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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Borrow and spend becomes the new normal

For a second year in a row, Henderson County commissioners have loaded an ambitious list of capital projects in the buggy and are racing for the checkout line.

Commissioners had already committed to a brand new $53 million Hendersonville High School, a $20 million law enforcement training center and a $13 million emergency management headquarters even before Edneyville Elementary School pushed its way on to the list, thanks to pressure from the School Board and apple country voters. The $14.6 million Innovative High School is coming up out of the ground on the Blue Ridge Community College campus. The $30 million Health Sciences Center stands shiny and new on Sixth Avenue West.
Capital spending that tops $160 million over a three-year span is enough to make some of us longtime observers marvel at how far we’ve come. It took county commission chair Bill Moyer years to guide the board through narrow majority votes on capital spending amid the caterwauling of self-styled taxpayer watchdogs. Now, to a man, county commissioners hail from the taxpayer watchdog wing of the Republican Party, yet they’re spending more than ever. The long and contentious debates over borrowing have been quelled by a dizzying blizzard of PowerPoint slides signifying one major point: We can afford it.
Debt service goes on and debt service rolls off; debt capacity goes down and debt capacity goes up. As old debt rolls off — for new ambulances, school buildings, the detention center — the county can afford to take on more debt. The debt peaks at $168,287,792 in FY 2019, while debt service reaches its high point the following year, to $19,722,776.
Even Commissioner Grady Hawkins, who has a math degree from Carolina and wields the sharpest pencil on the dais, joins the harmonious and (usually) unanimous endorsement of one capital project after another.
The taxpayer watchdog caucus can afford to be sanguine about this towering stack of debt because of the tail end of the balance sheet, which shows an eye-popping fund balance of $45 million — $35 million more than the 8 percent the state requires the county to sock away in reserves. A big fund balance is why commissioners were able to quickly write a check when Sierra Nevada asked for incentives to erect a railroad shelter for unloading hoppers of hops. A big fund balance is why Wyatt, pivoting on a dime, was able to fast-track construction of a new Edneyville Elementary School — and watch commissioners endorse the magic quicker than you could say mom and (locally sourced) apple pie.
In fact, if there is a political hot potato here — excuse the abrupt switch of crops — it is the fund balance. It’s a tempting target for commissioners Hawkins and Bill Lapsley, who want to give some of the cash back to taxpayers.
In Washington, there’s talk of a new stimulus public works plan, this time from the party that once required a deficit hawk pledge at the door. Even with a second year of big capital outlay, the deficit hawks in Henderson County remain silent — and why not. They’re operating very comfortably in the black (thanks in part to last year’s 5-cent tax increase).
Twelve years ago the taxpayer watchdogs howled while Bill Moyer tried to explain that low interest rates and low construction prices created the right time to borrow and build. Moyer bulled his way through, which is why today we have the Historic Courthouse, the Human Services Building and new and renovated school buildings. Moyer never called himself a fiscal conservative but that is in fact what he was. Now borrow and spend has become not just tolerable. It’s accepted as the way the county gets things done.