Whether it’s our grocery bill or our water bill, Asheville residents (like people just about everywhere) are used to costs moving in one direction only: up. On Tuesday, March 22, Asheville City Council approved fee increases that will have some impact on just about every resident’s budget, from fees for trash collection to automobile registration.
Though some of the fee increases have not yet been calculated — for example, changes to city parking fees which may be implemented after a parking study has been completed — the total additional revenue generated by the fees with dollar values attached to them is estimated at $3,275,000.
City finance director Barbara Whitehorn outlined the increases at a regular meeting of Council, which had been preceded earlier in the afternoon by the first of two budget work sessions. The next work session will take place on April 12. A proposed budget document for the 2017 fiscal year will be published on May 6, and a public hearing on the budget will take place on May 24. The final budget will be adopted on June 14.
Fee increases that will directly or indirectly affect most Asheville residents include solid waste fees, water rates, stormwater fees and the cost of annual vehicle registration in the city.
According to Whitehorn and Mayor Esther Manheimer during the budget worksession, Asheville’s solid waste collection fees are lower than in most other municipalities in the state. Currently the rate is $10 per month for residential customers. It costs city taxpayers $22 per month to provide the service. After surveying fees in other towns and cities in North Carolina, the city settled on a monthly rate of $14, which reduces but does not eliminate the taxpayer subsidy (which falls on multi-family residential and commercial customers). The increase in solid waste fees will generate an additional $1.1 million per year.
Council member Gordon Smith expressed concern about how the fee increase would affect households if the city switches to a “pay as you throw” pricing model for waste collection. The city engaged a consultant to perform a study of how Asheville might implement a PAYT program, and the results of the study were presented to Council’s Planning and Economic Development committee. No implementation plan has yet been proposed.
“Our goal is to take the solid waste fee to a point that people who recycle the most could save money [under a PAYT program],” replied Whitehorn, but she admitted that it isn’t yet clear whether that goal will be achievable.
Smith eventually voted against the fee increases, saying he needed clarity on the impact of the solid waste fees on the PAYT program before he could support the package. “For me to support this increase, I need to be confident that we can move ahead with ways for people to decrease their cost,” he said.
Water rates are set to increase by 1.5% for single family, multi-family and small commercial customers, and by 3.5% for large commercial and manufacturing customers. Several years ago, Council member Cecil Bothwell explained, Council realized that household customers were effectively subsidizing commercial customers. Thus, commercial rates have risen more quickly to address that inequity. The 2017 increases will generate $473,000 more revenue than current rates.
Stormwater fees, observed Manheimer during the budget work session, are another area in which Asheville’s fees are low compared to other cities in North Carolina. “We adopted a plan two years ago to bring us up to standard,” she said. “Our infrastructure has been terribly underfunded.” Even so, Manheimer continued, Asheville’s rates will continue to be reasonable compared to other cities. She noted that stormwater fees are based on the surface area a property contains; not all stormwater fees are the same.
A 5% overall increase in stormwater fees will generate an additional $252,000 in revenue.
Perhaps the most dramatic of the fee increases was made possible by new legislation passed this year by the North Carolina General Assembly. The state lawmakers upped the amount municipalities may charge residents for annual vehicle registration from $10 to $30. The revenue generated by the additional $20, a projected $1.4 million, may only be spent on street maintenance or construction.
During the Council meeting, Smith repeated points Manheimer had stressed earlier in the day about the vehicle registration fee. Cities currently depend heavily on state funds generated by the Powell Bill (also called State Street-Aid) to fund street repairs. There is widespread concern that the state is poised to eliminate that funding. The city is taking advantage of a new street maintenance funding mechanism to prepare for the possible elimination of the Powell Bill.
Not only that, said Council member Julie Mayfield, but a graphic Whitehorn showed during the work session illustrated that 55.7 percent of Asheville’s streets are considered to be in “poor” or “very poor” condition. Generating additional revenue that will be dedicated to street repair and maintenance will allow the city to address some of those deficiencies. Also, Whitehorn pointed out, the new funds will free up $600,000 currently allocated from the general fund for streets.
Other fee increases include user fees at the Aston Park tennis courts ($22,000 overall), various charges at the WNC Nature Center (but not admission charges), fees at the U.S. Cellular Center, transit user fees, parking fees and Development Services Department fees.
No member of the public commented on the fee increases, which passed on a vote of 6-1, with Smith opposed.