Asheville City Council April 26, 2011 meeting
- No tax increase in proposed $132 million budget
- Weirbridge Village tax exemption approved
- Leicester incorporation narrowly endorsed
It began with the airport — specifically, with proposed state legislation that would take the Asheville Regional Airport away from the city without compensation. The bill also calls for beefing up the existing Airport Authority, which would then assume ownership of the facility. In addition, the proposed law would increase Henderson County's representation on the Authority’s board while reducing Asheville's. Currently, Asheville and Buncombe County each appoint three board members, who collectively choose an at-large member; Henderson County has traditionally been allotted that seat. Under the proposed law, Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson would each be allotted two appointees, who would collectively select a seventh, at-large member.
But at the Asheville City Council’s April 26 meeting, discussion of that measure quickly snowballed into more general Council opposition to the General Assembly’s tactics.
Calling the airport bill “concerning,” Vice Mayor Brownie Newman made a motion criticizing the taking of city property, Asheville’s reduced representation, a provision prohibiting elected officials from serving on the Authority’s board, and the failure to consult with city government.
Council member Jan Davis favored harsher language, noting, “This is a transfer of property without even being involved in a conversation about how it happens. I'd like to use a stronger word than 'concerned.’”
“Uh, 'really concerned?' We'll use a bold font,” Newman replied.
“I'm shocked that something like this did actually gain momentum and go without a much better public conversation,” Council member Bill Russell observed. The airport, he noted, “was built with funds from city taxpayers.”
Mayor Terry Bellamy also weighed in, saying she strongly opposes both the proposed legislation and the whole idea of an independent airport authority.
“This independent-authority bill was introduced without any conversation with the city and what we think about it,” she said. “There was no common courtesy in Asheville, even though we have a vested interest. There was nothing. If we accept this, we're saying that writing bills about a municipality without its consent is OK, and I think that's wrong.”
“How can we lose a seat on the board we helped create without even a conversation?” Bellamy added. “If it's the airport today, what is it tomorrow?”
Newman, on the other hand, said he could support an independent airport authority in theory — because many of the facility’s rules are actually set at the federal level — but not in the form now being proposed.
All three of Buncombe County's state representatives — Democrats Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher plus Republican Tim Moffitt — joined Henderson County Republican Chuck McGrady in sponsoring the bill.
Council member Esther Manheimer wondered if the forced transfer of the airport to an independent authority is even legal, and City Attorney Bob Oast said he was looking into it.
To the outraged Council members, the proposed airport legislation was only the latest in a series of attempts by state legislators to impose radical changes on local government without consultation or consent. The resolution opposing the airport legislation was unanimously approved.
Council member Gordon Smith cited legislation proposed by Moffitt to undo the city’s 2005 Biltmore Lake annexation. Approved by the House earlier this month, Moffitt’s bill is now before the state Senate. Another bill proposed by Moffitt would initiate district elections for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. The lack of a local referendum has sparked criticism, and the current commissioners — who likewise weren’t consulted — have unanimously condemned the proposal.
“This illuminates what we're facing with the leadership in the Statehouse right now,” said Smith. “There are things moving that they're not asking for input on when it's going to affect all of the citizens of the city. It seems to me we may be coming to a time when we need to let Raleigh know we'd like to be included in these conversations. We want to be included in decisions that are being made about the people of the city of Asheville.”
Bellamy agreed, and Smith read a motion declaring the General Assembly's recent overall behavior toward Asheville “antithetical to principles of representative democracy.” Council member Cecil Bothwell seconded the motion, but Smith agreed to postpone it after Newman said he'd like time to review the wording.
Proposed budget holds the line on tax rate
In advance of a planned May 10 public hearing, City Manager Gary Jackson and Administrative Services Director Lauren Bradley presented the proposed budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
And though property- and sales-tax revenues have seen a modest increase in recent months, this has been offset by a drop in permit fees tied to the still-sluggish economy, meaning the budget picture for next year remains challenging.
At $132 million, next year’s projected total spending is 0.61 percent less than the current bottom line. The lion’s share of the reduction results from eliminating 15 staff positions, most of which had been either frozen or vacant due to retirement. Fee increases are also being recommended to help balance the budget without further cuts.
Funding for some capital items, such as sidewalks and greenways, would actually be increased, thanks to the retirement of some prior capital debt. According to staff, other savings would be achieved via changes to the city’s health plan, such as capping contributions, adding wellness incentives and expanding preventive-care clinic hours. And even though the state is expected to cut $600,000 in contributions to the transit system, that loss should be offset by $500,000 transferred from parking-fund revenues.
The key point stressed was maintaining the current property-tax rate — or, as both Jackson and Bradley put it, “living within our means.”
“We have seen some positive signs in the economy, and the decline in revenues is not as sharp as previous years,” Bradley told Council. “Not every decision made in this recommended budget has been easy, but we feel Asheville is in the third year of weathering an economy that isn't as strong as we hoped it would be. The goal for this year was to maintain the tax rate and not propose an increase.”
Thanks to some modest signs of recovery, she noted, Asheville has managed to avoid some of the hard choices other municipalities have had to make, such as layoffs or major cuts in services.
For his part, Jackson said the budget had been put together “without playing games. This is a remarkable upgrade from past budget documents and budget processes,” he said. “We've done this in a businesslike fashion, without any unnecessary friction: Everyone has worked together.”
Following the May 10 public hearing and any final tweaking, Council is scheduled to vote on the budget on Tuesday, May 24.
Leicester incorporation endorsed
In other business, Council: • Conditionally approved a two-year exemption from property taxes for Weirbridge Village, a 280-unit apartment complex planned for south Asheville. The exemption is the first to be approved under Council's new sustainable-housing incentives policy. To qualify for the exemption, the project must meet its stated goals: 140 units of work-force housing, 14 affordable-housing units, Energy Star certification and siting near a major transit line. Council approved the incentives 5-1, with Bothwell on the short end. He expressed general support for the project but said he opposes these types of incentives in general. Manheimer recused herself due to her law firm's involvement in the project. • Narrowly endorsed the proposed incorporation of Leicester on a 4-3 vote, while noting concerns about the inclusion of an area along the Leicester Highway. Much reduced from the original 2008 proposal, which would have made Leicester one of the biggest municipalities in the state, the current proposal still calls for a 24-square-mile town — more than half the size of Asheville — with a mere 11,000 people.
Bothwell, Davis and Newman opposed the plan, questioning the wisdom of incorporating large tracts of undeveloped rural land. To become law, the proposal must be approved by both the General Assembly and a referendum in Leicester.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.