By Leslee Kulba- Back in 2011, via a 500-vote margin, Buncombe County voters approved a quarter-cent local sales tax increase. While the legislation creating the tax didn’t empower county commissioners to bind future boards in how that money would be spent, the question was strongly advertised, even in literature published by the college itself, as raising funds for “renovation, improvements, and expansion” at A-B Tech.
At the time, the tax was expected to garner $6-7 million a year before sunsetting in 2029.
But this is Buncombe County, and under former management now under federal investigation, money had a way of wandering.
As time progressed, projects on the original CIP were replaced with items not approved by the commissioners.
Amid allegations that the former college president, Hank Dunn, was wasting money on palatial offices, former County Managers Dr. Wanda Greene and Jon Creighton (now under federal indictment) seized oversight of expenditures, and Dunn soon resigned.
In 2013, county management made the first transfer of supposedly earmarked tax revenues to its general fund. The habit continued, with the transfer growing until it was split 50-50 between the college’s CIP and the county’s general fund, and $15 million had been transferred out of the CIP. Interim County Manager George Wood flagged these transfers as “unsustainable” during budget worksessions last September as PFA Architects were identifying $25 million in deferred maintenance at the college.
Although Representative Brian Turner is now working to get the board of commissioners to make A-B Tech whole for all sums diverted, County Attorney Michael Frue indicated a discussion of criminal allegations was beyond the present proposal’s attempt to address the college’s immediate needs.
Frue and A-B Tech’s attorney, Chris Campbell, were of the opinion the college and commission were powerless to enter into a binding agreement on the dispensation of the sales tax revenues; so they proposed entering into a memorandum of understanding and prevailing upon the state legislature to enact the MOU as local legislation.
A-B Tech’s board of trustees were amenable, by a 9-4 vote, but under the following conditions:
To pace upgrades in occupied buildings without disrupting day-to-day college operations, Frue and Wood recommended an eight-year plan that 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, they proposed capping the county’s transfers of the sales tax revenue to its general fund at $5 million a year, while never transferring enough to allow the school’s CIP fund balance to fall below $2 million. Lastly, all transfers to the county’s general fund would have to go back to A-B Tech to help with operating costs.
After the formal presentation, Chair Brownie Newman recalled how a $15 million parking garage, not approved in the original plan, now sits largely empty. Joe Belcher told how, at his first meeting as a commissioner, there was an $83 million budget amendment on the consent agenda.
Motioning as if his mind were exploding, he offered, “Business is not done that way anymore in Buncombe County.” From his first meeting, Al Whitesides remembered an ask for $27 million for a building at A-B Tech being slipped onto the consent agenda for fast-tracking. Commissioner Mike Fryar had raised flags that night that allowed the commissioners to stop the funding and impose a moratorium on additional capital investment’s at the college until an approval process more transparent to the public and the commissioners could be implemented.
Fryar reprised the PowerPoint he used back then for viewing in the current context. “Wanda had robbed A-B Tech, point blank,” he said. The slideshow ran through sums for buildings, some of which had not been approved by the commissioners, and concluded, “By hiding these big items, we as commissioners are being kept from doing our job, and the people whose money it is don’t know and don’t have a chance to speak out.
That’s not right.” Now, he only said, “It’s been so long. It’s been so bad. I’m not worried about extra dollars right now.” Fryar was worried about the escalating costs of deferring $25 million in deferred maintenance.
Newman asked if an itemization of the maintenance needs could be provided to the board; the commissioners’ packet only said there were so many square feet needing attention at a given average cost per square foot.
Assistant County Manager Jim Holland said he believed a more rigorous analysis had followed, and he said he would get the commissioners that data. Even with the September forewarning, Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Amanda Edwards wanted to table the discussions for more analysis.
After Belcher determined the commissioners could at any time appropriate more toward the college than the base levels being established, Newman said he would not support simply growing the college’s fund balance for some big project that may or may not come along.
Fryar made a motion to adopt the proposal, and Newman offered a friendly amendment to establish an oversight body like the School Capital Fund Commission. The SCFC was created to oversee funds collected by a special tax with the express purpose of getting the county’s public schools off a national, now long-forgotten, “dirty-dozen” list of rundown schools. Newman described the way the board operated as, “data-driven,” “collaborative,” and, “a great process.”
Not only could the board provide a forum for working out what have been strained relations between the school and county government; it would also encourage forethought and planning.
Belcher liked the idea of setting up a commission, but thought it premature to nail down the organizational structure, as Newman was prescribing it; doing so would exclude the A-B Tech board off the bat.
Whitesides, who has served on numerous boards, including two college boards, was finding the strong arm of county management, now swept away in charges of corruption, had once again left the commissioners publicly floundering at a level beyond the proverbial description of sausage-making.
He said the quarter-cent tax was a “trainwreck” from its beginnings, and the commission was now in “this mess” trying to get things back on-track. Whitesides said he would support the motion, but only with the friendly amendment, as A-B Tech needed, among other things, a transparent process, with checks and balances, for communicating with county management. Fryar said there had been a structure for the school to communicate with county leadership, but Newman shot back that meetings had been held out of the public eye and in violation of open meetings laws.
Once again, things were lining up with the Democrats on one side and the Republicans on the other, with Whitesides being the only one courageous enough to swing a vote. As the Democrats spoke again about buying time, Commissioner Robert Pressley was growing visibly restless.
After Newman said he would vote against the motion, Pressley replied, “I’m glad you said that, because the shoe’s on the other foot, now. For four of the last six meetings we’ve had, I have asked for us to take time to think about it, and I’m looked at like, ‘It’s 4-3. We’ve got it.’ Now, you and a couple others are asking for time. Let’s be fair. I agree.
We never are going to make 100% the right direction, but it is amazing to me that whenever … we ask for something, we ought to have the consideration to go on. But that right there is what probably upsets me more than anything, that whenever we know we’re outvoted and we ask for time to get more information, we’re denied very quickly.”
Beach-Ferrara made an attempt at consolation, to which Belcher interjected, “So, now’s the night to fix it?” Belcher then called the question, and the commissioners approved the allocation, the MOU, and the establishment of a commission 4-3, Whitesides swinging. Frue said the next steps would be to revise the wording of the MOU, get the A-B Tech board to approve it, and then send it to the legislature.
Newman still saw opportunity for the proposal to die. The ball, he said, had been passed to the General Assembly’s court on split votes from the commission and the A-B Tech board.
In Other Matters –
The commissioners voted to extend Wood’s contract for interim county management three days. A former county manager, Wood came online highly-recommended last June. Wanting to spend his retirement years as an interim turnaround artist for local governments, his first gig came in the service of a board of commissioners chagrined at having its last two county managers under federal indictment.
While his predecessor had done much to launch improved checks and balances before resigning in the face of impending indictments, Wood continued implementing internal controls, such as the creation of a procurement manual with all rules for purchasing in one place and not subject to discretionary override.
Limits on transactions in excess of those mandated by the state were imposed, work on an online checkbook project continued, and the county retained legal assistance to recover funds illegally diverted from the public treasury. In answer to nepotism and a pervasive culture of fear, he instituted personnel classifications and paygrades.
During budget worksessions, Wood targeted big-ticket expenditures out of alignment with comparable jurisdictions for elimination. These included automatic COLA pay increases instead of merit-based pay, a “rich” health benefits program, and perks abused by former management like leave buyback.
While his attempts to establish a more sustainable administrative structure often went unheeded, adopted recommendations included requiring MHO to complete Eagle Market Street before receiving more county money, hiring more EMTs for better coverage with less overtime, and contracting with an executive search firm for his replacement.