At their retreat yesterday, March 11, Asheville City Council members discussed a variety of topics facing the city, focusing especially on density, persistent budget issues, the effect of state legislation, and even a possible overhaul in the way city government deals with the arts.
Council’s holding its annual strategic retreat a little late this year, but par for the course, there was a great deal of discussion over how best to have the discussion -— such on format, specificity of topic and the like. Nonetheless, a number of staff presentations shed new light on the city’s situation and possible courses Council might take.
“Our iceberg is melting”
Back in 2010, city staff put together a financial crossroads report that summed up the issues facing Asheville during the economic downturn, and some that had started well before. This morning, staff released an updated report. It used the analogy of a melting iceberg, with the city as a group of penguins searching for a new home.
At the heart of all that metaphorical peril: Modest revenue growth (about one to two percent) is not keeping pace with 4 to 5 percent annual growth in expenses, including in costs, such as fuel and utilities, that the city has relatively little control over. In recent years staff have sought to close the gap by freezing positions, paring down departments, and trying to find other efficiencies. But, Financial and Management Services Director Lauren Bradley said, that approach is nearing the end of its usefulness: The city is at the point where it will start losing services with further cuts.
“We can’t continue to be everything to everyone,” Bradley said. She added that overhauls in how the city handles festivals (Bele Chere costs about $450,000 a year, something staff and Council both noted several times) and infrastructure might be necessary. Staff also discussed changing the way the city deals with cultural arts, a topic of some discussion lately, into a “pool of money” that the city could use to foster partnerships.
Council member Cecil Bothwell also said that raising the property tax deserves serious consideration, though other Council members made avoiding a hike a high priority. In previous years, Bothwell’s suggestion hasn’t received much traction.
The city’s financial situation is a major issue this year, with work sessions March 12 and 26, along with a special budget retreat April 4.
Related to the financial issue, city staff and Council considered pursuing density more aggressively. That’s one way to grow the city’s tax base without expanding its boundary. Council member Gordon Smith asserted that it might be necessary to examine allowing denser development in more single-family neighborhoods without projects needing to go to Council, while also trying to improve amenities and infrastructure to blunt the impact.
“Let’s not pretend there’s a debate about whether density is going to happen,” Smith said. Instead he believes Council should focus on the best way for it to take place.
Council member Chris Pelly, a former neighborhood activist, also emphasized improving the ability of neighborhoods to deal with increased traffic and population. Council member Jan Davis, on the other hand, said that if density becomes too neighborhood-friendly, it’s hard for business corridors like Merrimon Avenue to function.
Smith added, “We’ve been in an affordable housing crisis for 10 years.” He suggested that ambitious solutions are necessary, otherwise Asheville, without a growing middle class, risks losing its vibrancy.
During her presentation, Bradley noted the major increase in tax revenue places like the River Arts District could produce if more abandoned properties were redeveloped.
Dancing with Raleigh
City manager Gary Jackson warned that in their pursuit of potential reforms, legislators have made it clear they won’t leave city revenues untouched.
Nonetheless, multiple members of Council said that Rep. Nathan Ramsey has mentioned his desire to ensure that city revenues don’t take a hit from new legislation (Ramsey made similar claims talking with Xpress last week about legislation on the city’s use of its water revenues). Council also decided that conversations between the city and county to work out local agreements before Raleigh proposes more local bills might be a good course of action.