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Stay on the pulse of the decisions being made at meetings for Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Commission, with reports from BPR’s Laura Hackett.

Last night at Commission: Silent public hearing on budget, despite likely tax increase

No one from the public chose to speak on the proposed Buncombe County fiscal year 2025 municipal budget, which commissioners are expected to vote on for final approval on June 18.
No one from the public chose to speak on the proposed Buncombe County fiscal year 2025 municipal budget, which commissioners are expected to vote on for final approval on June 18.

At the Tuesday meeting, Buncombe County Commissioners heard the final presentation of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2025. Budget director John Hudson presented the plan calling it a “continuation of services” budget. He explained that because of cost and revenue changes the county needed to find $23.4 million to make a balanced budget.

“We asked departments for $7 million in operating request cuts, and we did not fund expansion this year,” Hudson said.

The proposed budget included cuts to the county’s operating budget and county salary budget. The operating budget is $3.7 million less than the FY24 amended budget, Hudson said.

Nearly two-thirds of the county’s revenue comes from property taxes which are slated for an increase of 2.55 cents per $100 of assessed value under the proposed budget.

Education spending makes up the largest piece of the expenditure pie at just more than $126 million.

The full budget presentation can be found in the agenda.
Buncombe County
The full budget presentation can be found in the agenda.

Seven people, many of whom identified themselves as being from Francine Delany Middle School, came to the meeting to advocate for additional education funding for charter school nurses.

Buffy Fowler, operations coordinator at the school, spoke during public comment and asked that the county fund two nurse positions that she said serve 1,000 charter school students.

“How can we tell 1,000 5 to 14-year-olds that are Buncombe County residents that they are not as deserving of these crucial health services as other students in Buncombe County Schools?” Fowler asked.

The budget proposal also included changes to some fees. The county also released compensation classifications that outline salaries for almost all county employees.

Last year, the county adopted a total budget of around $609.5 million. The total recommended budget for FY25 is $628.2 million, including $441.9 million for general spending. An interactive tool on the county website shows detailed revenue and expenditures of the proposed budget.

Commissioners will vote on the budget at their June 18 meeting. Here’s a primer on how the Buncombe County budget process works.

‘Historic’ conservation moves

Commissioners approved the first step for two major conservation easements: the 42-acre Okoboji Farm and 600 acres of farm and forest at Warren Wilson College.

Commissioners approved $511,500 to purchase the Okoboji Farm. Transaction costs have already been allocated for this easement from the FY24 Conservation Easement Funding in the Special Projects Fund. Buncombe County Soil and Water will hold the farm easement.

Open Space Bond Manager Jill Carter presented on the Okoboji project.

“If approved this will be the third conservation easement project to be approved using Open Space Bond funds, bringing us to a total of $12.8 million dollars allocated from the Open Space Bond fund,” Carter said.

Here's the map of the 600-acre Warren Wilson College project. It is divided into four easements.
Buncombe County
Here's the map of the 600-acre Warren Wilson College easement.

Commissioners approved $310,000 of transaction cost for four conservation easements at Warren Wilson College Farm.

Chairman Brownie Newman heralded the project as historic for Buncombe County.

“The Warren Wilson project is just a phenomenal accomplishment. It will be looked at as one of the most significant conservation projects in the county’s history. I don’t think that’s overstaying it at all,” Newman said.

In the next year or two, the Land Conservation Advisory Board will request money from the Open Space Bond fund to purchase the lands. The land will be held by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. The estimated cost is $483,889.

The farm easement has 92% “prime agricultural soils and is an active working farm while the Warren Wilson College easement includes 69% of important farmland soils.

“I just want to share my excitement because having this amount of prime soils is extremely key for the future of farming in Buncombe County,” Commissioner Terri Wells said.

Capital Improvement Policy - or a guideline?

Finance staff presented the Capital Improvement Policy to commissioners, incorporating language on funding the capital reserve. The policy calls for the commission to set aside prescribed amounts to create a capital reserve. Commissioners expressed concerns about committing to putting future budgets into the capital reserve instead of being about to fund projects.

Commissioner Martin Moore and others asked if the county would be able to stay “nimble” with this policy in place.

“What would be the difference in adopting this as a policy versus generally having it as guidance,” Moore said.

After some back and forth around the theory of the policy, Finance Director Melissa Moore explained that it would be seen as fiscally responsible to save for the next few years for big projects that could then be paid in cash rather than debt. Moore said that at present 98% of capital plans are “funded by debt.”

“If we adopt this now and we start out with this gradual progression toward generating that reserve then years down the road we won’t be issuing debt,” Moore said.

The Board asked staff to revise the policy to include language that provides flexibility in the funding amount each year. The draft can be found here.

From public comment

No community members spoke during the official public budget hearing.

During the general public comment period, community members addressed two main topics: the alleged dangers of 5G and the need to fund nurses at local charter schools. Woodfin Town Council member Ken Khan also spoke to advocate for Woodfin’s Greenway and Blueway project.

Fourteen people spoke to encourage commissioners not to fund 5G expansion in Asheville.

Grayson Porter called herself a “5G refugee” because of perceived health harms from the radio waves it emits.

“I’m coming to you from Fort Myers, Florida. It’s hard to know where to start. I’ve been fighting 5G and other electromagnetic radiation technologies since 2014,” Porter said.

Others described the effects on their health from 5G and issues of government overreach. Some raised conspiracies such as 5G killing birds, bees and causing wildfires.

The FCC denies such claims and explains on its website that it monitors wireless devices for safety. The FCC does not endorse the need for reducing “RF energy from cell phones."

In 2020, the World Health Organization issued a statement denying any health threats by 5G. “To date, and after much research performed, no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies,” the statement said.

Nonprofit newsroom ProPublica reported in 2022 that wireless industry safety standards have not been updated since 1996.

A Buncombe County spokesperson said that there isn’t anything in the county budget that is dedicated to 5G.

Other tidbits

  • Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, medical director at Buncombe County Health and Human Services, presented an annual report on the county child fatalities in 2022. The top four causes of child deaths were illness (7), accidents (6), perinatal conditions (6), and suicide (4).  In 2022, there were 29 child fatalities in the county. Additionally, there were three youth suicides in the first half of 2023 among children between the ages of 12 and 17 years old. In Buncombe County, Black infants are 2.36 times more likely to die before their first birthday than white infants. 
  • The board voted for a proclamation to recognize June 2 to 8 as NC S.A.F.E. Week of Action and June 2024 to be Gun Violence Prevention and Awareness Month. 
  • Commissioners appointed Mark Brooks to the Health & Human Services Board; Mark Feldman to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee; Jordyn Dezago to the Community Child Protection Team (CCPT)/Child Fatality Prevention Team (CFPT) (Advisory); and reappointed John Noor, Anthony Coxie and Michael Fisher to the planning board. 
  • Executive Director of the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority Lew Bleiweis shared the 2023  annual report for the airport.

Every first and third Tuesday, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meets at 200 College St., Room 326, in downtown Asheville beginning at 5 p.m. See the full recording and agenda of the June 4 meeting.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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