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Stay on the pulse of the decisions being made at meetings for Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Commission, with reports from BPR’s Laura Hackett.

5 takeaways from the Asheville City Council retreat

Consultant Amy Climer takes a selfie with City of Asheville leadership at the annual retreat.
Laura Hackett
Consultant Amy Climer takes a selfie with City of Asheville leadership at the annual retreat.

Growing infrastructure costs, homelessness and public safety topped the list of priorities for Asheville City Council at their two-day annual retreat at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center to discuss priorities for the city in the upcoming fiscal year.

The decisions will inform how the city’s total budget will be allocated. The budget is expected to be around $240 million, about the same as last year’s budget, according to city spokesperson Kim Miller.

Facilitator Amy Climer ran the council meetings on Thursday and Friday. Climer said her $20,000 fee included “over a dozen” consultations with city staff and council members ahead of the retreat.

“What I'm bringing in is 25 years of experience. I also have a background in team development. I have my PhD in this and leadership and change and my research was on teams,” Climer said, when asked about her fee. “There are definitely ways to get other facilitators who are less expensive. And yeah, maybe you get what you pay for.”

The School of Government at UNC offers similar facilitation services for about $5,000.

Climer said she did not submit a proposal for an RFP. A spokesperson for the city did not respond to questions about the RFP process for the facilitation services before press.

Between rounds of team-building activities – such as “rose, bud, and thorn” and choosing images that reflected their feelings about progress – council had tough discussions about employee compensation as well as interpersonal challenges for city staff and council members,

Council also explored the possibility of a bond program that would help fund necessary infrastructure projects.

For the most part, the city’s six strategic goals remained the same as last year with a notable addition of ‘infrastructure’ into the third strategic goal.

  • Neighborhood and Climate Resilience
  • Equitable, Affordable Housing and Stability
  • Improve and Maintain Infrastructure and Core Services
  • Reparations
  • Reimagining Public Safety
  • Homelessness Strategies

City attorney Brad Branham also gave members a primer on their ethical and legal obligations as members of the council.

Children holding handmade signs at the community meeting about Malvern Hills Park Pool on Feb. 21, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
Children holding handmade signs at the community meeting about Malvern Hills Park Pool on Feb. 21, 2024.

1. Pressure to address growing infrastructure problems

The recent backlash around the closure of Malvern Hills Park Pool loomed large in council member’s minds as they discussed Asheville’s growing infrastructure problems. The pool, which needs a minimum of $400,000 in repairs to reopen, is one of a string of city-owned assets in need of costly repairs.

Repairs to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium come with a $33 million minimum price tag and the renovation of the 80 year-old building could easily cost upwards of $100 million, according to city officials.

Water resources require another large chunk of city funding. According to a city presentation, due to aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance, the water system will need an estimated $240 million. Parking garages and other infrastructure require an additional $11.3 million.

Transit services, including a South Asheville bus line, and improvements to the stormwater system, will be other anticipated expenses, although cost estimates were not provided at the presentation.

“We’re just in a really hard spot because there has been years, decades of deferred maintenance,” Council member Maggie Ulmann said. “I think the scrappiness of our culture says ‘make it enough’ and we’ve been doing that for a long time, but we’re at the end of the lifespan, some of our buildings are kind of totaled.”

She continued, “But we’ve never been more prepared to take this very seriously than this year, which I’m really proud of.”

A slide from the city's budget presentation at the retreat.
City of Asheville
A slide from the city's budget presentation at the retreat.

2. Bonds offered as a possible solution to budget and infrastructure problems

Over the next five years, the city’s expenses are expected to grow larger than the city’s revenue, according to a staff presentation. This is a result of slowing sales tax growth and a decrease in parking revenues, according to finance director Tony McDowell.

Budget Manager Taylor Floyd attributed much of the city’s expenses over the last few years to the raises to city staff, noting that the uptick in expenses has “certainly been compensation related.”

“Our sources of revenue to fund the needs that we have are so limited and unfortunately it is mostly through property taxes, fees, and sales tax,” City Manager Debra Campbell said.

In order to generate the funds necessary for infrastructure improvements, McDowell pitched several different concepts for a bond program, including a one-time bond vote in 2024 or breaking up the bond votes into two or four year cycles.

If passed by voters, the bond program could generate around $150 million and would lead to an estimated $136-175 increase in annual property taxes for the average homeowner.

If council decides to move forward with the bond proposal, it would need to go through a multi-step approval process, including several resolutions and public hearings, through the spring and summer before putting it on the 2024 general election ballot.

City council and staff members used a sticky note activity to help determine this year's council priorities
Laura Hackett
City council and staff members used a sticky note activity to help determine this year's council priorities

3. Human resource problems, compensation increases

The city, which employs about 1,200 people, faces challenges in human resources. When asked about staff morale, city manager Debra Campbell said, “It ebbs and flows. I would say toward the beginning of 2023 it was very low, when we had the water outage. It was a tough time for staff, but I think now we’re kind of on the upbeat.”

Campbell also revealed at the retreat that the current human resources director, Shannon Barrett, resigned.

Council members considered a proposed minimum 5% increase in pay for its employees. The city wants to bring annual wages in alignment based on Just Economics’ new living wage of $22.10 an hour or $45,918 per year.

Presently, the lowest paid employee makes a base salary of $37,960 (for a total of $54,736, including benefits). Nearly 15% of city employees make less than the living wage.

Council members also expressed interest in raising their own salaries which are currently set at $19,011 annually.

Council members Antanette Mosley and Kim Roney said the salary can limit who has the ability to run for council. The role is categorized as a seasonal temp position which includes health insurance but no other benefits, according to Mayor Esther Manheimer.

Mosley argued that if the job had better benefits, it would attract a wider range of candidates. Manheimer suggested adding retirement benefits for council members and for the city to “review wages for staff to see if we are fairly compensated.”

Council member Sage Turner favored the review, noting her opinion that a member probably makes “like 50 cents an hour” when you add up all the time spent.

Council member Kim Roney noted the lack of perspective created by the perceived financial limitations of the role. “We don’t have anyone at the table who relies on the deeply affordable housing we’re talking about,” Roney said.

Council used "rose, bud, thorn" to review the highs and lows of the previous year.
Laura Hackett
Council used "rose, bud, thorn" to review the highs and lows of the previous year.

4. A house divided on homelessness recommendations

Council appeared to be divided on how closely they want to commit to following recommendations made to the city by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

In 2022, the Alliance issued a report recommending a goal of decreasing unsheltered homelessness by 50 percent in two years.

The construction of a low-barrier homeless shelter is one of the Alliance’s biggest recommendations. Roney voiced support for this goal, as did Manheimer, who said this was “very concerning” to her.

“We’re positioning ourselves so that people can vote no on these recommendations and say ‘I did not commit to all these,” Manheimer said.

“I have an issue with supporting the full recommendation,” Mosley said. “I’m having trepidation regarding the low-barrier shelter. And I don’t know if we’ve had that discussion as a group.”

Turner echoed Mosley’s concerns. “I love the goal, I just don’t want to set the community up for some expectation that we cannot uphold.”

Council eventually agreed on a goal to “make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring by targeting strategies recommended by the National Alliance to End Homelessness,” but fell short of committing to a low-barrier shelter or reducing homelessness by 50% in the next two years.

Councilwoman Maggie Ullman made origami while discussing city priorities at this year's retreat.
Laura Hackett
Councilwoman Maggie Ullman made origami while discussing city priorities at this year's retreat.

5. ”Reimagining” public safety?

Assistant City Manager Ben Woody highlighted the city’s work to improve public safety including the initiative focused on downtown. He noted a decline in violent crime and property crime from the prior year.

City Manager Campbell cited the community responder program as an example of the role of non-law enforcement departments like Parks and Recreation and Sanitation in the downtown public safety initiative.

“It’s a heck of a lot more operationalized now. Public safety is our collective responsibility, particularly internally” Campbell said. “We’re getting better at it.”

Council members debated the use of the term “reimagining.” Several council members expressed a desire to use terminology that encompasses city work beyond law enforcement to address public safety issues.

Some, including Turner, expressed confusion around last year’s state goal of “reimagining public safety.”

“Are we still reimagining public safety or is this moving into public safety or community response?” Turned inquired.

Council member Maggie Ullman supported use of the word. “I think we could always reimagine everything,” she said. “That word has value. It has an inspirational tone.”

Manheimer argued that there’s still “more work to be done” with reimagining the role of public safety, noting that Asheville has yet to move forward with civilian traffic enforcement, a new statewide measure that allows trained professionals to handle traffic collisions rather than law enforcement.

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Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.
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