Peterson’s comments, interspersed with requests from the mayor to refrain from making personal attacks, began, “November 16 of last year, I called City Manager Gary Jackson again, and I said, ‘Gary, you’re $7 million in the hole.’ But Gary said, ‘We’re not going to raise taxes.’ That was pretty clever, Gary. You didn’t raise taxes, you raised fees and charges.” A typical household will see water rates increase $4.32; stormwater fees, $2.52; solid waste fees, $42; and motor vehicle licensing, $20. In addition, certain parks and recreation fees will go up; and transit and parking fees are expected to increase following studies.
Peterson continued, “You can go online and you can look and see what this corrupt council has done to your budget. . . . I’m hoping you new members [of council], if you look at your FY 2017 and FY 2018 budget, Gary that was very clever, too. You put all your CIP on there. That’s $60 million.” Project totals for the five-year CIP are $20,933,786 for 2016, compared to $34,359,386 for 2017 and $24,695,714 for 2018. While CIP expenditures fall thereafter, the 2017 spike, equal to more than 12 percent of the current budget, is alarming. Insufficient information was provided in the budget document to judge whether grants and debt service schedules could absorb the impact.
Back in 2014, the city’s CIP estimated $42.5 million would be spent over five years on public construction in the River Arts District. By this time last year, that number was up to $52.3 million. Peterson updated. “Now you, Gary, you also in your CIP, you say $60 million that you’re going to spend on the river. I might add, a river that floods, makes no sense. But you’ve got to be a genius as far as construction. Now, I’m in the construction business. If you think your number $60 million is going to hold up in the construction business that annually goes up 10 percent, then you need to be working a construction company.”
Then, Peterson suggested the improvements to the Craven Street Bridge should cost $6-7 million. The city has only set aside $380,000 to be spent in the next two years. The changes are scheduled to accommodate New Belgium’s trucks.
On the subject of greenways, Peterson leveled, “You’re confiscating. Not only did you take my property on the river, that you didn’t need, but you’re taking hundreds of acres. You’re bringing it off the tax book. That’s fine. You’re getting this land, and I’m gonna sue. I’m gonna get extra money, and so is everybody else that’s being confiscated. I don’t see that in your budget, Gary. Now, that’s gonna be at least another $12 million. Taking people’s property for [New] Belgium beer. You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
And speaking of legal costs, he said, “I see Miss Currin there, our legal lawyer. She has twelve people on her staff. And I want you on council to know her budget’s $1 million.”
At the beginning of the budget presentation, the city’s CFO Barbara Whitehorn presented a few changes to fund balance allocations made since council’s May 10 meeting. They included $106,000 for short-term-rental enforcement and an increase in the city’s commitment to the Lee Walker Heights overhaul to $4.2 million. Opined Peterson, “Your rainy day fund, you’re taking from it again. You’ve got the bare minimum rainy day fund, and I guess you don’t expect a flood, Gary. But that’s OK. It’s gonna come. That’s a dangerous level for your rainy day fund. The money that you are planning to spend in the next three years – you shouldn’t have $15 million in there. You should have $40 million just to protect the taxpayers.”
Other complaints concerned the stormwater tax. “You’ve got $6 million in that budget, but yet this year you’re only spending $600,000 on storm tax. Your numbers don’t add up,” he said. It has long been known that transit can only sustain itself in densely-populated areas like Tokyo. Otherwise, it relies heavily on subsidy. In Asheville, operating revenues bring in only $840,000 of a $7,530,711 transit budget. “I do believe that poor people have a right to be on transit,” said Peterson, “But you’ve got a $4 million hole in that budget. It is being mismanaged.”
Peterson pointed a few more fingers and asserted his right to speak in a democracy. But when he said, “So, I’m gonna be here every year like I have been for the last three years. And yes, Mayor, you can laugh. It’s all funny, isn’t it. It’s the taxpayers’ money,” he got the gavel and police approached to escort him out.
Additional criticism of the budget came from former mayor and city manager Ken Michalove. His concerns about the city’s subsidy of the Asheville Art Museum have been covered in myriad Tribune articles by Roger McCredie.
More warmly-received commentary was lodged against the city’s hiring of a crime analyst. Bella Jackson said low-income people of color need jobs and transit, not police. The disproportionate number of blacks serving time in this nation shows society either criminalizes blackness or assumes black people are more prone to commit crime. “We all know as a society that the Rudy Giuliani/broken windows/Stalin policing is not effective because now we have the data, right? That it was lead poisoning poor children causing their brains to not grow in ways that allow you to weigh a complex situation and make the best choice.” Her comments were applauded.
Desiree Smith provided the public with a history of police departments in America. She said they were created to suppress labor riots in the North and to capture escaped slaves in the South. Amy Cantrell quoted, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Council will vote on the budget at their June 14 meeting.