Politics

Budget Highlights Include Disparity Study & Food Action Plan Coordination

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Next year’s budget is essentially a continuation budget, although city staff studied various indicators to make sure they were on-track with projections. Proposed is a $110,700,000 general fund, up 7.5 percent from last year. The property tax rate will remain unchanged at 47.5 cents per $100 valuation, the city anticipating development to raise revenue 2.0 percent. Sales tax revenue is expected to increase 5 percent with economic growth, and utility tax revenue should increase 3.7 percent due to a change in state redistribution methods. Collections from licensing and permits are projected to increase 25.5 percent due to an increase in the vehicle license fee from $10 to $30. This should give the city $1.4 million more for “streets spending.”

Budget highlights include the expenditure of $306,000 in Parking Fund revenues on new parking meters and a $940,719 increase in subsidy for the city’s bus system. A new route will be added, and hours extended elsewhere. Operating revenues bring in $840,000 per year for Transit’s $7,530,711 budget. The subsidy should increase next year, since only half a year of enhancements is funded in the current budget. The Public Works Department will continue to fund median maintenance, guardrail maintenance, graffiti removal, and downtown sidewalk cleaning at last year’s levels. $3 million will be spent on vehicle replacement and $100,000 on traffic calming.

Less conventional budget items would include $30,000 for “Food Action Plan Coordination” and the same amount for backyard composting. Both programs are funded by savings realized as the city strives to reduce its carbon footprint to 20 percent and its solid waste to 50 percent of baselines not mentioned in the budget document. $250,000 will be set aside as seed money for the Buncombe Community Fund, a revolving loan program for small businesses. Corporate welfare payments will remain unchanged at $1,143,240, but an additional $85,000 will be made available for strategic partnerships for community development. In April, city council committed $4.2 million toward the redevelopment of Lee Walker Heights as mixed-income housing. At the time, the city was unsure where the money would come from, but they expect to draw down $1.38 million from the fund balance for this purpose next year.

Leadership estimates the city easily has over $400 million in capital needs. Prioritizing, its capital improvement plan only proposes addressing $149 million in projects over the next five years. Projects are largely multimodal transportation improvements, for which funding will not commence until at least next year. The city is taking out $110 million in debt; council approved drawing down the first $46 million tranche last month. Expenditures this coming year include a Craven Street kiosk ($206,000), Carrier Park improvements ($250,000), vaulted sidewalk repairs on Broadway ($250,000), and a roundabout for Five Points ($162,975).

Studies to be undertaken include a $375,000 contract to identify which city real estate might be sold, and which holdings should be developed as affordable housing projects. $300,000 of the total will come from properties already sold. $320,000 will be spent on a disparity study to address what in a pejorative context is referred to as “counting colors” in hiring and business practices. $60,000 will go toward a Parks and Recreation facilities assessment; $75,000, a real estate diagnostics evaluation; and $90,000, an external payroll and benefits audit.

In general, city employees will enjoy a 3.5 percent pay increase. Raises in the police department could be more or less as pay scale adjustments are phased-in. The budget document explains the city wants to keep its wages competitive with the private sector’s. Because the city is self-insured, healthcare costs have been rising about half as fast as statewide averages. What’s more, the city will fully fund required contributions to its OPEB program with an annual contribution of $1 million. It is honoring old commitments, but is holding fast to its decision not to offer post-employment healthcare benefits to any employee hired after June 30, 2012.

New positions created include an Equity Program Manager, “which would allow the city to dedicate resources to specifically addressing issues surrounding race, gender, and areas of discrimination.” A Crime Analyst will be added to the police department, as will four DWI Task Force officers payrolled with a tapering federal funding agreement. Other high-paying new positions include a Deputy City Clerk, an IT Project Manager, a Transit Planner, and a Downtown Development Manager. The Parks and Recreation Department and the US Cellular Center will see payroll increase by approximately $150,000 and $90,000, respectively, as the city begins compensating all temporary and seasonal staff a living wage.

To contain expenditures, the city is assigning some staff members to multiple positions. For example, Sam Powers will remain the head of both the Community & Economic Development Department and the US Cellular Center. The city has also found it strategic to “embed” administrative executives, like human resource managers and financial planners in certain departments. Accepting that “none of us is as smart as all of us,” the city has put up $100,000 in a Staff Creative Solutions Fund to reward employees who find ways to improve efficiencies.

Moving toward full cost recovery, the city will continue charging increased rates at the WNC Nature Center and the Aston Park Tennis Center. “Minor” rate adjustments will be implemented per the recommendations of a Raftelis study conducted in 2012. The changes are expected to bring to the city an additional $473,000. Stormwater fees will go up 5 percent, garnering another $250,000 for the municipal budget. Garbage fees are increasing by $3.50 to $14.00 a month. Councilman Smith continues to share his consternation that they did not go up higher to allow citizens the privilege of realizing discounts in a pay-per-throw program.

Looking forward to the next budget, 2017-2018 will be a revaluation year. The city is expecting to benefit from new development and increasing property values. The back-loading in the CIP will work against the gains. What’s more, the courts should have a decision on the latest appeal in the ongoing water dispute late this summer. If a final ruling puts the city in dire straits, it is hoped the courts will grant the city a grace period to absorb the blow.

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