Council discusses budget priorities, concerns in work session

Asheville Rides Transit bus
DRIVING DOLLARS: Asheville Director of Finance Tony McDowell warned that bus driver shortages will likely delay the implementation of evening hours and other increases in service outlined in the Transit Master Plan in spite of $1.1 million being allocated to Asheville’s Transit Fund in the fiscal year 2022-23 budget. Photo courtesy of the city of Asheville

Normally, Asheville Council City Council member and frequent city bus rider Kim Roney likes to arrive around a half-hour early to city meetings. But on the afternoon of April 12, her bus never arrived, leaving Roney scrambling to get downtown and causing Council’s scheduled work session on the fiscal year 2022-23 budget to start about 20 minutes late.

The delay foreshadowed one of several issues related to the city budget  — transit — that members of Asheville City Council discussed before their formal meeting that day. Members also discussed parking revenues, personnel costs and weighed funding options for the newly approved updates to Memorial Stadium.

Asheville Director of Finance Tony McDowell explained during a presentation that after the city replaced old gating equipment at several of its parking decks in November, the new technology started malfunctioning, resulting in roughly $800,000 in lost parking revenue for the city. 

The city had budgeted a parking fund subsidy of $1.5 million to support city transit services but will now be unable to make that transfer because of the lost revenue caused by the malfunction, McDowell said.

Asheville Budget Manager Taylor Floyd said the garage equipment is “mostly operational,” but, “There are still some bugs. …  Issues are still popping up with the equipment. But there’s nothing like the widespread or complete lack of operational capacity that we saw over the winter.”

In addition to parking revenue shortages, McDowell warned that bus driver shortages will likely delay the implementation of extended evening hours and increased bus frequencies on routes S3 and S6, in spite of $1.1 million being allocated to Asheville’s Transit Fund in the fiscal year 2022-23 budget for the implementation of Phase 1 of the the 2018 Transit Master Plan.

(The city announced in an April 8 press release that it would reduce service for the WE1 route between the ART Station and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Tunnel Road beginning April 13 due to “continued driver shortages.”)

And while Council unanimously approved $4.3 million in updates to Memorial Stadium, which includes a six-lane track among other renovations, members disagreed over where the funding for the project would come from. Capital Projects Director Jade Dundas recommended the city allocate $2.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover the majority of the expense, with other funding coming from existing city bonds, contingency funds and unspent fleet replacement costs.  

“I’m concerned, personally, about using rescue plan dollars for this,” said Council member Sage Turner. “I support the track and I knew that this ask was coming. But I’m wondering if there are other funds instead of ARPA, because I’m having a hard time personally tying rescue funds to this funding.” 

“I’m just wondering what proposed ideas do Council members find to be more important than the health and welfare of a community that’s waited 30 plus years for this opportunity,” Council member Antanette Mosley shot back. “Which application do we feel is more worthy than the request of an historic Black neighborhood?”  

City Manager Debra Campbell said that the city will present other options for funding, including pulling funds from other capital projects and applying for a Tourism Product Development Fund Grant from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. A work session on the city’s ARPA funding allocations is scheduled for Monday, April 25, at 10 a.m.

McDowell also told Council members that roughly 61% of the city’s budget is allocated to personnel costs for city employees. This coming year, he explained, the city will need to allocate an additional $1.1 million to the Asheville Police Department as the department continues hiring staff, as well as $1.9 million to cover additional overtime pay for the Asheville Fire Department. The city is also anticipating a 5% increase in its employer health insurance contribution (roughly $500,000) and is considering a compensation adjustment of around $740,000 per 1% increase.

The next budget work session is scheduled for Tuesday, April 26. Council expects to vote on proposed changes to city water, stormwater and solid waste fees at its regular meeting that evening.

In other news

During Council’s formal meeting, Office of Equity and Inclusion Director Brenda Mills announced that her office was fully staffed as of February. The new employees include outreach coordinator Darian D. Blue; training consultant Marcus Kirkman; and research and data analyst Alayna Schmidt. In August, the department was left with no permanent staff members after a wave of resignations and public criticism from former employees. 


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