At first glance, the agenda for the May 21 City Council work session looked like a light snack compared to the usual multi-course menu for such gatherings. Lately, however, everything on Council’s plate has been flavored by the state’s budget crisis; even seemingly innocuous morsels of local legislative action can cause indigestion. In this case, a simple discussion of the best way to protest the governor’s decision to withhold promised funds turned into a 30-minute debate.
A critical observer might cite the drawn-out exchange as an example of city leaders’ paralysis by analysis. But the fact remains that North Carolina is nearly a billion dollars in the hole. The deficit could approach $2 billion next year, and meanwhile, Gov. Mike Easley is withholding $3 million in reimbursements from Asheville — a sum that could climb as high as $7 million in 2003.
Accordingly, city leaders are preparing a budget that could include laying off city workers, freezing much-needed infrastructure repairs, and closing community centers. Without exception, Asheville City Council members are telling the public that this isn’t your typical belt-tightening, and that these tough choices are a result of what Council member Carl Mumpower called the “state passing on its budget crisis to municipalities.” But exactly which tough choices will be made remains a bone of contention. In fact, the simple act of discussing when to schedule a budget work session nearly turned into a budget debate when Council members began throwing in their two bits.
Council member Holly Jones cautioned, “I don’t want to assume we’re going to adopt that budget.” Mumpower concurred, noting that “this is far from being a done deal.” Council member Brian Peterson peppered City Manager Jim Westbrook with questions about the proposed reductions in city services. But Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy (presiding over the session in the absence of Mayor Charles Worley, who was out of town) quickly reined in the discussion, saying it was more appropriate for an actual budget work session. All this, mind you, in the context of trying to find a convenient meeting date.
Mumpower then precipitated a 30-minute debate when he asked his colleagues for ideas on how to raise public awareness about the crisis and capitalize on an upcoming trip to Raleigh. He and fellow Council members Joe Dunn, Jim Ellis and Holly Jones travel to the state capital on May 29 to meet with the local legislative delegation. After a lengthy discussion about contacting city residents and nonprofit organizations and asking them to write letters detailing how they would be affected by the city’s emaciated budget, the whole idea was dismissed as unfeasible.
Jones suggested using the government access channel to get the word out, arguing that a grassroots effort might carry more weight with state leaders. Dunn took that argument a step further. The public, he said, should be reminded that many members of the local legislative delegation are up for re-election this year.
That sounded an ominous note — especially considering that new or higher taxes may well be looming on the horizon. And if and when they arrive, they’re guaranteed to be unpopular with voters.
The question is, who’ll take the credit and who’ll get the blame?