The proverbial chickens of Mission Health’s sale to for-profit HCA Healthcare have hatched, yielding considerably fewer birds than Asheville City Council first counted. At a budget work session on March 26, city CFO Barbara Whitehorn reported that Asheville can expect to receive $2.5 million in property and sales taxes from the health system in fiscal year 2019-20 — only half of the $5 million initially estimated by the Buncombe County tax office — then $5 million instead of $8 million for every year to follow.
The lower numbers, explained Mayor Esther Manheimer, are more accurate because they are based on the correct portfolio of Mission Health assets. Previous estimates, she said, had included taxes on property outside of Buncombe County jurisdiction. “This is a little bit earth-shattering for news,” the mayor remarked.
While the revised estimated revenue would still leave Asheville with a budget surplus through fiscal year 2021, it gives Council significantly less leeway to add new initiatives and address the strategic goals prioritized at its recent retreat. After accounting for the city’s structural funding gap and increases to its base budget, Whitehorn said, only about $1.5 million remains for discretionary projects.
The most expensive of these new initiatives is the partial implementation of the Transit Master Plan, estimated at $1.2 million. Whitehorn said the money would go toward reconfiguring routes and addressing on-time performance, as well as providing technical support and conducting a study on a new bus maintenance facility. Initial plans called for a $2.4 million budget increase, which would have also extended transit service hours by 44 percent starting on July 1.
“We certainly wish that we could implement fully the entire first phase of the plan. I’ve been a strong proponent of transit; I think it supports lots of goals,” said City Manager Debra Campbell. “But we just have limited resources and we are trying to do those things that have the most significant impact on the customer experience.”
Whitehorn framed a number of smaller budget asks as a choice among projects, plans and staff. The first package included money for a small-business training program, facility maintenance and a fund for small fire department purchases such as defibrillators and breathing apparatus. The second grouping paired a solid waste reduction plan and design services for the Haywood/Page “Pit of Despair” property, while the third would add three new city employees to handle sanitation code enforcement, zoning updates and sustainability coordination.
Council did not reach a consensus around which of these funding requests to support, asking for more information about each and noting that the process will continue through June. “There’s millions of dollars out there that we could spend,” said Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler. “All these various items are all very crucial, and it’s just a matter of figuring out which are the most crucial.”
The next budget work session, which will discuss Asheville’s capital improvement plan and enterprise funds, will take place in council chambers at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9. The public hearing on the budget will occur at Council’s regular meeting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28.