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Commissioners Tab Public Safety Expansion, Early Childhood Education as Top Priorities for Upcoming Budget Year

The process is underway for the Buncombe County Commissioners to start planning a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. On Dec. 13, Commissioners gathered at the East Asheville Library to listen to staff presentations, identify priorities, discuss community needs, and start creating the Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) budget, which runs from July 1, 2023-June 30, 2024. At the heart of the next spending plan are goals outlined in the 2025 Strategic Plan focused on the following areas:

Looking at FY23 priorities

To get their bearings for the upcoming budget, Commissioners started the workshop with a staff presentation about FY23 priorities and how they have panned out so far. In short, Commissioners homed in on the following five priorities for the current FY23 budget:

  • Affordable Housing
    • Overall general fund investment of $2.3 million is expected to yield more than 400 housing units, including repairs for almost 50 low-income homeowners.
  • Early Childhood Education
    • Overall general fund investment of $4 million has created 393 new preschool slots with 51% of Buncombe County pre-K-aged children enrolled in early care and education. Additionally, 69% of new kindergarteners showed readiness based on a unified metric for assessment.
  • Broadband
    • ARPA investment of about $6.5 million is projected to impact some 1,000 North Buncombe and more than 200 Housing Authority households with improved access to broadband.

  • Climate Protection & Renewable Energy
    • Overall investments have created five new public facility solar projects (totaling 46 overall projects), purchased four fully electric vehicles, installed charging stations at multiple public facilities, and more.
  • Apprenticeships
    • Overall general fund investment of $150,000 has led to hiring four employees for the first round of the Emergency Services apprenticeship program with an additional 10 hires planned as well as a defined plan for workforce development.

You can read the FY23 priorities presentation here.

Community centers update

Commissioners continue to show interest in expanding the uses of community centers located throughout the County. The idea was generated during last year’s budget workshop, and meantime staff worked to audit the needs of the more than 30 privately- and County-owned buildings. The goal would be to use these centers to better engage our community and offer County services.

In order to provide repairs and improvements, all facilities are eligible for grants, with the County budget being used to for projects on the four County-owned facilities at Bent Creek, Big Ivy, Beech Community, and Sandy Mush. The following investments have been identified by County staff over the next five years:

  • $67,500 for Bent Creek Community Park
  • $93,600 for Beech Community Center
  • $8.2 million for Sandy Mush Community Center
  • $314,874 for Big Ivy Community Club

Two of the current sites, Big Ivy and Sandy Mush, have been utilized for weekly community engagement markets, COVID test and mask distribution, community meetings and feedback sessions, and more. In the future, these community centers could help provide:

  • Mobile recreation program being developed to reach underserved and rural communities
  • Outreach to support current programming and add support programming
  • Community Days sponsored by Buncombe County at community centers
  • Rec Services exploring how to budget to meet transportation and staffing needs

Three of the community centers are receiving FY23 grant or contract funding to the tune of $6,000 for Bent Creek, $29,175 for Big Ivy, and $3,420 for Sandy Mush.

Commissioners directed County staff to look at the benefits of repairing versus rebuilding the centers, community needs in each area, the amount of people attending events at each location, and more. You can read the community center presentation here.

Financial outlook

Inflation, wages, local economic activity, and employment are four factors Commissioners are keeping in mind as they craft the FY24 budget. Some metrics behind those factors include:

  • Inflation: As of October 2022, inflation in the U.S. South was 8.11%, hitting a 40-year high just two months ago.
  • Local sales tax: There was 12% increase in the annual growth of local sales tax for September 2022, which shows slower growth than the 18% increase in annual growth from September 2021.
  • Permits for new construction (indicator of new construction activity): As of May 2022, permits had a 22% decrease in annual growth.
  • Unemployment: As of October 2022, unemployment for Buncombe County was 3.2% compared to 2.9% in February 2020.

Buncombe County is facing a different economic reality than previous years. As County staff noted during its presentation to Commissioners, the following are key factors for expenditures and revenues:

  • Identifying drivers for FY24, expenditures are anticipated to grow faster than previous years due to:
    • Inflation - seeing an increase on recurring costs such as staffing, operations, capital projects will drive expenditures higher than in previous years.
    • Education – staff salaries are not fully funded to the level of the school’s salary study and will impact the County’s annual contribution.
  • Slower revenue growth is expected due to:
    • We are in a non-revaluation year, which has averaged less than 3%annual property tax revenue growth over the last decade.
    • Potential slowing economy: sales tax revenue growth is very unpredictable due to a volatile business cycle and an uncertain economic future.

You can read the entire FY24 fiscal outlook presentation here.

FY24 costs on the horizon

As Commissioners consider priorities for FY24, staff presented the following projects they need to consider for the budget:

  • Inflation driving up expenditure costs
  • Education
    • Buncombe County Schools salary study completion and Asheville City School salary increases: $10 million
  • McCormick Field
    • Improvements to the City-owned sports complex total $30 million for Major League Baseball mandates, operational needs, fan amenities, and more.

Commissioners directed staff to look into which projects are necessary to keep the Asheville Tourists playing at McCormick field along with which projects create revenue for the team versus the County or City. Additionally, staff will look at how to keep Asheville Tourist ticket prices affordable, the overall usage of McCormick field, average attendance, economic impact, and other factors.

FY24 priorities

To wrap up the budget workshop, Commissioners went around the room identifying their top strategic priorities for FY24. The following is how they ranked them:

  1. Educated & capable community
  2. Resident well-being
  3. Vibrant economy
  4. Environmental & energy stewardship

Beyond the strategic priorities, Commissioners also listed other projects they would like to see funded. Some of those items included:

  • Apprenticeship expansion
  • Broadband
  • Mental health
  • Public transportation
  • Playgrounds
  • Assistance grants for African-Americans
  • Addressing homelessness
  • Pre-K expansion
  • Expanded land-use planning
  • Public safety and continued expansion of the 911 Call Center
  • Workforce housing

Next, each Commissioner voted for their top priorities, and the following emerged as the top five issues:

  1. Expansion of public safety and EMS (Sheriff’s Office, Fire Marshal, 911 Public Communications, etc.)
  2. Tie between:

    • Early childhood education (expanding the workforce, facilities, and pre-K slots)

    • Homelessness continuum of care

    • Consolidation of school systems (feasibility study)

    • Infrastructure in unincorporated and key growth areas

  3. Green bank startup funds

  4. Playgrounds

  5. Tie between:

    • Public funding for infrastructure/sewer

    • Broadband

Through the spring of 2023, Commissioners will have a series of public budget work sessions as they continue to work on the FY24 budget. A public hearing will be held before final approval of the spending plan, which must be approved by June 30, 2023. You can read more about the current FY23 budget here.

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Updated May 25, 2023 07:40 AM
Published Dec 13, 2022 02:50 PM

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