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Does the City Need More Debt?

Untitled, 5/4/05, 3:01 PM, 16C, 4562x5914 (645+1571), 100%, Better Push 6, 1/100 s, R66.4, G58.4, B79.9

The ballots will only contain a small blurb on the purposes of the funding, so here, quoted in full, is what the bond orders say will be funded:

Transportation Bonds: constructing, reconstructing, enlarging, extending and improving certain streets, including streets and roads constituting a part of the State highway system or otherwise the responsibility of the State and including the cost of related studies, streetscape and pedestrian improvements, relocation of utilities, plans and design; acquiring, constructing, reconstructing, widening, extending, paving, resurfacing, grading or improving streets, roads, intersections, pedestrian and bicycle paths; acquiring, constructing, reconstructing or improving sidewalks, curbs, gutters, drains, bridges, overpasses, underpasses and grade crossings and providing related landscaping, lighting and traffic controls, signals and markers; acquiring, constructing, extending and improving greenways, providing related landscaping, retaining walls, storm drainage and any other necessary improvements; and the acquisition of land and rights-of-way in land required therefor.

Housing Bonds: acquiring, constructing, developing, equipping and furnishing housing projects for the benefit of persons of low income, or moderate income, or low and moderate income, including without limitation loans, grants, interest supplements and other programs of financial assistance to persons of low income, or moderate income, or low and moderate income, and developers of housing for persons of low income, or moderate income, or low and moderate income, and construction of infrastructure improvements related thereto, and the relocation of City facilities to make land available for the construction of housing for persons of low income, or moderate income, or low and moderate income, and the acquisition of land and rights-of-way required therefor.

Parks and Recreation Bonds: infrastructure improvements for various parks and recreation facilities of the City, including the cost of related studies, plans and design, acquiring, constructing, reconstructing, improving, installing or providing storm drainage, grade and surface improvements, construction, reconstruction and improvements of recreation fields; construction, reconstruction and improvements of restroom facilities; sidewalks, bike paths and pedestrian trails; paving, resurfacing, grading or improving parking lots, roads and intersections, providing public open space, landscaping and lighting, and acquiring any necessary equipment, land, interests in land and rights-of-way therefor.

Cities will typically put vital services on the chopping block when requesting a referendum, while protecting more questionable government activities. The challenge, then, is to try to locate $15,000,000 of dispensable fluff in the budget. The task is made somewhat difficult by the broad-brush, six-digit line item detail of the budget book; rendering only highlighted items accessible for scrutiny. Another problem is the codependent manner in which different levels of government match grants, giving each partner cause to whine about “losing” money if the collaboration falls through. Since the bond is not recurring, one-time expenditures may be fairly eliminated on the assumption that similar opportunities to spend are likely to crop each year anyway. Due to the brevity of this presentation, capital improvement projects are expected to be more or less evenly distributed over five years.

But for starters, the $25,000,000 in debt for Asheville’s progressive crowding out of private-sector real estate initiatives is not acceptable. If the city wants more housing, it can let up on the codes and public input process driving up the cost in the first place. Were the city to exit its ambitions of becoming a Trump-size real estate empire, it could also ditch its investment of $2,869,484 for Eagle Market Street. More than a bad cement pour has been preventing this attempt to create affordable housing on prime real estate. A private developer could work wonders with this property in a couple years – if the city would allow him. The city would also back out of its $2,180,000 partnership to raze and redo Lee Walker Heights. Leadership wants this to be a mecca for tourists, while considering a cap on new hotels and constraining the rights of citizens to rent rooms in their homes short-term. Were the city to allow the market to sort this out, they could eliminate the $130,000 to be spent on short-term rental enforcement and justify zeroing out the $500,000 Housing Trust Fund and another $750,000 referenced for affordable housing.

The city should also get out of trying to plan the economy. Enough studies have shown this to be counterproductive, as deregulation is key to innovation. Unfortunately, Asheville taxpayers are already on the hook to pay out $1,143,240 in economic development incentives already promised. The hard-working, taxpaying, small-business owners who can’t afford to live in Asheville – and their food-insecure children – do not need to be padding the bottom lines of multinational corporations. In a healthy economy, businesses should be rising and diminishing in an organic flux to keep up with invention. Therefore, the city’s $250,000 contribution to the Buncombe Community Fund for small business loans should go. Out of deference to the aforementioned strapped middle-class, Items listed as economic development, including $2,000,000 for Pack Place and $257,400 in charitable contributions, can be funded by philanthropists and enthusiasts until the aftermath of the Great Recession passes. New funding for a downtown development manager ($108,000 est.) and citywide planning projects ($85,000) are also optional. Advocates for limited government would surely love to see the city’s economic development, planning, permitting, and code enforcement activities scaled back to save more, maybe even $1-2 million.

Additional items of interest from the budget are a disparity study ($320,000), an equity program manager ($120,000 est.), and a contribution to the WNC Diversity Engagement Coalition ($10,000). These appear to address white guilt; any allegations of racism within city government in recent years, if there were any, have flown under the radar of the news cycles. Other items in the wants vs. needs category are $92,390 (est.) for a state lobbyist, $2000 for the Festival of Neighborhoods, $133,662 for a DWI Task Force, $30,000 for Food Action Plan coordination, $30,000 for backyard composting, $100,000 for traffic calming and $600,000 for turf replacement in city parks. Since the city will have $1,550,000 in its fund balance above its self-imposed minimum, that much can go back to the general fund.

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