Uncertainty still reigns in Asheville’s budget process

Uncertainty still reigns in Asheville’s budget process-attachment0

Council member Marc Hunt brandishes a copy of the city’s proposed budget during the meeting Tuesday night. Yet another budget plan may be in the works as Council believes a recreation authority that could save them millions is unlikely to get state approval. Photo by Max Cooper.

The public got a chance to weigh in on the city’s proposed $143 million budget at tonight’s Asheville City Council meeting. Some were critical of the priorities laid out and a proposed 1 cent tax increase.

But during Council’s discussion, members revealed yet another budget plan may be in the works, with higher property taxes, as they believe state legislators are unlikely to allow Asheville and Buncombe County to form a Culture and Recreations Authority that could save millions. The city’s proposed budget assumed that authority would be forthcoming, and that the city will retain control of its water system, currently tied up in a court battle with the state.

Previous draft budgets had included such assumptions as using the estimated $2.5 million in savings from the new authority to help cover $11 million in debts and creating an economic-development fund that would tackle a laundry list of priorities from infrastructure to affordable housing to improving the Asheville Art Museum. If state legislators don’t approve the new authority, the city would have to abandon those budget plans or fund them with a property tax increase of 4 cents per $100 or more. Some, like Council member Gordon Smith, said the goals are necessary for Asheville to be an “aspirational city” and not a stagnant one. But Council member Chris Pelly was concerned about the combined tax burden, given that Buncombe commissioners will likely approve a tax increase as well, due to declining property values.

They weren’t alone. During the public hearing, mayoral candidate John Miall expressed concern that while a new parks-and-rec authority might save the city coffers, it would still cost taxpayers who would have to pay for its upkeep. Saul Chase also criticized the budget, especially the art museum improvements, asserting that “the job of City Council isn’t to improve non-profits’ ability to get money.”

Council member Marc Hunt said he’d like to have city staff bring forward a “Plan B” in case the recreation authority looks like a faint possibility. Council is currently scheduled to vote on the budget at its June 25 meeting, and must pass a budget before July 1.

• Council also approved $1.5 million in incentives for Project X, an unspecified company that promises to bring 52 good-paying jobs to the area by 2017. Unusually, the project remained secret even during the vote (though The Asheville Tribune and Asheville Citizen-Times have reported that it’s GE”s aviation division.

The incentives package passed 5-1, with Council member Cecil Bothwell strongly denouncing the proposal, opposing both the secrecy and the idea of economic incentives for powerful corporations.

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