Have you ever started out in a new direction, only to wind up near where you began?
That describes the creative accounting methods Asheville City Council members used during their June 15 work session on the budget: They started out facing a $94,000 deficit in the proposed 1999-2000 budget, spent a couple of hours shuffling expenses and revenues — and ended up with a $95,000 shortfall (to be made up by dipping into the city’s general fund).
Council members had to laugh at themselves. At the beginning of the discussion, they had looked at a list of unfunded or unresolved budget issues, noting that the goal was to arrive at a consensus, so city staff could formalize the budget before Council’s June 22 formal vote. Said Vice Mayor Ed Hay, “So, we shouldn’t leave this room until we’ve resolved these … issues?”
City Manager Jim Westbrook said he hoped that was the plan.
At the top of the list was parking: Should City Council (following a staff proposal based on the city’s recently completed downtown-parking study) raise the monthly parking-deck rate from $38 to $50, and the parking-meter rate from 25 cents per hour to 75 cents?
But the answer to that question proved highly political.
One after another, Council members reported having received numerous phone calls and other complaints about the proposal. Earl Cobb said that he had initially supported the 75-cent rate, because downtown-business owners had said it would discourage employees from feeding meters all day, freeing up on-street spaces for customers. But Cobb noted that he’d received so many complaints about the proposal that he now was unwilling to go higher than 50 cents.
O.T. Tomes — noting that he’d also received quite a few calls about “the tremendous increase” — asked staff what effect it would have on the overall budget if the parking-deck rate were increased to just $45 per month. “That would be a little more palatable to some of our customers,” he remarked. The meter rate was last increased in 1991 (from 5 to 25 cents), the monthly deck rate in 1995, and the hourly deck rate in 1988 (when it was set at 50 cents).
With no increase in parking-service rates, cautioned city staff, Council would have to transfer more than half a million dollars from the general fund into the parking-services account. With the proposed increases (which include stiffer fines) on the other hand, Council would need to transfer only about $114,000, explained Audit and Budget Director Ben Durant (staff’s initial estimate was nearly twice that amount; but City Finance Director Bill Schaefer recently revised the figures, taking into account a projected 2 percent growth in parking usage and using a more exact breakdown of the number of monthly and hourly deck spaces.
Council member Chuck Cloninger reminded Council of its pledge to buy the Royal Pines swimming facility, which adds about $200,000 per year to the budget shortfall.
Barbara Field — who had urged staff to take projected growth into account in their budget calculations — also asked that staff delete the roughly $200,000 debt-service expense for a new parking facility. She insisted that any new facility “should pay for itself.”
“That’s not going to work,” objected Cloninger.
Durant explained that there are initial costs involved in building a new facility (such as buying land).
Field was unswayed. But she also questioned whether staff anticipated a reduction in parking revenues, as a result of increasing the fees.
Revenue manager Deborah Crowder replied that after the last increases, there had, indeed, been an initial drop — but that the lost revenue had been recovered over time (an example of what staff called the “elasticity” of the figures).
“Everybody grumbles about it, but they pay [the increase] and keep their spaces,” Field observed. But she also askedwhere part-time downtown employees will go, if Council raises both the meter rate and deck rates to levels those employees can’t afford? “You’ll be sending them to nowhere,” she predicted, adding that Westbrook had told her the only alternative to building a new downtown facility would be bumping monthly parkers out of the Wall Street deck, to make room for hourly parkers visiting the shops or restaurants in the Grove Arcade (now under renovation).
In response, Westbrook noted that what he had actually said was that such a move would temporarily fulfill the city’s commitment to the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation, until a new parking facility was completed.
In the midst of this meandering discussion, Mayor Leni Sitnick said she had received a call from a business owner who was not dismayed at the proposed increases. The woman noted that she had probably saved money over the years, because rates hadn’t been increased in so long. “I’ve [also] heard somebody say, ‘Who are all these crybabies who want parking right next [to where they wish to go]?'” remarked Sitnick, observing that downtown visitors and workers in many cities expect to walk a few blocks to reach their destination.
But that did little to stem the political tide. Field called the proposed hourly deck rate “artificial” and challenged the theory that it would encourage people to use the decks, instead of metered spaces. “I agree we should raise rates,” she stressed, adding that she just wasn’t sure what amount to charge to make the system work.
“The general assumptions are sound,” replied Durant. If the hourly meter rate is higher than the parking-deck rates, motorists will prefer the decks (where they won’t have to return to feed the meters every hour).
Then Hay made a proposal: Pull out the debt-service set-aside for a new facility, raise the meter rate to 60 cents per hour and the monthly deck rate to $45; and leave all other recommendations as is (such as doubling the overtime-parking fine). Doing some quick math, Hay estimated that these changes would reduce projected parking revenues by about $74,000.
Cobb interjected that hourly deck rates should be increased to $1.
But Cloninger shook his head. “That’ll make people drive round and round [downtown], trying to find a metered space. You discourage people from using the decks when you do that,” he maintained.
And Hay, noting that the public hadn’t had a chance to give feedback on the $1-per-hour rate, suggested 60 cents per hour, instead.
“My head’s swimming,” complained Sitnick, adding that she was “still reeling” over the deal the majority of Council had offered Honda Hoot participants (50 cents for a five-day parking pass).
Cobb reiterated that he wouldn’t support any proposal that exceeded 50 cents per hour on metered spaces.
Field suggested limiting the increase for monthly surface-lot rates to $27 (instead of $30, as proposed).
Hay consented to that, remarking, “We can’t just jack people up.” And Sitnick said she would support his recommendation, reluctantly.
Cobb repeated that he wouldn’t support 60 cents.
But the majority view held, and Council directed staff to put Hay’s recommendation into the budget.
Cut and paste
The smaller parking-rate increase meant that Council had to cut the budget somewhere.
The first casualty was a new staff position (public-information officer — even though the city manager has already interviewed a few candidates). Cobb said that Council is essentially “at the mercy of the media.” Cloninger noted that the position could become “a propaganda tool” for the political majority on Council. Hay insisted that he still felt Council members need help explaining themselves on key issues and misunderstandings. Sitnick countered that all the PR effort in the world won’t make newspapers print city press releases. Tomes observed that having a public-information officer amounts to always reacting, instead of doing a better job of explaining things up front. And Field suggested that Council should, instead, use the new government cable channel for dispensing information.
That cut saved nearly $50,000.
Next up was another new staff position (center-city director) and funding for an upcoming center-city strategic plan. Hay suggested holding off on both until the new year. That would give the new planning director and the new economic director time to get up to speed on downtown issues, and the Downtown Commission (a volunteer board) time to finalize the scope of the plan, he said.
But Field, arguing that the city is “woefully understaffed” in urban planning, pleaded for the money ($50,000) to hire a center-city director, who could do much of the strategic plan in-house, with help from the commission. “We need a leader,” she declared.
Some aspects — particularly transportation issues — may need to be outsourced to a consultant, noted Interim Planning Director (and Assistant City Manager) Doug Spell. The commission has already pledged about $50,000 for researching and drafting the plan.
Cloninger leaned Hay’s way, while stressing both his own and Council’s continued “strong support” for downtown.
“It wouldn’t hurt us to wait,” interjected Cobb.
But Tomes proposed a compromise: Let the new planning director (slated to start work in mid-July) get his feet wet on the job, and report to Council as soon as possible on the center-city issue. Tomes said he could see the merit in having a center-city director involved in the new center-city plan from the start, he said.
After a bit more discussion, Tomes’ recommendation held — and another $50,000 expense was postponed.
But into the budget went $50,000 for the first phase of upgrading the Council Chamber audio-visual system for recording and broadcasting meetings. To complete the upgrade, Council will have to commit $58,000 in next year’s budget. But the city is expected to recoup the money in a few years, because it won’t have to pay a private company approximately $25,000 per year to videotape Council meetings (staff can do the work).
Sitnick observed that all the numbers seemed to be multiples or fractions of $50,000.
On a more serious note, the mayor tried (as she has before) to persuade Council to trim the city’s $100,000 subsidy to the Chamber of Commerce. “There’s this balancing act,” she said, referring to all the other pressing needs Council faces. But her effort failed on a 4-3 vote (Tomes and Cobb supported her; Field, Hay, Cloninger and Sellers said support for the Chamber should continue).
Council also approved paying $6,709 each year for the next three years to help fund a new Institute of Government building in Raleigh. The League of Municipalities had urged Asheville’s support, said City Manager Westbrook. Council members unanimously agreed that the contribution is warranted and should come from the city’s contingency fund.
But they chose to trim the $85,000 earmarked for new signs to help people find the city parking decks (as recommended by the parking study). “If you raise [street] rates to get people into the decks, you need signs,” urged City Engineer Cathy Ball. The parking study said that many visitors had reported having trouble finding the decks.
But Council urged her to cut the sign budget in half.
“We’re down to $66,000 from the general fund,” noted Hay, keeping a rough count of the cuts and add-ons.
Pleased with their progress, Council members agreed to follow the recommendations in another recently adopted plan — the Pedestrian Thoroughfare Plan — and hire a pedestrian coordinator. The state Department of Transportation will pay about half of the person’s salary, as long as they don’t do any greenway-design work, explained Assistant Public Works Director Suzanne Malloy. That means the position will cost the city just $18,000.
At this point, Westbrook mentioned that Hay’s calculations were a little off … and that the budget shortfall was now $1,000 more than what they had started with, before they factored in the Royal Pines deal.
Council members laughed — and, shortly thereafter, they called it a night.