Buncombe County commissioners voted 6-1 on Tuesday night to begin setting aside $3.6 million a year in taxpayers’ money for early childhood education and development initiatives.

The allocations to the county’s new Early Childhood Education and Development Fund will start in the 2020 fiscal year. Also, commissioners agreed that the allocations will increase 2 percent each year in future years.

A local shortage of quality early childhood education programs, as well as a shortage of staff and teachers to lead those programs, has resulted in a community crisis, said board Chairman Brownie Newman and Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, who led the push for the new funding. Children who receive quality pre-kindergarten childcare and preschool programs do better in school and are more likely to be in better health and go on to earn more money than those who don’t, Beach-Ferrara said, citing statistics from the statewide child advocacy group NC Child.

“This is about Buncombe County stepping up” and addressing a critical need, she said.

Newman, who along with Beach-Ferrara is a Democrat, called the funding “a significant investment” that shows commissioners’ commitment to addressing the community need. The funding will likely attract private funding and help created meaningful change, he added.

The board’s Republicans, while expressing their full support for addressing the community need, questioned the funding level, citing the demand on the county budget and noting the need to seek out other funding sources.

Commissioner Joe Belcher said that he favored continued collaboration with child advocacy organizations, adding that new tax revenue that may come as a result of the pending sale of Mission Hospital could also be spent on early childhood education and development initiatives. But he suggested a lower level of county funding – $1 million a year in additional monies. That, combined with the roughly $900,000 a year the county already spends on such programs, ranks as a significant investment, he said.

With that compromise, “tonight we can lock arms in a 7-0 vote and make a $1 million commitment, which has never been done in Buncombe County, and it will bring us together, because we are together on this,” Belcher said as he asked Beach-Ferrara and Commissioner Ellen Frost, who made the motion for adoption of the ordinance calling for the new funding, to amend their motion.

“Our kids deserve more than a Band-Aid,” Frost said in declining to amend her motion.

Republican Commissioner Mike Fryar, the lone dissenting vote, said “we have no money to do this,” citing pressures on the county budget and the ongoing embezzlement and fraud scandal involving the county’s two most recent former county managers, Wanda Greene and Mandy Stone, as well as former assistant county manager Jon Creighton and Michael Greene, a former county employee and Wanda Greene’s son. Federal investigators allege that the four stole millions of taxpayers’ dollars in a fraud and embezzlement scheme.

“That’s not pre-school, that’s babysitting,” Fryar said of programs aimed at pre-kindergarten-aged children. “The parents are the ones that should be teaching kids.”

“This world is not a gift world,” Fryar continued, adding that “I want to do for the kids, but I want to look after the taxpayers.”

Republican Commissioner Robert Pressley said he was supportive of early childhood education initiatives, but suggested stretching the $3.6 million over two years. “This is going to be a big burden on the taxpayer.”

Belcher, in explaining his vote for the action, said he felt he was being pushed into a corner. “I’m going to vote for this, he said. “I am not pleased that the commission did not compromise on the dollar amount and lock arms on this mission.”

Prior to the commissioners’ final vote, several community leaders stood to speak up in favor of the new funding. The included: Beth Mazcka, executive director of the YWCA of Asheville; Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services; longtime Asheville child advocate Leslie Anderson; Greg Borom of Children First; Vicki Meath of Just Economics; and more.

“Investment in these children is a really good investment in the now and the future,” said Amy Cantrell of the social justice group BeLoved Asheville.

“Thank you for prioritizing children,” she added as she introduced several children dressed in Halloween costumes who expressed their love of pre-school.

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