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This could be Bele Chere’s farewell tour

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By Leslee Kulba –

Asheville City Council members considered altering or abolishing their role in the festival business. Ending Bele Chere, or handing its management over to a private entity, would have the most impact on the city’s budget.

Mayor Terry Bellamy thought the city should at least uphold its commitment to follow through on its commitments for this year’s festivals. If the city were to do that and end the festival next year, it could slice $200,000 off the budget. The city could save $450,000 by canceling the event this year; but if it did that, staff recommended re-appropriating $100,000 of that amount for other city festivals, such as a July 4 celebration.

Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer recalled how when the city decided to terminate its Film Commission, interest in the private sector emerged to assume the responsibilities. She suggested council develop a process for dealing with offers. “Call AC Entertainment,” suggested Councilman Cecil Bothwell, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Another cost-cutting measure recommended by staff was to eliminate staffing at the Aston Park tennis courts and the Food Lion Skate Park. The haircut would save the city roughly $200,000, but the mayor was not supportive. She was concerned about vandalism and other public safety issues.

This led to the tossing about of suggestions. One was to move a staff member’s office from city hall to the scenic tennis courts. Administrative Services Director Lauren Bradley quickly volunteered. In a rare acknowledgement of market benefits from a progressive elected board, Cecil Bothwell said the natural solution would be for the city to rent the Skate Park offices to a retailer of skateboard equipment.

Staff also suggested offering early retirements and freezing ten or fifteen positions while further restructuring the organization to achieve greater efficiencies. Bellamy was concerned the greater efficiencies would work against the city’s policy of hiring more minorities. She didn’t want the city cutting jobs for members of the community who didn’t have college degrees.

Members of council received a report from Fox Lawson & Associates. They had commissioned a study to recommend compensation strategies to better align the city’s pay schedule with competing markets. The consultants studied 55 job classifications and found that overall the city’s compensation was “highly competitive.”

There were some outliers in some categories, but overall, the city’s payroll showed a bulge in the upper ranges. The firm recommended that the city consolidate some of its job classifications to better mirror other organizations. Specific recommendations would depend on the findings of a more in-depth analysis.

In light of the recommendations, staff proposed a 3 percent cost of living adjustment for all staff, with the exception of public safety officers. Instead of getting the COLA, police and firemen would all advance one pay grade, which would be on a par with a 4 percent pay increase. As it turns out, the city’s public safety officers are better compensated than those in nearby markets, but council did not want to go through the headache of high attrition it addressed with better pay a decade ago. Back then, Asheville had a reputation for being a training ground, investing megabucks in prepping officers to serve in other organizations.

City Manager Gary Jackson sold council on the idea of a COLA, describing it as egalitarian. Staff could not, as Marc Hunt suggested, surgically fix salaries that were out of alignment with the market until the more comprehensive study identified which positions needed fixing.

Bradley said staff was using the bonuses provided last year as leverage for more cost savings. That is, staff is being led to believe if they can produce similar savings this year, at least some of the surplus could be used to reward the frugality.

Overall, staff is thinking property taxes might have to increase from 42 to 43 percent. Through natural growth, property tax revenue is expected to increase 1.75 percent; and sales tax revenue, 5 percent. All told, estimated revenues were running about $1.5 million under estimated expenditures.

Added to the mix are uncertainties looming from proposed anti-Asheville legislation. The city could be forced to surrender its water system and/or its ETJ. Legislation is also afoot that would prevent the city from collecting about $1.7 million from the issuance of privilege licenses. Bradley said no impacts from the BID have been factored into preliminary budget calculations. Staff is proposing raising fees for sports and afterschool programs. This, too, was seen as harming minorities, but Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Director Roderick Simmons said the charges are still far from approximating cost recovery.

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