The tale of two budget expansions

by Vicki Meath and Amy Cantrell June 12, 2017

City officials have treated two budget expansions — for police and transit — in ways that are very different and revealing about local government priorities

Above: City Hall by night, photo by Max Cooper.

Tomorrow, Asheville City Council is set to vote on the City’s $176 million budget, including the $121 million general fund. Council will make decisions about how that tax money is spent on a variety of services including parks and recreation, fire and police and transit.

This year has been a different process mainly because of two big factors — property revaluation and the bonds. Due to the property revaluation, the tax rate will change significantly and the city’s revenue is not as cut and dry as a typical year. The city also has to devote some tax revenues to paying back the bonds.

While a few major increases, such as $2.5 million in staff raises have gone in large part un-noticed (as the Blade delved into in an Asheville Citizen-Times article this weekend), two budget expansions have dominated the public dialogue with the city budget: public transit and the Asheville Police Department. While these were both budget expansions, they have been handled very differently.

Who are the advocates?

With the transit expansion, the Peoples Transit Campaign (a Just Economics-led group of active transit riders advocating for better buses), have been working with the city’s transit department since 2014 for better transit. Transit helps people access jobs, housing, healthcare, and other necessities. This transit request was made by the People’s Transit Campaign based on the work of riders who developed a 19 Point Agenda for Transportation Reform, a review of the 2009 Transit Master Plan, and a survey of other riders done in partnership with the City. As a result, the People’s Transit Campaign has been the lead advocate asking for full Sunday service and expanded evening service. The community is at a disadvantage in requesting budget increases compared to when a request for expansion is led by city staff.

The case for the police expansion was not made by business owners or community members but rather by the APD’s leaders, especially its department head, Chief Tammy Hooper. When the community came to public meetings to talk about the request, the chief was largely absent. She did, however, go to business groups, nonprofits and neighborhood groups peddling the increase and asking for endorsements.

The Data

Both requests for expansion had associated data that was used to justify or back up the request. Again, the tales are very different.

With the transit request, the Transit Master Plan is intended to be the document that guides the big picture moving forward. The current plan, completed in 2009, is currently many millions of dollars behind what was envisioned to have been accomplished by this time. The budget expansion request made by Just Economics’ People’s Transit Campaign not only is in line with the vision outlined in the city’s plan, it is also in line with the data coming from a survey of riders that People’s Voice worked on with the city in 2013. Riders in that survey said that the top two needs were full Sunday service and more evening service. In subsequent years, those needs continue to show up in follow-up surveys and listening sessions.

While it is clear where the data comes from in terms of the transit expansion, there remains much confusion surrounding the data to back the APD request for an additional 15 officers.

The APD is asking for 15 new officers while there are already between 20-22 vacancies on the force. A clear argument to Council from the APD’s leaders for the expansion has been the amount of dollars the department is spending on overtime. But logic would dictate that if the department focused on filling the vacancies that they currently have, overtime dollars would dramatically decrease. While questions around filling the vacancies continue to be raised, APD leaders have presented no clear argument as to why filling the existing vacancies would not improve this situation. Additionally, many have questioned whether or not we are looking at increasing pay for police officers or other ways of improving retention before we choose to expand the force so dramatically.

Additionally Chief Hooper used data related to the ratio of officers to population from a website called AreaVibes. This data seemed inconsistent with FBI data on officer ratio to population for cities of a similar size and other cities in N.C. (presented to Council by A Million Dollars for the People). While the argument has been made that our day-time population numbers are higher due to tourism, we are far the only city with high day time numbers and tourists. Also, if the chief chose to use those comparisons to make her case, she should have at least been prepared to respond to the discrepancies.

To date, neither Council nor the community has gotten a response about the discrepancy between those two figures. Council member Gordon Smith asked for an explanation of this discrepancy — and which number was an accurate reflection of the department — in an email to City Manager Gary Jackson obtained through public record request. Smith wrote in the email that his support of the police expansion hinged on the accuracy of the number presented by the chief.

Finally, the statistics behind the “increase in crime” Hooper touts as justifying the expansion been misleading throughout the budget process. The chief has used numbers that were vague or confusing to support the need for additional officers. Many of the numbers used reflect a slight jump in crime from 2015-2016, but do not show the larger context. Looking at the same data over a five to 10-year period show an overall downward trend in crime. There has only been a one percent increase in crime overall last year. One percent increase in crime does not justify a seven percent increase in personnel.

The Process

In the past, city staff have presented a continuation budget where we see how much it would cost to just continue city services at the same level as the year prior. This year, neither the public nor City Council were shown a continuation budget at any public work session. Instead, City staff independently chose what they wanted to include in the “base budget.” Though the “base budget” was not supposed to include any major changes in services the APD expansion, with a significant increase in personnel, was included in the “base budget.”

At the Council work session dedicated to the operating budget, the costs of additional officers (which are operating expenses) were not discussed, yet both the operational and capital expenses of transit were discussed. The capital expenses of cars for the additional APD officers were not discussed at the work session on the capital budget, but the need for additional buses to fulfill the expanded hours for transit was. The APD request was not discussed until the final scheduled budget work session on April 11.

When the city manager proposed his budget on May 9, Council members asked that he not increase taxes beyond revenue neutral plus the bond, and roll the transit expansion into the base budget even if that meant reducing the APD request. Instead of following through on the Council request, city staff used a different explanation of the same APD request at an impromptu budget work session the hour prior to the May 23 public hearing on the budget.

Explanation of a tax increase

We want to be clear about the final numbers as we have often seen those figures not shared clearly with the public. In this next budget $315,000 is added to Transit as an operational increase for expanded Sunday and evening service. For APD the operational increase is $567,000 for 15 new officers. On the Capital side, new buses will account for $315,000 (this is the match money for $1 million in federal grants that buy new buses) for transit and $384,000 for police cars for the 15 additional officers. Next year, the full cost of transit operation increases is $630,000. The operating cost to maintain those 15 new officers next budget year is over $1 million. City staff have used creative ways to talk about the increased cost for the APD and where that money is coming from, but regardless of where the money is coming from in other parts of the budget the on-going cost of the APD expansion is more expensive than the ongoing expansion on the table for transit.

Taxes are going up for a lot of people due to the property revaluation. Many people are concerned about increased property taxes. Council members had great pause at raising taxes beyond revenue neutral plus the bond but in the end the city manager kept the tax increase in the final proposed budget that will be up for a vote at tomorrow’s Council meeting indicating that we need to increase taxes if we want to increase transit services. In reality, several costs are increasing above and beyond what was spent last year.

State law allows the City to bring in several million dollars more than they did last year in determining a revenue neutral rate. Increases in the general fund expenses are being used for staff raises, a few projects including energy innovation, the APD and transit. So when we are talking about increasing taxes, let’s be clear that we are increasing city services and city staff wages, not just transit.

The end of the story

The end of the story is not yet written, but could end tomorrow night. Regardless of where you stand on these expansions, we need to have our city leaders hold our city staff accountable to be clear with the public about our budget and to use the same processes for budget expansion requests no matter which department asks for these increases.

We are calling on our City Council to vote “no” to the proposed city budget and ask our city manager to go back and do what Council asked them to do on May 9: include the transit request in the base budget even if that means reducing or eliminating the APD request. We call on Chief Hooper and all city staff to use accurate data and an open public process to determine how our tax dollars are spent. We can write the end of this story in a way in which moves us toward a more transparent and participatory city government and holds our elected leaders and our non-elected public servants accountable to the broader community.

Vicki Meath is the executive director of local non-profit Just Economics. Amy Cantrell is one of the main organizers of the Million Dollars for the People effort opposing the proposed police expansion.

The Asheville Blade is entirely funded by its readers. If you like what we do, donate directly to us on Patreon or make a one-time gift to support our work. Questions? Comments? Email us.