Most remarkable was council’s intention to increase the annual local motor vehicle fee from $10 to $30. The increase was made possible through new state-level legislation. The change is expected to collect an additional $1.4 million for the city. The city would have to use the new collections for street construction and maintenance. But, as Councilwoman Julie Mayfield pointed out, government is wont to play shell games with budgets, and so general funds currently allocated to street improvements could, with the fee increase, be freed up for other purposes. Councilman Gordon Smith then noted there were rumors the state might get rid of Powell Bill funds it gives to local governments for road maintenance. He said the increase could serve as insurance against the revocation. Mayfield called attention to a survey council reviewed in worksession claiming 55.7 percent of Asheville’s streets were in “poor” or “very poor” condition.
Another notable fee increase was for solid waste collection. Parties will be paying $14 instead of $10.50 a month. CFO Barbara Whitehorn said $14 was the city’s goal, and it just happened to coincide with the statewide average for comparable cities. The city would have to charge users $22 a month to cover expenses, so owners of commercial space and multitenant buildings that do not receive municipal trash pickup will continue to subsidize those served.
Smith voted against the entire fees and charges schedule because he wanted to move toward a pay-as-you-throw policy. He would have preferred to bill customers the full cost of service and give them an opportunity to reduce it by reducing, reusing, and recycling. The proposed increase is expected to garner an additional $1.1 million for the city.
Other items of interest included a 5 percent overall increase in stormwater fees to collect an additional $252,000 for proactive measures, an increase in a number of US Cellular Center fees and charges and bundling of them together into packages, increases in charges at the Aston Park tennis facility to help maintain the expensive clay courts, and increases to souvenirs and rental space prices at the WNC Nature Center.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell wanted to explain that commercial water rates were increasing more than residential rates because it had been discovered that residents were paying more than their fair share. Whitehorn said a study underway would reveal how close the city is coming to a pay-per-use schedule. Most users will see a 1.5 percent rate hike in their per CCF charge, large commercial and manufacturing operations will be subject to a 3.5 percent increase, and irrigators and wholesale purchasers will pay 5 percent more. The capital improvement fee will increase 1.5 percent across the board.
Whitehorn indicated additional fee increases may come before council in July after studies commissioned by Parking Services and the Development Services Department would be completed. Jackson said the transit fee schedule would be presented at a future budget session. Costs are going up, and fee increases have been suggested. Jackson would give council the opportunity to consider revenue streams besides ticket prices.
While Council Met –
The Buncombe County Commissioners held a budget workshop Tuesday evening as well. County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene noted the county was currently looking at a shortfall in its $300-million FY 2016-17 budget of somewhere between $11 and $28 million. Reasons given included the $6 million settlement entered into for the wrongful imprisonment of four persons back in 2000, cessation of forfeiture payments of around $2 million from the federal government, $424,313 for general election costs, $286,000 for IT, and an additional $429,246 in retirement contributions required by the state to keep unfunded liabilities from getting out of control.
Expenditures that could be deferred to bring the deficit closer to $11 million include a $2 million payment to the Eagle Market Street development group should work remain arrested, $150,000 that would go toward hiring animal resource officers, $600,000 for replacing law enforcement vehicles, and $450,000 for new parks and greenways.
For one-time budget fixes, the county could sell a couple pieces of real estate. This represents a continuation of an initiative begun several years ago when Commissioner Mike Fryar asked Greene to identify surplus property for potential sale. Also, the commissioners received word that very day that Deschutes Brewery had decided to locate its East Coast facility in Roanoke. The county had tried to entice the brewer to move to the county by offering perks to locate on land in the Bent Creek area.
The county had spent $6.8 million to purchase the 137-acre parcel from Henderson County in an emergency meeting in May of 2015. As was previously reported, Henderson County acquired the tract in 1995 as part of the water agreement. It was supposed to build a water treatment plant there and convey it to the Metropolitan Sewerage District, but that didn’t happen. So, in 2014, Henderson County agreed to put the property on the market and split the proceeds with Asheville 50-50.
Presumably, Henderson County had offers on the table when their County Manager Steve Wyatt ran to Greene asking the full price in exchange for the opportunity to recruit an amazing economic development project known to the public only as Bravo IV. While the commissioners were sworn to secrecy, a Googling of the term led to the published minutes of a closed session in another Southern Seaboard state that revealed Bravo’s identity was Deschutes.
With Deschutes off the table, Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl thought selling the property could help balance the budget without a tax increase. She and fellow Republicans Joe Belcher and Fryar had wanted to unload the property as early as October last year. Other commissioners, however, preferred holding onto it as bait for companies who may in the future seek economic development incentives from Buncombe.