That was Barbara Whitehorn, Asheville’s chief financial officer, speaking to Asheville City Council as she wrapped up her budget presentation Tuesday afternoon, a presentation that showed a $3.2 million deficit. It was the first budget presentation as City Council looks to craft a spending plan for fiscal 2018-19.
The budget deficit could balloon to $4 million or $5 million if City Council wants to fund new priorities, such as expanded bus service, an Asheville Police Department audit and other initiatives, Whitehorn said.
City Council must make up that deficit to pass a balanced budget by the end of June, which is the end of its budget year.
Whitehorn explained that there’s a structural imbalance in the way city government is funded that creates a deficit right out of the gate. Revenue streams are limited and don’t grow fast enough to keep up with annual increases in expenses, such as salary increases and health care costs, she said.
The initial budget gap was close to $6 million, Whitehorn said, but city staffers have already moved to make adjustments to rein in spending to the tune of $2.7 million.
That leaves the city with a $3.2 million deficit, one that represented a relatively small portion of the city’s overall $175 million annual budget. She also advised City Council to resist the urge to dip into the city’s rainy day fund to address the deficit. That reserve fund should represent about 16 percent of the city’s overall budget, is widely recognized as a best practice and is something bond rating agencies look at on an annual basis, Whitehorn said.
“I don’t think these are numbers that should alarm anyone in the short term,” Whitehorn said.
But council members Keith Young and Gwen Wisler noted that the $3.2 million deficit did not take into account additional spending City Council has made clear it’s interested in taking on. Those other costs include $400,000 for an Asheville Police Department audit in the wake of a brewing controversy, another $400,000 for the creation of a new city Equity and Inclusion office and personnel, further expansion of the city’s bus system service, and other priorities.
Councilman Brian Haynes spoke up to say that, while he supported the budget priorities as expressed in general, he said he “may have issues” with additional funding regarding the Asheville Police Department. Haynes noted thatast year, Police Chief Tammy Hooper asked City Council for $1 million in new funding to hire more officers to police downtown Asheville. Council members approved that controversial request.
“It’s deja vu all over agin,” Haynes said.
In the end, Mayor Esther Manheimer said the city’s finance subcommittee would take first crack at trying to reconcile City Council’s needs and wants. The next budget workshop session is scheduled for April 10.