Asheville City Council

The next year may see reduced hours for city staffers, cuts in departmental spending and even a reduction in Council meetings from three per month to two. But if the Asheville City Council’s annual retreat was any indication, the city’s budget woes won’t mean increased taxes or stiffing the Housing Trust Fund.

Camped out at the WNC Nature Center Jan. 9 and 10, Council members reviewed their strategic goals for the current year and added some new ones. The list, which already featured such lofty headers as “affordable,” “green” and “sustainable,” gained a new one in light of the sinking economic situation both here and worldwide: “fiscal responsibility.”

The first presentation Council heard was by Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant. And though progress has been made since his November report to Council, the city is still looking at a $1 million budget shortfall for the first quarter of the current fiscal year (the most recent figures available) plus a $3 million revenue gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Durant had previously predicted a $5.3 million budget gap in 2009-10 due to stalled property-tax growth and shrinking sales-tax revenue, but such measures as a selective hiring freeze and reduced merit raises for staff have trimmed the projected shortfall.

“I think the recession we are looking at is different from the last two recessions,” Durant warned. “It’s going to be longer, and it’s going to be more severe.”

In other words, this is probably not the time to roll out any new initiatives. “Staff’s assumption is that we are not going to add anything new to the budget this year,” noted Durant. “Those are our marching orders.”

But that alone won’t make up the remaining $3 million gap in next year’s budget, and both staff and Council members will be looking for more ways to cut expenses. Some staff already work a four-day week, and there may be further reductions in hours.

Mayor Terry Bellamy wondered whether all city departments could cut their budgets by 5 percent, a strategy City Manager Gary Jackson said runs counter to Council’s stated goals.

“An across-the-board cut would mean some of the things highest on your list would get the same cut as the lowest,” he noted, saying he would rather come back to Council with a weighted list of potential cuts.

But Bellamy, along with most others on Council, took issue with Durant’s suggestion that the city not make its annual $600,000 contribution to the Housing Trust Fund this year.

The fund, which lends money to developers building affordable housing, has long been one of Bellamy’s priorities. It also looms large in the “affordability” component of the strategic plan Council adopted at last year’s retreat.

The fund, noted Durant, is eventually supposed to be self-supporting anyway, but Bellamy said any cuts in the city’s contribution would have to be gradual rather than sudden.

“We need to be making cuts with a scalpel, not a chain saw,” she said.

Council members had varying reactions to the economic news. Carl Mumpower called for a whole menu of reductions, including a 20-percent salary cut for Council members and an immediate halt to city funding of events and festivals. “Let’s be straight up with people,” he urged. “This is a crisis.”

Robin Cape, however, said she sees opportunity in the recession, noting that the city can take a hard look at its staff, for example, to determine which jobs typically handled by consultants can be done in-house. And a drop in development proposals means the Planning and Development Department can tackle some housekeeping tasks (such as updating ordinances) that have sat on the back burner during the development boom of recent years, she maintained.

Most Council members’ wish lists for the coming year reflected that same sentiment: Catch up on or advance things that have stalled or languished.

Tops on Brownie Newman‘s list was finding ways to leverage the city’s position in its pending lawsuit concerning control of water rates and revenues. “We have to tighten our belt,” said Newman, “but I don’t think we have to give up on all the good things we want to do.”

On other fronts, the city is still trying to resolve a water/property dispute with Henderson County, Vice Mayor Jan Davis wants to keep the pressure on the state Legislature to allow Asheville to use part of the hotel/motel tax to improve the Asheville Civic Center, and the long-awaited Downtown Master Plan is due to come before Council in March.

Council may also consider other changes. Cape wants to know if Council members could see development plans more than 48 hours before having to make a decision on conditional-use permits. And Bellamy wants to eliminate work sessions and hold only two Council meetings per month—an item she’s already placed on the agenda for the Jan. 13 formal session (the first one this year).

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