Faced with a $2.4 million budget shortfall, not to mention massive water-infrastructure needs, the Asheville City Council considered a slew of fee increases at its May 16 work session. And if the proposed increases are included in the 2006-07 budget that Council is slated to vote on next month, virtually no one will be spared. Business owners, homeowners, parents, children, drivers, golfers, water users and others would all be enlisted to help bridge the gap in the city’s pending $100 million budget.
“I think people are willing to pay for things that need to be fixed.”
— Council member Bryan Freeborn
First up: water. While Council members didn’t reach consensus on how or when to change the rate structure, it appears likely that residential, commercial and wholesale water customers could all see a new capital-improvement-projects fee on their water bills beginning July 1. Based on the size of a customer’s water meter, the proposed monthly increases could range from $3.50 for residential customers to upward of $1,430 for the largest industrial users. The system’s three wholesale customers — the towns of Black Mountain, Biltmore Forest and Woodfin — would collectively pay an additional $101,000 annually for city water.
All told, the new fee would bring in a projected $6.1 million per year to jump-start a multiyear, $60 million program aimed at fixing the city’s dilapidated water infrastructure and upgrading facilities, said Water Resources Director David Hanks. On the schedule for next year are upgrades at the city’s water-treatment plants and a handful of state road projects. Together, these improvements would cost nearly $2.8 million.
Other needed work includes: replacing several large lines; replacing smaller, neighborhood lines; installing hydrants and larger lines needed for fire protection; and new tanks and pumps to add capacity in emerging high-demand areas such as the Charlotte Highway corridor, said Hanks. He also emphasized the need to spend several million dollars to upgrade the North Fork Reservoir plant and make the Bee Tree Reservoir plant operational again.
Council member Carl Mumpower said he supports the proposed fee in principle but thinks it would be a mistake to fiddle with water fees and rates before the city’s lawsuit against the state over the Sullivan Acts is settled.
But Council member Bryan Freeborn seemed disinclined to wait, saying, “We have serious needs, and we need to pay for those needs. I think people are willing to pay for things that need to be fixed.”
Residents and businesses have complained for years about the aging and sometimes unreliable water system, noted Vice Mayor Holly Jones. “Well, we’re getting ready to [tackle it] in a major, major way,” she said.
Also on the table was a proposal to adopt a uniform rate structure. Residential customers now pay a higher rate, and businesses that use a lot of water could be hit hard by such a change. Several Council members fretted that a new rate structure, on top of the new storm-water fee and the proposed capital-improvements fee, would stymie job growth and economic development.
But Jones argued that the reconfiguration would merely bring things more in balance. “It’s fair,” she said; “Households have actually been carrying the load.” Besides, added Jones, “A shower at the Grove Park Inn [should] cost the same as a shower at my house.”
As executive director of the YWCA, Jones said her agency would take a hit from both uniform rates and the capital-improvements fee, but she maintained that large users need to pay their fair share for water and for system upkeep and repair.
The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that the city is heading toward adopting a uniform rate structure. But Council members could not agree on whether to take the plunge in the next fiscal year, phase in the change, or simply tread water.
“My gut tells me this is not the year to do it,” said Council member Robin Cape, who voiced support for the capital-improvements fee and for phasing in a uniform water rate.
Park downtown often? Like to play golf at the city-owned course? Own a business whose license is up for renewal? If so, you may feel the pinch of other proposed fee increases.
A good chunk of the city’s budget gap could be made up by raising the cost of business (or “privilege”) licenses. A staff proposal would post an estimated net revenue gain of $550,000; a toned-down version coming out of City Council’s Revenue and Finance Committee would bring in an estimated $300,000. The staff proposal would double the minimum fee (from $25 to $50), with incremental increases based on sales volume and no maximum amount. The committee’s plan would keep the $25 minimum except for wholesale businesses, set lower incremental increases, and have no maximum except for manufacturers, whose fee would be capped at $1,000.
“I would speak against raising this fee,” said Mumpower. “It’s a readily accessible revenue fee, but you’re taxing the people that provide the jobs.”
Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant said the change should not significantly affect most small businesses. The major impact, he said, would be on the 96 businesses that currently pay the maximum. Forty of those would see their fees go up by less than $1,000. The biggest businesses — such as Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Ingles, Best Buy, Bi-Lo, Target and Carolina Tractor — would see fee increases of more than $5,000.
Downtown parking is also on the table. Proposals call for raising the hourly rate at the Rankin Street deck to 75 cents, with a $6 daily maximum and a $90 monthly permit fee. Monthly permits at the Civic Center deck would rise to $70.
Those who park in surface lots would take a bigger hit. Monthly passes would cost $80 for city lots 13 and 14, and $100 for the Handi-Park lots; on-street permits would jump from $20 to $75.
Other proposed fee increases are as follows:
• Asheville Transit fares would rise by 25 cents (to $1); seniors and the handicapped would now pay 50 cents. Transfers, however, would now be free.
• Memberships at the city-owned golf course would increase by $100 for county residents living outside of Asheville — city residents would not be affected. The formerly free senior family memberships would skyrocket to $800. Greens fees would also more than double, to $35 weekdays and $40 on weekends year-round. Thirty-day play passes would increase by $100 for both city and non-city residents, with the latter continuing to pay more.
• Nature Center fees for school groups would double to $2 per student (city schools) and $3 per student (county schools).
Council members heard a presentation from a group of Asheville High students intent on revamping the city’s transit system. The students — Alicia Funderburk, Leah Downey, Zach Cobb, Alice Royer, Jotwan Daniels and Chanel Fretwell — proposed retooling transit schedules and routes and vastly increasing marketing efforts to boost ridership. The students also proposed that the city purchase 16 small, used buses that run on cleaner-burning biodiesel fuel. The buses, which would cost about $16,500 each, could be deployed in high-demand areas. Together, these moves would reduce pollution, attract more passengers, and provide a cheaper alternative for students and working people hit by the high cost of gasoline, the group argued, winning audience applause.