The upcoming budget year, a raise for city employees and sending a lobbyist to Raleigh were key topics in the wide-ranging discussion at Asheville City Council's annual retreat. Held Feb. 3 in UNCA's Sherrill Center, this year’s session gave Council members a chance to hear briefings by staff and ponder goals for 2012.
The budget: Finance and Management Services Director Lauren Bradley presented staff's projections, noting that thanks to better-than-expected sales-tax revenue, the city exceeded projections by $250,000 last year. Overall economic recovery remains slow, however, and "We're not going to grow our way out of these current constraints," Bradley cautioned. The 2012-13 budget, noted staff, will face the same kinds of limitations as last year.
"The future looks great," Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer observed during a discussion of greenways and other such initiatives. "And expensive."
Council member Gordon Smith said the city is "bumping up against the limits" of what it can do with the current revenues and growth rate. Proposals such as a bond referendum or special citywide sales tax to fund mass transit (which would require state legislators’ approval), he added, deserve a look as ways to pay for the services residents want.
A lobbyist: Manheimer and Council member Jan Davis were charged with studying the possibility of hiring a lobbyist or other representative to push the city's interests in Raleigh and bringing a proposal to Council by late March. Mayor Terry Bellamy expressed some misgivings about the idea, and Davis said Council members also need to make more effort to communicate with state legislators. Currently, said Manheimer, the city is "completely, totally marginalized."
Staff raises: Many Council members voiced support for giving city employees a raise, which they haven't had in three years. But this would require careful budget management, proponents said: According to staff, an across-the-board 1 percent raise would cost about $500,000, and personnel costs already account for roughly 65 percent of the city's annual expenditures.
Procedural change: Council members also considered convening the Rules Committee to decide whether complex resolutions should require separate votes on each component. Citing the city's LGBT equality resolution, which she voted against, Bellamy said, "It was traumatic to go through that process; it was unwarranted, unnecessary and not good government." The mayor said she would have preferred to vote on the parts of that resolution individually.
Council member Cecil Bothwell noted a similar situation with the failed vote on a proposed permitting process for Occupy Asheville campers, saying, "The disagreements [among council members] were on different pieces" of the proposal.