Fiscal conservatives who wanted to be punkish were saying, “I told you so,” before America went into the recession. Now that cooked statistics create an illusion of recovery, businesses and government are through with reaching for rock bottom. They’ve hit. The era of over-extension subsidized by pipedreams of infinite economic growth is ending as local governments find their taxing power is limited by the finite pocketbooks of the governed, if not their consent, and the market is not interested in floating bad debt. Headlines across North Carolina tell of budget woes. In Asheville, the woes are compounded.
In light of a number of bills in the General Assembly that would work like an old-fashioned blockade to starve the city, Asheville City Council held a town hall meeting at the US Cellular Center at 2:00 in the afternoon last Wednesday to beg for mercy. The dog and pony show reiterated staff’s talking points about Asheville being a regional hub with a shortage of regional financial participation. Municipalities often charge differential rates for utilities to make up the difference, but the Sullivan acts stopped that in Asheville. They prohibit water revenues from being diverted to the city’s general fund. The city recently received a reprieve with an amendment allowing it to use 5 percent of water revenues to repair streets and sidewalks torn up by waterworks, but the legislature is busy revoking that amendment.
City staff has prepared a number of proposed budget cuts, and each ruffles the feathers of various interest groups. Not surprisingly, subsidized recreation was viewed as a vital organ of the city by many who had the leisure to attend the midday meeting. Various interest groups pled for mercy, but only John Miall, who is running for mayor, asked the city to rework the budget to eliminate the kind of fluff that isn’t attached to panic buttons. Miall formerly served as the city’s risk manager, and in that capacity brought costs considerably down by encouraging employees to prolong their health with preventive maintenance. The concept gained national notoriety as the Asheville Project. The only other noteworthy comment was Councilman Gordon Smith’s request that the city host a rerun of the already redundant meeting.
In the meantime, Mayor Terry Bellamy has invited her Facebook friends to fast and pray for twenty-four days. Unlike many politicians, she realizes a miracle is needed to wring blood from turnips.
At council’s meeting Tuesday, Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson reviewed the anti-Asheville laws cruising through the legislature. City Manager Gary Jackson had spent the day in Raleigh defending the city against HB488. The bill would seize the city’s water department and combine it with the Metropolitan Sewerage District under the aegis of a regional authority. Given only six minutes to make a presentation to the House Finance Committee, Jackson argued the city had invested heavily in improving the water system since the dissolution of the last regional water authority. He listed awards and titles the city has received, and statistics indicating it is a leader in many of the state’s economic development curves.
Jackson reported his presentation was “received favorably” by several on the committee. Deborah Ross and Paul Stam questioned the appropriateness of the bill being written as general legislation when it was obviously a local bill intended strictly for Asheville. It currently stipulates it applies to municipal utilities serving more than 125,000 people. At some future point, another municipality could become vulnerable to all the “shalls.” If and when the bill is rewritten, the city will lose the interest of sympathetic representatives from other districts.
Jackson was able to spend additional time with Senator Martin Nesbitt and his aide, who at least believe Henderson County would be over-represented on the proposed board. Jackson explained that the surrender of Asheville’s assets would also be a loss for Buncombe County in general. The bill is sponsored by Tim Moffitt, Nathan Ramsey, and Chuck McGrady. Jackson twice mentioned how opinions are divided along party lines.
Other anti-Asheville legislation Richardson highlighted included HB252, which would revoke Asheville’s ability to divert 5 percent of water revenues toward water-related street and sidewalk improvements. City staff estimates the bill could cost the city $1.8 million annually. HB224 would dissolve Asheville’s ETJ and uniquely ban Asheville from engaging in the process of involuntary annexation. Previous versions of the bill would have banned all annexations by Asheville. HB418 would create a regional recreation authority, which city staff believes might actually save the city some money.
In the Senate, S363 would make business taxes uniform throughout the state. The proposed streamlined tax structure, which would go into effect January 1, 2015, would cost the city an estimated $1.4-1.7 million annually. S394 is tax reform legislation intended to keep cities “revenue-neutral,” but city staff has been unable to get any information from legislators on how they propose to make it happen. H612, which had been filed only the day before, would restrict local governments’ abilities to enact more stringent environmental regulations than those of the state.