Finishing up at 141 single-spaced pages, the city of Asheville’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018-19 isn’t exactly light reading. And it shouldn’t be — the document must account for $180,388,554 in spending, enough to fund the current work of over 1,200 employees and invest millions in the city’s future.
Both City Council and the public have had multiple chances to learn about and weigh in on the plan. Beginning with a capital planning work session on Jan. 9 and wrapping up with a public hearing on May 22, the budget process has run parallel to ongoing debates on contentious topics such as downtown parking, policing reform and racial equity.
On Tuesday, June 19, Council will put the result of that process to the test as its members vote to adopt the proposed budget. In advance of that decision, Xpress has chosen 10 of the most critical takeaways from the spending plan.
1. The budget keeps growing.
Asheville’s proposed expenditures are the highest ever for the city. Compared to last year’s original budget of $175,421,546, the new budget represents a 3.5 percent increase; compared to the budget for fiscal year 2015-16, it’s 21.8 percent greater. Nearly $11 million of that year-over-year change comes from higher operating costs, while just under $10 million is attributed to salaries and wages. Approximately $5.6 million of the spending increase is from benefits and $6 million from capital and debt expenditures.
2. Performance measures aren’t yet included.
Last year’s adopted budget contained quantifiable performance measures for each department’s desired outcomes. However, those criteria are missing from the proposed 2018-19 budget. Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn explained to Xpress that city staff was reassessing the top-down process, led by the city manager’s office, through which the previous measures were determined. For the 2019-20 budget, she hopes to loop in both individual departments and the community to decide on more meaningful metrics. Budget Manager Tony McDowell added that, after Council passes the budget, staff will add efficiency and effectiveness targets based on the UNC School of Government’s North Carolina Benchmarking Project.
3. Salaries go up, but not enough for some.
The budget includes a 2.5 percent pay increase for all employees, reduced from the initial proposal of 3 percent as part of the city’s efforts to eliminate its budget gap. Scott Mullins, president of the Asheville Fire Fighters Association, expressed his frustration during the public hearing that this raise didn’t adequately reflect Asheville’s economic growth, adding that the city also hadn’t reached its previously stated goal for matching retirement fund contributions. In April, Council member Vijay Kapoor had floated the idea of a property tax increase to fund the full raise, but other members did not support that plan.
4. Downtown gets more police.
The budget contains a $2 million increase for the Asheville Police Department, including $466,000 for 15 new officers to staff the downtown district and $847,000 in overall compensation increases to discourage turnover. While Council members Sheneika Smith, Keith Young and Brian Haynes have all expressed hesitation about this increase during the budget process, only Haynes has explicitly said he will not support the budget if the funding for additional officers remains.
5. Nearly $1 million comes from parking fee increases.
The Parking Services Fund sees an increase of roughly $960,000, thanks to changes passed by Council on May 15. With Haynes dissenting and Julie Mayfield absent, Council voted to eliminate the first hour of free parking at city garages for customers parking longer than an hour, as well as increase monthly parking rates by $10 and the daily maximum parking fee by $2. This money is allocated as a transfer to the Transit Fund, while other Parking Fund money will go toward meter upgrades and garage elevator modernization.
6. Transit gears up for future changes.
The funds from the parking increases will partially go toward a new transit planner, who will be tasked with implementing recommendations in the Transit Master Plan and providing outreach and promotion support for service changes. Notably, estimated transit operating revenue — derived from bus fares — makes up only $720,000 of the $8.5 million fund. Multiple community activists, including recent City Council candidate Kim Roney, have called for the system to move to a fare-free model.
7. Three new staffers support equity and inclusion.
Equity and Inclusion Manager Kimberlee Archie will gain three employees to manage by the end of the fiscal year, adding approximately $250,000 to her office’s budget. One employee will be specifically devoted to supporting the city’s new Human Relations Commission with administrative and research assistance, while another will focus on internal implementation of the Equity Action Plan. The third will facilitate public outreach and engagement for traditionally underrepresented communities.
8. Big capital spending projects continue.
A total of $36,616,616 will go to improvements in the city’s facilities and equipment. Highlights include over $11 million on water infrastructure, over $3.5 million to upgrade transit buses, over $3 million to replace other city vehicles and $1.25 million on improvements to Charlotte Street.
9. Information technology prepares for cyber threats.
Two new positions, at a total cost of $131,609, will work to defend Asheville’s cybersecurity as part of an overall effort toward modernization of its information technology. A back-end developer may also be hired pending available funding in January. The department lists enhancing security coordination and creating a security toolkit as goals to integrate security throughout the city’s work.
10. AMOS fails to secure outside agency funding.
Despite multiple appeals from its staff and board members at the May 22 public hearing on the proposed budget, the Asheville Museum of Science will receive no city funding in this budget cycle. The city’s total allocation to strategic partners is $351,400, which includes $40,000 for LEAF Community Arts, $7,500 for the Asheville Art Museum and $2,500 for the Asheville Area Arts Council.