Asheville – Asheville City Council adopted their FY 2021-2022 budget on a 6-1 vote. Budget Director Tony McDowell said the proposed budget was fiscally responsible because it, “funds investments in council priorities through a property tax rate above revenue-neutral, funds core community services in a time of rising costs, and continues funding for [the city’s] capital improvement program.”
He stressed that work was only beginning on reimagining public safety, reparations and the development of strategies for spending American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. The public hearing was held at a previous meeting, but since then, staff had made a few significant changes.
Originally, the city only planned on spending $1.2 million on reparations, in the form of planning, community engagement and an initial allocation. This amount was described as coming from fund balance rather than the general fund to quell pushback against raising taxes on Black people to pay reparations.
Then, at the council’s last meeting, they approved spending another $2.1 million, from proceeds from the sale of city land to White Labs, on reparations. City leadership felt the need to approve the $2.1 million allocation before Juneteenth, “so,” McDowell explained, “we’ve taken that out of next year’s budget since it’s already been added into the current budget.” The city also expects to receive another $25,000 from its Reparations Speaker Series.
In addition, the city was awarded $1 million in transportation funds from ARPA, and projections using the latest data predict sales tax revenues will be $400,000 higher. So, staff recommended moving another $500,000 from the fund balance to the general fund, leaving it “still slightly above” the target minimum of 15 percent. That would allow a tax rate of 40.3 cents instead of the 41.3 cents mentioned in budget discussions. The city’s tax rate has been 42.89 cents for the last four years, and, after the recent revaluation, the revenue-neutral rate was 38.3 cents.
Councilwoman Kim Roney, who cast the lone vote against the budget, recalled pressure councilwomen have been receiving from interest groups. This includes the Reverend Amy Cantrell’s depiction of the budget as a “moral document” and her call to invest $1 million for the people and “intergenerational black leadership’s” request to divest from police funding to invest in long-term safety strategies.
Referencing the council’s strategic priorities, according to which the budget document was organized, Roney said it, “looks like what we need to be doing: housing, youth programming, neighborhood investments, expanded transit service, and action on lagging wages for our lowest-paid employees.” She, however, took issue with how the city was going to pay for it all.
Referencing slides from a presentation by urban planner Joe Minicozzi before the Racial Justice Coalition, she compared four select neighborhoods based on racial composition and relative tax rate increase on land and constructed property. In Biltmore Forest, admittedly its own town with its own tax rate, the population is 99 percent white. Taxes on land and structures there went up 11-15 percent. In adjacent Shiloh, which is 51 percent white, taxes on land and structures went up over 31 percent. In the Burton Street community, which is 56 percent white, taxes did the same; but in adjacent Brucemont, which is 89 percent white, taxes went up 31 percent on structures, but only 0-5 percent on land.
Another slide showed absolute per-acre valuations for these communities. Biltmore Forest was lowest, at $954,000, and Burton Street was highest at $2,166,000. This did not demonstrate ethnic disparity, but only that acres and acres of front lawn or undeveloped, wooded backyard in Biltmore Forest are not worth as much as dozens of individual homes on developed lots in Shiloh. A third slide, apparently representing all of Buncombe County, showed that home values in the lowest quintile had increased over 323 percent over the last 20 years while those in the highest increased only 138 percent. This could, of course, be taken as a bright sign of neighborhood revitalization.
Roney then referenced the conclusion of former city council candidates Rich Lee and Nina Tovish that the city should be providing $1 million in tax relief instead of the $150,000 budgeted. She added this does not even begin to address relief for renters and business owners.
To pay for it all, Roney proposed two amendments to a motion to adopt the budget. The first was freezing 15 positions in the police department. She said she had considered freezing 30, but didn’t in light of “what’s happening in Durham.” The second was to collaboratively seek other sources of funding. She suggested savings from the city’s current 188 vacancies, which would total over $7 million if left unfilled, might help.
On a hiring freeze for police officers, Councilwoman Antanette Mosley said when she saw Zack’s presentation the first time, she asked for statistics broken down to show rates for black women. Over the past five years, 32 percent of the victims of violent crime have been black, even though blacks make up only 6 percent of the population. The victimhood is split evenly among men and women. In domestic crimes, 20 percent have been black females.
Mosley asked, “How many black women will die if we reduce the number of police we have by 15? Has anyone considered that? I didn’t think so.”
After asking, rhetorically, if anybody wanted to second either of Roney’s motions, Mayor Esther Manheimer lauded the budget for moving forward with the city’s transit master plan and spending an unprecedented $7.9 million on staff raises to address attrition; especially, for public safety personnel.