Asheville City Council on Tuesday night voted 5-2 in favor of a 2017-18 operating budget that includes a 3.5-cent property tax increase.
The new $176 million budget funds a pay increase for city employees, new sidewalks and greenways, improvements to the city’s bus system and new police officers and equipment for the Asheville Police Department. The budget also covers the financing for some $74 million in bonds that Asheville voters approved last year to pay for transportation, parks and affordable housing initiatives.
Councilmen Keith Young and Brian Haynes voted against the budget, citing a need for greater transparency in the budgeting process and increased public participation.
Several council members said that this year’s budget process was one of the most difficult they’d seen over the past seven or eight years. This year, City Council faced competing local priorities, an ever-shrinking state and federal funding pools and vocal, energized residents concerned about increasing property values and an attendant increase in the property tax rate. The single issue that got the most ink was an Asheville Police Department request for an additional $1 million in funding to equip and hire more officers.
Following Buncombe County’s recent countywide property revaluation, property owners saw property values skyrocket across Buncombe County and city officials established the “revenue neutral” rate at 39.39 cents for every $100 of property valuation. (In other words, that rate would bring in about the same amount of revenue as before the revaluation.)
Tuesday night, council established a property tax rate of 42.89 cents per $100 of valuation, a rate that adds 3.5 cents on the revenue neutral rate to cover the financing of a $74 million bond referendum approved by city voters last year. That bond money will go toward transportation, affordable housing and parks and greenways needs.
Mayor Esther Manheimer said funding increases for the Police Department and the city’s transit service were achieved by managing an array of other line-item expenses, which she asked City Manager Gary Jackson to detail. Jackson said some open city positions would remain open for longer periods of time, equipment purchases would be put off, spending on the city’s vehicle fleet would be deferred and contracting and consulting would be delayed or deferred.
Council members Young and Julie Mayfield and gave passionate speeches before the budget vote.
Manheimer gave Mayfield the floor first. Mayfield said citizen protests of the proposed Police Department increase was heard and their voices “made a difference.” Funding for a group of about a dozen new officers will be spread over two years, Mayfield said, adding that a recent increase in city crime and the city’s growth “cannot be ignored.” She called on the community to support Police Chief Tammy Hooper.
Mayfield went on to describe the budget as a “moral document,” noting that it responded to a number of needs, from transportation and food insecurity to climate change and issues of equity.
“I cannot vote against budget that offers such high level of service,” Mayfield said.
Young noted that “it takes courage” for anyone to take part in civic dialogue, especially in today’s ultra-partisan political climate. The discussion around a lack of transparency in the budget process offered “an opportunity to move toward participatory budgeting,” he said, a process that opens up budgeting to constituents.
Young said, “I won’t sit here and pretend this budget was bad,” but said “I will not be supporting this budget.” Young added that, in terms of the Asheville Police Department, he wants a specific recruitment and retention effort there and a move to emphasize the recruitment of homegrown talent.
As Manheimer looked at her colleagues for other comment, Haynes offered simply: “I’m with Keith.” Hearing none other, the mayor said she supported a look into participatory budgeting.
She said the budget process encompassed lots of meetings, discussions and listening. “I think this year’s budget process has been most challenging in the seven years I’ve been on council,” she said, adding that, “I do believe what we have reflects a lot of the input we heard from community.”