“We are going to walk out of here with nothing … because we have done nothing.”
— Council member Holly Jones on the budget talks
It was supposed to be a one-hour discussion before the June 17 regular Council work session, but the budget talk dragged on more than twice that long, and in the end … they still weren’t finished. Not even close.
Save the suspense and let Council member Holly Jones‘ comments sum things up: “I’ve never been more frustrated,” sputtered Jones toward the end of the two-and-a-quarter hours of infighting and jockeying that made up the third public budget discussion in as many weeks. Turning a cynical eye on both the proposed budget in her hands and the upcoming formal vote on it, she observed, “We might as well vote today and do something else Tuesday.”
At issue was the weighty volume known as Asheville’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2003-04. Jones’ laments stemmed from the glaring lack of reference to the priorities City Council had endorsed at its retreat back in January. That five-point list included increased support for affordable housing, improving city infrastructure, addressing transportation needs with an eye toward environmental issues, retooling the Unified Development Ordinance, and providing a Social Security option for city firefighters.
Jones, one of Council’s affordable-housing champions, branded the proposed budget inadequate on several counts. And judging by her fellow Council members’ comments, she saw little hope for improving it.
“We are going to walk out of here with nothing,” declared Jones, dropping the heavy document onto her desk and eyeing it like an overcooked steak. “This is our new budget de facto, because we have done nothing.”
Cuts and fills
Jones’ exasperated tone wasn’t all that different two hours earlier. Noting the tenor of Council’s discourse and the seeming lack of procedure for making changes, she called the discussion a “stalemate” shortly after it had begun.
Indeed, the preferred technique for fiddling with the budget seemed to vary from one Council member to another. Some (such as Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy) favored trying to gauge where the consensus lay first and then instructing staff to come up with the money somehow.
Mayor Charles Worley, however, disagreed, maintaining that budget cuts are part of policy-making — and therefore part of Council’s job.
Still others seemed to vacillate on how best to proceed. Council member Joe Dunn began the meeting seemingly operating from the premise that City Manager Jim Westbrook and his staff know more about city departments, actual spending and individual employees and are therefore better able to make cuts. Later, though, Dunn took the opportunity to suggest paring the Parks and Recreation Department budget (specifically, the phase IV expansion of the French Broad River Park, which he’d targeted at the budget work session two weeks earlier, though he seemed to have other items in mind as well). “I think we should look at cuts,” said Dunn, adding, “Maybe the city’s gotten to the point where it’s doing too many things for too many people.”
Whatever the approach, however, some significant carving would have to be done to make room for two items on Council’s “priority list” that haven’t made it into the budget.
Many Council members seemed to support allowing city firefighters to opt for Social Security coverage. But there was less agreement on how to find the money to pay for the city’s share.
Around this time last year, Asheville firefighters came before Council seeking to improve their retirement benefits. Historically, city firefighters have voted against paying into Social Security; they remain the only city employees not on the system. A year ago, Council said it would try to fund an actuarial study to figure out how much a solution would cost. To date, no study has been done.
Council member Carl Mumpower encouraged Council to find a way to at least provide the option.
“Find room for this — then the monkey is on their backs,” he advised.
The city manager, meanwhile, told Council that though it would be possible to find sufficient budget cuts to fund the city’s share of Social Security payments for firefighters (estimated to cost about a half-million dollars), those cuts would be “real and noticeable.”
“We don’t have $500,000 worth of paper and pencils,” Westbrook observed.
And Mayor Worley’s suggestion — tapping the city’s fund balance to find the money — split the Council.
The fund balance, a kind of emergency account maintained in preparation for times of dire financial need, is currently above the target level (15 percent of the city’s operating budget). Tapping it to find the needed money for the firefighters would still not bring the fund balance below that level.
City Finance Director Bill Schaefer, however, reminded Council of the substantial financial undertakings already on the horizon, including a new Civic Center and parking deck. The city’s uncertain economic future, said Schaefer, might argue for prudence when contemplating pulling money out of the fund.
“It’s not a savings account — it’s a cash-flow pad,” Schaefer explained. “You need at least a one-month supply in your pocket.”
And though Council member Jim Ellis sided with Worley, both Dunn and Mumpower warned against dipping into the reserve fund.
“We are looking forward with hopeful eyes,” said Mumpower. “I think we need to look forward with more realistic eyes.”
Jones, however, remained unimpressed, saying she felt discouraged about the lack of progress on the priorities identified at the January retreat. “I feel like we instructed staff to do this six months ago,” she lamented.
Jones had other fish to fry as well. Also left out of the proposed budget, she noted, were a pair of affordable-housing items she’s been pushing: specifically, money to help city employees come up with a down payment on a house and incentives for developers to build low-cost homes.
But finding $100,000 to add to the Affordable Housing Fund proved frustrating.
“I don’t know how to move forward,” said Jones. “I’m bordering on desperate.”
Although the housing initiatives drew Bellamy’s support, Dunn balked, refusing to back them unless they were offset by cuts somewhere else in the budget. He also shot down Bellamy’s suggestion that the city’s planned contribution to the Chamber of Commerce’s new visitors’ center be diverted to the housing fund. (The previous City Council had promised $500,000 over five years for the visitors’ center, contingent on the project’s adhering to a specified time line, but the Chamber hasn’t kept on schedule, Bellamy explained later.) Such a move, noted Dunn, would be good for only one year, as would taking the money from the city’s fund balance.
Dunn also encouraged Council to lean on state legislators to let the city have hotel-tax revenues now used to promote tourism.
“The goose that laid the golden egg’s nest is right here,” Dunn proclaimed.
Police or parks?
Citing a serious drug problem in Asheville, Bellamy called for hiring more police officers.
“I live in an African-American community,” she declared. “For me, it’s a different reality.”
Mumpower responded by suggesting a study, but Bellamy would not be brushed aside.
“I don’t need more study,” she said, noting that in some neighborhoods she knows, drugs are being openly sold on the street. “That’s enough study for me. Our police officers are stretched way too thin.”
Asheville police sitting in the audience nodded in agreement.
Mumpower then took another tack, arguing that such a late budget session is not the time to bring up the idea of expanding the police force. Once again, however, Bellamy was undeterred.
“I’ve tried before,” she replied.
Bellamy’s proposal garnered support from Dunn, who has also called for hiring more police in the past. Returning to the Parks and Recreation Department, Dunn suggested taking money from the French Broad River Park project to pay for more cops. By his own logic, however, Dunn’s suggested cut wouldn’t work beyond the first year, Ellis pointed out.
Third verse same as the first
As it became apparent that no consensus (i.e., four votes out of of six) was forthcoming, Jones asked again about the status of her affordable-housing proposals.
This time, Worley tried a diplomatic approach. “If we don’t have a consensus to add something to the budget, that’s a consensus not to,” he observed.
“Then I know my vote on the firefighters,” Jones said cryptically, though she didn’t elaborate. Speaking again to her frustration that the priorities set at the retreat had been ignored in the actual budget, Jones suggested that Council simply skip next year’s event and free up the $7,000 spent on it for something else.
“Let’s just not have [the retreat]; it’s not doing any good,” she concluded.
At that point, Mumpower commented that he didn’t like the meeting’s sullen tone.
Dunn, however, remained in good spirits. “It is a good, healthy debate,” he said, though he went on to suggest that Council members continue discussing the budget one on one.
Mumpower shared that sentiment. “What we say here, people take to heart. Sometimes it gets magnified.”
Mayor Worley, meanwhile, called for more dialogue before the June 24 formal session, when the budget comes up for a formal vote. And even then, he noted, Council may choose to wait until the July 1 deadline before making any final decisions.