By Leslee Kulba- The public hearing for Buncombe County’s 2019-2020 budget will be at the commissioners’ next formal meeting, June 4.
The proposed budget would keep the tax rate at 52.9 cents per $100 valuation, while providing the commissioners more than they said they hoped to get for for their strategic priorities.
Citizen Don Yelton, however, criticized the budget as borrowing too much from fund-balance and suffering structural defects that were setting citizens up for a tax hike next year. “Just go ahead and raise the tax rate 10 cents!” he suggested, adding the commissioners knew that was what they were going to need next year, “if the economy wobbles a little bit.”
Yelton explained the commissioners, unlike private citizens and businesses, are not prioritizing and living within a budget. Instead, they demonstrate an impulse to purchase – or as the commissioners say, “invest in” – every proposal that comes before them.
He told the commissioners they knew next year, too, they would be presented with more “wonderful,” million-dollar projects put on their agendas at the last-minute and in need of immediate approval.
He was alluding to the commissioners’ decision last year to accommodate Mountain Housing Opportunities’ request for a $2,200,000 loan for affordable housing. So urgent was the need, Interim County Manager George Wood said neither he nor staff had seen the proposal until the day it was put on the agenda.
The commissioners did end up listening to Wood, giving staff more time to vet the request and develop a performance-based disbursement schedule. So, they plan to pay only $925,000 for that particular loan next year.
Overall, the 2019-2020 budget calls for $3,812,000 from the $334,517,752 general fund to be spent on affordable housing projects. Interestingly, $49,250 will be dedicated to disposing of unwanted and/or uninhabitable manufactured homes. To qualify for disposal funds, residents must, among other things, “agree that they will not sell or redevelop their property for a period of at least 12 months following the removal of their home, unless it is to replace the non-habitable home with another site-built, modular, or manufactured home for their own primary use or for an income-eligible family member earning less than 80% of area median income.”
The county will spend an additional $350,000 on home weatherization.
Yelton gave the commissioners one of those economics lessons one must be in government to not understand. As a resident, he pays taxes. He is, however, much better off than a lot of the people for whom Commissioner Mike Fryar often advocates, lifelong residents now on fixed incomes and making monthly payments on owed property taxes. To help make ends meet, Yelton owns rental properties, which he says he’ll have to take off the market because he won’t be able to pay property taxes after the county raises rates to support a healthy fund for “investing” in affordable housing projects. Without the rental income, he suspects he wouldn’t be able to pay the increased taxes on his personal residence, either.
Another of the county’s budget highlights is a new, recurring commitment to “invest” at least $3,600,000 in early childhood education. Advocates argue early intervention in children’s lives will deter them from futures of crime and worthlessness, thus exerting downward pressure on tax rates as the county needs less money for avoidable utilization of resources from its Public Safety and Health and Human Services departments. For example, while the county continues to work toward deferring construction of a larger jail, the 2019-2020 budget includes $1,538,335 for jail diversion programs and another $926,642 for opioid awareness.
Fryar spoke in opposition to the last expenditure. He explained the county accepts state and federal grants for three-year programs that will have to be picked up by county taxes in following years, and the budget projections he has seen do not support those levels of spending. He didn’t want to be cold-hearted, and so he didn’t see the wisdom of making those 2,000-plus seniors with payment plans for their property taxes foot the bill for touchy-feely outreach programs with low turnout and $10,000 for a needle exchange. Since the War on Opioids started, the only graphs of usage that show a decline over time are plots for prescription drugs; more and more people are getting their fixes from uncounted street drugs of wildly varying potency.
With an acknowledgment of free agency, rare in the halls of government, Fryar didn’t expect processing people through the latest science-based best practice would change many hearts. “We just want to continuously spend, spend, and spend,” he said.
Going back to early childhood education, it is quite common for people who have overcome addiction to say they found the power to do so when they found God. Getting preschoolers into value-neutral environments where talk of the Ten Commandments, conscience, and prayer are anathema is sure to help.