On a cold, rainy Friday at Warren Wilson College, Asheville City Council members sat down for their annual retreat. By the time it was over, seven hours later, Council had sworn to “hold the line” on property taxes, looked into an uncertain budget picture and spent most of the time modifying their strategic plan. They also talked about … boats.
Delayed an hour by fears of black ice, the first hour was marked by the usual round of introductions, greetings and communication visualization exercises led by facilitator Charles “Chuck” Fink. The good news: Property and sales tax revenus are rising, though this is offset by the fact that building permit and development fees are down.
“It’s unknown where we’ll end up at the moment, but right now we’re cautiously optimistic on sales tax and property tax,” Administrative Director Lauren Bradley told Council. “On the whole, I don’t see revenue growth in our future. It will be below our historic norms and probably below the current year. All things told, I think it will be a manageable process.”
Staff’s hope, she added, was for a “continuation budget” that mostly preserved current services and spending.
Of course, the state is also facing its own budget crisis, and Raleigh doles out over $25 million a year — $15 million in sales-tax revenues and $10 million in other revenues, such as for beer and wine taxes — to the city of Asheville. It’s possible those funds could be reduced or held this year or the next. Council member Esther Manheimer later called it the “curveball” that could throw all staff’s projections, and Council’s deliberations, into disarray.
Curveballs or no, some Council members remained adamant. During a break, Bill Russell, who left the retreat after lunch, told Xpress that, if cuts come, he has a few areas in mind. “I’d take a look at our facilities and our recreation budget, specifically the employment aspect of those facilities. Our Parks and Recreation Department has a $12 million to $13 million annual budget,” he continued. “I’m absolutely, adamantly opposed to any tax increases at all. There are some significant changes that are coming through our Health Care Task Force that could save a few million dollars.”
As if these possibilities weren’t enough, legislation halting all forced annexations has already been introduced into the General Assembly. Combined with the Sullivan Acts — special legislation that bans Asheville from using water services to compel areas to come into the city — an annexation ban limits Asheville’s potential for growth.
“If annexation gets curbed further, we just don’t have the tools to remain healthy,” Council member Jan Davis noted. “We’re not getting enough revenue to offset the cost of people using our infrastructure.”
“We love tourists,” Mayor Terry Bellamy emphasized. “But when we have to salt and sand the streets, they’re not paying for it.” She added that Council should go for a “full court press” on the local delegation to prevent such a situation.
After lunch, Council picked up its strategic plan. It isn’t binding; it doesn’t dictate actions Council must take. Instead, it sets a list of general goals and gives city staff directions to pursue. Goals are words like “safe” or “fiscally responsible,” accompanied by a list of more specific objectives.
Under the goal of making the city “safe,” for example, is the objective “eliminate open air drug markets.” A handy sheet provided by the city let reporters know that, by way of accomplishing this aim, the APD’s Drug Suppression Unit made drug buys that led to 226 arrests in the final three months of last year, of which 54 were allegedly dealers.
To this Council, at this retreat, the plan was apparently of paramount importance, as wrangling over what the plan would and would not include promptly devoured the lion’s share of the day.
Some of the plan focused on issues of a more immediate nature. Council (mostly) agreed to “hold the line” on property-tax rates (though Manheimer invoked those budget “curveballs” again), with Cecil Bothwell the only one to break ranks, noting that the property tax is one of the least regressive at Council’s disposal.
“I’m not comfortable with taking it completely off the table,” he said.
Council member Gordon Smith, however, wondered about the possibility of a hotel occupancy tax to help fill the city’s coffers, “considering our rate compared to those across the state.”
“Now is not the right time for that,” Davis countered. “The hoteliers are still hurting, they’ve got a lot of empty rooms.”
“The customer pays it, it’s not a burden on them,” Smith said.
“They don’t see it that way,” Davis shot back.
Smith and Davis clashed again over the word “small” proceeding “business” in two of Council’s objectives. Davis thought it was time to remove it, because “we’re probably going to raise their water rate, we should let big business know we support them too.”
Council agreed to support “business” development in general, but limited its commitment to incentives confined to money-making operations of the smaller variety.
At one point, discussion lingered on a new word for Council’s ideal city: multi-modal. But, to at least one watcher, the city’s list of cars, bikes and mass transit, was lacking. Riverlink’s Karen Cragnolin, sitting with a number of members of the public watching the proceedings, piped up, “What about boats?”
“Boats?” a somewhat surprised Mayor Bellamy answered.
“Yes, flat-bottomed watercraft,” Cragnolin replied. “We’ve got grant money to identify these points of access, there’s a big economic impact.”
So it was that Council added boats to its list of multi-modal transportation. What form that will take for the city, only time will tell.
As the conversation wore on, Fink interjected occasionally, once noting that the city’s “fiscal responsibility” goals were “all over the map. He also reminded Council members that they needed to exit the room promptly at 5 p.m., because another group had reserved the space for later.
“It seems really ridiculous to edit a multi-page document like this at a conference,” Manheimer said.
Bellamy suggested tabling the rest of the strategic plan for a future work session, an idea Fink agreed “made a lot of sense.” Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, however, had a different idea. “What we’re doing right now, we should continue doing, this is important; the budget can be a worksession, we’ll be talking about it for the next few months,” he said.
At the end of their deliberations, Fink offered his praise.
“You’ve gone through something [the strategic plan] in a few hours that used to take six hours or over a day,” he said. “I’ve got to give you guys so many points. Moving from a city that’s so dysfunctional, it’s great [for me] to come to Asheville and have a responsive government.”
Not everyone shared the sentiment: Several Council members felt the retreat was rushed compared to previous years (last year Council stretched the retreat over two days).
“I think retreats are really valuable: they give you time,” Smith noted. “I don’t feel like this was as valuable as it could have been. … We were rushing and probably missed a lot of opportunities.”
Nonetheless, the retreat winded down with a rapid-fire presentation of the city’s economic circumstances: poverty rate up, employment up, less building, but more townhouses. It’s also worth noting this year’s Council retreat cost the city $2,139.
And Ben Teague from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce told Council members, “It may not have felt like it, but 2010 was a really phenomental development year” due to a number of new employers who opened in the area.