Sound the retreat

“Unusual people walk around the streets of Asheville, and Asheville is getting a reputation.”

— Council member Joe Dunn

What was planned as a two-day, goal-setting retreat for the Asheville City Council quickly became an exercise in slash-and-burn budget cutting.

Typically, the retreat is a time for city leaders to cloister themselves far from the distractions of home and focus on setting goals for the upcoming year. This year’s retreat — held Feb. 8-9 at an inn in Tryon — was also intended to serve as an exercise in team-building for a City Council boasting four new members, most of whom were unacquainted with the various city department heads. Just one day before the retreat was to start, however, Gov. Mike Easley announced that the state — facing a nearly $1 billion deficit — would be withholding $200 million dollars in scheduled revenue payments to municipalities.

For Asheville, the news was grim. And with a demeanor reflecting the gravity of the situation, City Manager Jim Westbrook outlined how much the state’s budget woes would affect the city. Simply put, the Asheville is expecting to lose just over $3 million in revenues. Westbrook explained that the money — most of it collected locally — comes from such sources as utility taxes, inventory-tax reimbursements, beer-and-wine excise taxes, homestead-exemption reimbursements and sales-tax revenues (which are expected to be down by 3 to 4 percent).

With those funds withheld and no light visible at the end of the tunnel, Westbrook bluntly noted, “I need to turn the spigot off — now.”

Further complicating the situation is the fact that the city is nearly eight months into its fiscal year, and the lion’s share of the $88 million budget has already been spent. In other words, the $3 million loss comes at a time when city coffers are already running low.

City Budget Director Ben Durant summed things up by noting, “We’re either gonna have a tough year or a really tough year.”

To balance the city budget, Westbrook and Durant compiled a list of suggested cuts. Noting that the city is “already a pretty lean organization,” Westbrook detailed reductions ranging from street paving ($600,000) to Civic Center repairs ($75,000). Also on the list were the elimination of the entire budgets for traffic-calming measures ($100,000) and summer youth programs ($50,000). Funding for outside agencies was also on the chopping block ($217,000 — the amount not already received by funded agencies). In addition, the two staffers had axed the budgets for construction, equipment and vehicle purchases, park renovations, a storm-water study, sidewalk repairs, and staff travel and training.

To highlight the extent of the cuts, Westbrook pointed out, “The next step is closing community centers and things like that. … If the outlook doesn’t improve, we could be looking at laying off employees and reducing city services.”

Mayor Charles Worley emphasized to the new Council members that the funds being withheld are the city’s money, which the state holds in the same way a bank would. The governor’s action, said Worley, is equivalent to the bank just deciding it won’t give you the money you deposited. “This has hit us like a ton of bricks. We had no forewarning, no input. This is the state taking their budget woes out on us,” he declared.

On that note, Council moved on to the retreat’s scheduled agenda, structured around reports by city department heads.

Economic Development Director Mac Williams kicked off the presentations with an update on his office’s efforts to bolster the city’s economy. Williams’ department is tasked with attracting business and industry to Asheville to expand the tax base and improve employment opportunities. The city’s strongest selling point in luring new businesses to town, he explained, is its “quality of place” — the fact that this is an appealing place to live. But, he added, “There are 15,000 economic-development offices in this country competing for a couple-hundred projects.”

Williams also noted another challenge of trying to develop new industry in this mountain city — one linked to the Unified Development Ordinance. There is a zoning designation for commercial/industrial land, he explained, but much of the land so zoned ends up being for commercial rather than industrial purposes. Williams emphasized the need for more commercial/industrial land within the city limits — and for a push to locate industry in those spaces. “If Square D came in to town today, I wouldn’t know where to put them,” he said.

Council member Joe Dunn mentioned a perception within the business community that Asheville is a tough town to do business in. He cited bureaucratic red tape; the lengthy application-and-review process for new development projects; and the fact that in the past, some developers have jumped through all the required hoops only to have their applications rejected by Council. “I’d like to kill that perception before we spend any more time, energy or money,” said Dunn, adding, “I’d like to see us cut down on regulations and lower costs.

Council member Carl Mumpower echoed Dunn’s concern, noting that the city must work to emphasize the positive actions it is taking on economic development. “I hope we put our emphasis on changing the perception of Asheville being anti-business,” he added.

Police Chief Will Annarino updated Council on the state of his department. One of the highlights of his presentation was the announcement that the city’s overall crime rate has decreased by 11 percent and continues to go decline. Annarino also reported that his department is in the midst of an ongoing push to raise the education level of all its employees. Currently, he said, 32 percent hold a B.A./B.S. degree, 8 percent hold an M.A./M.S. degree, 16 percent hold an A.A./A.S. degree, and 44 percent have at least 30 credit hours of higher education.

Annarino also raised the issue of competitive entry-level pay, noting that his department lags behind others of comparable size. As a recruiting took, he said, he’s working toward having assigned police cruisers for each officer. Besides helping with recruitment, he explained, it makes the cars last longer, and it saves time (because officers can leave from home and immediately begin policing without first making a trip downtown).

In addition, Chief Annarino alerted Council that he will soon request new city ordinances governing solicitation and panhandling, graffiti, and picketing and protests.

Citing a recent Supreme Court ruling involving the city of Chicago’s protest ordinance, Annarino told Xpress that the ruling supports controls on time, place and fees for permits. “This is in the interest of public safety,” he explained. “If [under Asheville’s current picketing and protest ordinances] the Klan came tomorrow, we’d have little say over how their protest is conducted. This is a proactive step.”

Asked about the basis for the changes he’d mentioned, Annarino replied, “I feel that we have little to no control, and what control we do have is gradually being eroded.”

After the other department heads had concluded their reports — including City Engineer Kathy Ball, Director of Planning and Development Scott Shuford and City Attorney Bob Oast — Council members brainstormed their individual and collective goals.

Dunn, for example, focused on public behavior, law enforcement and the role of government in entertainment. He started by discussing what he called the “vagrancy problem and the street people in the city.” Even petty crimes, he emphasized, contribute to disorder.

Speaking about panhandling, Dunn noted: “When these behaviors continue, it demoralizes residents and hurts neighborhoods; it bothers our citizens.” Dunn then read from an essay in U.S. News and World Report celebrating former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giullani and his crackdown on crime in the Big Apple before returning to the subject of the homeless and panhandling. “For some people,” Dunn observed, “living on the street is a right to be defended. I don’t think so. [By being homeless] these people are saying, ‘I have a very big problem, and I need help.’ You have to be indoors before we can help you.”

Dunn maintained that his opinions, though shared by many city residents, aren’t typically heard. As for a final solution, he proposed giving the police “the green light to be a little more aggressive in taking these people off the street,” and suggested increasing Police Department funding. “Unusual people walk around the streets of Asheville, and Asheville is getting a reputation,” he reasoned.

Dunn also pointed out that the city spends “$10 [million] to $15 million out of an $80 million budget” on entertainment. He suggested studying the consolidation of the city and county Parks and Recreation departments, saying he had learned that The John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, would be willing to conduct the study on behalf of the city for free. “We need to take a good, hard look at whether we should be entertaining people when our infrastructure is going down the tubes,” he said.

Council members Jim Ellis, Holly Jones and Brian Peterson expressed interest in continuing a dialogue on campaign-finance reform. Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy pushed for public-transportation improvements, affordable housing and increased diversity on boards and commissions. She also echoed a goal set by Council member Carl Mumpower: pushing for action on the I-26 Connector project.

Mayor Worley noted the interelatedness of many city issues — pointing out, for example, that affordable housing affects education and economic development. In highlighting the connections, Worley asked his colleagues to consider the big picture when setting goals, adding, “Nothing is in isolation.” When all was said and done, Council members’ various goals filled five big pages of flip-chart paper, which were hung on the walls of the conference room.

After all the brainstorming, Council whittled down the goals to a manageable list divided into several categories. Under “regulatory issues,” Council members voted to push for affordable housing and streamlining the development process. Under “fiscal responsibility,” they agreed to support continued efforts to re-engineer city government — trimming fat and reducing duplication of tasks within departments. Council also agreed to work toward creating a housing-subsidy program for city employees.

Regarding transportation, Council emphasized improving street-and-sidewalk infrastructure and public transit. Under “public safety,” all seven Council members agreed on increased support for the Police and Fire departments, plus efforts to address the city’s drug problems. As for “public relations,” they agreed to work toward changing the public perception of affordable housing, and improving relations with both the county and the legislative delegation in Raleigh.

Finally, under a catchall category called “support issues,” Council members also agreed to focus this year on education, campaign-finance reform, air quality and the I-26 connector.

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