The sky isn’t falling, but at the Asheville City Council’s April 15 work session, Council members were told that the city can expect tight budgets and lean times for the next few years—probably moving some Council priorities to the back burner.
That includes such items as property-tax relief, various major capital-improvement projects, and assorted environmental and public-safety initiatives, which collectively could add as much as $40 million to the roughly $89 million projected budget for fiscal year 2008-09.
“We’re going to keep our services and things we need, but we’re not exactly in a position to do other things,” noted Vice Mayor Jan Davis.
In the year’s first official budget preview, Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant said the city would run a $3.9 million deficit if current funding levels were maintained throughout the new fiscal year, which starts July 1. City Manager Gary Jackson said city staff would continue looking for ways to whittle down that deficit and balance the budget before it’s adopted.
“I don’t want to suggest this is a doom-and-gloom situation,” said Durant. “But we’re not going to rebound in one year. … It’ll probably take two to three years to grow out of it. We need to be geared to address that as we move forward.”
The “it” Durant was referring to is a general economic downturn and probable recession. As a result, the city can expect an anemic 2- to 3-percent growth in sales and property-tax revenues during the next fiscal year—not enough to keep up with the city’s needs and rising costs. Together, those two sources account for nearly 67 percent of the city’s revenues.
The rising costs include fuel and health insurance, the latter expected to increase by $1.5 million in the next fiscal year.
Even if the city finds ways to increase revenues and cut costs, Asheville will also have to dip into its savings, said Durant, warning, “We’re going to draw down our fund balance this year.” Typically, even in tight budget years, the city winds up using less of its savings than projected. “But not this year,” he predicted.
And while the lean budget may mean no property-tax break this year, Council member Brownie Newman said he wouldn’t favor increasing taxes either, adding that city residents already pay enough.
Last August, the city revised its storm-water and erosion-control ordinance to comply with a federal mandate. Asked to update Council, Transportation and Engineering Director Cathy Ball deemed the ordinance a success.
“I feel very good about it so far,” she said, adding that it seems to have struck a balance of sorts between the interests of developers and affected residents. “I think we’ve equally upset people on both sides, and I don’t see that as a bad thing. On a scale of one to 10, I think we’ve made an eight.”
Since last August, noted Ball, the city has fined developers and others who’ve run afoul of the law nearly $72,000. As a result, she added, builders and developers are now taking it very seriously. To date, the Beaucatcher Heights subdivision off Kenilworth Road has taken the biggest hit, with fines totaling $11,503 so far.
“In addition to the  immediate fines, we have issued 47 official notices of violation [which] have resulted in better compliance with the ordinance,” reported Ball.
Mandatory inspections and additional staffing have also had an impact, she said. Last August, Council approved six additional staffers for the Stormwater Services Division to beef up enforcement and help review plans. As a result, said Ball, the average turnaround time for reviewing plans is now less than two weeks—down from three to four weeks. In addition, grading and storm-water permits are now issued through the Building Safety Department’s Development Services Center, to ensure that permits aren’t issued in error, she explained.
And with water-line inspections now handled by the Water Resources Department, those new staffers can focus on storm-water and erosion-control inspections. One of them has been promoted to oversee the violations process, to make sure that follow-up inspections are performed.
“Since August we have performed over 3,000 site inspections, compared to approximately 1,700 for the previous eight months,” reported Ball, adding, “This is an increase of 77 percent since additional staff were approved.”
Nonetheless, there’s still room for tweaking the ordinance, she said. One issue is that it imposes stricter aquatic-buffer requirements than either state or federal law, which don’t require a buffer for development projects involving less than one acre. The city’s ordinance requires a buffer for all new development as well as redevelopment projects that increase a building’s value by more than 50 percent.
Ball suggested scaling back buffer requirements for smaller projects, such as those involving less than 10,000 square feet of disturbed area, because it’s often impossible to build such projects without intruding into the buffer.
Distinctions, said Newman, should also be made between construction in undeveloped, low-density areas and higher-density infill development. In the latter case, buffer requirements should be scaled back to encourage such development, he said.
“This would be consistent with other land-use policies that recognize that some areas near the city center and along our commercial corridors are appropriate for more intense development, while the areas zoned for lower density and residential purposes are generally less appropriate for intense development,” noted Newman.
Council members indicated support for changing the way the city determines which events to co-sponsor. This year, the city is on the hook for $245,500 worth of in-kind support in connection with a wide array of community events. To trim that figure—and to make sure the events in question bring some tangible benefit to the city—Asheville will soon require more paperwork and due diligence from sponsors.
In the future, the city will issue a request for proposals each fall from groups and individuals seeking city co-sponsorship. The RFP will clearly outline the program criteria and expectations, and the city will conduct a series of workshops to help guide people through the application process.
After an initial staff review, the Recreation Board will evaluate, score and rank all applications and make a final recommendation to City Council. Highly ranked events will receive support up to the approved amount. After each event, sponsors will have to submit an evaluation report, which will be taken into consideration if they apply for support again in the future.
Roderick Simmons, director of the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department, suggested creating a separate annual budget for co-sponsored events. Currently, money is simply pulled from the city’s operating budget to cover costs as needed, and such unplanned expenses put an unnecessary strain on city finances. A fixed annual budget of, say, $150,000 calculated on a fiscal-year basis, he said in a staff report, would go a long way toward regularizing and controlling costs. “Council could provide additional funding, based on budget availability, to cover additional events,” Simmons noted in his report.
Although a vote on these measures will come later, Council members expressed general support for the new approach. But Mayor Terry Bellamy noted that the new process could have unintended consequences if the city wasn’t careful.
Noting the wide array of events held each year and their importance to various segments of the community, Bellamy said, “We need to make sure there is diversity in these events and … among those [board members] who judge [which events the city should co-sponsor].”