides noted the county was paying $8,000 a month for Election Services’ headquarters, and Pinder said the county could better use that money renovating its own space.
Proposed IT expenditures included Wi-Fi for two parks, staff explaining it would allow credit-card payments for activities. Belcher thought it would be more cost-effective for people at the ballparks to pick up the Wi-Fi from Enka Intermediate School; and Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara said if the county was going to make a big investment, it wouldn’t hurt to see what projects could piggyback with minor additional expenditures.
The second-pass budget projected revenues for FY2020 at $319,593,346 and expenditures at $339,483,725. So, the shortfall had decreased by $2,804,171 since the first pass. For additional savings, Chair Brownie Newman suggested the county revisit some of Interim County Manager George Wood’s recommendations that the commissioners postponed on the grounds of waiting for a permanent county manager.
This year, the budget benefitted from several one-time infusions, including settlements totaling $1,110,241 from former county managers under criminal investigation; $646,032 netted from excise taxes on the sale of Mission Hospital to HCA, the remainder of the $1,266,729 going to the state; and $677,771 in reimbursed wages for healthcare employees. The large swath of county property on Ferry Road did not sell this year, but it was the best hope the commissioners had for addressing next year’s budget gap. All other factors equal, the sale could bring the fund balance to 14.76%.