After all the work sessions and public hearings, the actual adoption of the city's operating budget is usually a quick and fairly benign affair. For the fiscal year beginning July 1, however, a fractured City Council debated three hours before approving the $84 million budget on a 4-3 vote.
Council members Charles Worley, Terry Whitmire and Brian Peterson were the dissenters.
With all that money on the line, surprisingly few people turned out for the June 13 meeting.
The touchy budget includes a 4-cent hike in the property tax rate, the first such increase in almost a decade. The extra money is earmarked for revamping the city's dilapidated streets, installing more traffic-calming measures, launching an affordable-housing trust fund, and tackling parks-and-recreation projects.
"If this tax increase passes, I would like to see things sprouting up ... all over town, fast and furious, so the taxpayers see and feel what they are paying for with their expenses," said Mayor Leni Sitnick at the end of the lengthy debate, moments before the vote.
"Nobody wants to raise taxes, and nobody wants to pay more taxes," declared Council member Barbara Field, adding that she'd received overwhelmingly positive support for the proposed initiatives. She did get two complaints, she said, but neither caller would identify himself. "In general, these were things the public clearly wanted, and sometimes the only way to fund them is to raise taxes."
Nonetheless, the tight vote highlighted a sharp split on Council over taxes.
Worley, while recognizing the city's pressing needs, said he also felt it was his duty to listen to his constituents. He then mentioned a letter he'd received from a city resident, telling him "to make do with what you've got." Earlier in the meeting, Council members had unanimously approved the annexation of six areas, totaling some 3 square miles; with that in mind, Worley proposed a compromise: "Rather than go for the 4 cents, I'd like to go for 2 cents and then look forward to the revenues from the annexation. I'd dedicate the tax increase to the housing trust fund and the streets and sidewalks."
Whitmire and Peterson agreed with Worley, for the most part. Peterson suggested using the proceeds from the 2-cent increase for the housing trust fund and the parks-and-recreation initiatives, and holding off on the street repairs.
Field, too, seemed to waver briefly, saying the city might want to wait on fixing the streets until the $1.3 million in state highway funding that Asheville gets each year under the Powell Bill is freed up, eight years from now. That money now pays the debt service on the streets-and-sidewalks bonds the city issued in 1986.
But Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger reminded his colleagues that, according to Public Works Director Mark Combs, only a 2-cent increase dedicated to the streets program could prevent the city's terrible road conditions from deteriorating further. Cloninger supported funding all the proposed measures, saying, "They have been listed over and over again as the priority needs of our community."
"We are not talking luxury wants: We are talking about the vitality, health and prosperity for the city," added the mayor. She also noted (as she has many times, lately) that much of the current tax bind results from past City Councils' neglect of the city's infrastructure.
But in a year when sewer-and-water rates are going up again, and the recycling fee is increasing (to accommodate curbside collection of mixed-paper wastes), Peterson and Whitmire contended that a 4-cent raise is just too much. Peterson favored reducing general-fund operating costs and looking for ways to move away from regressive taxes (such as the recycling fee) and toward progressive ones (such as the property tax). Cloninger said he wouldn't mind considering those tax issues later, but noted that Council members had unanimously approved the recycling fee hike, back on Feb. 22.
Whitmire had a long list of changes she wanted in the budget, and she didn't think it was too late to raise them. "I disagree with that," countered Council member Ed Hay. "We've had six months; we've got to pass the budget tonight."
Whitmire opposed the $11.3 million in the budget (coming from bond revenues) earmarked for building a new downtown parking garage (primarily to serve the Grove Arcade). She also took issue with raising the parking-meter fee (from 60 cents to 75 cents), and doubling the Parks and Recreation fee for adult flag-football teams. Instead, Whitmire suggested imposing a six-month, citywide hiring freeze.
City Manager Jim Westbrook said the city's new early-retirement program will eliminate the wages of 30 employees, but he discouraged the idea of imposing a hiring freeze. Departments such as Public Works are the ones with the highest turnover, he noted, and cutting their staff would reduce the level of public service. As for the fee hikes, he said the parking-meter plan had been recommended by merchants, to encourage downtown workers to use the parking decks -- freeing up the spaces in front of stores for customers. And the athletic fee (which averages just $3 per participant, per game) would pay for additional referees and ball-field lighting.
Despite her failure to sway her colleagues, Whitmire seemed to relish her role in the discussion. "Today, I proved that I'm willing to do this job, in spite of how the other Council members vote," she declared after the meeting, adding, "I voted for the best interests of the citizens."
"She's refreshing," said Asheville resident Mickey Mahaffey; he believes there's still a lot of fat in the budget, and he appreciated Whitmire's diligence.
Much of the first half of the budget meeting dealt with an issue that's been much on Council members' minds, of late -- whether (and how much) to fund outside agencies. In the end (and after some very close straw votes), Council members funded all the agencies on the list, unanimously agreeing to review the city's process for such funding next year. The closest votes (4-3) were on contributing to the Chamber of Commerce's new visitors' center ($100,000) and funding the Economic Development Commission -- to the tune of $50,000 -- in exchange for obtaining a voting seat on the commission.
Other new outside-agency funding included $20,000 to the Western North Carolina Heritage Association (to help purchase the old Biltmore School building), $15,000 to the YMCA (for operating expenses), and $5,000 to Next Generation (a small program for building affordable housing and teaching teenagers work-related skills).