Financial Realities Closing in for City Council - TribPapers

Financial Realities Closing in for City Council

Mayor Esther Manheimer shared some grim supply-side data that not all on council were eager to accept. Screenshot.

Asheville – Asheville City Councilwoman Kim Roney wanted to know why rebuilding the Malvern Hills pool was not in the budget. She asked if funds could be diverted from other capital projects, but the funds were already committed, as with project-specific matching grants.

Councilwoman Sage Turner asked if the city could increase the bond ask from $75 million to $78 million to pay for a new pool. She said $3 million was an “educated number,” and it would only increase the amount citizens would pay for the bonds from 2.4 to 2.5 cents per $100 valuation.

Councilwoman Antanette Mosley, who identified as a single woman working three jobs, said, “I’m aware of every dollar when I write a property tax check.” It was quite possible that voters would reject a $78 million bond referendum. An advocate for affordable housing, she thought the city already contributed enough to that cause through its trust fund.

Kim Roney asked those challenging her, “What would you cut? Is it housing, and that’s going to be your message?” She reminded her peers that children from all over the city, whose parents can’t afford memberships to private pools, used to swim at Malvern Hills.

Mayor Esther Manheimer reviewed the situation. Sales tax revenues were flat, costs of operation were in excess of revenues, and the city was dipping into its fund balance, bringing it below the 15% of the general fund minimum set by council. “What all that means is that we will have to raise property taxes next year.” The mayor asked Finance Director Tony McDowell how much of a tax increase would be needed to pay for recurring costs covered this year by the fund balance, restore the fund balance, pay off bonds, and deal with inflation and commitments to annual employee cost of living adjustments. He estimated it would be about 7 cents.

The mayor continued, “In addition, the county manager was recommending a property tax increase of four cents. They’re not going to do all the four cents this year, but folks could easily be looking at a 10-cent property tax increase in their property tax bills next year… I just want to forecast that… because we are using fund balance to pay for recurring expenses, which is not something that is sustainable. 

Councilwoman Maggie Ullman contributed, “I don’t think our finances are at a point that is dire enough that it’s calling for” denying city employees a pay raise. Turner added that council was doing nothing to address decades of deferred maintenance, and Roney said she wanted wages for the firefighters in the audience adjusted upward, too.

“Well, you can just tell us what to cut so we can make that adjustment,” said the mayor. “This is a repeated discussion point, and when you say that to us up here, you are telling us that we don’t care as much as you, and we do care. We have just looked at this budget, and we do not have more funds to spend. You have said it 20 times this year. If we could figure out a way to do this, we would.”

Mosley asked, “Where else in the budget would you like us to remove $400,000? I’m interested. Explain what that means.” After debating Roney somewhat about whether council wanted department directors of firefighters to take higher-paying jobs elsewhere, she continued, “I’m saying if you are the director of equity, if you’re already below the market, that puts us in a tenuous situation, too. … Do we go, ‘Let’s get rid of the Office of Sustainability’? Is that a discussion we want to have?”

ARPA funds had practically all dried up in the context of inflation. This year’s general fund budget is targeting $178.48 million, including a $16.59 million drawdown from its fund balance. Fee increases would only contribute about $20 per household per year.

Staff was proposing a 4.11% COLA across the board for employees, and the state was requiring higher employer contributions while healthcare claims were increasing. The city is also considering reinstating retiree health benefits, a practice widely criticized for bankrupting other governments. Additions to the current budget include several new staff positions, including community responders for the opioid crisis and a new police drone program. The city will also continue to make its annual contributions to its Affordable Housing Trust and Reparations funds. With decades of deferred maintenance, the city would get around to “aquatics facilities” after floating another $75 million bond in 2028.

The budget book may be accessed via