By law, City Council must approve a balanced budget by June 30 for its spending year, which begins July1. The agreement in Tuesday’s budget workshop will be formalized into a budget document, then offered to the public review before City Council takes an official vote to approve it.
The key informal decisions that City Council arrived at Tuesday included: offering employees a 2.5 percent pay increase rather than a 3 percent raise; making a change to parking deck fees that will bring in more money; cut the Asheville Police Department’s police academy funding by $800,000 rather than the previously discussed $400,000; and pull $200,000 from the city’s reserved fund balance.
The change to parking deck fees will work like this, according to Barbara Whitehorn, the city’s chief financial officer, and Ken Putnam, the city’s transit director: anyone who parks in a city deck for less than one hour will park free. Right now, anyone who parks in a city deck gets their first hour free. With the change, only people who park in a deck for a period of less than 60 minutes will be allowed to park free; all others will pay full price.
Police Department funding
At City Council’s April 10 budget workshop, Councilman Brian Haynes asked for his colleagues to consider rolling back the $1 million in additional funding that council approved for the Asheville Police Department last year. The group agreed to get more information and review that decision. Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper didn’t attend that workshop. Haynes’ request came after the February publication of police body cam video showing an Asheville officer punching and choking a man in August 2017. The incident set off a firestorm of controversy.
With no further discussion from City Council on Tuesday, Whitehorn said that Hooper had agreed to cut her department’s Police Academy funding by $800,000. There had already been agreement in an earlier budget workshop to cut the academy’s funding for the coming year by $400,000, but Whitehorn said Hooper had agreed to the additional cut.
City bus system
A major point of contention during Tuesday’s discussion was funding for the city’s bus system. Council members Julie Mayfield and Brian Haynes pushed for money to add 12 hours to bus system service. City Council had already agreed to new spending to hire a transit planner to help prepare for major systemwide changes in 2020, but Mayfield and Haynes said they wanted something done this year.
“I will put a stake in the ground for those additional 12 hours unless you tell me its not going to be helpful,” Mayfield said. “This community wants transit, it wants expanded hours.”
When interim City Manager Cathy Ball told the group that staff would make that happen if that’s the direction it received from City Council, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler pushed back.
“We can’t keep asking staff to add on workload,” Wisler said. “You need to tell us what’s not going to get done or be substantially delayed” if the new hours are added, she said.
“We’re out of miracles,” Wisler said. “We’ve got to stop asking for miracles.”
Spending from fund balance
City Council members agreed to take $201,000 from its fund balance reserve. The spending from reserves had been a major point of contention for Councilman Vijay Kapoor, who said the city should consider raises property taxes rather than pull from reserves. But Kapoor relented on Tuesday after getting assurances that his colleagues would dig deep into the budgeting process for next year so as not to face same budget gap it faced this year right out of the gate.
Asheville Fire Department turnout gear
Whitehorn said the city plans to add new spending on Asheville Fire Department turnout gear following news reports that firefighters are suffering from cancer at exceptionally high rates. The high rates have been linked to contaminated turnout gear that firefighters use when they battle blazes. It takes four hours to decontaminate a set of gear, she said.
To address that, Whitehorn said the city could either hire more firefighters or buy a second set of gear for all existing firefighters, a much less expensive option. So she recommended spending $780,000 on a second set of turnout gear for city firefighters
Good reporting, Jason. Always a pleasure to come home to your Ashevegas.