Take the budget to the mat and there are only two options, City Manager Jim Westbrook told Council members during their Aug. 20 work session: cut or tax. Despite having already slashed $2.6 million in projected spending in the wake of the state budget crisis, the city is still scrambling to find a way to make ends meet.
Westbrook reported that an additional $1 million is needed to fund a list of what he called "service priorities" -- currently unfunded items that staff feels need to be added to the budget. These include street-and-sidewalk repairs, allocations for the Community Relations Council and the Burton Street Recreation Center, and funding for the Enka Fire Department contract and police overtime for the recently held Biker Bash. To come up with the money, Westbrook proposed either making more cuts (which made some on Council balk) or raising the current 51-cent property-tax rate to 53 cents per $100 of property valuation -- a move opposed by at least two Council members.
Chiding state lawmakers for not reining in spending, Council member Joe Dunn said he's not willing to ask Asheville citizens to make up for the state's financial problems. Carl Mumpower agreed, saying, "So many people live week to week on tight budgets; we should do the same." For his part, Mumpower wondered whether there might be a third option: a half-cent sales tax (which would require permission from Raleigh), in lieu of the recently unreliable state reimbursements.
The bill authorizing a sales-tax increase is stuck in committee, Westbrook explained, adding that there's no chance the General Assembly will make a decision on the sales tax in time to bail the city out.
Mayor Charles Worley, agreeing that the chances of state help are slim, said he favors a tax increase. "This is the year, this is the need, and this is the time to do it," he declared.
And Brian Peterson said he'd like to re-examine Council's priorities before making across-the-board cuts.
If the city wants to adjust the property-tax rate, it must do so by Sept. 1, to give the staff time to make the necessary preparations before the tax bills go out. Council plans to discuss the budget report and approve either cuts or a new tax rate in a special formal session on Aug. 29.
Staff proposes neighborhood corridor districts
Planning Department staff then presented a corridor-revitalization plan that's been three years in the making. Nonetheless, the proposal they dropped in Council's lap may have been a case of too much too fast. The plan calls for revising the Unified Development Ordinance to require that buildings and storefronts in designated "neighborhood corridors" be not only aesthetically pleasing but also designed to encourage more bike-and-pedestrian traffic.
Council members had been scheduled to vote on the Neighborhood Corridor Districts at their Aug. 27 formal session, but some on Council felt the proposal includes too much information to be processed in a week's time. Therefore, although the issue will remain on the agenda for Aug. 27, Council will continue deliberations until an Oct. 8 public hearing.
City planners have suggested several areas for rezoning -- including sections of Merrimon Avenue, Charlotte Street and Haywood Road-- but their first target is Broadway. There are three parts to the proposal: an area-specific Broadway corridor plan (a vision for the area generated not by city staff but by private developers); an amendment to the UDO (to enable the more general corridor plan to be applied in designated districts throughout the city); and the actual rezoning of the Broadway district.
A presentation by private developers had been scheduled on the Broadway plan, but though both developers and area residents showed up at the work session, the presentation was taken off the agenda due to time constraints and concerns about changes to the plan.
City staffers, however, outlined some of the proposed requirements, which would affect such matters as building height, storefront windows, parking-lot placement and landscape buffers. The sweeping plan also calls for mixed-use, high-density development, as well as including small markets and other neighborhood amenities within walking distance of residential units.
Planners believe the needed infrastructure is available and the land is underutilized. "There is no excuse to let this land remain vacant," proclaimed Chief Planner Gerald Green. "We must accept what is here, and deal with what is here, and place the standards to ensure that the growth that occurs in the future benefits all of the community."
Dunn was the first to take the zoning plan to task, saying he doesn't like the idea of restricting business and development -- especially the mandatory storefront windows and parking. "I didn't campaign to see us get more and more regulations," he declared.
"This scares me a bit," countered Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy. Storefront windows, she argued, make for more visible -- and therefore safer -- streets.
After a lengthy presentation and discussion, Worley called for a short break, during which Council members informally discussed what to do with all the items on the table.
Upon reconvening the meeting, Worley announced that the Broadway corridor plan would be addressed at Council's next formal session, but the UDO amendment and the Broadway rezoning would be bumped to a later date.
A bumper crop of waste
The state of North Carolina failed to meet its goal of cutting per-capita solid waste by 40 percent over the past decade. The total amount of waste produced actually rose 13 percent over that period, Ron Townley of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council informed City Council. But that number would have been much higher if it weren't for the concurrent boom in recycling programs, he said.
Townley's report -- put together by Land of Sky and the Buncombe County Solid Waste Authority -- outlines different sources of waste, their impact and possibilities for reduction over the next decade. The plan, revised every three years under state law, took six months to create. It analyzes potential solid-waste reductions over two, five and 10 years with the renewed goal of a 40-percent cut.
Although Townley said residential rates tend to remain the same, he noted that commercial and industrial waste is a prime target -- with the potential for as much as a 60-percent drop in two years, according to Townley.
"There's a lot of low-hanging fruit there," he mused.