- Durant proposes balanced budget
- Digital billboards get green light
- The Oaks residents to get city water
Swannanoa's push to become an incorporated town met another delay when Asheville City Council members postponed a decision on the controversial proposal during their May 13 formal session.
State law allows adjacent municipalities to weigh in on incorporation proposals that could restrict their ability to grow and expand their tax base. And though Swannanoa doesn't strictly need Asheville's approval to incorporate, failing to obtain it would mean that a supermajority vote (at least 60 percent) would be required in both the N.C. House and Senate, noted Dave Alexander, who heads the Swannanoa Incorporation Task Force.
After considerable discussion and a bit of confusion about legal issues (the latter stemming from the absence of City Attorney Bob Oast), Council unanimously agreed to take up the matter again at its May 27 meeting. The delay is meant to give city staff and incorporation proponents time to reach consensus on where the proposed town's boundary with Asheville would lie. The city wants it to follow the eastern edge of the 28805 ZIP code, but incorporation proponents say that would exclude certain historic sites fundamentally linked to Swannanoa, most notably the grave and Bee Tree Creek homestead of Samuel Davidson, the first European settler in the area.
The city proposed the ZIP code boundary because it marks the limit of an area where services are provided, has probably already been surveyed, and would better protect Asheville's interests by allowing more space between the two entities, Acting Director Shannon Tuch explained. In addition, she noted, "The 28805 ZIP code is identified as an Asheville ZIP code." Using this boundary would cut about half a square mile from the proposed town's 22.05 square miles, said Tuch.
Council members also expressed concern that several large tracts of undeveloped land within the town's proposed boundaries are too rural to be included in a municipality. Of the 10 members of the public who spoke on the incorporation, four opposed it due to those and other concerns, such as increased taxation. Council members said they wanted to explore the possibility of allowing residents and property owners within those tracts to opt out of incorporation. Double taxation would pressure those property owners to develop their land, said Council member Brownie Newman. The new town's residents would pay 5 cents per $100 of property valuation, in addition to county taxes, according to the task force.
Another sticking point was whether Council can make its approval conditional on proponents' agreeing to hold a voter referendum on incorporation, given the rancor the issue has caused in the affected area. Reluctant to overstep its authority, Council members wanted to hear Oast's opinion before proceeding. Although state law does not proscribe a referendum in such cases, it does require a majority of affected property owners to sign a petition requesting one.
"Can we lock in a referendum? If not, then this is nothing but a forced annexation, and I can't support it," said Council member Carl Mumpower.
"The whole business feels ambiguous to me. ... Frankly I'm not feeling good about it," Vice Mayor Jan Davis confessed.
"Jan, I'm kinda where you are," added Council member Robin Cape, saying that while she supports a small, carefully defined Swannanoa town, she feels uncomfortable with the proposed size -- roughly half that of Asheville yet considerably less dense. "I'm feeling like Solomon here and kind of frustrated by it."
Balancing the budget
Repeating earlier warnings that scant growth in property and sales taxes -- and rising costs for materials, fuel and employee health care -- would require a lean budget for fiscal 2008-09, Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant unveiled a proposed $88.9 million spending plan.
And though the plan does not cut taxes, it doesn't call for raising them either, noted Durant.
To balance the budget, the city would have to tighten its belt in some areas, he said, such as eliminating 10 now-vacant positions, cutting funds for staff training and travel, and axing the city manager's $100,000 contingency fund. All told, these and other measures would save slightly more than $1.4 million, enabling the city to remain in the black.
"It was a tough process, but I think it's a responsible, balanced budget we're proposing to you tonight," Durant reported. Mayor Terry Bellamy added, "We may have a good year after all and maybe not as bad as people think."
Nonetheless, Asheville would have to dip a little more heavily into its savings account during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. But even so, Durant noted, the city's fund balance would remain a healthy 19.1 percent of the operating budget -- well above the 15 percent threshold required by city ordinance. Most of the funds drawn from that balance would go toward one-time expenditures, such as infrastructure improvements, rather than long-term spending needs, making it an appropriate and prudent use of the city's savings, he said.
After praising Durant and other staffers for their diligence in preparing a balanced budget during hard times, however, Mumpower fretted about the city's dwindling fund balance, noting that it had stood at 26.5 percent in fiscal 2006-07 and even greater the previous year.
"We've drawn down our savings account 33 percent in two years," he said, adding, "I think it's irresponsible to pretend we're operating in the black."
Newman retorted that most of that drawdown would be for infrastructure and other investments in the city's future. And Bellamy opined: "There are some legitimate reasons to go into our savings account, which we've done. I'm not going to feel bad that we had to."
Concluding the discussion, Council unanimously approved a schedule for budget workshops, including a June 10 public hearing.
Banned in the past, digital billboards will now be allowed in certain parts of the city where traditional billboards are already permitted. The move also created two new corridors where billboards are allowed -- Airport Road from Hendersonville Road to the Henderson County line, and Long Shoals Road from Hendersonville Road to the outer limits of the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction.
On a 6-1 vote with Bellamy opposed, City Council agreed to allow sign owners to erect the new billboards -- in exchange for eliminating some of their existing, traditional ones. For every square foot of digital billboard erected, 3 square feet of traditional billboard would have to come down, said Tuch, estimating that two traditional ones would be removed for every digital one erected, based on their typical sizes. No billboard of any type can exceed 380 square feet.
To address concerns that digital billboards are a traffic hazard, the new standards will cap the number of advertisements at six per minute, with no image movement, animation or scrolling allowed. Tuch also noted that the new billboards would be more environmentally friendly, since the LED lights use a fraction of the energy consumed by the floodlights that illuminate traditional signs while creating less light pollution. Additionally, the digital billboards can be changed without traveling to the site -- saving fuel and eliminating the waste products produced when old signage is removed.
Speaking of wastes, Council also unanimously agreed to waive $103,459 in fees and other costs to help Buncombe County extend water lines to The Oaks subdivision in south Buncombe, near the contaminated former CTS plant on Mills Gap Road. In recent weeks, state and federal environmental officials have found that at least three wells serving seven homes in the 34-home development have been contaminated, according to Water Resources Director David Hanks, and the waiver agreement will expedite the work, which is expected to take eight weeks. Meeting the same day, the Buncombe County commissioners agreed to pay for the new water line.
Council members signed off on the deal despite some concern about setting a precedent and consternation that the Elkhart, Ind.-based company has not agreed to mitigate the problem it created.
City Council also agreed to postpone a decision on a resolution capping its co-sponsorship of public events, pending further study. Fretting that taking action now could hurt popular events such as the Greek Festival that the city has traditionally helped subsidize, Council members decided to revisit the matter during their May 20 work session.