Judging by the sentiment at a June 6 public hearing on Asheville’s new operating budget, most city residents seem to approve the proposed tax hikes — and, maybe more importantly, the improvements they will pay for.
There was standing room only at the hearing, as a dozen folks paraded to the lectern and praised the plan to dedicate 1 cent of the tax rate to creating an affordable-housing trust fund.
“Our mission is to move people from the streets to decent housing,” said Alan Thornberg, who works for Hospitality House. “These people are productive, taxpaying citizens working for minimum wage, and they are homeless — and that is shocking.”
Richard Genc, a consultant for Community Housing Insights, said a similar trust fund in the Greensboro/High Point area built 200 homes last year, which were marketed for less than $80,000 apiece. “Let’s not put low- and moderate-income people out of the city,” he urged.
Several other trust-fund advocates shared horror stories involving their attempts to help people find affordable housing. Mayor Leni Sitnick praised the hard work of Beth Maczka, outgoing director of the Affordable Housing Coalition, and some 50 audience members gave her a standing ovation.
Not everything was rosy at the hearing, however. A handful of citizens criticized the $83 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The budget reflects a 4-cent increase in the tax rate (2 cents for revamping the city’s dilapidated streets, 1 cent for affordable housing, and 1 cent to fund parks-and-recreation projects), plus a $5 hike in the city vehicle tax, earmarked for improving the Asheville Transit System.
Former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson, representing Citizens for Accountable Government, said the city is broke and he opposes the rate increase. Noting that both the federal and state governments have operated with a surplus, he asked why the city can’t, as well.
“Because you abuse your cut,” he said accusingly. “I suggest you cut 10 percent from the $83 million budget; there’s a lot of fat in there. You’ll have to tell the nonprofits, ‘No, we can’t help you.'”
Peterson also took aim at the $11.2 million in the budget for building a parking garage for the Grove Arcade, and he urged Council members slash the transit-system budget by eliminating routes.
“We’ve worked very hard to produce a fat- and waste-free budget,” responded Sitnick.
Itinerant Asheville resident Mickey Mahaffey praised the efforts to establish an affordable-housing trust fund, but questioned why the city manager’s salary is more than $100,000, when the “average income in Asheville is less than $25,000.” He also disapproved of the salary increases at the Asheville Police Department during the last three years, and asked Council members to make sure they’re spending taxpayers’ money wisely.
“While picking up litter the other day, I found a $5 bill, and it just about drove me crazy trying to figure out how best I could spend it,” Mahaffey related.
Also having problems with the budget were two members of the Community of Compassion, a group advocating the easing of police enforcement of marijuana laws. They took issue with the $25,100 in the Police Department budget allocated for the Metropolitan Enforcement Group. COC President Steve Rasmussen said the money pays informants for the purposes of drug enforcement, encouraging “neighbors to spy on their neighbors.” That, he said, is not an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money.
Big issues such as the proposed parks-and-recreation funding didn’t garner much comment, but about a dozen city residents pleaded with Council members to contribute $25,000 toward saving the old Biltmore School from destruction and converting it into a Western North Carolina history museum. Council members seemed to favor funding some outside agencies; several voiced support for the Biltmore School request and for giving the YWCA a like amount.
Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger proposed boosting the annual allotment for traffic-calming measures from $65,000 to $100,000, after speaking with the city traffic engineer and hearing neighborhood requests. The money would come out of the $884,000 generated by the 2-cent rate hike for street repairs, he said. The vice mayor seemed to have Council’s support on this.
Council member Ed Hay suggested waiving a Civic Center fee increase for longtime, annual events such as the boat show, the home show and the craft fairs. The increase would cover the cost of setting up and taking down events during hockey season. “It’s the fair thing to do for the [shows] that have been good to us,” said Hay.
At press time, a final budget vote was set for June 13.
Council split on supporting EDC
Council members warmed up for the budget hearing with a work session earlier that day. The focus there was whether the city should become a voting member of the Economic Development Commission, which has asked the city to contribute $50,000, in exchange for one voting seat.
It turned out to be a sticky issue, and no clear decision was reached. Mayor Sitnick and Council member Barbara Field seemed strongly opposed to the move. Both noted that the EDC has badmouthed city government in the past, and that Buncombe County already contributes $350,000 to the group. If the city contributed too, then Asheville taxpayers would, in effect, pay twice.
“There has been a real effort by the EDC and its staff to exclude the city,” charged Field, a downtown-business owner who considers herself the most business-oriented Council member. “You just get tired of getting slapped in the face.”
The mayor said the $50,000 might be better spent hiring a full-time commissioner for the Asheville Film Board.
The EDC’s nine voting members include six county and three Asheville Chamber of Commerce appointees. Nonvoting members include the city and county managers, plus representatives from the Airport Authority, the Metropolitan Sewerage District, A-B Tech and UNCA.
EDC Director Ernest Ferguson said that, since the commission’s inception (in 1984), it has helped bring in 4,500 jobs and $18 million in state-and-local tax revenues. It does that by recruiting new companies to the area and helping existing ones expand. “The most successful work we do is with the existing industries,” he said.
Field challenged Ferguson on how much of that investment and expansion has taken place in Asheville, as opposed to Buncombe County. The city, she said, might be better off concentrating on its own recently passed Strategic Economic Development Plan.
Council member Charles Worley cautioned Field about excluding the county and other entities. “United we stand, divided we fall,” he intoned. “There is not much land left in the city for large-scale development of industry. An industrial site in the county, or Henderson County, means jobs in this region, and it benefits the city. Our own report emphasizes working together.”
Vice Mayor Cloninger seemed to side with Worley, but suggested that Ferguson sweeten the pot by getting the city two seats on the commission for the $50,000. Ferguson said he didn’t know if the commission would go for it. Council members will have to decide when they vote on the budget on June 13.