Asheville City Council: Short session

May 11 marked an appearance of that rarest of creatures: a short Asheville City Council meeting.

The reason was basketball. Officials from the Southern Conference tournament have approached Asheville about using the Civic Center as a location, and Council members were heading off to mingle with them at the Norah Jones concert.

The result was an earlier meeting time — 4 p.m. instead of the usual 5 — and an intentionally short agenda.

Just after the Council meeting, Council member Gordon Smith revealed that SoCon was showing strong interest but had emphasized the importance of television. "The Civic Center isn't quite ready for prime time," Smith said, "so we'd have to make some improvements."

Despite the meeting's brevity, Council did move forward on some matters. City staff unveiled the much-wrangled-over budget for the next fiscal year and held public hearings on 12 annexations, all but one of which garnered no comments.

The budget cometh

In January, when a projected $5 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year was announced, Council and staff began to weigh their options, most notably in a series of pre-meeting work sessions. Among the proposals that were considered and rejected during the past months were cuts to transit, a tax increase, a four-day work week, and a nine-percent-higher water fee.

The final budget closes the gap through reductions in overtime and employee training, a water-fee increase of five percent, a salary freeze for all employees making more than the median income, reduced brush collection and community-center hours, a selective hiring freeze, an eleventh-hour transit grant from the federal government and a reduction of money given to outside agencies.

The proposed budget also calls for the Asheville Film Festival to take a hiatus this year. Staff noted that the city is looking to eliminate or privatize the event.

Anticipating flat revenues due to the economic downturn, the proposed $96.1 million general budget is about one percent smaller than the current fiscal year's budget.

"This is the third year we've entered the budget process dealing with the effects of the global recession," Administrative Director Lauren Bradley said. "I think we're presenting a budget tonight that thoughtfully balances the city's need to provide quality core services to its citizens while maintaining the current tax rate and also supporting our work force."

Bradley said the cuts and the scaled-down size of the city's budget reflect "the new normal" in the face of the downturn.

Council members were largely silent, seemingly saving their views for the public hearing they unanimously agreed to set for May 25 (the budget will get a final vote June 22). Council member Bill Russell thanked staff for "looking at this during the fall, seeing this is an ongoing thing, being very proactive, keeping us on top of this."

The sound of annexations

During the public hearings on 11 of the 12 involuntary annexations proposed by the city, the sound was silence.

The properties included everything from half of a house in Haw Creek to the future site of the Deerfields residential development to an Ingles in the Airport Road area. A larger set of mostly commercial properties in the same area, which included a Walmart, a Lowe's and a Target, was also up for consideration.

That last proposed annexation was the only one to attract any comment, with attorney (and former Asheville mayor) Louis Bissette seeking a deal for Normac Inc.: If the city exempted Normac's manufacturing plant from the annexation but annexed the rest of its property, Bissette said, the company would waive a requirement that Asheville run a sewer pipe through the property, saving the city $188,000.

"Normac's been there for about 25 years," Bissette told Council. "It makes grinding machines. They're having difficulties, like most manufacturing companies. At one time they employed about 50 people; now they're down to 25."

In response to Bissette's proposal, Mayor Terry Bellamy noted that the city has generally shied away from annexing manufacturers in the past. Vice Mayor Brownie Newman said the proposal "seems creative." Council agreed to ask staff to draw up an amendment for the final vote on the annexation on May 25.

David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, x137 or at dforbes@mountainx.com

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