Asheville – It was time for the Asheville City Council to adopt the FY2022–2023 budget. Public comment had already been taken, and the council had been made very familiar with the materials throughout the past months, so there would be no formal presentation.
Mayor Esther Manheimer described this year’s budget process as “more robust,” with greater community outreach than in previous years. She said not all local governments go to such lengths to have a transparent and inclusive budget process. Her comments didn’t get any more nuts-and-bolts than to say the budget would be $217 million with no increase in the current tax rate of 40.3 cents.
Manheimer reviewed budget highlights. These included paying $500,000 more in reparations than the city had initially allocated, with the intention of making $500,000, if not a percent of the general fund, a recurring line item. The county, she added, had allocated another $2 million for reparations. Other gestures made to better empower the disadvantaged and overlooked included “finally” relocating the parks facility, upgrading Memorial Stadium, and adding a track. More funding has also been allocated for after-school and camp programs.
For its workforce of 1,200, the city would begin paying a living minimum wage of $17.70 as well as a 5% or 2.5% cost of living adjustment for other employees. Added positions included an urban forester, a GIS specialist, and a houseless strategy project specialist. Other celebrated investments included software updates, a sanitation and waste management program, emergency preparedness, and a disparity study.
To reimagine the police, the budget supported consolidating the city’s and county’s emergency call centers. Doing so would allow the city to take advantage of the county’s community paramedics program. The city is also funding more opioid intervention training for paramedics.
On the affordable housing front, Manheimer said the city is doing “lots.” It is supporting a Missing Middle Housing Study to identify and amend ordinances that are acting as needless barriers to development. The city is also partnering with Buncombe County to provide tax relief to people struggling to keep their homes. The city will get around to spending the $8.5 million remaining from the bonds it floated for affordable housing in 2016. It is using COVID relief funds to construct permanent supportive housing and shelters for victims of domestic violence, and it has set aside funding for Code Purple shelters.
Councilwoman Kim Roney said she wouldn’t support the budget even though it created an urban forester position and would pay reparations. She wanted to take a stand against insufficient action toward making Asheville an affordable community and reimagining the police, as well as the budget process in general. She did not like that the city wouldn’t start paying a living minimum wage until six months from now, when the cost of living was going to have increased. She also was not appreciative of the way the city backed out of what she considered to be a commitment to expand transit, which she considered an urgent need. Lastly, she thought the council was being unwise in spending one-time ARPA funds on programs that would be dependent on recurring allocations.
Outgoing Councilwoman Gwen Wisler grew sentimental as she applauded her peers for working so hard and spending so much time on the budget. She said she had worked with councilmembers in the past who had given her the impression they hadn’t even read the budget. But as soon as she made a motion to adopt, hecklers began chanting something that had to do with “Defund APD” and “more money.” The police swung into action. Branham, still in pearls and in an apparent act of chivalry, assumed a strategic position on the stand. And Manheimer chuckled and carried on with the meeting. When all was said and done, Manheimer remarked, “We like to do that with flair,” and, “It’s gotten more flairy every year.”
General Public Comment Period
Manheimer said it would be of interest to the pickleball players who have been appearing before them for weeks demanding space to play that, since the meeting started, a bill to revise the room tax has passed the state senate. The Asheville-Buncombe Tourism Development Authority collects a 6% hotel tax to spend on attracting tourists. The fund is totally separate from the city’s budget. This year, in light of anticipated revenues of $40 million from the hotel tax, both the city and Buncombe County lobbied the legislature to change the distribution formula to allow local governments to have a portion to balance their budgets.
The bill that passed the senate would allow 33% of funds to be given to nonprofit or government entities for capital projects that benefit locals as well as tourists. Roney reminded all that the council had been asking for a 50-50 split, and Manheimer added that the house’s bill had asked for 66% to go toward local projects. Manheimer said she would be going to Raleigh after the meeting to help with the lobbying effort. The house passed the 33% bill a couple days later.
Also, during public comment, Jay Hamilton asked if anybody knew how long it would take to get a new water tap, for a new or old building after paying for it. Hamilton said he was in real estate, but he would have to sell real estate if corrective action weren’t taken. He was told two weeks ago that the delay was 90-120 days for taps and meters. As of that day, the delay was backed up to six months. He said the water department must be living in a bubble protecting staff from realizing the implications of the delays. That is, “If we can’t build? If we can’t develop? All your affordable housing dreams? They’re going to go down the toilet.”