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Your government needs more money

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By Leslee Kulba –

“$140 for someone who owns a $350,000 home. That’s going out to dinner two nights for a couple,” remarked Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell. He was speaking at this week’s work session about the impact a 4-cent municipal city tax increase would have on citizens. He told of all the amenities the city was attempting to provide, like sidewalks, and said New Belgium, a worker-owned company, located in Asheville because of the culture the city was able to support.

What Bothwell didn’t like was the resistance, usually coming from right-wing politicians. Detractors would cry that the country is still in a recession, and squelch progressive ideas with the argument, “’Not at this time. Not at this time. Not at this time.’” Bothwell said if anybody owning a $350,000 home were to tell him they couldn’t pay $140 more in city taxes, he would reply, “’You’re lying to me. You’re playing a tax game with me. You’re not supporting your community.’”

Chris Pelly noted that Buncombe County was talking about raising taxes, too. He added he knew a lot of people who were still “living on the edge” following the recession. He therefore would have a “hard time” with a 4 cent tax increase, but he was “OK with 2 percent.”

Gordon Smith said he was going to “withhold judgment” on a tax rate until certain legislation shakes out. He was particularly concerned about a bill that would allow the city and county to form a Regional Parks & Recreation Authority. Council recently held its strategic planning retreat, and he wanted to see the city become aligned with council’s goals. “We need economic development investment, or else we decline. We need to be there for those who need transit, affordable housing, and food policy. . . . Asheville is an aspirational city.”

Marc Hunt was not satisfied with the options offered. He thought staff could attack the budget more surgically. Rather than defunding staff entirely for the clay tennis courts at Aston Park or for the Food Lion Skate Park, he asked why the city couldn’t trim a little off expenditures at those places and trim some more elsewhere. He feared the city’s approach to the budget was “too over-simplified,” and likened it to decisions made in sequestration. He recalled a meeting with firefighters at which they said, “’We can come up with better ideas than closing an entire fire station.’”

Mayor Terry Bellamy thought staff had been making the Parks and Recreation Department shoulder too much of the burden of budget cuts over the last three years. She would prefer to require all departments to make either a 4- or 5-percent cut. Finance and Management Services Director Lauren Bradley noted that would mean, for example, a $1 million cut for the police department, $0.9 million for fire department, $0.5 million for support services, etc. The mayor said staff’s proposed capital improvement program was “too aggressive” for her, and that some project should wait until the city knows what is going to happen with its water system.

With the Hendersonville daily sporting headlines like, “GOP legislators: Asheville must reap what it sowed,” and Tim Moffitt declaring, “I’m gonna git-R-done;” the writing is on the wall for the water system. The mayor only hoped the General Assembly would be so kind as to give the city some transition time. Speaking of the proposed Regional Water Authority, she observed, “The accountants don’t even have their software.” Not able to gauge the extent to which legislators would take their vendetta against Asheville, Bellamy said she thought she had the support of all council members in her intention to sue the General Assembly should they force an immediate transition.

The “aggressive” capital improvement program proposed by staff consisted of projects totaling $14.5 million. While deferring some projects like traffic signal pole replacement and Phase II of construction at the Dr. Wesley Grant, Sr. Southside Center; the city intends to follow through with $100,000 in repairs at McCormick Field, $350,000 in greenway development, and $450,000 in golf course improvements. Staff further provided council with an “enhanced capital improvement plan” that would spend an additional $4 million on projects more aligned with basic city services.

Staff thought council should budget at least $2 million more for capital improvements. They assumed the legislature would put an end to the $1.5 million the city would have received from the water system for street and sidewalk repairs. The current pay-go approach to repairing infrastructure, Bradley said, would be insufficient to support “basic replacements like traffic controllers and traffic signal posts.”

Currently, the city has $7.69 million in its economic development fund, some of which represents grant revenues with a specific purpose. Nevertheless, the city intends to spend $2 million for renovations at Pack Place. Over $1 million is budgeted for riverfront redevelopment, which consists largely in multimodal transit projects and streetscaping. In lieu of the Business Improvement District, which would have levied its own tax, city staff is proposing spending $385,000 to keep the city clean and green.

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