If you don’t want to be the first City Council in 10 years to raise property taxes, how do you balance Asheville’s budget?
Raise fees, squeeze operating costs, and cut anything resembling a luxury.
That’s the approach City Council members seem to be taking toward fiscal year 1999-2000. In two May work sessions, they’ve gotten their first look at the $59.8 million budget proprosed by city staff and have reached a few tentative conclusions about what they need to do:
• Postpone renovating the Council chambers, which would cost at least $200,000. But consider phasing in the purchase of new equipment for filming and broadcasting City Council and other meetings held there (at a cost of about $54,000 for this fiscal year; the city now pays a private company $30,000 per year to film the meetings — the phase-in would eliminate that cost by the next fiscal year). The renovations, said Mayor Leni Sitnick, are “a luxury we cannot afford, at this time.”
• Increase a number of city fees, such as: downtown parking-meter rates (from 25 to 75 cents per hour); rezoning requests (from a flat rate of $160 to a sliding scale — $250-$700 — based on the size of the affected area); the cost of “renting” a city police officer for Civic Center events (from $22 to $27 per hour); overtime-parking citations (doubled, to $10); plan reviews (from $100-$300, depending on the size of the development); and monthly parking-deck rates (from $38 to $50 per month).
• Delay plans for a new downtown parking facility near the Grove Arcade (the cost would range from $2.8 million for a surface lot to $11.6 million for a 550-space deck; none of the options can be paid for solely by increasing parking fees). But remain committed to the project — promised to Grove Arcade developers — and direct staff to come up with a plan and a funding proposal by Sept. 30. “Without parking, we can kiss downtown goodbye,” declared Sitnick, urging Council to do “as much as we can, as soon as we can.”
• Create an Asheville Transit Services Department to plan and coordinate bus and other public-transit systems in the city. City Planner Bruce Black has proposed adding three new routes (to the airport, the Westridge Shopping Mall and Lake Powhatan/NC Arboretum) and placing bicycle racks on all 16 city buses.
• Raise the starting salary of Asheville Police officers, to bring it more in line with state and national averages — and make the APD more competitive when recruiting new officers (total cost: $166,000). Asheville Budget and Audit Director Ben Durant declared, “Public safety is the most important service of any local government.”
• Increase the city’s building-safety staff, adding an inspector, a research assistant and a secretary for housing-code enforcement (a $127,000 addition to the budget, all told). Other proposed new staff include a public-information officer, two laborers, two mechanical-equipment operators, a GIS (geographic information systems) coordinator and a “center city director” (some Council members took issue with the latter title; Council member Ear Cobb urged, “Call it something else: ‘Center-city director’ sends the message we don’t don’t care about other parts of the city.” The position replaces and expands the duties of the “downtown development director” position.)
• Shave departmental operating costs by roughly 6.5 percent. But, when you factor in an increase in the city’s debt service, the new staff, and a raise for the police, the overall budget will still increase by 4.5 percent, compared to last year. Revenues, according to city-staff calculations, are projected to grow by 6.3 percent.
• And, most definitely: Don’t raise property taxes. The rate will remain at 52 cents per $100 worth of valuation ($520 for a $100,000 home, for example).
Luxuries on a leash
The number-one wish list Council members had to put on hold? Projects that would have been funded by the proposed $18 million parks, recreation and greenways bond issue. Asheville voters naysayed the proposal by less than 400 votes, on May 11. Mayor Sitnick remarked, “One of the things I got out of this vote: People want us to take care of business.”
To that end, the city’s tentative $59 million budget includes such necessities — and/or prior commitments — as:
• $125,000 for a stormwater study; the city must comply with new federal guidelines by spring of 2002.
• $50,000 to create a strategy for economic development, and $25,000 to begin developing a marketing plan.
• Continued development of Haw Creek and Pritchard parks ($100,000 and $175,000, respectively).
• Synchronizing downtown traffic signals ($35,000) and installing traffic-calming devices in residential neighborhoods and other locations ($25,000).
• $400,000 for resurfacing streets, $200,000 for sidewalk projects, and $200,000 to resurface the streets surrounding the Grove Arcade.
• Completing a Brevard Road sewer project ($175,000 this fiscal year).
• $280,000 to buy two automated garbage trucks, which require only one operator (the driver). A robot arm is used to pick up special 95-gallon, rolling garbage cans (the city will also buy and supply the cans; the cost of implementing the project is $108,000).
But several pressing needs remain unfunded: $1.3 million worth of Civic Center improvements (replacing bleachers and adding a new generator and cooling tower); the Grove Arcade parking deck and Council Chamber renovations; and infrastructure improvements for the Azalea Road area ($2.5 million).
As Council member Barbara Field reflected, “We have lots of things we need to do.”
The rest of the budget pie
In theory, the city’s various “enterprise” funds (Water Resources, Transit, Parking and the Civic Center) pay for themselves, through the revenues they generate. In reality, Water Resources is the only one that doesn’t require an annual budget subsidy.
The Transit subsidy, alone, will exceed $900,000, including $80,336 to create a full-time transit-director position (City Council has created a new Transit Department to oversee the public and school-bus system). The department’s total operating budget is $2,328,836.
This year’s $292,682 Civic Center subsidy is 15 percent lower than last year’s, thanks to new revenue generated by ice hockey and public skating. The Center’s total budget for 1999/2000 is $2,082,078.
The Parking subsidy has nearly doubled, however — to $239,180 — largely to cover the cost of replacing parking meters and automating the ticketing and gate system for the decks. The overall Parking budget is $1,735,980.
The Water Resources budget — funded entirely by water-rate revenues and associated fees — will be $20,625,740 for the coming year. The Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson has approved an 8 percent water-rate increase for that budget, in order to: fund more water-system repairs than in previous years; cover water-line relocation costs associated with North Carolina Department of Transporation projects; and operate the new Mills River Water Treatment Plant (scheduled to come on-line in July).