- Council pitches compromise on water laws
- Parks plan needs more work
- Bele Chere '09 scaled back
Asheville City Council's Feb. 24 meeting -- all seven hours of it -- was book-ended by dollar signs and question marks. It started with a city budget update and ended with a report on the federal stimulus package, both of which presage more work ahead for the city's Finance Committee.
When Council members decided in January to cut back on work sessions, they agreed to hold a single two-hour session before their second regular meeting of the month -- but only when needed. Given both the fiscal hole in the current budget and the projected shortfall in the next fiscal year, however, they're having no trouble filling up that slot.
This time, Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant came to Council with a cocktail of solutions, laying out strategies for closing both the $1 million hole in the current fiscal year (which ends June 30) and the shortfall for fiscal year 2009-10, initially projected to be about $5.3 million.
The current budget, said Durant, should come out more or less in balance, thanks to a selective hiring freeze, delayed vehicle purchases and a raid on the Civic Center capital fund, along with slightly better than expected property-tax revenues.
But the city may have to squeeze staffing costs even harder to deal with next year's budget, which kicks in July 1. Council members will tackle that budget in earnest next month, and Durant had already proposed a series of cuts designed to whittle the projected gap down to $3 million. This time around, he presented additions and modifications to his prior suggestions, including tapping both the city's Housing Trust Fund and the general fund balance. Durant also recommended suspending raises and cost-of-living increases and cutting about 20 staff positions.
Meanwhile, Council member Bill Russell, who chairs the Finance Committee, said they've discussed reducing "third tier" city services, such as regular curbside brush pickup.
The "re-engineering" of city staff would actually entail five layoffs, City Manager Gary Jackson told Xpress -- the other 15 positions are either vacant or are expected to be soon, due to staff taking advantage of the city's early-retirement incentive. Jackson wouldn't reveal which positions are on the chopping block, but he said those five employees have been notified that their jobs may be eliminated.
City Council will consider the cuts as part of the upcoming budget deliberations, and Durant suggested soliciting public input on the matter before taking a formal vote.
Council member Brownie Newman said there needs to be more conversation before he'd be comfortable with taking those steps. Newman had previously registered his reluctance to eliminating this year's $600,000 contribution to the Housing Trust Fund; Durant was now recommending slashing it by half.
Newman also sounded a cautionary note concerning pay cuts. "An across-the-board pay cut does spread the pain around," he said. "But it does proportionally affect those at the lower end of the income spectrum [more]."
"Staff really struggled with that," Durant replied. "But given a choice between freezing salaries and laying off [more] employees, we would rather freeze salaries."
Others on Council found the prospect of squeezing city staff still more a bitter pill. The strategy for making up the shortfall, noted Russell, relies mostly on staff salary cuts and layoffs. "I just wanted to point that out," he said.
Mayor Terry Bellamy agreed, saying, "You bring a good point about how much of this is on the backs of [staff]." Asking for alternatives based on tapping the city's capital funds rather than salary and staff cuts, she declared, "What makes Asheville work is the people."
Noting that bad news can affect job performance and staff attitudes, Council member Kelly Miller asked Jackson to keep an eye on the "morale redline" and to "get a real honest read on the morale of the team."
Council member Carl Mumpower, meanwhile, said the solution to the budget crunch lies in Council's deciding to spend less. "It's our job to control our appetite," he asserted.
Council members will hear more at their March 10 meeting, when they'll probably ask the Finance Committee to weigh in with its recommendations as well.
Here comes the money
That committee is likely to see even more action as federal dollars start rolling in from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Barack Obama signed Feb. 17.
Bellamy, who attended a Feb. 20 meeting of mayors with the president and vice president at the White House, said money is expected to move quickly, and the city needs to be ready.
"Whether we see it tonight or not, there are actions happening," she emphasized. According to a staff report, North Carolina can expect to get about $6.1 billion for jobs and infrastructure needs. And Bellamy said there's more money available for affordable housing and initiatives to combat homelessness.
In fact, the deadline to apply for some types of funding was the very next day, city staffer Lauren Bradley noted. That meant Council members had to act fast, approving a series of letters of intent outlining "shovel ready" projects -- mostly water -and-sewer work -- to the state offices charged with distributing the various stimulus funds.
The Finance Committee will be responsible for navigating the bureaucratic hurdles to actually receiving stimulus funds. Accordingly, the group will be meeting more frequently and working with city staff on further recommendations for Council. Meanwhile, Council members will dedicate a portion of every upcoming formal session to discussing the status of the recovery process "until no longer necessary," as the staff report puts it.
Council member Robin Cape encouraged both her colleagues and the committee to keep an eye out for potential green initiatives, noting that while there is heavy competition for infrastructure funding, the word from the state is that there aren't a lot of green projects lined up for consideration.
The city will keep the public in the loop as well, updating the information on its Web site at www.ashevillenc.gov/economicrecovery.
Testing the waters
The N.C. Supreme Court's Feb. 9 decision not to hear Asheville's appeal concerning the constitutionality of the Sullivan Acts has left the city dead in the water (see "Asheville Loses Water Lawsuit," Feb. 11 Xpress). Now, some Council members are proposing that Asheville negotiate with state legislators in an attempt to increase the city's control of its water system.
The three state laws, which are aimed solely at Asheville, prohibit charging customers outside the city limits more for water, using access to the water system as an annexation tool, and using water revenues for any purpose other than water-infrastructure improvements.
Asheville maintains that those controls interfere with the city's normal growth through voluntary annexation and prevent it from receiving the amount of water revenues it's entitled to. The issue has been tangled up in court battles since state legislators passed Sullivan Acts II and III in 2005 shortly before the city terminated the water agreement. (The original Sullivan Act dates back to 1933.)
But with no hope in sight of repealing those laws, Newman outlined suggested modifications that would give the city a bit more breathing room. The proposed changes, which Newman cooked up along with Bellamy and Vice Mayor Jan Davis, include allowing water to be used as a bargaining chip for voluntary annexation in the case of properties within a half-mile of the city limits that contain at least 10,000 square feet. Another idea is encouraging discussions with neighboring communities to establish "spheres of influence" as a way to defend Asheville's legitimate annexation interests while cutting down on annexation fears in outlying parts of the county and greasing the wheels for future annexations.
Yet another proposal calls for allowing Asheville to use up to 5 percent of water funds for infrastructure projects directly related to water improvements, such as improving a sidewalk that's torn up to replace water lines.
To take effect, the changes would have to be approved by the General Assembly, but Newman seemed optimistic that state legislators might consider the amendments, observing, "There seems to be some openness."
Mumpower, however, was quick to register his disapproval with the idea, calling the memo "a surrender document" that amounts to "selling out the citizens of Asheville."
"What I would support is going to war with these characters," Mumpower declared. "They are stealing a $1 billion asset from us."
Others on Council agreed that the Sullivan Acts uniquely limit Asheville among North Carolina cities but said it's time to move on.
"It may be a surrender document, but it's the only document we got," argued Davis. "At least it's an opportunity to amend the Sullivan Acts so we get some benefits. This is a win; this is a gain."
Russell asked for more time to consider the document, but Miller countered that time is of the essence when trying to beat the deadline for proposing new state legislation or amendments to existing laws. "March 3 is a crucial date," noted Miller, adding, "That's when the sausage gets made."
Bellamy asked Council to approve sending the suggestions to Raleigh, saying, "This is a conversation." She also asked her colleagues to keep their emotions in check and resist "name-calling" that could hurt the city's chances with legislators.
"It is my pleasure to call these people names," responded Mumpower. "I just wish I could be more colorful."
Nonetheless, the proposal was approved on a 5-2 vote with Mumpower and Russell opposed.
No walk in the park
On another 5-2 vote, Council members adopted a new Parks, Recreation, Cultural Arts and Greenways Master Plan, though they emphasized that it needs more work.
The 50-page document, which surveys the city's existing recreational facilities goals and lists goals and strategies for future improvements, was drawn up with the help of Colorado-based consultants GreenPlay. But some on Council struggled with the lack of price tags and implementation timelines. In addition, noted several members of the public, it completely excludes the proposed Wilma Dykeman RiverWay.
"We think that's a mistake," said Marc Hunt, who chairs the city's Greenway Commission, adding that his group had voted not to endorse the master plan. "We think you should reconfigure the plan to address the whole city and not just the whole city except the River District." Hunt also noted that the city has either already approved or is working on a whole series of master plans that separately address pedestrians, bikes, parks and greenways, when all of those concepts should really be bundled into one vision.
Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons defended the decision to exclude the 17-mile riverside greenway system spearheaded by RiverLink, noting that Council had already adopted a separate master plan for it several years ago. As for the lack of information about costs and funding sources, Simmons said the current plan would help identify worthy projects, and his department would calculate the costs as funds became available. He likened the document to the city's 2025 Plan, which spells out broad goals that can be used to assess future projects.
But Council members' responses to the plan's ambiguity ranged from uncertainty to disappointment.
"This is a huge plan," noted Cape. "I guess I'm just having trouble figuring out how this helps you figure out where to go." She also took issue with the plan's stipulation that greenways remain free of bike paths.
Davis, meanwhile, said he regretted having spent $120,000 on the plan. "I'm disappointed in the way it was written," he said. "I just don't think we got our money's worth."
For his part, Mumpower maintained that in the current economic climate, even considering a plan that would involve unnecessary expenditures was "unrealistic."
Simmons, however, touted the plan's flexibility, saying, "It gives you the ability to break it off into sections and come back ... year to year to put it together." He also emphasized that Council wouldn't be committing to any further expense, because "Everything we do has to come back to Council."
Bellamy suggested that city staff continue to work on the plan in-house in conjunction with the Greenway Commission and RiverLink; nonetheless, she urged adoption of the master plan in its current form. "I think it is important that you take it back and look at it," the mayor said, adding that she wants to see follow-ups showing both short- and long-term goals.
In that spirit, Council adopted the plan on a 5-2 vote with Mumpower and Davis opposed.
Reining in Bele Chere
This summer's Bele Chere festival will be scaled back a bit, eliminating two stages and avoiding parts of College Street and other roads adjacent to the Pack Square Park construction site. Superintendent of Cultural Arts Diane Ruggiero presented a revised street plan for the event.
Perhaps the biggest news is the removal of the Lexington Avenue stage. Ruggiero gave no specifics on the move, saying only that the area is "difficult to program."
Another big change will be relocating the children's area to the Civic Center, she said. City Council unanimously approved the changes.