Letter: Commuters strain city budget

Graphic by Lori Deaton

It’s budget time again, so [Asheville City] Council and its staff roll out presentations to demonstrate that — as ever — there isn’t enough money for what needs to be done. In the preamble, they show us a chart that purports to show how the city’s daytime population is divided between residents, commuters and tourists; the numbers are credited to a — no doubt expensive — consultant’s study some years ago. The Tourism Development Authority’s figures suggest that tourists make a positive contribution to the city, so let’s ignore them for now.

We can get the other numbers for free from the Census Bureau website, and while the city’s chart claims that roughly 40,000 commuters come into the city every day, the latest estimates from the Census Bureau suggest that in 2017, that number was more like 60,000.

Since the number of residents who work in the city in 2017 was estimated at 45,000, that difference is quite important. It means that more than half of the jobs in the city are filled by commuters. Such a proportion will have effects on both the city’s economy and its finances.

For the economy, it would explain the constant need to cajole or even bribe companies to pay something approaching a living wage. It’s cheaper to live outside the city, so commuters in general will be willing to work for less than residents, with the resulting downward pressure on wages.

For the city’s finances, the situation is more complex. Commuters consume water, sewer, solid waste, streets, fire and police services provided by the city, so those services must be sized for the city’s daytime population … rather than the permanent population of 90,000. Those five services add up to $105 million in the latest budget — $40 million of that total is to support the commuters’ consumption of those services (there are more complex models that give different answers, but the size of the problem is clear).

How much do they contribute to this total? There aren’t any publicly available figures, but we know that they will only be contributing through sales taxes, 95% of which are confiscated by the state and county before they make it to the city’s coffers. Let’s assume that a commuter spends $20 a day in the city — for coffee, sandwiches or whatever. Combined, then, over a year they would contribute something like $1 million toward the $40 million the city spends on them.

Larceny on a epic scale: It can only have one result —the city, missing that $40 million a year, will be able to do less and less. The city’s economy, unable to offer living wages to its residents, will wither. The last time that happened, it took half a century to recover — this time, since this shortfall is imposed on us deliberately by the state, we may never recover. But if Asheville’s economy collapses, so does WNC’s, and the 60,000, who imagine themselves to be so clever at getting free lunches out of the system, will be faced with some very hard choices.

Alternatively, given the state of North Carolina politics, $40 million a year ought to be enough to buy some serious changes in the General Statutes.

— Geoff Kemmish


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11 thoughts on “Letter: Commuters strain city budget

  1. KRamshaw

    Thank you!! The City’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in June of last year, stated that 58,600 workers commuted to the City for work – 75% of the workforce. Hating tourists and blaming hotels is all the rage and I do sometimes wonder if there has been deliberate effort to push the focus in that direction. Asheville is certainly complicit – neighborhoods fight density and change, and capricious, inefficient and expensive City processes also serve to drive growth to the County. Locals complain about the 10.9 million visitors each year (and at least 1/3 of those are family and friends of folks who live locally), but commuters add more than 15 million visits to the City each year. We are clogging the streets, walking the sidewalks, hogging the parking and bringing lunches from home. I am not making daily purchases from local businesses. I have enough pottery, no more wall space and buy almost all my clothing second-hand. Much of the County’s prosperity is due to the success and offerings of the City of Asheville. Planning and Zoning recently recommended to Council that a comprehensive study of the effects of tourism be done. I hope that a broader scope would be adopted to include the issues you’ve raised.

  2. M. Meadows

    The irony of a carpetbagger claiming shut the gate is beyond pale. Just because someone overpaid for their downtown mountainside home don’t hate the locals. Furthermore, anyone defending the TDA claims and position can’t be taken seriously. But, whatever I don’t even come to downtown anymore unless I come to church or need a new pair of shoes.

  3. Mike

    You know what the city used to do about this, don’t you? Forced annexation. Reynolds. Biltmore Lake. South Asheville. My own neighborhood somewhere other than those listed. So, there’s one (really terrible) answer.

    • M. Meadows

      The city tried this before and got the smack down in court. Maybe build a wall around Asheville and charge at the gates? Maybe use the hotel tax to fund city services rather than overpay PR firms or over-bloated TDA salaries. Or charge a new resident fee.

        • M. Meadows

          No, there was an attempt to annex Biltmore Lake. It was always the plan. The residents thought otherwise and were joined by other areas of the State and fought forced annexation. Please explain what Asheville proper could provide these fringe neighborhoods that they don’t already provide for themselves or through the county? Water and sewer, already have. Police/Sheriff and fire, county does fine. Trash and recycling, private contract. If you think that the City of Asheville needs to expand its tax base, rather than manage its budget with common sense, I’m not sure what else to say.
          The money generated through the occupancy tax of the ever growing hotel industry would be enough to cover any need. Start there first. It is a crime that it isn’t used to supplement areas of greatest need rather than giveaways to businesses like Zip lines and such. If more revenue is needed, btw always needed, food and beverage tax should be considered next.

          • Mike

            Thanks, I thought the Biltmore Lake thing had happened, my mistake. I can certainly attest, however, that my neighborhood was annexed a few decades ago. I am not pro-annexation, that’s why I called it a “really terrible” answer.

          • luther blissett

            “Please explain what Asheville proper could provide these fringe neighborhoods that they don’t already provide for themselves or through the county? ”

            Thanks for your pontification while dodging the point of the letter, which is that residents of the “city that is not the city” who spend their working hours in Asheville are at least some degree free riders.

            “Maybe use the hotel tax to fund city services rather than overpay PR firms or over-bloated TDA salaries?”

            Maybe you should read the controlling statute and start lobbying in Raleigh?

            “Maybe build a wall around Asheville and charge at the gates?”

            Much easier to send the county an invoice.

          • M. Meadows

            Thanks Luther for your 2 cents. Not everyone who lives in greater Buncombe County works in the city limits. One could make point that those outside the city in those “free riders” neighborhoods have a higher level of disposable income to spend as they so choose. And do so in and around Asheville and WNC. There are countless things to do within an hour drive of the Airport and you wouldn’t ever enter the city. The mountains and all they offer were here long before Asheville was and most likely be here long after the last brewery closes.

            I’m very familiar with the limits of the TDA and their charter. My point speaks for itself.

            Maybe the county should bill Asheville for all the traffic leading into Asheville. Toll gates at the city limits. See how that works?

  4. Justin Lynn Reid

    If this city actually paid a *real* living wage ($13 an hour is *not* a “living wage” in this city) and rents weren’t so insane then there would be no need to commute. It isn’t the “outsiders” fault that the majority of positions offered in this town are poorly paid service jobs that have nearly zero room for advancement or new opportunities. This is the same conservative blame the victim mentality that has shaped my views about politics for the past few years, and if I hear one more well to do person go into a diatribe about “personal responsibility” I think I might just vomit. I’d like to see you try to balance a budget on a $10 an hour wage. It might just teach you something about “the real world” you claim to always have so much knowledge about.

  5. Jay Reese

    Isn’t the daily migration of commuters from the burbs to the city and back currently the status qua for every city in America?

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