A time crunch can make anyone nervous — including Asheville City Council members. With both the expiration of the Water Agreement and the deadline for approving the 2005-06 budget coming up fast, the pressure showed at Council’s June 14 formal session.
After only a couple of comments from the public lamenting a drop in funding for traffic-calming projects along South French Broad Avenue, Council members and city staff engaged in a protracted discussion over just who will cut the draft budget to make room for additional city initiatives — or whether finding such funding is even possible at this point.
Council first saw the $103.6 million budget on May 2. Since then, Council members and city staff have held five boiler-room sessions, some lasting up to six hours, outlining where each Council member wants money spent.
But at the June 14 session, significant confusion remained over how to proceed. At press time, continued discussion of the issue was scheduled for the June 21 work session, and a vote to approve the budget was on the agenda for the following Tuesday.
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower said he thought Council’s priorities — including his oft-expressed desire for increased law-enforcement spending — had been made clear to city staff at the previous budget meetings. Staff was supposed to find a way to pay for them, he asserted.
But city staffers maintained that they need Council’s guidance in order to cut services and find the money to fund desired initiatives.
Crafting a city budget is never an easy process, but this year’s is especially complicated by the continuing uncertainty about the Water Agreement, which is due to expire June 30. If that happens, it will poke a $2.5 million hole in the city’s revenue stream (the bulk of that money is annual law-enforcement reimbursements Buncombe County now pays to the city under the terms of the agreement). In addition, dissolution of the agreement would result in the city assuming responsibility for assorted parks-and-recreation facilities now cared for by the county — which would also cost the city money, City Manager Jim Westbrook has stressed.
In an interview with Xpress, Mayor Charles Worley described the conflict this way: Council wants city staff to find places across the budgetary board where cuts can be made to accommodate the additional expenses, whereas staff considers such adjustments to be policy decisions that should be made by city leaders.
“If we don’t have some suggestions from you guys on where to make cuts, it’s not going to be a pretty picture next Tuesday,” Westbrook said in his last formal session before retiring. (His replacement, Gary Jackson, takes over as city manager June 27.)
“I thought we had provided guidance,” Mumpower replied. “You all have insights that assist us in our deliberations.”
Council member Joe Dunn urged staff to identify piecemeal cuts that could make up at least part of the anticipated $2.5 million shortfall.
And Council member Brownie Newman emphasized that at this point, it may not be feasible to add major initiatives. “Obviously, we are juggling a bunch of different ideas, and we won’t be able to do them all,” he said.
Staff, meanwhile, reiterated that any additional spending would necessitate cuts somewhere else.
“Whatever makes that list, we’re going to need guidance to fund them,” noted Budget Director Ben Durant, adding, “I’m not sure Council has reached consensus on any specific cut.”
“You can use a hatchet or you can use a scalpel” in tinkering with the budget, said Westbrook. “This is a scalpel.” But with time running out, that kind of fine-tuning might not be possible, he said.
The budget tensions recalled the situation in 2003, when Council members complained that the budget presented by Westbrook did not reflect their priorities. In the aftermath of the dispute, Westbrook’s job appeared to be in jeopardy — a situation the outgoing city manager has no need to worry about this time around.
Council member Jan Davis also seemed irritated that this kind of budget discussion was going on so late in the game.
“It distresses me that we are all sitting up here at the 11th hour,” he said. As for the new budget items on the table, Davis said: “I don’t expect [staff] to come up and redo the budget at the last minute. I just don’t see us filling in huge gaps.”
But other Council members remained convinced that the budget meetings held throughout the past two months had indeed spelled out those priorities and given direction to staff.
“We did sit through all-day meetings,” said Newman. “Why did we do this if we’re just going to rubber-stamp the budget?”
Near the end of the formal session, Worley and City Attorney Bob Oast proposed that Council go into closed session to discuss the Water Agreement. Mumpower opposed the move, arguing that at this stage, such meetings should be held in public view.
The vice mayor, who had circulated a new compromise water proposal via e-mail earlier in the week, asked about the rationale for meeting behind closed doors; Oast answered that the discussion would center on topics protected by attorney/client privilege, which are exempt from the state’s open-meetings law.
Mumpower, however, threatened to walk out of the closed session if it included discussion of a new water compromise with the county.
Council member Holly Jones asserted that repeated attempts by the city to prod Buncombe County leaders into a joint public meeting had been ignored. And Westbrook, too, said the county had not responded to multiple phone calls and e-mails.
“I’m at a loss to know what would be the most effective way to move forward,” said Jones.
Except for a compromise proposal by Newman that Council discussed at the May 10 formal session, most such dialogue has played out behind closed doors.
In the end, Mumpower was the only Council member to vote against moving into closed session. After the meeting, he told Xpress that the conversation had indeed focused on other legal matters, not on a water compromise.
But Worley later told Xpress that Council had briefly reopened the meeting following the closed session and had unanimously approved a letter to the county commissioners once again requesting a joint public meeting. An oral agreement had been reached with the county for a June 28 meeting, he said. At press time, no details were available.