The upcoming budget year, a possible raise for city employees and a lobbyist in Raleigh were all topics of wide-ranging discussion at Asheville City Council's annual retreat earlier today. Meeting at UNCA's Sherrill Center, Council received briefings from staff and pondered their goals for the year.
Among the topics discussed:
• Next year's budget. Finance and Management Services Director Lauren Bradley presented staff's projections to Council, noting that thanks to better-than-expected sales tax revenue, the city made $250,000 more than expected last year, but that recovery is slow and "we're not going to grow our way out of these current constraints." The budget this year, according to staff, will face similar limitations to last year.
"The future looks great," Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer noted earlier in Council's discussion, referring to a number of initiatives like greenways. "And expensive."
Council member Gordon Smith said the city is "bumping up against the limits" of what it could do relying on current revenues and growth, adding that proposals like a bond referendum or a special citywide sales tax for transit (which would require state legislation) deserved a look as a way for the city to pay for the services it wanted.
• Council decided that Manheimer and Council member Jan Davis would study the possibility of a lobbyist (or advocate of some sort) for the city's interest in Raleigh, with a proposal coming before Council in late March. Mayor Terry Bellamy had some misgivings about the notion. Davis said Council members also needed to make a better effort to communicate with legislators. Manheimer described the city's situation with legislators as "completely, totally marginalized."
• Many Council members voiced support for a raise for city employees, who haven't received one in three years. However, they also noted that it would require careful management in the budget to make such a raise possible. A one percent raise for city staff would cost about $500,000. Right now, personnel costs comprise roughly 65 percent of the city's annual expenditures.
• Considered convening Council's rules committee to decide if some resolutions should be divided into single issues. Bellamy used the example of the city's LGBT Equality Resolution, which she voted against, saying "it was traumatic to go through that process, it was unwarranted, unnecessary and not good government," because she would have preferred to vote on the parts of the resolution individually. Council member Cecil Bothwell noted a similar concern over a different vote — on a failed permitting process for Occupy Asheville campers — where "the disagreements were on different pieces" of the proposal.