UPDATED AT 5:47 ON JULY 30: Asheville City Council voted 5-2 to pass a 2020-21 fiscal year budget with three months of funding allocated for essential department spending at its July 30 meeting. Council members Gwen Wisler and Vijay Kapoor voted against the proposal, stating it would be irresponsible for the city to withhold full funding from staff given their other departmental responsibilities.
Asheville City Council has left all options on the table. After hours of debate over defunding the Asheville Police Department and investing in Black communities, members have outlined three different budget proposals for the 2020-21 fiscal year, all of which claim to include some degree of community involvement to reimagine policing.
This year’s budget process has already been highly unusual, explained Tony McDowell, the city’s assistant finance director, during a presentation to Council. First, the working budget had to be revamped in response to COVID-19. A bare-bones continuation budget was presented by City Manager Debra Campbell on May 26, but large racial justice protests the following week led to community calls for a 50% reduction in the APD budget and reallocation of that money for investments in Black communities. Council then adopted a one-month interim budget on June 23, with the caveat that additional public input be considered before making full allocations for fiscal year 2020-21.
The new general fund budget presented on July 28 would allocate roughly $29.9 million to cover essential spending on salaries, supplies and annual contracts through September. Public engagement to reimagine the APD would continue over the next two months, explained Campbell. Council would then vote Tuesday, Sept. 22, on a budget amendment, created with community guidance, that would dictate allocations for the remaining $105 million of the general fund.
But after two and a half hours of public comment — during which hundreds of protesters marched downtown and dozens of live callers demanded Council members take concrete action toward the reparations they agreed to explore on July 14 — Council’s divided approach frustrated members and residents alike.
Council member Vijay Kapoor, who plans to resign on Saturday, Aug. 8, said he would not support any budget that only allocated three months of funding to the APD and other city departments. Instead, he proposed an operating budget with full funding for the entire fiscal year, which would allow city staff to work on longer-term projects without worrying about their departmental budgets. Police funding could later be amended after Campbell completes her public engagement process, he explained.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler quickly backed Kapoor’s proposal, saying she didn’t want to “hit a cliff” come September — especially if members couldn’t fill Kapoor’s vacant seat, thereby creating a possible 3-3 vote on the budget amendment and subsequent government shutdown. Instead, she suggested adopting the first budget presented in May — which included $30,057,325 for the APD — and revisiting the police budget later in the year.
Nothing about Wisler and Kapoor’s proposition was transparent, objected member Brian Haynes. Any new plan should have been suggested before the start of public comment, he said, not after the community’s chance for input had passed. Earlier in the evening, Haynes had vowed he would not support any budget that did not include APD in the city’s hiring freeze.
Council members Sheneika Smith and Keith Young both supported adopting the budget presented at the beginning of the night, arguing that the pressure of not having money allocated beyond September would force Council to work quickly to enact sweeping changes.
“Think about the people that we’re doing this for,” Smith said. “We’re doing this for the people who have had insurmountable odds against them and no pathway out. … We have to really dig deep and lean into this moment, because we may never get this moment again.”
Julie Mayfield suggested a third option: Give a full year’s funding to every department with the exception of the APD, which would only receive a three months’ allocation. In September, after the public engagement sessions, the police budget could be adjusted without adversely impacting other essential services such as transit and solid waste, the Council member said.
Both Kapoor and Young were quick to criticize Mayfield’s suggestion. Kapoor said it was a “terrible option” and delayed the same argument for several more months; Young refused to “do a total 180” without comment from the public.
And Asheville residents, calling in after the budget discussion, condemned Council for their lack of transparency and refusal to listen to community concerns.
“I’m without words of what just happened,” said Ashley Cooper of Asheville. “I completely cannot comprehend why you chose to have this conversation after the public hearing about this completely separate idea. … The message you’re giving is that the entire two months since June has just been a show.”
Council is permitted to revise the manager’s budget in any way prior to adoption, McDowell noted. Because an annual operating budget must be passed before Saturday, Aug. 1, to set a property tax rate under state law, and because North Carolina’s virtual meeting procedures require emailed public comment to be accepted up to 24 hours after the close of a public hearing, Council will reconvene at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 30, to make a final decision.
No public comment will be heard at that time.