Asheville City Council began its budget deliberations at 3:30 p.m. Xpress Senior News Reporter David Fobes began his live Twitter-based coverage at 3:37 and ended at 9:32 p.m. What follows is a compilation of Forbes’ tweets.
City staff is noting that the city is eligible for a $480,000 Federal Transportation Administration grant to help cover transit operations, which it is touting as good news.
Staff budget presentation: The employee cost-of-living increase might be frozen to help close the budget gap, but with allowance for a boost to those making below median income. But city will also need to take $1.7 million from health-care reserves and increase health-care premiums 5 percent due to rising costs. Some possible service cuts to close gaps could include dropping least-used evening transit routes, cutting brush-collection services, reducing community center hours.
Vice Mayor Brownie Newman: This is the “toughest budget year since I’ve been on Council” He is praising staff recommendations.
Mayor Terry Bellamy is asking staff to look at cost of increasing bus service along Merrimon corridor.
Staff is also recommending freezing 15 “upper-to-mid-level” positions incl CEO supervisor, assistant budget director.
Council members Bill Russell and Jan Davis are recommending reducing funds taken from parking revenues this year, due to the federal transportation grant. Davis says this is a “good time to keep [parking funds] in reserve” unless there’s some specific need; let the federal grant fill gap this year.
Bellamy is concerned about cuts in staff overtime and training. “There’s a breaking point in staff morale.” Bellamy is proposing cutting Parks & Recreation allocations to avoid staff cuts. Bellamy is talking about “fairness. Even the funds for paving has taken a hit… Parks & Rec has not taken that much of a hit.”
Council deliberating on how to cut the budget.
City Council begins its formal meeting with proclamations for Motorcyle Awareness, Foster Care and Historic Preservation months in May. Also May 16-23 is proclaimed National Public Works Week.
There are 110 buildings on the historic register in Asheville. Since the 1970s, about 200 historic buildings have been demolished.
Council discusses whether the Asheville Design Center should be exempted from cuts to city funding going to outside nonprofit organizations.
Representatives of Mountain Memory Walk, Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, Downtown After 5 are all asking for exemptions from the proposed decrease in city support.
Kitty Love of Arts2People says it’s the “wrong time to start cutting back on cultural programming.”
Davis is wondering if funds for Strive Not to Drive week are “needed in this economy.”
Council member Gordon Smith: Lowering vehicle miles traveled is the “A-number-one thing we can do” to improve health, air quality.
Council continues until May 25 the consideration of pursuing matching grants for some transit programs, when it will have more information.
Council member Bothwell makes a motion for cuts, for changes to city sponsoring events. No one seconds the motion.
Bothwell says that Council shouldn’t pick and choose between events, but rather should cut sponsorships across the board or not at all.
Smith says Council has “stark choices to make if we’re going to support this type of programming” or else put it outside of government.
Davis says: “We’re in difficult time.” He says cuts are necessary — except for the Holiday Parade.
Newman proposes the idea of cutting funds less this year to create a “transition period” for the impacted events.
Bellamy says the city needs to stop changing rules on events. “We’re creating more antagonistic feelings than allies.” She suggests a delay before cutting event funding.
After more than an hour into the meeting, some items still under debate are pulled from consent agenda.
Bothwell says the “elephant in the living room” is the choice between lower services or raising taxes.
Council delays tackling event-sponsorship cuts until the May 25 meeting.
Council unanimously passes motion to take $2.4 million from health-insurance reserves, and allow employee contributions to keep health-care program running.
Sustainability Advisory Committee is presenting the Burton Street Community Center recycling-music video. One of the committee’s priorities in 2010 is bringing city’s development laws into line with its sustainability goals.
Council is considering Community Development Block Grants for the coming year. Grants recipients would include the Housing Authority, Mountain Housing Opportunities, Habitat for Humanity, among others. Asheville gets $1.5 mil a year in CDBG funds. Council passes these grants unanimously.
The city’s goal for community housing is to add 1,200 units in the next five years.
Council is taking up a proposal to improve its bus system, launch a new Transit logo and marketing program.
Avl resident Mike Fryar: “Don’t know why city would want to waste money” on advertising the bus system it should find funding.
Transit Commision Chair Hannah Raskin says, “You have opportunity to do right by our citizens” by supporting the proposed improvements.
Supporters of the transit proposal point out that $130,000 of its $163,000 costs are paid for by federal grants. Rest paid for by savings in transit dept, they say.
Council passes operational changes unanimously, and passes the $150,000 marketing plan 6-1, with Russell voting against, citing concerns over spending.
Transit changes will make the most-used routes run every 30-minutes, instead of hourly, and provide service until 10:30 p.m.
Transit Vice Chair Paul Van Heden says that both Sunday service and expanded service are also needed, but says the newly approved steps are “a good start.”
Council member Manheimer speaking about parking decks says: “It’s ironic we have to pay someone to operate an automated machine; I hope we’ll grow past that.”
Council is considering waiving about $30,000 in fees for arts events in Pritchard Park. One artist is endorsing the proposal, telling Council about the benefits of hula-hoop events in park.
Bothwell says that Council agreed to delay considering fee waivers for other groups, why not wait on park events too, and consider all at the same time?
Davis calls its “good judgement” to waive fees for rest of this fiscal year, consider it along with other fees for next year.
Newman says he sees park events as different: “We’re supporting this because we’re trying to reclaim our space,” which had been “troubled.”
Bothwell says the fees are not being waived as much as for drum circle. “We’re starting to make value judgments.”
Waiver passes 6-1, with Smith (who wanted to extend waiver through next year) opposing.
Bellamy says the city needs to decide on fee rules soon, stop changing them, because groups “need to know what to expect.”
Bellamy says that nuisance courts and arts events “really transformed Pritchard Park.”
Motion by Davis to extend waiver through 2010 passes 5-2, with Bothwell and Smith against.
Council votes unanimously to give the Larchmont Project $200,000 from housing trust fund. While this amount is more than what’s currently in fund, staff say more payments are on way, and that the fund will have the necessary balance by time the loan is made.
Council is considering the proposed smoking ban on all city property, including parks and greenways, but not sidewalks and streets. The penalty for breaking the smoking ban would be a $50 fine. The proposed smoking ordinance would cover a wider area, but carry a reduced penalty. The old penalty was a $200 fine.
Bothwell is wondering about enforcement, asking, for example: “Will this infringe on the beer festival?”
Smith says he talked with the county, which passed a similar smoking ban last year. “They’ve yet to write a single citation.”
The Downtown Association supports the smoking ban, but restaurateur Dwight Butner has concerns over effect on business.
City ordinance would also give the city manager the ability to create smoking areas, spots out of public view, and not near any ventilation system intakes.
Newman says it’s somewhat of a contradiction to say citizens can’t smoke in a secluded spot on a greenway, but a city worker can near City Hall. He says there’s a strong civil libertarian argument against this, but a strong public-health argument for an outright ban.”
Smith says the biggest ways to improve air quality don’t include a smoking ban.
Manheimer says: “Part of what we’re doing is sending a message” with the ban.
Asheville resident Jeff Turner says the ban “sounds like Nazi Germany … [I] put my life on the line to be able to smoke.” He says he’ll be first to break the smoking ban.
Bellamy says, “I don’t believe we’re dictators.” We’re not stopping people on private property, but there is a health concern in parks.
The smoking ban passes 6-1, Bothwell against. It takes effect July 1.
Council is planning to meet a delegation from Osogbo, Nigeria, early next month, including its mayor and the area’s king.
Mayor is praising the city staff’s performance during the Obama visit, saying “It was like an orchestra.”
Council’s thoughts also going out to the victim, the victim’s family and the bus driver involved in the recent bus crash. City Manager Gary Jackson says, “I can’t release the details,” but the news about victim’s recovery is “very positive.”
A Montford resident is criticizing the city for its lack of brush collection on the sidewalk. Brush collection has been delayed throughout city due to winter storms. City Manager Jackson says, “We own this problem,” and apologizes, saying that brush trucks are working fast as possible.
During the public-comment period, Jeff Turner, who spoke earlier, praises Council for “fiscal responsibility” and apologizes for his “spirited outburst” over smoking ban.