As anyone who's ever prepared a household budget can attest, distinguishing between wants and needs can be difficult. But imagine trying to prepare a budget knowing that a rather large bill may or may not come due next month. Choosing quickly becomes a lot more complicated.
The Asheville City Council also has to prepare a budget, but on a scale that dwarfs what the average taxpayer must deal with: The city's plan for the coming fiscal year includes more than $103 million in estimated expenses. And at the June 21 budget work session, it became clear that while each of the seven Council members has additional programs they want funded, the pool of available funds is only so deep. Looming on the horizon, moreover, is the prospect of that pool springing a leak -- and one caused by water, no less.
At press time, the Water Agreement was set to expire on June 30. If that happens, Asheville's projected revenues for 2005-06 could be reduced by some $2.5 million -- the estimated net effect of lost revenue coupled with additional expenses that have, in the past, been covered by the county.
What stays, what goes
At the June 14 formal session, a frustrated City Council had directed staff to come up with a list of potential cuts that could be made to accommodate a $2.5 million hole in the budget. In addition, several Council members argued that the staff's draft budget didn't reflect their stated priorities. Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, for example, pushed for funding for five new police officers to be assigned to a drug-enforcement team. And Council member Brownie Newman wanted $988,000 for additional patrol cars, so the Asheville Police Department could provide each officer with a cruiser full time. Neither proposal made it into the staff's draft budget -- which didn't sit well with either Mumpower or Newman.
So the staff crunched the numbers, and one week later, at the June 21 budget work session, proposed a strategy to deal with the projected shortfall if the Water Agreement indeed unravels. The plan would redirect $500,000 from the city's contingency fund (money set aside for emergencies), take $500,000 from funds earmarked for a new parking deck, and allocate $1.2 million in proceeds from the sale of city-owned land near the airport. The remaining $300,000 would come from the city's fund balance -- a surplus that state law requires local governments to maintain from year to year.
But finding the money for Council members' various pet projects, argued staff, is Council's responsibility. "In order to balance the budget, staff needs further direction regarding whether there is a consensus among Council to fund the [priorities], and whether fee increases or service cuts should be used as a funding source," Budget Director Ben Durant wrote in a June 7 memo to City Council.
During the June 21 meeting, Council member Joe Dunn reminded his colleagues that such a task is really their standing order: "This is a policy decision, and we're policymakers. That's why we were elected."
A memo issued by Durant on the day of the meeting listed 17 possible program cuts and fee increases for Council to consider. Those changes, he estimated, would free up $822,242. But the memo also listed seven priority programs that Council members were still debating. Those plans, said Durant, would add nearly $2.5 million to the budget. Besides Newman's and Mumpower's projects, other items ranged from replacing the Asheville Civic Center's concourse roof ($366,000) to making improvements to Yorkshire Street ($115,000).
The first order of business on June 21 was to whittle down Council members' own priority list, as a prelude to tackling Durant's ideas on how to pay for those items that survived the cut. Mumpower's police initiative, however, prompted a lively debate. The vice mayor has been a strong advocate of beefing up the law-enforcement presence in public housing to escalate Asheville's war on drugs. Mumpower spoke passionately about how drug dealers are devastating the lives of public-housing residents, but when he began recounting his experience spending a night at the Deaverview public-housing complex, where he witnessed drug dealers plying their trade at 7 a.m., Council member Holly Jones interrupted him.
"We believe you -- we all believe you, Carl," she said. "We don't need to hear more stories. There's no one here that denies that there is a drug problem."
Council member Jan Davis pointed out that Asheville Police Chief William Hogan hadn't requested the additional officers. Mayor Charles Worley then laid his cards on the table: "I don't support it. We gave the [APD] additional resources a year ago."
In the end, Council members tentatively agreed to trim their lists before assembling on June 29 for the formal vote to adopt a budget.
When City Council turned its attention to funding options, Jones again went on the offensive, pointing out that four of Durant's 17 suggested program cuts were directed at affordable-housing programs. "This is a travesty!" she declared.
And as Council worked its way through Durant's list, one suggested program cut highlighted just how tight the city's financial belt will have to be this year. Every city department director had offered suggested cuts in their piece of the pie. Public Works Director Mark Combs had suggested rebidding the city's recycling contract (in an attempt to find a company that would provide the service at a lower cost) and putting the city's annual display of holiday lights on the chopping block.
Council member Terry Bellamy asked Combs if the cut meant the city wouldn't be buying additional lights. Combs said it actually meant that no decorations would be displayed -- not even the snowflakes that adorn streetlights in parts of Asheville. That cut would save the city an estimated $7,500.
"We can't do that," Bellamy exclaimed. "I won't support that -- it's the holiday season!" But Bellamy's defense of snowflakes and tree lights found little support among her colleagues, who remained silent on the matter.
It was another reminder that if even such relatively low-cost items as wreaths and snowflake lights aren't safe from the budget axe, some tough choices are in the offing.