North Carolina is facing a projected $791 million budget deficit. Some say it could be as high as $1 billion. That's billion with a "B," as in "Carl Sagan billion."
For Asheville City Council members, the reality of the state budget shortfall hit home at the Feb. 13 formal session, when City Manager Jim Westbrook announced that the city would have to cut its budget by a whopping $600,000 to offset the loss of expected payments from the state. Seeking to reduce the projected state deficit, Gov. Mike Easley suspended the payments, which the General Assembly makes to municipal governments each year. State legislators initiated the annual payments in 1988 to compensate municipalities for revenues lost when the General Assembly exempted businesses from paying property taxes on their inventories.
Asheville's $600,000 slice of the pie, expected to arrive on April 30, was already earmarked for projects in the city's current budget. "We've got to make some hard choices here," said Westbrook in a somber tone.
City bean counters have devised a three-step strategy to balance this year's budget, which runs through June 30. A modified hiring freeze, with exceptions for positions in the Public Safety, Public Works and Water Resources departments, would save a projected $186,300. Holding off on buying new equipment and delaying some capital improvement projects would save an estimated $333,700. And limiting travel by city employees would yield an additional $180,000 in savings. According to city Budget and Research Director Ben Durant, a primary goal of the plan is to minimize the "visual impact" on city residents.
A disappointed Mayor Leni Sitnick, trying to strike an optimistic note, said: "It's an opportunity to examine wants vs. needs. We already have a fat-free budget, but this will allow for nips and tucks."
One victim of the budget cuts, a plan (spearheaded by Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger) to buy some alternative-fuel vehicles for the city fleet, prompted the mayor to lament: "Our air quality is a mess. We don't have any time for [this]."
New jail rules
With a city/county agreement on a new jail site now appearing likely, the lone public hearing on the evening's agenda seemed almost anticlimactic. The hearing -- on an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance regulating the location and appearance of new jails within the city limits -- produced little comment, and the amendment was unanimously adopted.
When the Buncombe County commissioners surprised city leaders and area residents last month with a plan to site a satellite jail on the former Union Transfer property on South Lexington Avenue, Council moved swiftly, proposing a change in the UDO that would make jails a conditional use. That meant the county would have to ask the city for permission to build the jail on its newly acquired property. With a city/county battle royale looming, Planning Department staff swung into action, hammering out the detailed conditions that would have to be met before a conditional-use permit would be granted. In less than three weeks, the amended sections of the UDO were completed, approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission and sent back to Council for final approval. Presenting the amendments to Council, Senior City Planner Gerald Green deadpanned, "This issue was on a relatively fast track."
In the meantime, however, city and county officials have been working out an agreement to site the new jail on city-owned property adjacent to the existing one, behind the county courthouse.
Much of the language in the UDO amendments is meant to ensure that the design of any new jail will be compatible with surrounding structures. Council member Brian Peterson noted that the new wording prohibits the use of razor wire, barbed wire or chainlink fencing in areas visible from adjacent properties -- yet many downtown buildings, particularly on South Lexington, have such fences (including a Police Department parking lot). Green pointed out that those fences had been built before the city adopted its downtown design guidelines.
Peterson, who has questioned whether the city would have reacted as forcefully to block a jail proposed for a less prominent part of the city, ended his comments with a backhanded compliment: "I commend the city staff for being able to change the UDO in just a week. It's nice to know, when something is unpopular, we can change the UDO so quickly. I applaud them." In a later interview, Peterson clarified his comment. "I would like the same sort of treatment for other parts of town. This does demonstrate that the city can respond to an unpopular development very quickly. There are a number of different tools they can use, such as conditional-use permits."
Vice Mayor Cloninger said, "I think this is a reasonable approach to protecting downtown." His motion to adopt the resolution, seconded by Council member Barbara Field, was adopted 7-0.
Questions for school board candidates
Council also approved a list of 14 questions candidates for the Asheville City School Board must answer, in writing, before being interviewed for a seat on the board. Unlike the Buncombe County School Board, whose members are elected, members of the city board are appointed by City Council.
The questions cover topics ranging from the needs of learning-disabled students to ways to increase parental involvement in the schools. Such concerns assumed a human form when Asheville resident Gene Bell approached the lectern to address City Council. Bell, an advocate for equality in education, was part of a large group of concerned citizens who sat through the entire meeting so that they could express to Council their concerns about what Bell called "the significant gap between whites and blacks in academics, dropout rates, suspensions and expulsions." He added, "The community must address this gap; we have a critical need in our community." Council members listened respectfully but made little comment.
The new school-board members will be appointed in late March.