On May 22, police and firefighters packed the chambers for City Council's hearing on Asheville’s proposed annual budget, setting the stage for the most contentious debate on the budget the city has seen in years.
Like all city employees, they'd been three years without a raise, and they said the 1-percent cost-of-living increase on offer wasn't enough.
“For three years we did our part for the city: We did not come before Council and raise issues with your decision, we bore the burden of not having raises and continued to work hard,” Ronnie Lance, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, told Council. “We now feel it’s time to give the employees a 4-percent raise.”
“We have gone three years without a raise, while insurance and inflation rates continue to increase,” said Scott Mullins, president of the Asheville Firefighters Association. “We are here to ask the city to get creative with the budget to put more money into the pockets of the men and women people call on their worst day.”
Mullins suggested that Council could reduce the amount put into its fund reserve in the coming year. Currently, the budget calls for increasing the amount in the fund. “We are asking the city to put less in this massive pot of money,” he said.
Personnel costs make up the largest share of the budget (65 percent), and giving a raise to all city employees costs about $500,000 for every 1-percent increase.
Earlier, city staff had noted that sales-tax revenues were increasing modestly; that revenue might offer funds for an employee raise. However, staff said that wouldn't be known for sure until the fall.
At the May 22 meeting, Mayor Terry Bellamy was ready to vote for a raise. “We need to find additional funds for our firefighters, police and other employees,” she said. “Our people are the backbone of our organization. We need to find the money.”
Council member Cecil Bothwell advocated a 1.5-cent property-tax increase to cover a raise for employees. “I think it's the realistic thing to tell the people of this city: If you want it, you have to pay for it.”
Some of the other Council members said they were sympathetic to the need for a raise, but urged more consideration and analysis before setting it in stone.
“I completely agree that a 1-percent raise is not enough,” said Council member Marc Hunt, who added that capital projects had a cost too, as the transit system lacks adequate coverage to get people to work and the city faces numerous infrastructure issues. “There are many streets that are at the end of their life span or well past-due [for maintenance]. There are tough tradeoffs here.”
“If this is a priority, we'll get there,” Bellamy said, pushing for immediate commitment to a raise. “If we want it to happen, it will happen … the people are more important than the buildings.”
Bellamy's remarks drew applause from the employees.
Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer noted that all of the city's additional new revenue had gone to the 1-percent proposed raise. “It was our top priority,” she said, but meeting the employees' demands for more would mean allotting an additional $1.5 million, and such a big shift in revenue required more consideration.
“It's disappointing we didn't get to have this conversation in the budget work session,” Manheimer said. “Finding $1.5 million is not just waving a magic wand. It takes time.”
Hunt noted that Bellamy hadn't made the depth of her concerns clear in previous work sessions on the budget. While she campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in the 10th Congressional District, Bellamy was absent from the past three Council meetings, including the April 24 presentation of the budget.
“We've been under way for two months on this budget,” Hunt said. “It is late in the process. It's clear there's interest on Council in this, but we need analysis.”
Bellamy replied, “I'm not going to be sorrowful about asking for our staff to get a raise. I'm not going to feel like it's a bad thing. If our employees say 'Let's go on strike,' then what? I'm not going to feel bad.”
“You shouldn't, Terry,” Council member Gordon Smith replied. “I appreciate your commitment here. I think we've all expressed our commitment, and I'm glad you've given voice to these really strong feelings you have on the subject. We just need a sober, deliberate process. This can go to the Finance Committee. We can create a plan. We don't have to shoot from the hip.”
During the heated discussion, Council member Chris Pelly made a motion to put a 1-cent property-tax increase in the budget to cover a raise.
Council member Jan Davis initially seconded Pelly's motion — he'd noted earlier that “sometimes you have to pay more” for more services — but then withdrew the second, saying he felt a big step like a tax increase deserved more consideration. Hunt, too, said that such an item needed to be on the meeting agenda before taking action. “The public hasn't even had a hint of this,” he said.
The proposal for a tax increase failed by one vote; Bothwell, Bellamy and Pelly voting in favor. Council directed staff to schedule a work session to discuss options to fund a larger raise for city employees.
In other action, Council:
• Unanimously voted to ban future digital billboards within the city limits. Neighborhood advocates, especially in the north-Asheville area, had complained extensively about the billboards, asserting they were unsightly and a dangerous distraction to drivers.
• Unanimously voted to take out a loan of up to $1 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund 62 units of affordable housing in the Eagle/Market Street area. Mountain Housing Opportunities, the project's developer, will then repay the city. Council members asserted that the development was important to revitalize the area.
• Heard a report on an updated evidence-room plan from Asheville Police Chief William Anderson, who asserted that improved security systems will ensure that the problems with missing guns, drugs and money that erupted last year will not reoccur. The APD is looking for a new evidence-room manager, he said, and will conduct a nationwide search for an experienced professional. Bellamy thanked Anderson for the report, and inveighed against unspecified “rumors” about the matter she said had appeared in media reports.