ARPA Funds Balance Asheville Budget - TribPapers

ARPA Funds Balance Asheville Budget

Chris Peterson says every working person should own a piece of the rock. Screenshot from City Council Meeting.

Asheville – It was the last evening for public comment on the City of Asheville’s budget for FY2022–2023. By way of review, the total budget was $216.9 million with a general fund increase of $13.3 million, year over year, to $158.6 million.

Changes have been made since the last public presentation to accommodate more spending requested by various members of the council. These included spending $300,000 more to raise the minimum salary offered to full-time employees from $35,360 to $36,816, with adjustments for compression readjusted. Secondly, the council would increase its appropriation for reparations from $365,000 to $500,000 and make the latter a minimum for continuation budgets. Thirdly, the city would create an urban forester position funded at $108,000.

To cover the additional “investment,” staff discouraged dipping further into the city’s fund balance. They argued the budget already called for taking $400,000 out, “high uncertainty” loomed over sales tax revenue for this year’s final quarter, and “Economists are warning that recession possibilities are high.”

To pay for reparations, staff recommended using surpluses anticipated from five other revenue streams. Then, to payroll the urban forester and further increase the minimum salary, the city would use $408,000 in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds. This would leave $1,701,384 unassigned from the total of $26,293,853 awarded through ARPA to the city.

Chris Peterson led off the public comment period by thanking Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore for being the only member of the council to listen to business interests, which, incidentally, pay most of the city’s taxes. He accused the others of rubber-stamping any request for funding that came before them. Then, he launched into Economics 101 and called attention to rising prices and interest rates. He said the city needed to have affordable jobs if they wanted affordable housing. The current predicament is in large part due to the Chamber of Commerce being tasked with fostering low-paying tourist jobs to attract big tourist dollars. He said if leaders didn’t force a tourist economy on the city, the council wouldn’t have to cram people into miserable apartments. “Every working person should have a piece of the rock, their own house.” He concluded by saying the city’s transit system was broken, and the city should think about reinventing it to save $4 million a year.

Steve Rasmussen blamed a lot of the city’s economic problems on insufficient regulation. Developers were allowed to build all over the natural landscape, and yet they were complaining that there were too many regulations. To check excess development, he supported the hiring of an urban forester. Several other commenters said they had not known the city was going to create the urban forester position, so, instead of begging, they took their time to express gratitude for the eleventh-hour change. 

The Council received kudos for other decisions, too. Just Economics’ Chair Philip Cooper complimented them on their efforts to support living wages, and Laura McPherson thanked them for the funds they had committed to parks and recreation for the East End/Valley Street community and surrounding areas.

Activists from the Defund the Police movement, who had been laying low, returned to this meeting. Among these was Victoria Estes, who said law enforcement officers create public safety issues by over-policing the disadvantaged. Greenleaf Clarke Prentice had choice words for law enforcement officers and told the council they could fund more programs for the poor if they would defund. Grace Martinez complained about the many underprivileged wage slaves who are oppressed by the city’s policies and procedures. Elsa Engstrom spoke about injustice in law enforcement, employment, and housing.

Nina Tovish read off a list of bus run cancellations and said the city was neglecting the poor who need transit. She then criticized the council for a “pulling reverse-Robinhood,” taking from the poor to give to the rich: Leaders allowed automobile drivers to park for free while fee collection machinery malfunctioned, and this reduced the parking fund’s annual subsidy for transit.

When the proverbial mic was returned to the dais, Councilwoman Kim Roney expressed concerns about all the ARPA funds the city had used to balance the budget. Months had been spent developing a process and then vetting applicants in a manner that would ensure equity. Very specific needs have been identified. She asked if the city had burned through so much of the funds that commitments could no longer be honored, and, if so, which commitments those were. For example, she wanted to know if the city was still going to support an emergency shelter.

Mayor Esther Manheimer said she had had the same questions. The city had originally set aside a reserve of ARPA funds for future needs, but it has since been “chipping away” at it. As for supporting a high-access shelter, she recalled how the city had planned on spending $3 million for one at the Ramada Inn in a partnership that fell through. Since then, the county has received a lot of opioid settlement funds, whereas the city, which had expected a windfall, received only a modicum. Manheimer said she had spoken to County Chair Brownie Newman, and he would be watching that very conversation on TV.

Roney next asked if it was the council’s intention to expand the budget with new initiatives this year, balance the budget with ARPA funds, and then, next year, cry scarcity and raise taxes. Manheimer reiterated the maxim about not using one-time funding for recurring expenditures, but she added that, in her experience, the city, instead of raising taxes, has asked all department heads to cut 10% of their budgets.

Councilwoman Sage Turner said property taxes were not the city’s only source of revenue. An inconvenient truth was that tourists supply a lot of sales tax revenue. Turner said she was “amazed” at how much sales taxes performed overbudget this year-to-date.
Roney next asked for follow-up on whether or not the city could make reparations a continuing budget line item as a percent of the budget. City Attorney Brad Branham said there were no legal prohibitions on creating a recurring line item or defining one as a percent of budget. The problem was expressed in the oversimplifying adage, “Existing councils can’t bind future councils.” That is, council could make the policy, but the members of city council 10 or 20 years from now, although it would seem political suicide today, could always reverse the policy.