Transit, budget considered at Council work session

Unable to complete revisions to its strategic goals during the February retreat, Asheville City Council met yesterday afternoon, March 8, to finish the job and review the budget process.

Going through the strategic plan, transit arose as a main issue. Mayor Terry Bellamy, in a surprised tone, asked staff, “Are we really going to study the option of a downtown trolley?”

“I believe that would be a question for Council,” Director of Administrative Services Lauren Bradley answered. Vice Mayor Brownie Newman noted, when it came to the city’s extensive transit objectives, “I don’t think we’re going to achieve all these different goals, but if we list the things we think will make a real difference, at least we know what those are and as we go through the budget process, we try to figure out ways to get there.”

Staff will also look into a tax lien on surrounding property owners to help pay for sidewalk construction.

Responding to a question by Council member Cecil Bothwell about transit ridership and rising gas prices, Transportation Director Ken Putnam revealed that, though revenue is higher, ridership has actually declined 7 percent since last July, when compared to a similar period in the previous year.

“We’re still riding a three- to four-year high where we’ve seen an annual increase of about 5 percent,” Putnam said. “We really can’t pin down” the cause for the current decrease, though notes the loss of the Weaverville and Black Mountain routes may be a factor.

Council also directed staff to research a move to get out-of-city residents to pay an extra fee for using emergency services. Staff cautioned that such a step could require state legislation, but that cities like Winston-Salem and Greensboro have already investigated the step. Such fees would bring an estimated $25,000 into the city’s coffers.

When it came to the budget, where the city is struggling with declining revenues and possible state cuts, Council requested a per-capita breakdown, showing, in light of new census data, how much money for city services is spent on each citizen. Bradley noted that since 2000-01, that amount has declined. Furthermore, Council’s Finance Committee will consider the city’s fees in a special meeting Tuesday, March 15, at 2:30 p.m. in room 632 of City Hall.

New census data might affect the city in other ways too: If the city’s percentage of the total county population declines below a certain level, it loses two out of its three seats on the Metropolitan Sewerage District board.

— David Forbes, senior news reporter

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