It was nearly a year ago, during the Asheville City Council’s 2008 retreat, that Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant told Council members the city could face a $1.3 million shortfall in the next fiscal year. But when Council settles in for this year’s two-day session, the economic news will be considerably more grim.
The annual retreat gives Council members a chance to discuss strategy and their respective wish lists for the coming year. But they’ll also hear a preliminary report on the city’s financial outlook. And since Durant advised Council back in November that Asheville may face a $5 million shortfall in the 2009-10 fiscal year (which begins July 1), it seems a safe bet that the budget will figure into most of the conversations that go down during this year’s retreat (slated for Jan. 9 and 10 at the WNC Nature Center).
“There will be a bit of a tone … that will suggest some belt-tightening,” Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson predicts.
Official budget deliberations don’t start until March, but the news that both sales taxes and property-tax growth are flagging means Council members may need to trim those wish lists.
“There’s going to be things we like that we can’t get done,” Vice Mayor Jan Davis concedes. “I don’t view us taking on a lot of initiatives, but we can continue to work on what we’ve started. Last year we set some lofty goals in the strategic plan. Maybe we can put a little more teeth into what we’ve got going”
Like Davis, Council member Robin Cape hopes to push ideas that have already gained a foothold in the community, such as encouraging sustainability in construction and transportation.
“I’m afraid that in a constrained financial climate, people get less creative when it is an opportunity to get more creative,” she observes, adding, “This is an opportunity to find ourselves.”
Nor does Cape want to see the city abandon projects it’s already invested in, such as Overlook Park.
But not everything has a price tag, notes Council member Brownie Newman, and Council still may be able to advance its goals by such means as revising ordinances to promote green building and affordable housing.
“It may be difficult to launch new initiatives that require funding,” says Newman. “But that doesn’t stop us from [considering] public policy. In some cases, it might just be a matter of changing how we do things.”
Council member Carl Mumpower, however, paints a darker picture, saying that he plans to push for drastic spending cuts as soon as possible.
“I think there are some really scary days ahead of us,” says Mumpower. Nonetheless, public safety will remain at the top of his list. But instead of focusing on putting more police on the street, as he has in the past, Mumpower plans to look at ways “the Police Department leaks time and energy.” That, he notes, may mean such things as cutting city-provided security at festivals.
With staff presentations and Council’s annual prioritizing exercise, this year’s retreat looks to follow pretty much the same format as in previous years, says Newman, who met with Mumpower and Mayor Terry Bellamy to hatch plans for the event.
Bellamy says the budget news is a good excuse to emphasize collaboration and partnerships in the coming year. The Nature Center, she notes, is an appropriate venue for the retreat, since the nonprofit successfully recruits volunteers rather than depending entirely on the city.
“That’s the type of partnership we need more of,” says the mayor, adding that her top priority for the retreat is hearing from staff about the state of the city’s core services.
Council member Bill Russell says he wants to look at potential collaboration with Buncombe County to reduce duplication of services. He also wants to narrow down what he calls “pie-in-the-sky” strategic goals. “We need to be very specific with what we ask from [City Manager] Gary Jackson,” cautions Russell.
Richardson, meanwhile, says the city is already pinching pennies at the retreat: Rather than bringing in outside consultants, Council will tap a staffer from the city’s Human Resources Department to lead the event. That means the city will kick off 2009 by saving roughly $3,200, says Richardson.