Civic

Asheville Bracing for Higher Taxes

Asheville – Asheville City Council is taking public comment on their proposed FY2021-2022 budget on June 8. Their first live meeting in over a year is tentatively scheduled at the Harrah’s Cherokee Civic Center. To download an electronic copy of the budget book, access the May 25 city council agenda on the city’s website.

The council recommended a tax rate of 41.3 cents, three cents higher than revenue-neutral. The increase is recommended even though the tax base has grown about 15 percent. Buncombe County is also expected to raise its rate above revenue-neutral.

The top council priorities that require funding are paying reparations, reimagining public safety and compensating city staff equitably. Overall, the budget totals $201.7 million, representing a 9.1 percent year-over-year increase.

Asheville city staff projected, at a revenue-neutral rate, collections from growth in the tax base would bring in $1.3 million. Then, unfilled vacancies in the Asheville Police Department (APD) could free up another $1.7 million. Currently, there are 70 vacancies in the APD, with only about 15 cadets preparing to graduate from basic law-enforcement training at A-B Tech. Councilwoman Sage Turner expects only five to seven of those to be hired. But if the council also approved dropping the fund balance by $1.3 million, almost down to its state-mandated minimum, a budget gap of $5.7 million would still remain.

Reparations

Council’s number-one priority, reparations, accounts for $1.2 million in spending. Programming expenditures include setting up a Truth-Telling Speaker Series and establishing a Community Reparations Commission. Funding would come exclusively out of the fund balance. Some have proposed that the city fund more reparations through extractions from hotel developers needing to provide certain community benefits.

Several on the council, as well as members of the public, complained that raising property taxes on Black Asheville would offset anything the city plans to give the community as reparations, with some even calling it a second urban renewal. City Manager Debra Campbell recommended partnering with the county to establish a homeowners’ assistance program and included $150,000 to fund it in the budget.

A conversation broke out among councilmembers over whether reparations should be a permanent line item in city budgets henceforth. Councilmembers also discussed how the city might fund reparations in a manner that couldn’t be traced to tax revenue, such as land sales. Campbell interjected, saying that the council was really asking whether she should go ahead and fund the programs, or wait to hear what the community says and the dedicated commission recommends. Councilwoman Gwen Wisler, who had been looking at the conversation quizzically from her Zoom box, contributed that available sources of revenue are no surprises to staff, which already maintains lists of unfunded projects.

Council holds one last Zoom meeting before going live next month at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center.
Council holds one last Zoom meeting before going live next month at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center.

Public Safety

On re-imagining public safety, staff recommended spending another $2 million to fully fund recommendations from a recent compensation study for police; $180,000 to cover increasing costs of bodycam maintenance; and another $42,000 for training in matters to include crisis intervention and de-escalation, verbal judo, and fair and impartial policing.

That still was not enough for some. Speaking during public comment, Abby Young called law enforcement the “reformed slave patrol.” She recommended eliminating the department so the government could pay for more food, housing, racial justice and climate restitution.

Additionally, the city will spend another $110,000 bolstering its noise and animal control enforcement activities, which have recently transferred out of the APD, and $583,000 on 15 new firefighters. New initiatives that will carry over into next year include staffing a Community Engagement Office for the APD, homelessness outreach, and neighborhood service.

For employee compensation, the city will thaw vacancies frozen during the pandemic. Additionally, $7.9 million will be spent adjusting pay 2.5 percent across the board. Possibly more could be spent if pay falls below the minima recommended in the compensation study. Compensation increases presented without a dollar amount include adding Juneteenth and Veterans’ Day as paid holidays and eight weeks and six weeks for, respectively, paid parental and family care leave.

Under the category “Neighborhoods and Housing,” line items include small neighborhood grants ($150,000), Housing Trust Fund support ($500,000), and incentives for developers to construct affordable housing ($225,000). “Investments” in youth include expanding evening and weekend hours at community centers ($450,000), enhancing services at high-use parks and facilities ($300,000), continuing the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy ($257,000) and outside agency grants ($242,000). For “Economic Development,” the city will spend $380,000 on committed corporate incentives and another $60,000 to add a staffer to the Business Inclusion Office.

New expenditures totaling $1,429,000 under “Transit” include providing more evening hours and increasing the frequency of two routes, covering escalating operating costs and maintaining multimodal features and accents in the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project. Speakers during public comment appeared underwhelmed with items under “Environment.” Spending more on stormwater mitigation and keeping up with the rising costs of recycling is not going to help the city meet its Paris Accord commitment. The midyear assessment of stormwater and sanitation fees is forthcoming.

Looming large on the TBD list is developing a plan for spending funds from the American Rescue Plan, from which the city is expecting $26 million and has already received $13 million. For reimagining public safety, the city will continue pursuing the consolidation of 911 services with the county. It will also review the outcomes of putting police officers in schools and public housing, and develop a budget for a crisis response team for dealing with “social determinants of health.”

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