The $2 billion state budget shortfall has Asheville City Council members tangled up in a gnarly knot.
If the governor doesn’t turn over millions in utility-franchise fees and other monies owed Asheville (and other local governments across the state), Council members will have to choose between a property-tax increase or draconian cutbacks — such as a nearly $1 million reduction in the streets-and-sidewalks budget.
“The bottom line is we still face tremendous uncertainty as to whether we will get [those funds] and when we will get them,” declared Asheville Mayor Charles Worley at Council’s June 4 work session.
State legislators are considering a number of bills during the summer session that might force the governor to release local-government funds, but Worley said he didn’t hold out much hope. “I have come to the very reluctant conclusion that I would support a tax increase to [avoid] cuts. … To do otherwise will significantly set back [city] services,” he stated.
Worley’s admission brought on dead silence for a few moments.
Then Council member Carl Mumpower said he had to speak for “the mumbling majority who feel they’re being taxed excessively.” He went on to say that he didn’t think Asheville and other local governments should be footing the bill for the state budget crisis, and urged Council members “to put [their] energy into fighting the loss of revenue.”
Council member Jim Ellis noted city staff’s proposed $2.6 million in cuts — such as reducing parks-and-recreation facility hours and programs, slashing the streets-and-sidewalk budget for repairs and maintenance, laying off another 13 employees, putting off the purchase of police vehicles, and cutting outside-agency funding. “I’m not willing to take those drastic cuts,” said Ellis.
He argued for taking city staff’s recommendation that Council adopt an interim budget and await resolution of the state budget. Regardless of how the state handles the budget crisis, Council would have to adopt its final budget by Aug. 30 — including determining what cuts to make and where to set the property-tax rate. “Like the mayor, I would reluctantly consider [an increase] to the rate,” continued Ellis.
Council member Joe Dunn balked at talk of a tax increase, declaring he could “live with” all staff’s proposed cuts, except the $900,000 gutting of the streets-and-sidewalk budget. It’s time, he suggested, for Council to “step to the plate” and talk about such measures as a hotel-room tax increase that would pump money into street-and-sidewalk repair, maintenance and improvement.
Dunn also spoke in favor of merging city and county communication staff and cutting festivals (Dunn has long argued that the city should not be “in the entertainment business”).
“It’s time to get to the nitty-gritty,” avowed Dunn, suggesting Council proceed with further city-staff layoffs in order to save the streets-and-sidewalk budget.
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy remarked that Council couldn’t “sprinkle some fairy dust” to save some programs, services and jobs without letting staff know what they were willing to cut elsewhere in the budget. She urged staff and Council members to whip out the calculators and go down the list of proposed cuts with them.
But after hours of wrangling, City Manager Jim Westbrook delivered this deadpan observation, drawing laughter from weary Council members and staff: “I’ve been trying to listen for consensus on Council, and I’m not sure I have [heard it].”
In short, Council members were at the same point they were when they started the budget discussion: A slate of fee increases — such as a $20-per-month hike in parking-deck fees for Rankin and Wall Street — won’t make much of a dent in the $2.6 million shortfall. And no matter how much Council members want to save programs and services from the ax … “We can’t give pay raises, fix streets, fill vacant positions [or anything else] on an interim budget. All this is on hold,” emphasized Council member Brian Peterson.
“What did [Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair] Nathan Ramsey say? That he’d eat a rat before he’d raise taxes?” asked Council member Holly Jones, implying that he would soon be eating his words.
State leaders have said they won’t raise taxes to solve the budget crisis — a “bluff and poker” tactic that forces local governments to do the dirty work of cuts and taxes, she argued. “But we’ve got the courage to talk about it,” noted Jones.
She joined in the consensus that Council would adopt an interim budget, continue to press for release of local-government funds, and look for ways to save such services as the $900,000 streets-and-sidewalks budget.
Worley declared that he “wants the state to know what they’re doing to us. … I don’t want to balance the state budget on our backs.”
Other Council news
Roll ’em: The city sanitation division is rolling out the next phase of its automated garbage pickup, Solid Waste Manager Richard Grant announced at Council’s June 4 work session. Starting July 1, about 8,000 households will be added to the rounds made by a lone driver armed with a truck that sports a robotic arm. Old-fashioned garbage service requires one driver and two packers who ride on the back and handle 600 tons of garbage each day, said Grant. The new system cuts employee injuries to nearly zero, he explained.
From the truck seat, the driver operates the robotic arm with controls that resemble those of a Nintendo game. But the new system does sometimes require ingenuity on the part of staff and city residents: In the program’s pilot project, one 88-year-old resident reported that, while it was easy to get his garbage roll-cart down his steep driveway for pickup, he was having difficulty hauling it back up to the garage (the city provides either a 65- or a 90-gallon cart for households on the route). However, the innovative fellow figured out he could drive his car down the hill, hook the roll cart to it and motor back up the driveway with the roll cart in tow, said Grant.
Let there be a task force: Council members agreed to set up two new task forces — one to review the city’s housing code with an eye to improving it, another to join with Buncombe County in finding new ways to address housing needs.
It’s the economy: The Economic Development Strategic Plan Task Force updated City Council members on their progress to date. The group of 19 local business and community leaders have concluded that Asheville’s quality of life — and quality of place — are its most competitive advantage in attracting new businesses to the area, and for supporting the businesses already here, said Task Force Chairman Jack Cecil.
The Task Force urges Council to continue enhancing that advantage through such efforts as planning and infrastructure improvements/maintenance. The group also calls for “aggressive [and] pro-active urban redevelopment” — specifically, promoting higher density and mixed-use development, particularly along the city’s commercial corridors.
Cecil also emphasized the need to “foster small business and entrepreneur development, retention, expansion and recruitment.” He urged locals to consider the growth of the knowledge-based industry, and said, “We need to grow our own [small businesses].” Council members took no formal action on the update.
Sayonara: Mayor Charles Worley took a few moments at the beginning of the five-hour work session to recognize Mountain Xpress reporter Margaret Williams. Minutes before, Worley had learned Williams is leaving Xpress for a new career. He and Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy joined in a round of applause for her nearly eight years on the City Council beat.