Under Stone, Commissioners Request More Transparency


Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara suggested the two organizations employ a mediator, but her peers were not so naïve. Joe Belcher asked the two representatives to quit playing chess and reach an agreement. Mike Fryar lambasted the hospital for buying up every medical building on the county tax rolls, running doctors off, and still providing people with plenty of anecdotes about ill-advised and over-priced care. Al Whitesides said he was sorry he hadn’t worn his wading pants. To make a long story short, no new ground was covered.

Other agenda items appeared designed to assist new County Manager Mandy Stone in making sure staff activities were going to be aligned with commissioner objectives. Having just completed the budget process, she asked the commissioners how they would improve it.

There was general agreement that the process should start earlier and that the commissioners should be given more opportunity to ask questions, reflect, and comment. More data presented more often could avert surprises. Chair Brownie Newman advocated for more long-range planning, with the objective of stabilizing tax rates. Whitesides wanted budget updates throughout the year.

Whitesides was among those wanting line-item detail in the presentations. He also criticized the process saying organizations typically spend the most time on the biggest line items; the commissioners, in contrast, spent almost the entire process worrying how to distribute a small fraction of the budget among nonprofits.

Newman suggested the county review the amount of money it requires to be held in fund balance; Stone suggesting that at some point the money could be more beneficial to the county if it were circulating in the economy. Other topics the commissioners wanted staff to be more transparent about were debt, the county’s capital improvement plan, and economic development incentives.

Citizen activists love to hate corporate welfare. “Why should the working poor “give back” to large, multimillion corporations?” They ask. Republicans in government say they can’t afford to be ideologues when the people they represent are hurting for jobs, while their Democrat counterparts say they hate to do it, but must because everybody else is doing it. So the beat goes on.

Over the past five years, the county has given out $13,886,312 in economic development incentives, split unequally among twenty companies. Another $16,775,235 in performance-based commitments has yet to be paid. Companies being promised over $1 million from the county are New Belgium, GE Aviation, Jacob Holm, Linamar, and Nypro.

It is clear one purpose of the incentive program is to recruit high-paying jobs to the area; incentives increase as a step-function of pay rates. Most of the companies whose unqualified “proposed wages” were listed offered salaries between $30,000 and $50,000. A new company, MedLaunch, proposes 100 jobs paying $89,440; 161 at $64,480; and 290 at $30,160.

On debt, the commissioners were asked to provide input on a dashboard staff is developing. Presenter Dustin Clark shared the county is currently $406,790,000 in debt. At 9.4 percent of the county’s operating budget, he compared that to the median 32.2 percent of household income Buncombe County families pay on mortgages. He then added the county is obligated to issue another $83,960,000 later in the fiscal year. If all goes according to schedule, the county will pay $48,580,000 in debt service this year.

In addition to highlighting FAQ numbers, the dashboard lists the various debt issues on which the county is still paying and the projects funded with each. Each project is hyperlinked to a page that shows a picture, states the purpose, breaks down the debt payoff, and tracks construction progress on a project management timeline. Finance Director Tim Flora explained all the information was currently in existence; the dashboard merely facilitated access.

Lastly, Lisa Eby asked the commissioners what they would like to see in a community-engagement dashboard. She used as examples portals designed by the governments of Jackson, Mississippi, and Louisville, Kentucky.

Jackson’s was a model of quantifying qualities. Metrics included “increasing literacy scores in early childcare centers 30 percent” and creating ten neighborhood associations. Louisville’s portal had four options, “Citizens,” “Faith,” “Businesses,” and “Learn More.” Clicking “Faith” opened a page on “Interdiction,” “Prevention,” and “Community Mobilization.”

The county has already launched Discover Buncombe. One can type in an address and learn about nearby public amenities, schools, and crime reports. Eby explained analytics will be collected with usage to better align the site with community interests. Flora said the sites were a way of showing taxpayers what they were getting in return for their remittances.

Moscow Meets Manhattan-International Dueling Pianos

Two masterful pianists take audiences around the world with an eclectic repertoire from Argentina, Spain, Hungary, Russia and America. International award-winning pianist/vocalist Katherine Alexandra challenges renowned American piano powerhouse Brian Gurl in this stunningly diverse and innovative production – playing at the Diana Wortham Theatre, Saturday August 26, 2017 at 7:30 pm. Performing an eclectic and highly entertaining fusion of classical, pop, jazz & ethnic folk genres – plus comedy and novelty pieces with shades of Victor Borge – this unique pairing of “Russian Phenom & American Piano Man” has been wowing audiences nationwide for over three years in theaters, festivals and performing arts venues.

Joining Brian and Katherine are Grammy Award winning bassist Eliot Wadopian and orchestral and jazz drummer Byron Hedgepeth. Moscow Meets Manhattan takes the audience “Around The World in 88 Keys” – featuring pieces from Argentina, Spain, Hungary, Russia and America – including such beloved favorites as Malaguena, Lieber Tango and others. Utilizing both their exceptional artistry and delightful personalities, Brian & Katherine skillfully compliment and playfully challenge each other on both one and two pianos – highlighted by their exhilarating, often humorous musical arrangements. Enhancing this remarkable diversity are lush vocal duets ( Phantom Of The Opera / West Side Story), Brian’s virtuoso melodica playing and an engaging rapport with the audience.

From Ragtime to Rachmaninoff, Billy Joel to Broadway and Gypsy Folk Songs to The Tango, Moscow Meets Manhattan – Dueling Pianos Plus is a class act that you will not forget. Brian Gurl, an “out of this world” creative pianist, has received accolades nationally for his powerful musical arrangements – including from renowned pianist Roger Williams. Adept at jazz, boogie-woogie, ragtime, pop, latin, rock, Broadway and nearly every genre imaginable- as well as enjoying an extensive background in voice, dance and theater, Brian has co-written and starred in over twenty different musical stage productions that have toured nationally, including four that feature Katherine.

Katherine Alexandra, born and raised in Russia and now an American citizen, is a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory Of Music, Summa Cum Laude in piano performance. She studied voice at the Moscow Music College – as well as in Spain where she lived and performed for over three years. She has since expanded beyond her “legit” vocal background to become a very expressive pop vocalist- singing in five languages and covering material from Sarah Brightman to Celine Dion to Katy Perry.

The Diana Wortham Theatre is located at 18 Biltmore Avenue, in downtown Asheville.

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