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Council progresses on progressive goals

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By Leslee Kulba –

Asheville City Council received updates on how staff is progressing toward objectives outlined in their strategic operating plan, and how the budget is tracking. Budget Director Tony McDowell reported revenues for the current fiscal year are now estimated to land 0.57 percent under budget. This is based on revaluations running lower than anticipated. Sales taxes are keeping close to estimates. Results aren’t available for the last quarter, but it appeared that December sales were down from last year.

Thanks to moderate temperatures in both summer and winter, fuel usage has remained low, but rising costs have offset any savings. Personnel costs, however, have held steady, so staff expects overall municipal expenditures will run 0.9 percent below budgeted amounts.

Moving with the times, Deputy City Manager Jeff Richardson shared a PowerPoint presentation showing jewel-colored icons for each of the “focus areas” of council’s SOP. Given time restraints, Richardson highlighted only a few of the city’s accomplishments. These included the latest round of tax breaks awarded to Linamar ($2.1 million) and New Belgium ($1 million), financial and planning assistance for the Eagle Market Street development, and the purchase of the Ice House for demolition. The latter was transacted with $1,050,000 from the Parking Enterprise Fund, leaving a projected $903,646 shortfall. This came to light after Councilman Cecil Bothwell inquired about Mayor Terry Bellamy’s recent comments to the Downtown Association about a need to raise parking rates. Parking revenues are essentially unchanged.

McDowell reported transit revenues will be diminished by about $180,000, due to state and federal funding that fell through. On the bright side, the purchase of new buses has lowered maintenance costs for the transit fleet by almost 40 percent. The city continues to pursue multimodal transportation with greenways and bike lanes, but an investigation into the feasibility of running a downtown trolley ran into a huge capital roadblock.

The city was able to save a lot of mileage, money, and carbon footprinting by investing in digital training for the fire department. In the past, employees would leave their stations and travel in bulky fire trucks to certification programs. Now, they can be trained in-house, where they can be available to respond to calls for service. City employees learned about the technology at an educational outing, and the city was able to procure it at only 10 percent of MSRP. The city furthermore saved $11,640 by keeping the engines parked.

Other green actions the city has taken include the upfitting of streetlights with LED’s. This saved the city $130,000 in one year. The city’s Sustainability Division pursues green alternatives in all repair and replacement decisions. To promote Smart Growth, the city is taking advantage of eight grants to assist with infill development. Working in the other direction, the city’s Food Action Plan aims to lease public property to the private sector for downtown farming.

Following the too-many-chiefs model prolonging the economic downturn, the city has a number of goals and objectives to jump in front of job creation and retention. The city maintains its living wage policy, but it only applied to four contracts into which the city entered during the last fiscal quarter.

In the name of safety, the city expanded its Asheville Police Explorers youth program, and police officers are now working with WNC Big Brothers/Big Sisters and eating lunch with students in Asheville City Schools. The Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Arts Department hosted nine programs, serving 9527 children at risk of gang exposure. The construction of sidewalks on Tunnel Road and North Louisiana Avenue and maintenance of fire department accreditations were also billed as enhancing public safety.

In the more traditional sense of protecting the innocent, the city continues its efforts to suppress the open-air drug markets, demand community service in exchange for nuisance crimes, and conduct investigations into internet child predation. Richardson described a new program in which 57 of the city’s most violent offenders were invited to sit down and accept whatever services they needed to come clean. Refusal to accept would mean their next offense would trigger their removal from society. 36 accepted the invitation, and of those, 30 have to date kept their noses clean.

The city continues to harbor an interesting definition of fiscal responsibility. Whereas the notion typically conjures images of belt-tightening in a tough economy, one of two goals is to “explore alternatives for enhancing the city’s long-term financial commitment to master plan implementation, infrastructure maintenance, capital improvements, and public facilities.” The first objective under this goal is to leverage partnerships, which include accepting grants from the national debt and the perpetually balance-challenged state budget.

Another stated objective is to explore the feasibility of taking on more debt with a bond referendum. The staff report states, “The city is maximizing its ability to issue new debt based on the General Fund contribution to capital remaining unchanged. A bond program, now or in future years, will require a dedicated funding source for repaying the debt.”

Councilman Gordon Smith asked what impact withdrawn gaming fee and license revenues would have on the city’s budget. City Attorney Bob Oast said the technology had been sliding so as to evade the law, and as long as it does, the machines will remain in operation and taxable. Regardless, staff had zeroed out any anticipated gaming revenues in the budget so as to err on the side of caution.

City Manager Gary Jackson added that the legislature is considering a number of tax reforms, and they have made it very clear to local governments that however the dusts settles, it won’t be revenue-neutral for city and county budgets.

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