To hear Asheville City Council and staff tell it, a manageable budget gap has evolved into a looming crisis. Combine lingering post-recession challenges with state legislation that chops municipal revenue, and the city faces a potential $5.9 million gap next fiscal year. At a special April 3 town hall, city staff proposed sharp, budget-balancing cuts, from public safety, transit, park services, recreation facilities and more.
How drastic are the cuts? If the city avoids raising property taxes, it may need to close the Western North Carolina Nature Center, shut down a fire station, stop Saturday bus service, end all youth and adult athletic programs, ax Bele Chere this year, not open city pools and reduce police overtime. That’s for starters.
None of the proposals sat well with the more than 100 residents who attended the meeting.
According to Asheville Finance Director Lauren Bradley, the city survived the recession by cutting its "low-hanging fruit," such as deferring long-term projects, cutting amenities and training, freezing pay and positions — and occasionally dipping into reserve funds. But those actions eliminated most of the city's financial flexibility, and earlier this year, there was talk of realigning the city's revenues and expenditures (by ending Bele Chere next year, for example).
But what city staff and Council members planned to address through measured adjustments could be a much more dire situation, if a mix of legislation goes through.
As part of efforts to reduce “the cost of doing business” in the state, North Carolina legislators have proposed bills that would keep cities from collecting fees for business privilege licenses ($1 million in annual revenue, starting next fiscal year) and utility-franchise taxes ($1.6 million a year); legislators also propose reducing beer-and-wine excise taxes ($90,000).
Then there’s the water bill. Reps. Chuck McGrady, Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey filed a bill that, if passed, transfers the water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Although MSD suggested compensating Asheville $57 million for the system (half what the city said was adequate), the trio of legislators excluded compensation from their proposal. City staff have calculated an annual revenue loss of more than $3.6 million from the transfer (an MSD study claimed that ratepayers could save about $1.1 million a year).
A grab-bag of new and revised city fees, along with miscellaneous cuts, counter the potential losses by $2.2 million, (see the April 3 report, “Trash and Treasure: New City Fee is Part of a Long-Range Plan to Encourage Conservation”).
The boost may not be enough. Bradley said the city has to start with a conservative estimate of the budget issues it might have to deal with — hence, the latest round of proposed service cuts.
During almost two hours of public comment, residents weighed in.
Transit committee chair Julie Mayfield told Council that bus service "is not a luxury" for many people who depend on it for work. Cutting Saturday service would hit hard.
Hillcrest resident Itiyopiya Ewart agreed, saying that without transit, residents face further difficulties on top of the already daunting obstacles to getting and keeping good jobs.
Fellow Ashevillean Mike Lewis claimed the state legislation is part of a larger move to destroy cities' independence, and could lead to the "degeneration of the Paris of the South into the Detroit of the South."
John Miall, Asheville's former risk-management director and a mayoral candidate, took aim at the city. He said that cuts should focus more on administrative positions and less on service reductions that will affect the average citizen. "The pain is not felt across the board," he said. "Council can do better."
Guillermo Rodriguez, chair of the city's Bele Chere committee, said that decisions about the festival’s fate, as well as the proposed closing of many park and recreation facilities, were being made too quickly, without transparency or considering consequences. The cuts endanger a system that was built over three decades, he said.
Mayor Terry Bellamy compared the state's approach to "death by a thousand cuts," slowly putting the city in an impossible position. If the state will simply take local infrastructure, she asserted, cities have no reason to invest in it.
Council member Gordon Smith said that Asheville is a prosperous city. Its residents and leaders aren’t asking for handouts from the General Assembly, "just … that you take the boot off our necks."
Several Council members asked citizens to write to their legislators, and Council member Chris Pelly added that it was time to plan a date to "pack the buses and head to Raleigh."
Council will hold an additional April 23 work session at City Hall and vote on the budget June 11.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or firstname.lastname@example.org.