Every year, Asheville City Council members set goals at their annual retreat. Every year, they wind up worrying about the price tag, later on.
1998 is no different.
Of the top 10 goals Council members set at their retreat in Flat Rock Feb. 6-8, seven involve adopting various plans and studies (all slated to be completed this year), most of them entailing large potential costs: a Parks and Recreation master plan, an affordable-housing policy, and recommendations for the Civic Center, to name a few.
Council member Barbara Field took one look at the goals and remarked, “We have a lot of plans to adopt. That means implementing [those plans] — and that means money.”
City Manager Jim Westbrook sounded a similar note (as he does every year), urging, “Take a look at those plans before you implement them.”
Council member Earl Cobb took him up on that thought, suggesting, “For all the things that our [current] tax revenues aren’t going to buy, we need to come up with the money. … We need to figure the cost estimates.”
That’s a fact Council members can’t ignore, as they debate the sale of city property (Memorial Stadium), the purchase of property that might generate revenue (the French Broad Golf Center), the pros and cons of annexation, the demand for new ballparks, which streets to fix first, or how to renovate the Civic Center (and how much to spend doing it).
“We’re in a bind,” Mayor Leni Sitnick said. She gave Council members the big picture: “We haven’t raised taxes in nine years.”
Not a single Council member recommended raising taxes, however.
Yet, over the years, the city has “cut [itself] off from most of the revenue-producing sources that other cities use,” she continued: Water-and-sewer services once provided by the city were shunted off into separate “authorities” with separate budgets.
That’s Council’s dilemma. As Cobb noted, “We can’t raise taxes, but we have all these budget needs.”
Of particular concern to him are the city’s street-and-sidewalk needs. As one city staffer told him, it would cost $100 million to build sidewalks everywhere they’re wanted or needed. But each year, the city has been able to budget only about $400,000 for street-and-sidewalk needs, Westbrook said.
That’s enough for up to 12 miles of 40-foot-wide city streets, according to Public Works Director Mark Combs. However, the city has 366 miles of streets and 58 miles of sidewalks, many in need of repair.
“Then what do we do?” Council member Chuck Cloninger wondered.
Westbrook’s short answer was, “Live within your means.” He added, “We want to budget more … but we don’t know our [1998-99] revenue estimates yet.” City staff have started their annual budget-proposal process for the next fiscal year, but they aren’t sure where the needed funds will come from.
The Parks and Recreation Department alone has estimated a $30 million need for maintenance, repairs and new facilities over the next 20 years– yet its annual allotment for meeting such needs has been capped at less than $500,000, noted Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson.
“We don’t even have enough money to build four ballfields [at Richmond Hill] without selling off a downtown park [Memorial Stadium],” Sitnick complained.
“Once we figure out what we want to do, then we have to figure out how to pay for it,” said Vice Mayor Ed Hay, who has been working on the Civic Center question.
Council members got quiet just thinking about it all. For the first time in years, they conceded that maintaining the city’s fiscal policies and well-being is not a separate, lofty (and perhaps abstract) goal: It’s an ongoing concern that won’t go away.
That prompted the usually laconic Will Annarino, Asheville’s police chief, to joke, “From what I’m hearing, there isn’t any money for police, either!”
Fortunately, the remaining top 10 goals for ’98 are less fiscally daunting, such as “celebrating Asheville’s cultural diversity” and making sure the 1990 sign ordinance is enforced.
Other less-costly items were labeled “second-tier” goals, such as encouraging riverfront-development efforts, strengthening the city’s telecommunications-tower ordinance, creating a public-art policy, updating stormwater-ordinance regulations, and getting street numbers on every house and business in Asheville.
That last item can trigger a $50-per-day fine, if the Fire Department tries to find your place during an emergency and can’t, because your property’s street address isn’t clearly visible.
Hmm: Sounds like a potential revenue source.
Council’s 1998 Goals
At their Feb. 6-8 retreat in Flat Rock, Asheville City Council members adopted the following goals as their top priorities for the coming year (the number in parentheses indicates how many of the seven Council members voted for that item):
• Adopt a Parks and Recreation master plan (six votes);
• Adopt an overall transportation plan that includes all modes of transportation (rail, auto, pedestrian and bicycle) — based on a state study of the Asheville metropolitan area, as well as staff’s review of city-specific issues (six votes);
• Adopt an affordable-housing policy, based on recommendations in a soon-to-be-completed study (six votes);
• Adopt a citywide economic-development strategy (five votes);
• Improve the city’s traffic management, after a staff review of ways to better coordinate traffic lights and address other traffic issues (five votes);
• Adopt a plan for renovating the Civic Center and improving programming there (five votes); and
• Adopt parking plans for downtown, Biltmore Village and west Asheville — again, based on an upcoming study (four votes).
• Celebrate Asheville’s cultural diversity, by participating in such events as an annual Community Unity Day (held last year to counter the Ku Klux Klan march).
• Create a community/neighborhood outreach program, by continuing individual departments’ efforts to keep the public informed, and expanding the work already inititiated under the city’s “community-oriented government” policies.
• Review the city’s sign-ordinance enforcement efforts — including considering whether the Planning Department has sufficient staff to enforce the 1990 law.