After a season of uncertainty, Asheville City Council unanimously passed a budget June 25 that includes the city's first major property tax increase in more than a decade. Most of the increase will go to fund improved road maintenance and a wish list of projects intended to spur economic development.
The budget will increase the city's property tax rate by 4 cents per $100, from 42 cents to 46. The goal, as Public Works Director Cathy Ball put it, is to "control our own destiny" and provide for improvements desired by local officials.
Of the increase, 1 cent is to cover declining property tax revenues, 1 cent for infrastructure (especially badly-needed road maintenance), and 2 cents for the wish list. The city will use the $2.2 million generated for that last item to take out $11.5 million in debt for projects including affordable housing, parking decks and — most controversially — $2 million for Asheville Art Museum renovations.
Council members endorsed the budget as proactive, "grabbing the bull by the horns," said Council member Jan Davis. More than one emphasized that this budget marks a commitment to relying less on outside entities, whether it's the state or Buncombe County.
While the city held a public hearing on the budget June 11, the budget has evolved substantially since then. As city leaders realized they weren't going to be included in a state bill allowing them to form a recreation authority that could save up to $5 million a year, they directed staff to craft a budget that instead used taxes to fund the improvements.
Usually, if a measure has changed substantially since the time of its public hearing, Council will allow public comment on the changes after a motion is made, then wait to vote after comment is heard. But in this case, Council passed the budget unanimously before it heard from any members of the public.
During those comments, the proposal for $2 million for the Asheville Art Museum drew sharp criticism from former mayor Ken Michalove. He asserted the nonprofit was insufficiently transparent and was coming to the city only after failing to raise the necessary funds from the private sector, throwing doubt on its claim that the city funding would allow it to leverage $20 million more from donors.
"If the private sector believed in the project, they would have funded it by now," Michalove said. Until recently a consultant for Pack Place, he asserted that he'd resigned his position to speak freely about the matter, and felt that "the art museum has been unnecessarily secretive in its dealings with the Pack Place board."
Asheville Downtown Association President Adrian Vassallo claimed the budget should spend more on the city core and less on improvements for the River District.
The city assumed passage of the state House's budget plan, one of two dueling budgets that the North Carolina General Assembly is debating. City Attorney Bob Oast noted that while the city has to set the tax rate before July 1, it can amend the budget after that time.
• Council and City manager Gary Jackson briefly addressed the allegations of Asheville Police Department Lt. William Wilke that he was "forced to change the facts" in the investigation of a car crash involving Chad Anderson, the son of APD Chief William Anderson.
Jackson said that the city launched an administrative investigation as soon as it received Wilke's complaint last week, and expected the investigation to conclude in 30-45 days, and that the investigation will consider every aspect of the department. Council member Gordon Smith asked the public to wait until all the facts were out before making conclusions.
But Mayor Terry Bellamy added that since the investigation concerns a personnel matter, it will likely never be made public. District Attorney Ron Moore, she noted, could file charges if he feels they're merited, but "we can't control what the DA does."