- Council approves $1.7 million in new fees
- Asheville City Council April 13, 2010
- City kicks in $100,000 for pharmaceutical school
- Council divided over municipal unions
The Asheville City Council took a key step toward closing the city's looming budget gap April 13. On three separate votes, Council members approved new fees that, together, are projected to generate about $1.7 million in new revenue. A 5-percent increase in water rates and meter charges accounts for the lion's share of the revenue.
But the decisions didn't come easily. Each time, some Council members objected, asserting that the fees would hit a particular portion of the population too hard or that the time simply wasn't right.
"A lot of the stuff seems like some pretty good, practical changes," said Council member Bill Russell. "It just got a little too complicated, and I pulled back my support for [the fee increases]. I don't want to be the downer tonight, but I won't be in favor of these fee proposals."
Proponents won the day, however (albeit narrowly in one case), calling the increases a necessary step in tight times. Council member Esther Manheimer voiced frustration over some of her colleagues' reluctance to support the proposed water-fee increases.
"I somewhat resent, in a friendly way, those on Council who will not support this," said Manheimer. "I feel that just places the burden on the rest of us, because somebody's got to make sure our books are balanced. We can't just say no to every single modification to our budget to make the books balanced for next year and hope that the lights will just turn on every single day, that every street will be drivable, that we will have police protection and that we will have water when we turn on the sink."
Increases in general fees, including permits and reviews for construction and planning, are expected to net the city an additional $218,000. Bumping up the cost of bus passes and ticket books looks to generate another $47,000. The water-fee increases are projected to bring in $1.3 million.
The general fee increases were approved on a 5-2 vote with Russell and Mayor Terry Bellamy opposed.
"Many of these fees will fall on the worst-impacted industry in our area: the building industry," noted Bellamy. "They're the hardest-hit in our community, and some of these, it's just not the right time for our community to see these increases."
"The part I like the least is increasing the transit fees," said Vice Mayor Brownie Newman. "This is a very basic service, and a lot of people use it. But we do need to find a way to finance things, and this is still a good-value proposition, though I wouldn't support raising it any more."
And after citing his initial reluctance, Council member Jan Davis continued, "but looking over this, I think it's fair, and we do a good job of cost recovery."
Asheville resident Fred English, however, criticized the city's overall fiscal approach, saying Council shouldn't spend money on such items as the art installed recently on the sides of city buses.
"I'm not against an increase here or there," said English. "But you've got to spend money wisely; painting these buses is not that. We've got to cut back first, then do what you got to do."
Next up was a 4-percent water-rate hike, which was approved 6-1 with Russell dissenting.
But the most contentious issue was an additional 1-percent increase to pay for capital improvements in the water system.
"We don't have many large [water users] left; it's mostly moderate-sized businesses, and they'll feel this," predicted Davis. "A total of a 5-percent hike — I'm just not supportive of that."
But Newman and others defended this increase as well.
"I don't like voting for a 5-percent increase when the economy's better," he said. "These kind of fees, they directly affect the cost of living in this community. But on our current funding schedule, it will take 200 years to get to replacing some of our water lines. Well, that doesn't sound like a good schedule."
Fees aside, City Council also approved allocating $100,000 to help UNC-Chapel Hill establish a satellite pharmaceutical school in Asheville. Several local governments and organizations are working on raising the $2.5 million needed to seal the deal. The move came on a 6-1 vote with Council member Cecil Bothwell opposed.
A question of priorities
Not all the votes were split. Council unanimously agreed to forward four legislative priorities to the General Assembly. The first, a joint resolution with Woodfin, would adjust the boundary between the two municipalities so that the entire UNCA campus would fall within Asheville's borders and also fill eliminate several instances of properties falling between the two boundaries in no man's land. Other resolutions seek clarification on the status of funding for public-access television and for state energy-efficiency tax-break funds that state law allows North Carolina cities and counties to establish.
Two other proposed legislative priorities ran into some roadblocks, however. The first was a request by the N.C. League of Municipalities seeking Asheville's support for a lobbying effort to block federal and state legislation that would require municipalities to engage in collective bargaining with police, public-works and fire-and-rescue personnel.
Current North Carolina law actually prohibits municipalities from negotiating with unions. When they must — as with the transit system — the city has to pay a third-party management company to do so on its behalf.
"There are big implications for how we'd do business; it would have a huge impact," said Bellamy. "I think we do need to take a position on this particular issue."
Newman said he saw some good in the legislation though, like Bellamy, he wanted more information before taking a stand.
"The idea is that people would be allowed to form a union, and I might have a different stance on that [from the league]," said Newman. "Right now, they're not, but it would become an option. It's a complex issue."
Bothwell, however, voiced strong support for the proposed laws. "From a personal standpoint, having been a victim of the right-to-work laws here, I think it's dastardly," he declared, noting that union employees typically receive higher pay and increased job security. "I'm very much in favor of unionization at every turn."
Manheimer, meanwhile, said she was "torn" on the issue, and Davis differed starkly from Bothwell, asserting, "I think it would be fairly devastating to the public and to the city. But without more information, I don't think we can take a position on it right now."
Council wound up instructing City Attorney Bob Oast to research the proposed legislation and its potential effects on the city.
Oast was also asked to research Bothwell's suggestion that the city endorse a bill passed by the state House last year that would give local governments the option of publicly financing local elections.
Neither rain nor sleet
In a ceremony at the start of the meeting, City Manager Gary Jackson praised the performance of Asheville's emergency workers, public-works employees and police force during the Dec. 18 snowstorm.
"It took an incredible effort on the part of our staff to address that," said Jackson. "It showed their preparedness, commitment and confidence as they worked through this."
The emergency-service calls, he noted, had quadrupled during the storm, and some staff worked extremely long shifts or stayed on duty for more than 24 hours to keep essential services running.
David Forbes can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.