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City Council aims for inclusive, community budgeting

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By Leslee Kulba – Asheville City Council hosted the first of five budget work sessions for the year. Leadership hopes to foster a greater sense of public involvement during the current budget cycle, and Interim City Manager Cathy Ball encouraged members of council to give a lot of thought to what they would do if the Mission Health acquisition is successful and the resulting foundation avails a windfall for the community.

Whitehorn continued, noting Asheville has a 3.2 percent unemployment rate, the lowest among comparable cities in the state. This prompted Councilor Keith Young to ask what that meant. Nobody knew if “unemployed” was defined as drawing state welfare, and nobody knew what it meant to “not actively seek employment.” Mayor Esther Manheimer said she knew for a fact there were 10 million people in North Carolina and 4 million were working. But how much were they working?

As far as city services go, Whitehorn said most of Asheville’s growth is infill, so it burdens existing infrastructure rather than spurring new civil engineering projects with sprawl. The city’s pavement condition index (PCI), for example, is 58.7. Whitehorn said this was, “not great,” a good number being around 80.

The city’s daytime population, first highlighted in former City Manager Gary Jackson’s famous white paper, continues to burden services. It is now 160,000, compared to a residential population of 90,000. As a result, calls for service to the fire department and reported crime run high compared to other cities of Asheville’s size. Whitehorn said the city’s fire department is not designed to handle its call volume, which is 65 percent higher than benchmark.

Following Whitehorn’s presentation, Budget Manager Tony McDowell gave an overview of the $124,394,311 general fund in the city’s FY2018-2019 budget. He said the current tax rates were 42.89 cents per $1000 valuation for the city, 52.90 cents for the county, and 12.00 cents for schools. Each cent on the tax rate collected $1.5 million for the city, and Asheville’s median residential tax bill was in the middle of the pack for comparable North Carolina cities.

Council rehashed the usual conversations about the relative merits to the city of per-capita and ad-valorem redistributions of sales tax dollars. Manheimer said schools and fire departments would not receive any sales tax distributions with the per-capita method, so the county probably wouldn’t be switching to it any time soon. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler also talked about how the city does not have the ability to levy tax-equity strategies allowed in other states.

Throughout the budget process, city departments will be giving overviews of their activities, major line items, number of employees, greatest challenges, and goals for the year. McDowell covered leadership at the top, which included council, management, the legal department, and administration.

He displayed a slide stating leadership’s two greatest challenges were, “balancing city council and community interests with organizational capacity, statutory framework, and available financial resources;” and “responding to an increasing number of public records and other informational requests.” A line of questioning by Councilor Julie Mayfield indicated most of the public records requests were coming from the Ian Mance/Patrick Conant initiative and related efforts to demonstrate systemic racism in the police department.

Kimberlee Archie gave an overview of the Department of Equity and Inclusion. She spoke in abstractions that defied conventional wisdom that the material of social sciences is difficult to quantify. She is soldiering on with her charge, nonetheless.

Following a presentation in which Amber Weaver of the city’s Office of Sustainability highlighted light bulbs, the Food Action Pan, and a goal to reduce municipal waste 50 percent, Mayfield said the two departments are similar in that they pervade all city and community activities and are tasked with doing far more than allocated resources allow. Both departments had to partner and build capacity.

Mayfield then foreshadowed a resolution wending its way toward city council that will commit the city to converting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. The city has pretty much already made the commitment, but the resolution will enforce tighter metrics. Staff, she said, were already expressing anxiety due to physical constraints.

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