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