Twenty five percent: That’s the average increase in property value in the city of Asheville established by this year’s county-wide property revaluation.
City Council members pondered that increase, along with the financial impact of the $74 million bond referendum passed by city voters in November, at a work session on Tuesday, March 14 as they began developing the city’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, which will take effect on July 1.
Two more work sessions, on March 28 and April 11, are scheduled before City Manager Gary Jackson presents a budget proposal to City Council on May 9. Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget on May 23, and vote on the final budget on June 13.
According to city Finance Director Barbara Whitehorn, maintaining the current level of city services plus the new bond funding would require a tax rate of 43 cents per $1,000 of property value. That’s actually a decrease of 4.5 cents from the current rate of 47.5 cents per $1,000.
Considering that the value of many city properties went up as a result of the revaluation, though, individual property tax bills are likely to rise even if City Council decides to adopt a “revenue neutral” rate of 43 cents.
Council members discussed a variety of possible new programs for funding, but Mayor Esther Manheimer signaled caution. “Personally, right now I don’t feel comfortable raising the tax rate above revenue neutral plus the bonds, which will be an overall decrease in the rate,” she said.
If the city were to maintain the current rate, said Whitehorn, an additional $6.3 million would become available in the city’s budget.
Council discussed a variety of possible funding requests, including:
- An estimated $1 million to the Asheville Police Department to create a downtown unit in response to increasing crime rates downtown.
- $1.1 million to support the work of the Energy Innovation Task Force, a joint effort between the city, Buncombe County, Duke Energy and other community stakeholders that aims to delay or prevent the need for an additional “peaking” gas-fired electrical plant at Duke’s Lake Julian facility. Most of that money would go to support and expand existing programs that help low-income families increase the energy efficiency of their homes, thereby reducing electricity demand on cold winter mornings, this area’s “peak” energy demand period.
- Improvements to the city transit system, including efficiency upgrades to the bus fleet and additional costs associated with a new management contract for the system.
- $25,000 for a tree canopy study and Tree Master Plan which, as Council member Cecil Bothwell pointed out, is mandated by the city’s Unified Development Ordinance but has never been created.
Council member Gordon Smith highlighted the possibility of changes to federal and state programs such as the Community Development Block Grant program, HOME funding, housing vouchers and support for transit programs. The total value of those programs to the Asheville community, he said, is about $2 million each year. Threats to those programs, said Whitehorn, are something the city “can’t realistically budget for.”
Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper told Council members she would provide additional data to support her request for funding to create the downtown police unit. About 10 activists held signs or wore stickers urging Council to dedicate the $1 million in requested police funding “to the people” instead. Manheimer explained that Council does not hear public comment at work sessions, and she also asked the activists to put away their signs, saying they are not permitted at Council meetings.
Manheimer commented that she wants to preserve funding set aside for the redevelopment of Lee Walker Heights approved by Council last year, and to examine funding needs for the city’s three public swimming pools. She also highlighted the need to deploy funding for projects in the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan flexibly as construction costs rise an average of 10 percent per year.
At Council’s next budget work session on March 28, the focus will be on the city’s operating budget, while the April 11 meeting will examine the Capital Improvement Plan.