Other expenditures would include updating the 2009 transit master plan and upgrading the transit center downtown. The city’s advisory Transit Committee named as its top three priorities maintaining the current level of service, expanding service to 10:00 p.m. on all routes, and increasing the frequency of routes on major corridors. Ball estimated the cost of running buses later at $915,000 and running them more frequently to be between $1.8 and $2.7 million. What’s more, putting more miles on the buses would hasten the day they would need to be replaced.
The cost of operating the transit system is roughly $7 million a year, and $2.7 million of that amount is subsidized with state and federal grants. Council instructed staff to, among other things, let them know how much of which requests can be funded with no increase in capital investment. Mayor Esther Manheimer called attention to the fact the city’s estimate for transit capital expenditures had increased from $750,000 to $1 million.
Next, Councilor Julie Mayfield shared an updated version of the list of recommended green-energy investments she had presented at the last budget meeting. She prioritized continuing to invest in technologies to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, including perhaps setting up solar panels on city buildings; helping the Rocky Mountain Institute pay for efforts to forestall construction of a third generator at Duke Energy’s Lake Julian Plant; and providing low-interest loans to organizations for weatherizing low-income households. Total expenditures would come to $500,000.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler couldn’t support the proposal. Many items on the two-page list were described as “TBD” (to be done), and Wisler said she didn’t know how anyone “budgets for TBD.” She further thought council should give more deference to the recommendations of its Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment.
Manheimer reviewed the list, item by item, with the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer Amber Weaver, who reinforced the perception that many items needed more fleshing out before they could be reasonably budgeted. The cost of many things, like the energy audit of city facilities and an advertising campaign, could be offset to an uncertain degree through partnerships. Others, like the Workplace Challenge, required only that businesses register, fill out a questionnaire, and attest to the existence of a corporate sustainability plan overseen by a sustainability officer.
Most controversial was the suggestion that the city provide $25,000-$50,000 for home weatherization loans. Mayfield said priority should be given to households that were on lists for government assistance with fuel bills. Four organizations provide the service, and costs could run from $6-10 to almost $1,000 per home. Councilor Gordon Smith suggested pulling the funds from the city’s Housing Trust Fund, a revolving loan, and possibly increasing the amount in that fund when the city decides how it will spend proceeds from the recently passed affordable housing bond referendum.
Manheimer pointed out council was trying to do many very good things with relatively little money. She suggested council consider if the things they want to do could or should be handled by other organizations. Councilor Keith Young interrupted the conversation, saying, “I’m about to jump out of my seat now.” Council was “glossing over the people aspect.” He told his peers they could vote as they wished, but to debate whether people should pay $15 more a year on taxes to help the poor stay warm was “utterly ridiculous.”
In politics, an appeal to the heart, even if ill-advised, generally bodes ill to the careers of any who dare oppose. But Smith and Cecil Bothwell had the savvy to point out ironies of trying to help by eroding margins. On the flip-side, Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman often says the cost of retrofitting individual homes is a better use of county money than paying heating bills for people threatened with having their power turned off, which it does.
Lastly, Bothwell repeated his request for $25,000 for a tree canopy study. It would be matched by the University of Virginia. He said it was ironic the Tree City didn’t have a tree master plan, and what tree ordinances or recommendations are on record are either useless or largely ignored. The city’s tree canopy, he said, is disappearing.