Asheville – At their final budget work session of the year, members of Asheville City Council added items to the staff’s priorities. Councilwoman Gwen Wisler said the council would either have to delete items or raise taxes. “It’s not fair to staff to act like this is a never-ending budget,” she said. City Manager Debra Campbell said that was the point staff was trying to make.
Councilwoman Kim Roney asked if the city was paying all workers at least the $17.70/hour living wage set by Just Economics. Budget Director Taylor Floyd replied, the city’s lowest non-exempt salary was $31,200. To that, the city added enough benefits to total $46,535, compared to Just Economics’ $36,816. Floyd said Just Economics did not post separate living wages for insured and uninsured employees this year. They argue benefits aren’t wages because one cannot, dollar fungibility aside, pay rent with them. Floyd said perks should count because they benefit the employee and come at a cost to the employer.
In a broader discussion of compensation, Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore said, “It’s not all about the money.” Withholding examples of employee discontent, she said some city departments would do well to improve their “corporate culture.” Councilwoman Antanette Mosely said she had heard the same from several black women who had left the city’s employ. Councilwoman Sage Turner recalled the recurrence of words like “exhausted” and “overwhelmed” in the staff survey and asked if the city would do better to pay more or hire more.
Mosely wanted to add funding for reparations. Campbell asked if that was in addition to the collections from hoteliers as a condition for building in the city. To date, hoteliers have contributed $2.1 million, but $400,000 has already been spent on project management. Kilgore wanted to make reparations a recurring line item, like the city had done for affordable housing. Roney concurred, but Campbell pointed out the city had no idea where the funds would go and wouldn’t until the committee decided. She said she didn’t want to be argumentative, but staff was hoping to build partnerships to leverage contributions.
Kilgore reminded her peers that it would be impossible to ever put too much money into reparations. Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith proposed allocating to reparations the $190,000 the Dogwood Health Trust was going to provide the city for opioid interventions. Smith said conversations like these, “always give people of color just a little burn.” There was great contrast between the attention and funding government was pouring into the opioid crisis and how it responded to the cocaine scene, which she said was, “associated with blackness and black criminality.” Roney asked if the city might do better to withdraw and rewrite its grant request. Campbell said it would be better to structure funding to focus funding on black and brown people.
Turner asked how the city was going to get more funding into transit. She mentioned the quarter-cent municipal sales-and-use tax proposed by state senator Julie Mayfield in order to subsidize non-automobile forms of transportation. Pointing out that the state authorizes counties, not cities, to do this, Manheimer said she has been talking with county representatives about how a joint venture would be managed and funded. In addition, the sales tax would have to fund expansion or growth, so it didn’t represent a funding solution for the current budget. She and Campbell discussed many other technical concerns, like knowing what the city wanted to fund, so voters would know what they were voting to subsidize. Kilgore said she didn’t like to see a lot of empty buses running around.
Roney next suggested that the city fill police department vacancies with transit safety personnel. She noted the county had a community paramedic program and thought the city should do the same to respond to demand for more public safety downtown. Mayor Esther Manheimer pointed out most of the county’s community paramedics were going to service downtown, but Smith wanted community paramedic positions “baked into” the city’s police department. She said the county’s community paramedics would be overwhelmed if all they did was handle opioid calls. Therefore, there would be enough to keep a city unit busy. Floyd interrupted to say the city budgeted for vacancies, so in proposing to fill them, members of council were talking about increasing the budget.
Turner wanted to do more for affordable housing and suggested holding a bond referendum. The figure of $40 million was thrown around. She said the $70 million in bonds which the county is floating would only cost homeowners an additional $30 a year, and Wisler corrected her; it was $30 at a $100,000 assessed. With all due respect, Manheimer added the city already had a “pretty robust” affordable housing program, and she rattled off a number of projects the city is already supporting. Furthermore, she explained to Turner that she did not think there was time to complete the legal sequence requisite for getting a bond referendum on the ballot. Campbell said the city also had to, “determine if it had capacity.” Campbell said nobody should be ashamed about the city’s affordable housing program. Rather, all should be “jumping for joy” that another local entity, Buncombe County, was getting in the game with them. Roney said the city should first spend some time examining how its policies are perpetuating housing disparities though.
On another proposal, Wisler said she didn’t want the city to go into the business of street outreach for the homeless; community partners were already doing that. Floyd replied the city has been paying Homeward Bound to do the work, which, among other things, involved representing the city when a homelessness encampment was being removed. The in-house ambassador, he said, “could alleviate some of those difficulties.” He added it is usually more expensive to outsource.