By Leslee Kulba- Breezing through a light agenda, Asheville City Council gave a nod to progress on the FY 2014-2015 budget. The public hearing won’t take place until June 10. A copy of the proposed budget can be accessed on the city’s web site.
Councilman Gordon Smith directed members of the public to another site, avlbudget.org. This is a more interactive format designed by Code for Asheville in conjunction with the city. The project is not intended to be a finished project; rather, it is an attempt to bring transparency to government. Smith said more ornaments would be hung on the tree as users provide feedback.
In an almost unprecedented move, Councilwoman Gwen Wisler rifled a few questions about specific line items at CFO Barbara Whitehorn. It is safe to say that Wisler is the first member of council in more than a decade to act as if she had actually gone through the book with a fine-tooth comb.
The budget book opens with the same mixed messages the public has been dished for the last few years about how we’re just coming out of the Great Recession. In his opening remarks, City Manager Gary Jackson states, “While the economic outlook is improving, staff continues to work on reengineering and managing cost savings with an eye toward long-term structural sustainability and a continued high level of service.”
Whitehorn and Jackson shared consternation about the way the General Assembly has been throwing around its power. During a legislative update by the new assistant city manager, Paul Fetherston, Mayor Esther Manheimer described processes in Raleigh as “power by the hour.” The remark followed statements by the new city attorney, Robin Currin, about sudden reversals in legislation everybody had suspected to be faits accomplis.
City leadership is concerned about tax reforms and anti-municipality actions promulgated by the Republican majority in the General Assembly. It was expected that the legislature would cap business privilege license fees at $100, and then do away with them altogether. Now, it is not certain that any of that will happen. Should House Bill 1050 pass in its most extreme form, city budget analysts project Asheville could lose between $0.5 and $1.5 million. State analysts have stated the cities would make up the losses with other tax reforms, but members of city council and staff fear Raleigh analysts are averaging the damages, ignoring the devastation of local extremes. At that, Councilman Cecil Bothwell shared some choice comments about his distrust of the General Assembly.
Litigation over a bill to seize Asheville’s water system has also caused the city to work with a Plan A and Plan B. Following another hearing May 23, commentators were saying it would be a long time before the judge made any rulings. But Tuesday, Manheimer said her sources indicated a decision might be coming down within the next couple of weeks. Manheimer also joked about hazing the new assistant manager by dragging him to Raleigh for the hearing.
Entering the budget process, members of city council provided staff with three key goals. They asked that funds be appropriated for a police strategic plan, that employee compensation be aligned more with market rates, and that the transit system be enhanced.
The strategic plan is intended to improve service, help retain employees, and “resolve structural issues within the department.” The plan provides for a compensation study. One expected perk will be, as the city replaces police vehicles, it will assign the new ones as take-home vehicles. Another will be the supplying of each officer with a smart phone. The city will also purchase more cameras for police cars and officers themselves.
As for employee compensation, the city will use its “limited resources” to fund another study by an outside consultant. In addition, the city will provide an across-the-board, 3-percent pay raise for employees. To encourage efficiency, the city has made it known that funds are available for pay raises because employees have discovered ways to bring their departments underbudget. The city also has started rewarding employee excellence not with trophies, but with cash.
To address transit, the city proposes increasing its general fund subsidy for that department by $543,000. Additional funds will go toward restructuring Route C, servicing south Asheville, in response to consumer demand. The revised route, along with limited Sunday service, will go into effect in January of 2015.
One of the more interesting line items was $2830 for the Transportation Demand Management Division. The division “seeks to alter the demand for roadway capacity and increase transportation system efficiency by moving more people in fewer vehicles. A series of strategies are used to decrease the use of the single occupancy vehicle (SOV) and encourage the use of alternatives such as transit, carpooling, vanpooling, bicycling, walking, teleworking, and alternative work schedules.”
Two other goals were picked up along the way. One was the city’s graffiti removal program. Adopted by council in a recent meeting, the plan includes $300,000 for a ninety-day graffiti removal initiative. Funds will go toward paying victims up to $500 per incident, and funding administrative overhead.
A fifth budget highlight is continued commitment to an uncolorful plan that will actually spare the city from going the way of Detroit. The city will put away $600,000 to fund obligations to retirees for healthcare, and it will continue its policy of promising no benefits to employees hired after June 30, 2012.
The city’s total operating budget is $147.5 million, with $99.5 million in the general fund. This represents a 3.8 percent increase over the current-year budget. No tax increase is anticipated. The rate will remain at 46 cents, but to help balance the budget, $2 million will be transferred from the fund balance, which is falling again toward 15 percent of the general fund. What was once a minimum is now referred to as a target.
Jackson commended staff for tightening the city’s belt, but indicated the city is starting to feel some of the consequences of deferred maintenance and pay freezes.