In prior years, staffers attended Asheville City Council retreats primarily to answer questions as elected officials drafted their strategic plan for the coming year. But with a budget still hampered by the economic slump, a year of hiring freezes and holds on staff raises as well as 16 (count 'em) master plans coming round the bend over the next year or two, the practical limitations facing city staff took center stage during Council's two-day retreat.
Held Jan. 8-9 in Warren Wilson College's Gladfelter Student Center, the retreat was City Council's chance to craft a big-picture strategy for the year ahead. It was also a time to review procedural rules for the benefit of the three new Council members: Cecil Bothwell, Esther Manheimer and Gordon Smith. And all seven elected officials, including Mayor Terry Bellamy, Vice Mayor Brownie Newman and Council members Jan Davis and Bill Russell, had an opportunity to voice their respective concerns, filed under the four large-scale, strategic goals — affordability, safety, fiscal responsibility and sustainability — that are meant to guide future decisions. But a financial reality check provided by city staff made that big picture bigger and badder.
Already in December, the city's Finance Department had delivered the bad news that the 2010-11 budget is facing a reprise of last year's $5 million shortfall. But a report drafted by the city's management team that was included in the informational materials distributed prior to the retreat cited deeper financial issues. Titled "Asheville, NC 2010: A Financial Crossroads," the 11-page document, composed in the wake of a quarterly managers' retreat in October, highlights the disparity between the city's current revenue streams and its stated goals.
"Unprecedented economic conditions certainly necessitated some short-term approaches to balancing the city's budget," the report states. "However, at the same time, they exposed structural weaknesses in the city's financial foundation that were previously compensated for by strong growth in property values."
Those weaknesses include: the inability to institute a hotel/motel tax that could help finance big-ticket projects, such as renovating the aging Asheville Civic Center; the failure of the city's lawsuit that sought to overturn restrictions on Asheville's ability to regulate and disburse water revenues as it sees fit; Council's continued reluctance to raise property taxes; and Buncombe County's method of parceling out sales-tax revenue. In essence, the report asserts, the city has relied too heavily on property-tax revenues, which have now leveled off.
Meanwhile, Asheville now has the largest daytime/nighttime population differential among Tar Heel cities with 50,000 or more residents. This has further strained basic services already impacted by the staff cuts the city has had to make to balance its budget.
"Asheville's financial structure, particularly as it relates to addressing the vision and expectations of the population Asheville supports, is imbalanced," the report states.
The message from city staff is that Council either needs to come up with some creative funding options or settle for being a "low-tax, low-service community, cutting expenditures, programs and services as necessary to maintain balanced budgets each year."
But the latter option is a hard pill for both staff and Council members to swallow. Already, a 2008 citizen survey ranked Asheville "below the benchmark average in terms of citizen satisfaction with core services like street and sidewalk construction and maintenance, sanitation and recycling services, parks and recreation facilities, and public safety support."
And the citizenry clearly wants more, as evidenced by the 16 master plans that came out of years of public input. But, the reports states, those plans have an eventual estimated cost of $200 million.
Currently, property taxes support fully half the city's revenues, but, says the report, "Asheville's ability to rely on the municipal property owner to support the needs and expectations of a much larger population is not sustainable. … Asheville must explore alternative approaches to balancing its revenues with the needs and expectations of its citizens."
Those approaches include legislative options, such as: pushing for a share of the hotel/motel tax that's now funneled to the Tourism Development Authority; lobbying the state for an extension of a quarter-cent local sales-tax hike left over from 2007; and considering bond issues and other dedicated funding streams, such as the one supporting the current $40 million water-system upgrade. (To view the entire white paper, go to www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles.)
The weighty discussion was initially scheduled for Saturday, but the topic factored into conversations throughout the two-day retreat. "We're very concerned about these pressures," said City Manager Gary Jackson, speaking on behalf of a staff that continues to be asked to do more with less. "The consensus of the management team is that we have significant structural-resource issues."
Meanwhile, morale is flagging in some departments, according to police Chief Bill Hogan. "We all have concerns about maintaining the morale of our work force," he said, noting that staffers often view Council as a barometer of their job security. "The 1,000 men and women you employ, they listen to every word you say and in the media," he warned. "They make these quantum leaps about their employment: It frightens them."
In the past, noted Davis, young police officers would leave Asheville in favor of higher-paying positions elsewhere — a problem that's in danger of re-emerging unless wages stay competitive. "That's a serious thing around this table," he said, adding, "We have to give that some serious thought."
Bellamy agreed. "About nine years ago, we were a training factory; people were flying out the doors," she observed. "In the past few years, we're not seeing this."
Partnerships both inside and outside of city government could help address such issues. By consolidating staff from various departments, for example, the recently unveiled one-stop shop for developers on South Charlotte Street is expected to reduce the amount of staff time and resources needed per project. Meanwhile, Asheville and Buncombe County's joint 911 call center is considered a victory, even though it took six years to negotiate.
"We need to sit down and have a really candid conversation of what we want to do with the county or others," offered Newman.
But while voicing support for cooperative efforts, Bellamy also urged caution in considering job consolidation, which often means someone loses theirs.
"People get concerned when you say 'consolidation,'" she noted. "That's people's jobs; their benefits."
Council members plan to discuss partnership possibilities at a work session later this month.
Recent years have seen several discussions concerning the process by which an item makes it onto Council's meeting agendas. About the only point of agreement was the fact that the mayor determines what makes it to the Council chamber, leading some Council members to complain that their proposals were being unfairly held back, or that they had no idea when a proposed agenda item might actually be scheduled. The situation also prompted repeated attempts by at least one now-departed Council member to spark discussion of the same pet concerns, resorting to the public-comment period when they weren't on the agenda.
The new Council also agreed on new rules at the retreat that will require potential agenda items to either be endorsed by the relevant Council subcommittee or have the support of three Council members. And to head off endless time-consuming reruns, ideas that find no support on Council or that come out on the losing end of a vote cannot be resubmitted for six months.
Brian Postelle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 153.