Leslee Kulba- For the upcoming fiscal year, the City of Asheville’s projected general fund will be $132,262,366, and enterprise fund activity will expand the budget to $190,310,962. The tax rate, 42.89 cents per $100 valuation, will not change.
Unaddressed structural deficiencies keep budget projections on a trajectory for a $600,000-700,000 shortfall by Fiscal Year 2024, and members of council would like the city to have the resources to take on many more investments. People wishing to speak at the budget hearing caused two overflow rooms to be opened.
New Manager Debra Campbell tried to align the budget with the strategic priorities council elected at its last retreat. This year, the city will be spending $1,559,000 more on transit.
This includes a $1,200,000 general-fund appropriation to begin implementing the city’s Transit Master Plan while also addressing issues with the reliability of existing services. The balance represents appropriations that compensate for federal funding that will be more dispersed throughout the region and address rising costs.
Many in the chambers wanted more money spent on transit. The organized opposition carried photocopied signs that read, “Transit Can’t Wait.” Amy Cantrell and Amber Banks led off as a tag team, reading letters they collected expressing why transit should expand. Reasons included preferring not to walk or take a taxi in order to get home from work, enjoy Asheville’s nightlife, make rehab appointments, or attend city council meetings.
While activists solicited expanded service, a few bus drivers and maintenance workers asked council for consideration, as they are already spread too thin and struggling. Diane Allen, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 128, told stories of people yelling at drivers and spitting on them. Buses were in “awful condition,” making headlines for, “people being left behind, buses breaking down, buses catching on fire, no AC, no heat, no driver to drive a bus, no bus for a driver,” etc.
And while the system had a new maintenance director, he “did not have a magic wand.” She reminded council that as early as 2009, the union had claimed, “the routes were being set up to fail everyone.”
The second big issue was a request to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15/hour. Buncombe County had responded to demand because the adjustment only affected 15 employees. Using rough numbers, Campbell said the city would have to spend about $500,000 to do the same. In light of human resources concerns, she wanted to complete a class and compensation study to be as systemic and fair as possible with pay adjustments.
Despite Councilor Vijay Kapoor’s former public assertion that the math didn’t work, Casey Campfield recommended paying the city’s lowest-compensated via freezing salaries for the highest-paid. Campfield also said the city should roll back its $1,000,000 police force expansion implemented last year. Several Asheville firefighters also spoke, requesting more than $11.94/hour for their high-risk line of work.
A few spoke about the need to hire an urban forester to develop an urban forest master plan. They argued poor management of the city’s trees is making government spend unnecessarily on remediation efforts.
For example, trees with healthy roots could reduce erosion, obviating the need for the budget’s 5% increase in stormwater fees and the creation of five new positions to service the Stormwater Fund. Trees could also shade urban heat sinks, helping offset global temperature increases. Claire Hanrahan bewailed the “noble” and “ancient” trees being toppled without ritual.
Only three speakers recommended giving the budget a haircut. Andrew Kirby spoke as if he had had an unspecified encounter with traffic calming. He suggested the city’s strategy of dealing with growth by making it more difficult to move about the city in automobiles was misguided. Sidney Bach echoed the sentiments, specifically requesting that council remove from the budget the $1,250,000 it intends to spend narrowing Charlotte Street from four to three lanes.
He said nothing had changed since a study predicted doing so would decrease the street’s level of service to an F grade, which means, among other things, “gridlock,” “longer queues,” “no maneuverability,” “irrational behavior,” and “panic.” That, he said, would not be safe for pedestrians. He furthermore compared anybody who believes there is less traffic on Charlotte Street now to climate deniers.
Then, Chris Peterson made his annual appearance to angrily complain about government waste. Hurling insults and casting aspersion, he said the pay scale should be flattened to compensate firefighters appropriately. He indicated green transit decisions were driving the $18,000,000 increase in the city’s operating budget over the last three years.[ED NOTE: The increase in expenditures from FY2017 to the FY2020 projection total $23,889,194.] Peterson said the city was spending so much on greenways and bikeways because most department heads were led by cycling enthusiasts. He further faulted the city for wasting $6,000,000 on electric buses that “don’t even run.”