Can Asheville convince its neighbors that chipping in on city expenses benefits the entire region? Asheville City Council hopes so. The city's ability to provide the level of services and infrastructure residents desire may rely on forming partnerships with other governing bodies and organizations, as well as lobbying Raleigh for legislative action.
In a Jan. 19 work session, Council continued to wrestle with the news that with traditional funding sources going flat and a bevy of master plans in the hopper, Asheville simply can't go it alone.
"This is the state of the city, not a judgment about how we got here," City Manager Gary Jackson clarified in launching the discussion. In early January, Jackson's office and the city's department heads co-authored a white paper, titled "Asheville 2010: A Financial Crossroads," that figured heavily into Council's Jan. 8-9 retreat. The gist of the document is that absent new revenue streams, Asheville cannot accomplish the goals it has set and, indeed, may not even be able to maintain its current level of services. Determining that the topic warranted more discussion than the retreat's agenda allowed, Council members scheduled the special session.
"I hope our conversation will be [about] how we can improve legislation or improve relationships," Mayor Terry Bellamy observed. But she also acknowledged that the conversation is a delicate one. In the past, Council has made no secret of its disappointment and frustration over state legislative actions that limit city revenues and/or restrict how they can be spent. Water revenues, for example, are tightly regulated by the Sullivan Acts.
The city also misses out on millions in hotel/motel taxes that are now handed over to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority for use in marketing Asheville as a destination. The nine-member TDA board, in turn, contracts with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, an arm of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, to implement its projects. Past Council discussions have focused on either tapping into those revenues or increasing them for the city's direct benefit. Bellamy said she wants to make the case that investing in the city is in the TDA's best interest.
"I understand the TDA is concerned about their product-development fund," the mayor noted. "But if we woke up tomorrow and said we're not going to sweep our streets, you can't tell me that won't affect tourism."
In previous years, Council has included appeals for both forms of relief in its annual legislative agenda, a wish list sent to the local delegation in Raleigh for consideration. But there has been little or no movement on these issues.
Meanwhile, Buncombe County's method of distributing sales taxes means Asheville receives only a fraction of the revenue it generates.
About half of Asheville's revenue comes from property taxes, which Council has so far refused to raise. But with development and annexation both down, those revenues are flattening out.
Bothwell said he would favor breaking the stance Council has set out in that arena. "I am not averse to raising property taxes," he said. "I consider property taxes a tremendous bargain. There are things the city does for me that I can't do for myself." But with most of his colleagues on record opposing an increase, Council seems unlikely to follow Bothwell's lead.
Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, meanwhile, said his take on adjusting any taxes, including sales taxes, would hang on what the city wanted to do with the money. Responding to Bellamy's mention of a long-discussed performing-arts center, Newman said he wouldn't favor raising the sales tax to pay for it. But there did seem to be support for seeking an extension of a quarter-cent sales-tax increase approved by the General Assembly in 2007 but due to expire this year. There was also a brief discussion of a possible tax on prepared foods and beverages.
Against that background, the key could turn out to be persuading others to help foot Asheville's bill. Revenue shortfalls in the current budget have already led to reductions in city services, and another $5 million gap is projected for next year.
If still more cuts are needed, Bellamy predicted, Asheville will begin to lose its luster, which affects tourism and revenues for the entire region. "We need to make the case that Asheville is the goose that laid the golden egg," she said. "We are the product people sell."
And with 16 approved master plans representing millions of dollars in upcoming infrastructure costs, Asheville finds itself in the position of having to sell itself to its neighbors — and state legislators.
"We're going to have to make them realize they are going to have a more serious problem if Asheville falls into neglect," said Council member Jan Davis. City-owned facilities such as the Civic Center, he pointed out, are also used by other county and Western North Carolina residents.
But obtaining the necessary funding, noted Newman, does not necessarily mean persuading others to simply hand over money to Asheville. Another way to approach it is to enlist them as partners in mutually beneficial joint projects, he said. The parks-and-greenways system planned for Asheville, for instance, would also serve county residents and draw tourists.
"Would Buncombe County be willing to dedicate some of its sales tax for funding some of these initiatives?" wondered Newman. "The easier thing than convincing them to send money is to get them to help with our priorities." That, in turn, would enable the city to take care of basic services such as public safety, he said.
Davis also saw some hope in the Legislature's amending of the Sullivan Acts last fall to allow Asheville to use a small portion of water revenues to enhance other infrastructure in conjunction with a water-line repair or upgrade. That chink in the armor, he said, could lead to more wiggle room for the city later.
City staff had recommended a series of public-input sessions to mine ideas and priorities, but some Council members said they wanted to narrow the field themselves before dropping the issue on the public. Besides, said Davis, the master plans represent priorities already endorsed by Asheville residents.
"We got a lot of input on these master plans, and there are expectations from the people who gave that input," he noted.
Council plans to schedule another work session to continue the conversation and consider holding public-input sessions sometime in March. Meanwhile, the state legislative session begins in May, meaning any wish list the city might pull together needs to be submitted in the next few months.
Brian Postelle can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.