- Council begins annexation process, approves map for more possible annexations
- City facing $1 million deficit this year, $5 million next year
- Council asks for more information on art grant projects
Asheville may soon get bigger. At its Feb. 23 meeting, City Council voted 5-2 to start the process of annexing 12 properties. Most are small, and they're clustered to the south and northeast of the city.
Council members also approved a map showing 33.1 additional square miles of adjacent property that Asheville might choose to annex in the future. Most of those areas, which lie to the south, west and east of the current city limits, probably won't end up being incorporated into Asheville, both staff and Council members emphasized. But declaring their intentions now (which they did on a 6-1 vote) will speed up the legal process if the city does decide to stake a claim on portions of them later.
The Sullivan Acts, a series of state laws applying solely to Asheville, restrict the city's ability to annex outlying areas the way other North Carolina municipalities do. Specifically, these laws prohibit the city from making annexation a requirement for access to the water system. In the view of some on Council, this stifles the city's growth and limits its revenue.
"I'm opposed to forced annexation as a matter of principle, but as long as the Sullivan Acts are in place, we have limited options," said Council member Cecil Bothwell. "If you want this to change, it's an election year for our state delegation: They're the ones that can change this."
Indeed, in an earlier financial presentation, staff noted that the city's 3.5 percent growth in its tax base, fueled primarily by annexations, is one of the only factors offsetting the general economic slump.
Sullivan Acts aside, Asheville has historically taken a more cautious approach toward annexation than many other cities in the state, but that might be changing. When Vice Mayor Brownie Newman asked planner Blake Esselton why the plan states that "95 percent of these places won't be considered for annexation in the next two to four years," Esselton replied, "If Council were to decide to take a more aggressive approach, this would facilitate that."
Council member Jan Davis said that such a map is necessary "to be able to take advantage of opportunities. What if one of these areas does really develop in the next few years, and it becomes incumbent on the city to take it in?"
The 12 properties that Council did target for annexation are mostly small — in one case, merely a portion of a single Haw Creek home that's partly in the city and partly outside it — though the list also includes some commercial property. According to Esselton, the annexations are primarily intended to eliminate "doughnut holes" already surrounded by the city and to formally annex parts of larger properties to which the city already provides services.
Mayor Terry Bellamy, noting the substantial budget deficit the city is already facing next fiscal year, asked if these annexations would entail significant expenses. "It would seem to me that this would increase the need for a fire station in south Asheville," the mayor observed.
But Fire Chief Scott Burnette said he anticipates about 50 additional calls per year: an increase, but not a cause for deep concern.
Those assurances, however, didn't satisfy Bellamy, who voted against the proposed annexations (though she added that she might support the move when it comes before Council for final approval in May).
Meanwhile, some residents of the affected areas made no secret of their feelings about annexation.
"We have a large parcel of land, we use a septic tank, we're on a steep slope," said Arden resident June Patterson, adding that she doesn't vote for Council members, uses few city amenities and doesn't see why her property is included in the map of potential annexation areas. "I think this is a very undemocratic process," said Patterson.
And Betty Jackson, who helped lead a successful campaign to persuade Woodfin not to claim her neighborhood, argued that involuntary annexation is at odds with City Council's professed values.
"I'm dismayed a progressive city like Asheville is using a repressive tool like forced annexation," said Jackson. "I know you mean well, I know you have a difficult job, but encroaching on people like this is just wrong."
Despite opposition over the years from residents of targeted areas, most of Asheville's annexation attempts have succeeded. The same day as the Council meeting, in fact, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the city in a lawsuit filed by Biltmore Lake residents unhappy about becoming part of Asheville.
The anti-annexation activists do appear to have at least one ally on Council, however, as Bill Russell noted his philosophical opposition to forced annexation.
"This is the first vote I've had on annexation, and I totally understand the city's position: It's terrible what the Legislature has done," said Russell. "But I'm personally against it, unless it's a voluntary annexation. On that principle, I'm voting against both these measures."
Council will hold a public information meeting Monday, April 12, before holding a final vote on the proposed annexations on May 11. If approved, the 12 properties would become part of the city by September.
Budget woes continue
If Asheville was hoping for some fiscal relief, it is not in the forecast. Due to declining sales-tax revenues, the city is facing a $1 million deficit this fiscal year (which ends June 30), and staffers are already projecting a $5 million deficit next year.
And if that weren't enough, the harsh winter has taken another $300,000 bite out of the budget, as the cost of cleaning up after the extensive storms in recent months has greatly exceeded what was allocated.
Next year's projected deficit stems from a variety of factors, including continuing flat revenues, vastly increased health-care costs and rising operating expenses due to inflation, Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant told Council.
"I've instructed city departments to draw up 4 to 8 percent cuts," he reported, noting that those cuts will mostly translate into increased workloads for city employees, not gaps in services that residents would notice.
Amid all the gloom, Durant added, some systems and revenue streams (such as parking, transit, water and storm-water services) are holding their own or even showing a profit. "On the positive side, the decline in revenues seems to be tapering off," he told Council. Nonetheless, in the coming year, "The balancing act for the city's budget is going to be challenging, to say the least."
Throughout this fiscal year, the city has made up some of the deficit by drawing on its fund balance, a reserve account meant for precisely such situations. But the latest withdrawal leaves the fund balance at just below 15 percent of the total budget, the level city policy recommends.
That news irked Bellamy, who said that despite the city's challenges, they needed to look for ways to restore the fund balance. Meanwhile, the $5 million deficit projected for next year assumes no further withdrawals from the fund balance.
Staff will give Council members more information at their March 9 meeting, along with options for addressing the situation. A preliminary vote on next year's budget is slated for May.
In other matters, Council:
• Decided to hold off on endorsing one of three ideas for a possible National Endowment for the Arts grant until more information was available. One proposal, from the Asheville Hub Project (and already matched by local donations), would use the grant to study the impact of artists on Asheville's economy and consider ways to attract and retain them. Another, which came out of the Downtown Master Plan, would aim to help local artists support themselves by connecting them with buyers. A third, put forward by the city's own Cultural Arts staff, would place additional public art outside downtown.
Bellamy and Davis voiced support for the Hub idea, which wouldn't cost the city any money. However, Council agreed to revisit the question on March 9, to allow time for getting better informed about the different proposals.
• Unanimously approved expanding an existing mixed-use development on Swannanoa River Road, from 125 units to 200. Most of the new units will be one-bedroom or studio apartments, and 20 will meet the city's affordable-housing guidelines.
• Appointed Holly Shriner and Mark Brooks to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Shriner's appointment has sparked some controversy; see "P&Z Appointment Questioned" elsewhere in this issue.