To hear Asheville City Council and city staff tell it, a manageable budget gap is now a potential crisis, thanks to proposed state legislation affecting areas from the water system to business licenses. To close the $5.9 million gap, staff have proposed sharp cuts in everything from public safety to transit to parks and recreation. At a special town hall meeting today, city residents exhorted Council against certain cuts and criticized state legislators (and occasionally the city too).
The city had planned the meeting before local Reps. Chuck McGrady, Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey filed a bill to forcibly transfer the water system to MSD. But that legislation, combined with proposed statewide measures targeting privilege licenses along with beer and wine excise taxes, leaves the city in a bad situation. A $2.2 million gap staff planned to manage through a combination of increased fees (mainly for trash) and smaller cuts becomes an anticipated $5.9 million gap. According to finance chief Lauren Bradley, the city survived the recession by cutting its “low-hanging fruit,” deferring needed long-term projects and occasionally using reserve funds. Now, drastic action will be required if the proposed legislation goes through.
How drastic? If the city doesn’t raise property taxes, staff proposed a series of major cuts, such as closing the WNC Nature Center, closing a fire station, stopping Saturday bus service, ending all youth and adult athletic programs, stopping Bele Chere this year, closing city pools and reducing police overtime, among other measures.
Some legislators, including Ramsey, have claimed they want to find ways to make up the financial loss to cities, but Bradley said the city has to start with a conservative estimate of the budget issues it might have to deal with.
More than 100 people packed the U.S. Cellular Center banquet hall, and during almost two hours of public comment, many spoke. They wanted the Aston Park tennis courts open, the nature center intact, and for Ashevilleans to still be able to ride the bus to work on Saturday. Transit committee chair Julie Mayfield told Council that the bus “is not a luxury” for many people who depend on it to work.
Itiyopiya Ewart, a Hillcrest resident, sounded a similar note, saying that without transit, residents faced further difficulties on top of the already daunting obstacles to a good job.
Asheville resident Mike Lewis claimed the legislation is part of a larger move to destroy cities’ independence, and runs the risk of the “degeneration of the Paris of the South into the Detroit of the South.”
John Miall, the city’s former director of risk management and current mayoral candidate, took aim at the city as well, asserting that the cuts should focus more on administrative positions and less on service cuts that will effect 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 by city staff about the fate of festivals and parks and recreation facilities were being made too quickly, without transparency and consideration of the consequences, and endanger a system built over three decades.
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, not asking for handouts from the General Assembly, “just asking that you take the boot off our necks.”
Multiple Council members asked citizens to write to their legislators, and Chris Pelly added that it was time to plan a date to “pack the buses and head to Raleigh.”
Due to the increased uncertainty in the budget situation, Council will hold an additional April 23 work session, and delay passage of the budget to June 11.