Hard times make for tough choices.
Such was the case on June 27, when the Asheville City Council convened a special meeting to consider the adoption of an interim budget. Typically, the city would have adopted a final budget by mid-summer, but this year’s budget planning was anything but typical: The state withheld $2.7 million in reimbursement payments from the city, so budget planning began from within a very deep hole.
Nevertheless, the bills of the city must be paid, and with the budget crisis in Raleigh far from over, city leaders unanimously approved an interim budget to cover those bills for the next two months. At the end of August, should the legislature not take action on releasing Asheville’s reimbursement funds, the city will be forced to pass a final budget reflecting the drastically reduced bottom line.
While talk of closing community centers and laying off city workers dominated earlier Council discussions on the budget, the interim budget will allow community centers to keep their doors open. But according to city Budget Director Ben Durant, 66 city jobs were eliminated during this interim step. Durant, though, explained that the step resulted in only one actual layoff. He explained that of the 66 jobs cut, 41 were vacant positions, and the city was able to transfer 24 of the 25 affected workers to other city jobs.
According to Durant, the interim budget will allow the city to pay salaries, make debt-service payments and pay for what he calls “usual expenses.” But sometimes, it appears, unusual expenses crop up.
Durant indicated that because Buncombe County now charges the city a fee for stray animals picked up within the city limits and taken to the county animal shelter, the city faces an additional expense. Durant estimates that the county-imposed fee will cost the city $120,000 annually. In order to stay within the already emaciated budget, city staff opted to close a recycling center in South Asheville to offset the expense.
Council’s vote on the interim budget passed unanimously, but not without some pre- Fourth of July fireworks.
Council member Joe Dunn seized the opportunity to once again express his displeasure over the city’s spending habits, pointedly addressing comments about “cutting the fat out of the city budget” to City Manager Jim Westbrook.
Westbrook responded sharply, “With all due respect, we’re down to the muscle right now.” His comment elicited a grim sort of laughter in the chamber — the resigned laughter that follows the acceptance of great loss.
Council member Carl Mumpower took a different tact. He thanked Westbrook and the city staff for all their hard work on preparing the budget under such difficult circumstances, “I’ve looked for waste, fat and deception in this budget … and I’ve been unsuccessful at every turn,” he noted.
Mumpower’s colleagues concurred, and for a brief moment their seemed to be unity — a second or two where they were united in both direction and intention. But it was fleeting.
Dunn stands alone
Dunn’s face had turned from the woodcut look of the serious and impassioned politician to the bright red of a man who’s just made a very big mistake. One by one, his fellow Council members corrected and rebutted his claims. The return barrage lasted for approximately 10 minutes, but for Dunn, it may have seemed like a lifetime.
The dispute began over Council’s final vote on annexing seven areas around the city limits, extending the city’s boundaries even further into the county. Dunn launched into his critique by noting, “I still think there’s some smoke and mirrors here. … I’ve just got to believe there is another way; annexation doesn’t work.”
Dunn read a prepared statement that chastised the idea of taking on more land area, for a city that he said is hard enough to police and maintain. He painted a grim picture of today’s Asheville: Roads and sidewalks in some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods were falling apart, and yet Council wanted to take on more land. Vagrants and animals wandered the heart of the city, unchecked by a meager police force, but such expansion would mean that the city’s resources would be even more diluted. Dunn even shared a personal experience: “Our merchants are complaining about vagrants and dog feces — my wife stepped in [some] last week.”
Growth was fine, he declared, even necessary, but just not now. For Dunn, to gut the funding from street and sidewalk maintenance, while simultaneously annexing new streets and sidewalks was irresponsible. “Dog gone it, we can’t seem to pave the streets we do have,” he declared.
He claimed that it was unfair to constantly place these items on the cutting block, when affordable housing, for example, was secured with its own trust fund. Dunn did suggest, though, that the city earmark funds exclusively for maintaining the infrastructure of the annexed areas.
Dunn hinted that the real reason for the move to annexation was political, rather than financial. He claimed that the city intentionally annexed areas where there were too few people to result in a voter backlash — an effort on the part of city staff to, in Dunn’s words, “protect us.” Dunn even made a veiled reference to “career politicians” among their ranks.
A moment of silence ensued before the maelstrom hit.
Mumpower immediately refuted Dunn’s claim of vote counting: “Joe, I’m your friend, but that was kind of harsh. To say we are annexing areas with an eye toward the election is unkind. I don’t feel safe from angry voters; that’s not what drives us.”
Mumpower then reminded Dunn that the body had just finished discussing the city’s dire need for money in the coming year — the absolute need to expand the tax base and to keep what city employees still remained, he pointed out. How could Dunn want to squabble over sidewalks when vital jobs were on the line?
Jim Ellis rang in, quickly expressing his feelings that the city would be able to live up to its commitments to the new incorporated areas. They would be maintained, he declared, and they would be safe.
Next to dispute Dunn’s oration was Terry Bellamy, who took exception to his slight of the affordable-housing issue. What do sidewalks matter when people have no place to live, she queried, reminding Dunn that all Council members care about roads, sidewalks and safety. However, she stated, this was not the time to discuss those issues.
Mayor Charles Worley, too, seemed taken aback by Dunn’s comments. What kind of city would Asheville be today, he asked, if it had never expanded? His picture was even grimmer than Dunn’s — filled with images of uncontrolled urban sprawl fended off with a minuscule city budget.
At the end of the salvo of discourse, a much-less-fiery Dunn apologized (“Maybe I was a little strong”), explaining that he sometimes gets very worked up on subjects that he cares about. He reminded his fellow Council members that their work as colleagues comes first, noting that even if they disagreed on points, they were still in this together.
When the votes came down, Dunn stayed true to his course: Annexation passed, six to one.