The city of Asheville has adopted a budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins on July 1. The bottom line for city property owners? City Council set a property tax rate of 42.89 cents per $100 of taxable value, which represents a revenue-neutral rate plus 3.5 cents to pay for interest on the $74 million bond program approved by a referendum in November 2015.
While “revenue-neutral plus bonds” was Mayor Esther Manheimer‘s stated goal from the first bond work session on March 14, getting there required five more meetings (a mix of budget work sessions and City Council meetings). Along the way, Council ran a gauntlet of organized lobbying from social justice advocates, law enforcement advocates and citizens. A major point of contention was Police Chief Tammy Hooper‘s request (repeated from the previous year) for funding to add 15 police officers to create a fourth police district downtown.
The adopted $176 million budget, which encompasses a $120.7 million operating budget, passed June 13 on a split vote of 5-2, with Council members Brian Haynes and Keith Young opposed.
The final form of the budget includes funding for the 15 additional officers, as well as $630,000 in transit system improvements. Previously, city staff had said paying for both the police and transit expansions would require an additional half-cent tax increase. In the end, said City Manager Gary Jackson, savings gained from postponing the replacement of Assistant City Manager Paul Fetherston (who left for a position in Illinois on June 9), postponing the purchase of equipment for the city’s vehicle fleet, reducing temporary and seasonal workers, and delaying some consulting contracts will allow the city to forgo the extra half penny.
As of June 14, the version of the budget posted on the city’s website had last been updated on May 30 and didn’t include all the most current information. Going forward, said city Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn, revised and reconciled versions of the budget will be posted following each budget work session. “We’ve heard discussion in the community wanting to see that,” she said.
Some in the community want to see much more than updated figures as the budgeting process unfolds, however. In remarks before Council’s vote on the budget, Young called for adopting a participatory budgeting model, which he said would give community members more substantive opportunities to weigh in as spending decisions are being made. Manheimer called participatory budgeting a “very interesting idea” and said the city should explore using it for future budgets.
According to the website of the Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the practice, “Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.”
Elements of the final budget Whitehorn highlighted in her presentation before Council’s vote included an increase in the city’s match of firefighter retirement savings from 2 to 4 percent, and a 2.5 percent pay raise for all city employees, effective July 1.
Affordable housing at 338 Hilliard Ave.
In what represented either a drop in the bucket toward addressing the city’s affordable housing shortage or a revolutionary use of an innovative model of public-private collaboration, Council voted to approve a $1.6 million package of loans and incentives for a new housing complex to be built on city-owned land at 338 Hilliard Ave.
Retiring city staffer Jeff Staudinger outlined a proposal from the Kassinger Development Group to construct 64 units of housing on the former site of a Parks and Recreation maintenance facility on Hilliard Avenue close to Aston Park. Thirty-three of the units will rent at rates designated as affordable to residents earning between 60 and 80 percent of the federally defined area median income, while 31 of the units will rent at market rates.
The developers requested a total incentive from the city of $1,571,430, which represents a $1.28 million loan from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and an estimated $291,430 in a land-use incentive grant. Also part of the deal are a 50-year land lease agreement, in which the developer will pay 10 percent of the yearly cash flow of the property to lease the site, and a 50-year term of affordability for the lower-income units.
But Council members had hardly gotten their arms into position for some collective back-patting before commenters began criticizing the relatively small number and still-high rents of the affordable units.
Pointing out that the project sets aside no units for the homeless or those earning low wages, Melissa Clark said, “This does almost nothing for actual low-income people.” The current rental rate for a one-bedroom apartment for those earning 80 percent of the area median income, which Staudinger said would be about $700, is only about $50 below market rate, Clark commented. Later in the discussion, Staudinger said that a new one-bedroom unit in that location would go for a market rent of about $1,200 to $1,300.
Commenters Dewana Little and Ashley Cooper also said the proposal didn’t do enough to create truly affordable housing. “How are we considering this, saying this is the best thing that ever happened?” asked Little. As a person of color with a good job, Little said, “I wouldn’t be able to afford this.”
Protesting that Council was doing something “really innovative” with its first attempt to leverage city-owned land for affordable housing, Manheimer said, “You’re really kind of raining on our parade here.”
Young took up the banner of those critical of the proposal, arguing that the city was selling its position too cheaply in the deal. “What we put on table needs to be of bigger benefit to those who want to live here,” he said. He echoed Little’s reflection on personal affordability, saying, “You take me off City Council — and I work for the state — I can’t live there.”
Council member Gordon Smith countered by outlining a previous proposal for the property from Tribute Companies. That deal, Smith said, eventually fell apart in the face of high construction costs. Cautioning Young against making “the perfect the enemy of the good,” Smith said, “This is a win.”
Council voted 6-1 in favor of the incentive package, with Young opposed. Though he voted for the deal, Haynes commented that the project did “zero” for those earning 30 percent of area median income. “That land is extremely valuable,” he said. “We don’t have to sell ourselves short.”
Standing up for the climate
Council supported two resolutions in support of action to limit carbon emissions and reduce the negative effects of climate change. The first resolution, which was passed as part of Council’s consent agenda, received the approval of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment and calls on state and national governments to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. SACEE voted to recommend Council pass the amendment before the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, Council member Julie Mayfield explained.
SACEE plans to examine Asheville’s goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2030, Mayfield said, and it may recommend a new target.
In the wake of Trump’s decision on the Paris accord, Manheimer said toward the end of Council’s meeting, many U.S. cities and municipalities have reaffirmed their commitment to tackling climate change. By passing the second resolution, Asheville joined with more than 86 mayors representing over 40 million Americans who support taking significant action on reducing harms related to climate change, she said.
Joe Cobble and Melissa Clark complimented Council’s support for climate action. “I wish there was some advertising money to publish” the city’s leadership on the issue, Cobble said, while Clark expressed the view that, while laudable, the resolution is “not enough” since climate change has already passed the point of no return. Humanity should be on a 10-year timetable and should immediately begin sequestering atmospheric carbon, she said, noting that the current schedule “is not going to do it for our kids.”
Board and commission appointments
Council appointed six of a proposed 15 members to a blue ribbon committee to research and provide recommendations to Council on the formation of a Human Resources Commission. Appointees include:
- Marta Alcala-Williams.
- Patrick Conant.
- Joseph Hackett.
- Dwight Mullin.
- Darin Waters.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who chairs Council’s Boards and Commissions Committee, explained that Council members had nominated additional members who had not yet filled out the city’s application. Council is now accepting applications for the blue ribbon committee from the public at large through July 19, Wisler said. Those with expertise in one or more of the following areas of expertise are particularly sought: policy, City Hall operations, land use, economic development, community development, housing, arts, law and a representative from the city’s Citizens/Police Advisory Committee. Applications are available from the office of the city clerk; call 828-259-5839 for more information.
The purpose of the committee, Wisler said, will be to define the mission and scope of a Human Resources Commission, which may include issues of equity, diversity, policing and the effects of historic racism and discrimination. The committee will hold a minimum of three monthly meetings, which will be open to the public in accordance with state open meeting laws. The committee will appoint a chair and a vice chair and will be self-facilitated, the vice mayor continued. Decisions will be reached by simple majority vote when a quorum of committee members are present. Council will direct the committee to present its recommendations by Nov. 6.
Council also took action on a number of other board and commission appointments, including:
- African-American Heritage Commission: voted to postpone appointment pending receipt of attendance information for potential reappointment of sitting commission member.
- Civic Center Commission: reappointed Yvonne Cook-Riley, appointed Christine Sykes Lowe, postponed one appointment.
- CrimeStoppers: appointed Beau Dean and Tana Macalusco.
- Historic Resources Commission: vacancies to be readvertised.
- Multimodal Transportation Commission: voted to postpone appointment pending receipt of input from commission.
- Neighborhood Advisory Committee: reappointed Philip Lenowitz and Barber Melton, voted to interview Jackson Tierney, Mike Wasmer and Carter Webb.
- Public Art & Cultural Commission: reappointed Jay Miller, Andrew Fletcher, Jay Fields, Guillermo Rodriguez, Ron Laboray and appointed Katie Cornell.
- Recreation Board: reappointed Tiffany DE’Bellott and Patrick Dennehy, and appointed Ali Mangkang and Lauren Weldishofer.
At Council’s next meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 27, the following items will be on the public hearings agenda (but are subject to change):
- Changing the name of Hillcrest Drive to Luna Lane.
- Changing the spelling of Kitchen Place to Kitchin Place.
- An ordinance amending the city charter to provide for six single-member electoral districts governing the nomination and election of City Council members.
- An economic development incentive grant for Riverbend Malt House.
- Voluntary annexation of 421 Airport Road.
- Conditional zoning of property located at 175 Lyman St. for the development of 133 residential units, commercial space, restaurant in five buildings and a parking structure.
- Conditional zoning of property at 28 Forsythe St. for the purpose of adjusting property lines and other minor site plan changes.
For more information on the June 13 meeting of Asheville City Council, click here.
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