Quality-of-life issues and failing infrastructure loomed large at the Asheville City Council retreat, back in January. Now, for the first time in a decade, Council members are preparing to cross their fingers on their re-election hopes and jack up taxes, in order to meet many of those needs.
When the numbers are crunched and the taxes collected, the cash-strapped city would have an additional $1.85 million per year in its coffers to work with.
"We haven't raised taxes in 10 years -- and, in fact, we are just coming up to where we should have been," said Mayor Leni Sitnick, declaring, "That's why this Council is braver and braver, and has to be bold to leave a legacy for future Councils."
In a May 18 budget work session, Council members shrugged off voters' rejection of a proposed parks-and-recreation bond issue last year, dedicating a 1-cent increase in the property-tax rate to fund parks projects. The proposed $83 million budget already included a 2-cent increase, earmarked for beefing up maintenance of Asheville's dilapidated streets. There's also a planned $5 jump in the city's vehicle tax, to pay for Asheville Transit System improvements.
But Council members may decide to dig even deeper into taxpayers' pockets. To combat Asheville's shortage of affordable housing, yet another 1-cent increase may be worked into the new budget, to establish an affordable-housing trust fund. Just weeks ago, Council members unanimously adopted the Consolidated Housing and Community Development Plan, which sees a trust fund as an essential tool for curbing the housing shortage. Council members will face that hurdle at an affordable-housing work session on May 30, but some have already spoken strongly in favor of such a fund.
All told, these proposals would raise the tax rate from 52 cents per $100 of property value to 56 cents. That's a $40 tax hike on a $100,000 home.
In his first time through the budget process, Council member Brian Peterson brushed aside the notion that raising taxes is political suicide. He said the needs are there, and if the money is spent wisely, he hopes voters will remember that.
Council member Barbara Field was also adamant about spending the money wisely. "If we are going to raise taxes, I want to see the work done," she warned Public Works Director Mark Combs.
Combs would be getting an additional $800,000 a year to implement his street-improvement plan, designed to take Asheville's byways from worst-in-the-state to better-than-average in seven years. He says doing preventive maintenance while roads are still in good condition -- light resurfacing, fixing potholes and sealing cracks -- can extend pavement life by as much as 10 years. The city now does zero preventive maintenance and spends $400,000 a year on resurfacing. The proposed budget allocates $950,000 a year for resurfacing, plus $250,000 for PM. As more of the nastier roads are whipped into shape, the bulk of the money would be spent on the PM side, promised Combs.
"We could probably spend four times as much and make the public happy," Sitnick said. "We've got a public mandate on this. For years, years and years, in terms of infrastructure, things were not done."
Meanwhile, the city's lack of greenways and parks has been mentioned at nearly every Council meeting since voters nixed an $18 million parks-and-recreation bond proposal last year. Parks Director Irby Brinson said he would use the extra $400,000 a year to partly fund a number of projects -- the Broadway Greenway, the Montford Complex, the Richmond Hill Complex, and buying property on Azalea Road -- but he'd rather use the money to leverage a $4 million bond issue and really get things rolling. Cloninger said he thought the bond idea might best serve the city.
"The needs are there; we just need to do it," agreed Peterson, adding that he'd also like to see some smaller parks projects that can be built quickly. "It's like telling your kids, 'Maybe, when your kids are ready, they'll be able to play softball.'"
As for the Asheville Transit System, the extra $250,000 from the vehicle tax would be earmarked for buying benches, shelters and bus-stop signs. Transit Director Bruce Black also wants to start a capital-improvement fund to pay for replacing buses, and fix the ailing roof and bus lift at the storage barn.
The biggest single item in the budget is the $11.2 million the city is kicking in to build a 650-space parking deck, to serve the refurbished Grove Arcade. City Engineer Cathy Ball said she expects the new garage to be completed by July of 2002.
"It's $11.2 million for the Grove Arcade, but it really doesn't change the parking situation for anyone downtown," commented Field.
The city also plans to build a temporary, 150-space parking lot for $3.7 million, to serve arcade customers while the main garage is being built. The high cost of the land, Ball explained, will bring the cost per space to around $25,000 which seemed to rile Field and the mayor. "It doesn't make any sense -- it's an awful lot of money just for a paved lot," fumed Field.
Where the budget ax may fall
The big losers in this budget may turn out to be those outside agencies that the city has supported, in the name of community and economic development. Funding for these agencies may drop from $308,000 this year to nothing in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce may take the biggest hit.
The Chamber gets $100,000 a year from the city to support the Visitors Center and has requested an additional $50,000 for the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission.
Barbara Field said there's no need to pay $50,000 to hear a group "talk about how awful the city is," adding, "I'd like to know what they're doing with the money they get -- Buncombe County is giving them $400,000 already."
Peterson said he feels the Visitor Center primarily serves Chamber members. And a number of the outside social-service agencies are already funded by the county, he said; when the city also funds them, Asheville residents end up paying twice.
"That $300,000 could go a long way for the city," noted Sitnick, who proposed eliminating all outside-agency funding. She said she'd rather see the Chamber money go toward implementing the city's own Strategic Economic Development Plan.