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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Suddenly they're big spenders

Charlie Messer, who will be sworn into a fifth term as a Henderson County commissioner in December, declared on Monday that this year’s budget drafting was the toughest one he had endured. That was surprising, given that Messer is a battle-scarred veteran of the slash-and-burn budgets engineered by Tea Party crusader Bill O’Connor in 2010 and 2011.

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Some of the spending cuts O’Connor inspired had to be made, given the recession and the need at that time to keep the tax burden low. But O’Connor went too far, and he paid the price at the polls. Voters fired him in 2012, bringing back Grady Hawkins.
Hawkins voted no on the budget Monday night, five hours after the board pieced together the $130,287,224 spending plan supported by an extraordinary property tax increase of 5.14-cent per $100 valuation. It was unprecedented for this board of self-styled fiscal conservatives and for their longtime administrator, Steve Wyatt. The county manager seemed to quietly cringe as commissioners tossed more and more shiny ornaments on the Christmas tree, including everything Sheriff Charlie McDonald asked for.
McDonald had made a passionate and well-researched case for paying deputies and jailers more when they receive special training. Commissioners said yes to that and to the special training bump for ambulance personnel, at a cost of $484,686. Then they approved — with Commissioner Bill Lapsley voting no — a 2 percent raise for sheriff’s deputies on top of a 3 percent raise all county personnel received. That added $145,860 to the bottom line. All told, commissioners added $4.2 million to the spending plan Wyatt presented on May 2.
McDonald won even when he lost.
Commissioners announced that his dream of an outdoor firing range and training facility was over; there is no place in the county that won’t suddenly appear to be densely populated by vocal and litigious nature lovers when the high sheriff utters the words “firing range.” Not to worry. Commissioners dipped into a spare pot of money— from the sale of the Bent Creek property (of the Asheville water war fame) — and agreed to fund plans for a training center indoors somewhere, probably at BRCC, probably at a cost of $15 million or more.
Lapsley and Hawkins unsuccessfully made the case for funding the new spending from the county’s hefty fund balance. The reserves have grown from $21 million to $42 million in the past 10 years. “The first question in my mind is, how much is enough?” Lapsley said.
If McDonald is the big winner in the budget, Mills River taxpayers are the big losers. Counting the 6.76-cent property tax increase the Town Council has committed to in the 2016-17 budget, homeowners and businesses will see a total increase of 11.9 cents per $100 valuation.
To be sure, the county’s new budget funds worthy capital projects and public schools, attempts to solve attrition in the sheriff’s office and EMS corps, gives county employees a decent raise for the first time in many years and responsibly protects the county’s credit worthiness.
“It’s a substantial increase but the taxpayers demand services,” Commissioner Michael Edney said as the board finished its work. “If they don’t want this level of service they’ll let us know that.”
We shall see. We’ve not passed this way before in the land of low taxes.