Instead of voting on Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell’s proposed budget on Tuesday, June 23, as originally planned, City Council will now consider an interim budget on that date. The move, coming after a wave of public comment to “defund the Asheville Police Department,” is meant to bridge the gap before a new budget can be reworked with additional community engagement.
The total fiscal 2020-2021 city budget proposal stands at $184.6 million, a 3% decrease from last year’s total of $190.3 million, and will continue funding for existing services while limiting new programs, service enhancements and initiatives. The property tax rate would remain the same under the proposal, and no fee increases are recommended.
Debra Campbell, Asheville’s city manager, said she was recommending no new spending for projects that Council had previously explored, such as renewable energy on city buildings. All departments have also been asked to cut their budgets as much as possible, “with a focus on minimizing operational impacts.”
“This could be a catastrophic change in revenue year over year,” said Mayor Esther Manheimer about projections for fiscal year 2021. “Before we start spending new money, I want to know if we’re going to see a little bit of a normalization on the horizon. I don’t want to be sitting here with a $20 million deficit in the next fiscal year.”
“Anybody that follows the economy or follows the news will tell you that there’s a big elephant in the room that we can’t measure, and we’re all thinking about it, and it’s going to affect your planning,” Tom Tveidt, president of SYNEVA Economics, told Council members at their March 13 annual retreat. “That being said, I think there will be a pre-coronavirus economy and a post-coronavirus economy.”
“I can accept liberal incrementalism unless it is fake, but it does demand that we decide on the first increment, and for me, increment No. 1 is stopping active abuse of the poor by municipal government.”
The choice between U.S. Cellular and Harrah’s, the brand of two casinos owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, will determine the logo that will grace the Civic Center’s signs, pole banners, receipts and event advertising for the next several years once the current agreement with U.S. Cellular expires on Tuesday, Dec. 31.
The net proposed operating budget stands at $190.31 million, a 5.4% increase over last year’s adopted budget. Campbell said the spending plan aligned with the priorities outlined by Council members in March during their annual retreat, which focused on transit and affordable housing.
“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.”
City Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn proposed that Asheville institute a program of regularly issued general obligation bonds to support capital improvement projects, while Council member Julie Mayfield discussed a property tax increase to boost Asheville’s operating budget.
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.
“This may hurt some feelings, but you can no longer operate the city of Asheville like it’s the Oprah Winfrey talk show, where you get a car and you get a car,” said Council member Keith Young, referencing the daytime TV host’s famous giveaways. “As much as we love all these programs and trying to help the public good… this is the time to close the bank.”
At City Council’s Nov. 13 budget work session, four department directors spoke about their troubles with obtaining bids on service and construction contracts, recruiting qualified employees and retaining current staff. Burgeoning activity in other parts of the economy, they said, had created stiff competition for workers.
Offered in response to public demand for greater transparency in the city’s finances, the work sessions allow each governmental department to explain how it uses its portion of more than $180 million in spending. The sessions also provide a forum for Council members to seek information on specific budget items, such as Pack Square Park maintenance.
Beginning Aug. 28 and continuing through Tuesday, Dec. 11, a series of monthly meetings will explain to City Council members and the public how Asheville allocates over $180 million to provide a range of services. The first session set the general context for the budget through a discussion of community demographics and major city revenue streams.
A day after students at Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools return to their studies, Asheville City Council is scheduled to brush up on its own ABCs — as well as its AAs, BBs, and CCs. The consent agenda for Council’s upcoming regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 28, at 5 p.m. in council Chambers exhausts the standard alphabet, forcing three entries to take on double letters in a collection of 29 items.
No additional changes made their way into this year’s budget as Council decided to adopt the ordinance in a 4-3 vote. Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice-Mayor Gwen Wisler, and Council members Vijay Kapoor and Julie Mayfield all voted in support of the budget. Members Brian Haynes, Sheneika Smith and Keith Young voted against the plan; all three had shown hesitation about a police funding increase during previous work sessions.
Two weeks before the Fourth of July, the meeting’s agenda promises a grand finale of rhetorical explosions over two matters of unfinished business. The first is the Asheville city budget, which Council member Brian Haynes has said he will not support as long as it contains funding for additional officers to staff the Asheville Police Department’s downtown district. The second is a series of resolutions to rescind and replace the three motions on police policy previously proposed by Young and passed by Council on May 22.
On Tuesday, June 19, Council will put the result of its planning process to the test as its members vote to adopt the proposed budget. 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.
City residents will comment on Asheville’s $180 million spending plan at Council’s regular meeting in council Chambers at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22. Police equity concerns and Strategic Partnership Fund grants are also on the agenda.