By Leslee Kulba- At the Buncombe County Commissioners last work session, Chair Brownie Newman spoke about publishing agendas for these midday meetings, with or without staff reports, so members of the public could strategically decide when they should use their sick leave.
The request addressed, a priori, concerns raised by Don Yelton later in the day about certain members of the board liking to stuff the room with advocates for public hearings on their pet projects.
Either way, government serves attentional bias. With so many issues, the marginal utility of attending a public hearing to say, I don’t care for that, or, This, too, is government over reach, is laughable. So, as Yelton pointed out, government only hears people say,
They’re going to come in here with the greatest deal in the world! Its going to solve humanitarian problems! Its gonna solve energy! Build a lot of parks and everybody’s going to run on them! And the worlds going to be happy! And Buncombes going to bring in all kinds of tourists! And, like most governments, the commissioners swallow it, hook, line, and sinker.
The beat goes on, and government grows. Buncombe County has recently gotten into the business of providing affordable housing and preschool, for which it has formed special committees with more meetings. Tuesday, the commissioners talked about creating a Parks and Recreation and Greenway Advisory Committee. Some who spoke wanted two separate committees. The commissioners are now meeting so much on so many things, they’re frequently raising questions about votes and discussions they’ve forgotten.
So, of course, the county’s budget is expanding. Finance Director Jennifer Barnette presented staffs first pass for FY2019-2020. Looking at this year, just out of Q3, the amended budget was tracking below the adopted budget. But for next year, department requests would increase the current $323,916,553 amended budget 6.45%. Most of the increase was for salaries and benefits which, now at $135,588,594, would rise to $149,876,267.
Interim Manager George Wood had, with backing from a pay and classification study contracted to Evergreen Solutions, proposed strategies for making employee compensation more equitable while keeping the county competitive. Because employee compensation was on an unsustainable trajectory, he recommended switching to a merit-based pay system and trimming what were about the richest benefits programs in the state. The commissioners, however, with Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger staring them down, only eliminated the most outrageous executive perks.
Driving increases in salaries and benefits were departmental requests for 69 new positions, 61 salary adjustments, and 48 reclassifications. Other factors included underestimated insurance claims, a 1.77% COLA, increases in state-mandated employer retirement contributions, and early retirement disbursements.
Education spending was budgeted with last years rate of increase, 4.3%. Requests from schools typically come in late in the budget process, so Wood had recommended using a rule of thumb to help the county and the schools plan. Whereas the county used to only support Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools, and A-B Tech; this year, it will also be supporting an Early Childhood Education and Development Fund, for which the first-swipe allocated $2,650,000 toward a $3,600,000 commitment.
Last year, the county used funds recovered from former county management, now under federal investigation (FCMNUFI) to satisfy the schools requests. At Commissioner Al Whiteside’s recommendation, the funds were not disbursed until the county had a reasonable accounting for how they would be used. Commissioner Joe Belcher cautioned against getting whacked after becoming comfortable supporting structural budgetary items with nonrecurring revenues.
New County Manager Avril Pinder said the county was cutting core services to balance the budget. The county would only be hiring six sheriffs patrol deputies, four screening officers for the detention officers, nine public health coordinators to help with social determinants of health, an HVAC specialist, and an assistant manager to replace the respected and retiring Jim Holland. Other notable expenditures included $1,500,000 in deferred incentives payable to Linamar for missed targets and a $2,200,000 loan to Mountain Housing Opportunities for affordable housing.
Following a closed session, the commissioners heard from Ron Payne, who has been helping them recover funds misappropriated by FCMNUFI. Payne said Mandy Stone had consented to pay $171,241 in exchange for a limited release from all claims about which the county is currently aware. This brought the total recovered by Payne to $3,238,000.
In addition, Payne said the county’s insurance policy did not cover legal fees for recovering stolen funds, except when a third party sued the county for dishonoring a check forged in said third party’s name by a county employee. Payne said he had reasoned with the insurer that it would be in its interest to incentivize suing for cost recovery instead of just paying out claims. Payne prevailed, and the insurer agreed to reimburse the county $82,492.38 in exchange for a limited release from further claims on these matters.