Last Chance to Comment on Asheville's Budget - TribPapers

Last Chance to Comment on Asheville’s Budget

Asheville's budget has grown 10% year over year, and a growing number of citizens are concerned that public safety isn't being prioritized.

Asheville – On Tuesday, May 23, Asheville City Council will hold the formal public hearing for the FY2023–24 budget. Revenues and expenditures are expected to increase 10.1% year over year to $239.7 million. The increase will be funded through natural growth in the tax base and higher sales tax receipts. The city will also transfer $7.9 million from fund balance, which has risen 6% over council’s policy minimum of 15% of general fund expenditures. Additionally, the city had about $3.6 million left over from the $25.2 million it received in ARPA funding, most of which will go toward transit. So, the tax rate, 41.30 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, will remain unchanged.

In the days leading to the statutorily required hearing, the city honored demands to be more democratic and provided multiple opportunities for preliminary public comment. From the input, City Manager Debra Campbell said staff extracted three recurring themes. The first was a plea to refund the police; that is, to restore staffing from its current level of about half of what it was, with an emphasis on downtown patrolling. The second, demand for better maintenance of the water system, likely followed from the widespread, long-lasting power outage last Christmas season. The third, in a similar vein, asked the city to prioritize infrastructure, which was defined as roads, sidewalks, and housing.

The priorities set by city council at their March retreat were not representative of those stated by the constituencies providing that input. Council only tweaked last year’s list to settle on: reparations, reimagining public safety, improved and expanded core services, equitable and affordable housing and stability, houselessness strategies, and neighborhood and climate resilience.

To help reimagine public safety, council has agreed to upgrade police dashcams, an investment that promises returns, and invest in new police uniforms that are made of “more technical fabric for durability and comfort.” This, along with the pay raises, wasn’t enough for groups like the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety and the Fraternal Order of Police. Representatives from these groups have sided with Police Chief David Zack in demanding that officers be compensated more than any department in the state. [See Sidebar.] According to Indeed, average base pay for officers in Asheville is $52,167, 14% below the national average; in Charlotte, it’s $63,350.

Changes made to the water system budget will pay for more public relations and maintenance staff and more second- and third-shift technicians. Hiring additional public relations staff is a recurring theme across all departments. Other recurring themes are investments in master planning and software to help with logistics and asset management. An example of the former would be the development of a $300,000 urban forestry master plan to inventory the existing tree canopy and set a baseline for homeostasis. An example of the latter will be implementing a management system to improve the maintenance of traffic signals and signage, something most drivers would agree pales in comparison to the state’s need to improve flow on its roads. Taking a big bite out of the budget is the $35.6 million the city committed for upgrades to McCormick Field, which will allow the Tourists to continue playing there.

Overall, the city has created 20 new positions. Among these are 10.5 jobs at the water department, three of which are for administration; two solid waste truck drivers; an animal care naturalist for the WNC Nature Center’s upcoming butterfly exhibit; a senior events manager and master trades worker for the civic center; and an administrative assistant for the city attorney’s department.

Council also supported staff’s recommendations to better compensate all personnel in the interest of recruitment and retention. Not only is the police force hurting, even the city’s organizational chart showed three department head vacancies. Under pressure from Just Economics, the city agreed to pay all full-time employees no less than $35,360. Most other employees are scheduled for a 5% increase. The exceptions are that sworn police officers will get a 6% increase, and salaries across the board will be adjusted to alleviate compression. The city also has a healthy benefits program.

Staff will also get more differential pay for working nights and weekends, more pay for just being available on standby, and supplemental pay for accepting hard-to-fill positions. Furthermore, they’ll get greater employer matches on their 401(k)s, retirement plans, and healthcare plans.

Among allocations aligned with council’s strategic priorities is reparations, which has $2.1 million in reserve and a commitment from council to allocate an additional $500,000 compounded at 5% annually, or $510,000 this year. Other unconventional uses of tax dollars that are now recurring expenditures include property tax mitigation for the poor, housing funding, street outreach for the homeless, and advertising for the police department.