Tempers ran high during public comment on Asheville’s budget priorities during a Feb. 28 meeting of City Council. A majority of commenters railed against the city’s responses to homelessness, petty crime and downtown uncleanliness as they demanded higher pay and better benefits for police.
“We’ve done a lot of work. We have begged, appealed, pleaded, cajoled, implored, solicited for you to take action to make Asheville safer. We’ve been doing it for months,” said Asheville resident Tom Tesser, who asked that the city invest more money in the Asheville Police Department. “[City Manager] Debra Campbell, I’m calling you out!”
“I would like you to treat people with respect,” Mayor Esther Manheimer shot back.
“For folks who are speaking, please restrain yourself. Don’t point at us. Just make your comments to us. These are policy issues. This is a policymaking body,” the mayor continued. “Let’s try to restore some civility to this.”
Tesser was one of several commenters from the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety, a recently formed advocacy group that looks to build support for the APD. Five of the nine speakers on budget matters sought larger salaries for police officers and shared their personal experiences of downtown crime and safety issues.
The remaining four speakers included Asheville resident Andrew Clark, who advocated for improvements to McCormick Field and support for local veterans, and community member Sandy Aldridge, who pushed for more city transit funding.
“I would like for the Council to approve funds that were already approved in the past for city transit, because every year, there’s more needed,” said Aldridge. “If that is not done, to me, that’s the city saying, ‘We don’t care about you.’”
In her comments, community member and activist Grace Barron-Martinez praised the city’s effort to include members of the public in the budget discussions early on. But she also voiced concerns about ensuring vulnerable community members could share their input.
“The way that we’re doing this process is going to attract very specific people. If we don’t have total or at least 80% participation from city residents, we’re not going to get a true picture of how people feel in the community,” she said. “And those with the most privilege are going to have the time to organize.”
Campbell noted that the city’s online survey on budget priorities had been available since Feb. 6. Due to requests from residents, she continued, the survey would remain open for an additional week beyond its initially planned deadline of March 3; responses are now open until midnight Friday, March 10. Nearly 2,000 people had participated through March 1.
As of the morning of Feb. 28, Campbell said, approximately 13% of survey respondents who shared their race were people of color. (According to U.S. census data, roughly 17% of Asheville residents are of a racial minority or biracial.) She also said that paper versions of the survey had been distributed in community centers in historically Black neighborhoods and that both English and Spanish copies were available at city recreation centers.
“Tonight is a kind of a milestone moment for us in that we have never had an opportunity for public comment on the budget process this early,” Campbell said. “We have a challenge for you, community. We also invite you that are in the audience, that are watching, to share the survey with your networks.”
The timeline for this year’s budget process includes three Council work sessions, starting Tuesday, March 14, at which no public comment will be permitted. The proposed budget will be published Friday, May 5, and presented officially to Council Tuesday, May 9, with a public hearing slated for Tuesday, May 23. The final vote on whether to adopt the budget is scheduled for Tuesday, June 13.