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  • Asheville Citizen-Times

    Asheville OKs $250M budget; higher pay for city employees, property taxes to increase

    By Sarah Honosky, Asheville Citizen Times,

    2024-06-12
    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1RD6pP_0tofD7tI00

    ASHEVILLE - After weeks of compensation talks, a divided City Council passed a $250 million fiscal year 2024-25 budget, which includes a property tax increase and requires the city to dip into its fund balance to pay for salary adjustments larger than those originally proposed by staff.

    Heated discussion preceded the split 4-3 vote June 11, with some council members advocating to find cuts elsewhere rather than raise taxes, while others questioned what exactly would be put on the chopping block — and the viability of one-time cuts to cover recurring expenses.

    Council members Sheneika Smith, Kim Roney and Antanette Mosley were the dissenting votes.

    "We're talking about all these options we have. We can delay the transit study, or maybe sales tax will overperform — homeowners don't have those choices. They don't. And if we raise property taxes, it's do or die for some people," Smith said.

    "People are crunched. I do not want to raise property taxes without pulling all of our guns out."

    Property taxes are increasing. How much?

    Rather than the 1-cent increase on the table at the onset of the meeting, City Council approved a .63-cent property tax adjustment, less than a penny, which would come out to $22.10 more annually for the average residential taxpayer.

    It does mean a deeper dip into the city's fund balance, but gets them to larger raises for all city staff, with police and firefighters seeing the biggest jumps.

    The decision to raise taxes left several council members dissatisfied.

    "We should all be concerned when we have a budget that is split at the dais," said council member Sage Turner.

    She referred to herself as the "swing vote," and said she could not support the increase unless it was dropped from 1 cent to the lower amount. Council member Maggie Ullman, who made the original motion, agreed to make the change.

    Ahead of the vote, Roney pointed to several likely property tax increases on the horizon between a proposed general obligation bond slated for the ballot this November, a Business Improvement District — passed that night 6-1, which will mean a tax increase for downtown property owners — and an incoming Buncombe County tax revaluation year.

    Buncombe County's current proposed budget includes a 5% property tax hike, or 2.55 cents.

    Roney raised another budget possibility — which would alter the compensation asks and require cuts elsewhere, but not raise taxes — but back-and-forth around the proposal failed to find consensus, despite support from Mosley and Smith, and Ullman's motion moved forward.

    What's in the budget?

    For the second consecutive year, Asheville police will receive a greater pay bump than most other staff at 6%, and firefighters will be given a $4,053 flat pay increase, boosting the lowest paid firefighters 8.8%, and keeping a 2.5% separation between each step in the fire pay plan to maintain its "integrity."

    This puts firefighters and police officers at the same annual starting salary of $50,309.

    All other full-time city employees would be given an annual increase of $2,400 or 4.1%, whichever is greater. This would give the lowest paid employees a 6.3% raise.

    Higher taxes amid financial 'headwinds'

    The budget was built amid financial "headwinds," as City Manager Debra Campbell framed it in her proposal, facing stagnating sales tax revenue and escalating cost of service.

    The original compensation staff recommendation was 4.1% across the board — which faced blowback from WNC Just Economics, Asheville firefighters and local police advocates. They call for bigger raises to keep up with an ever-increasing living wage rate and to stay competitive with surrounding markets.

    But higher raises means a bigger bite out of the budget, necessitating a property tax increase, staff say, when before there was none proposed.

    The .63-cent increase will result in a rate of 40.93 cents per $100 of assessed value.

    Firefighters react

    Firefighters have been a pivotal voice in the year's compensation talks. Led by Asheville Fire Capt. Welcker Taylor, president of the Asheville Fire Fighters Association, they have advocated for higher pay, echoing calls from a similar 2021 movement that brought new Asheville firefighters from hourly rates of $11.65 to $15.

    Currently, the annual starting salary for an Asheville firefighter, after graduation from the academy, is $46,256. For a typical 40-hour work week, that’s above the city’s living wage rate of $22.10 an hour, set by WNC Just Economics. But firefighters work 24-hour shifts in a 56-hour work week. That comes out to $15.88 an hour.

    The new budget will take starting firefighters to $17.27 an hour, Taylor said, or a $50,309 annual salary.

    The city argues its pay model aligns with others in the state with a 2,912-hour annual work schedule, but Taylor said previously that even beyond hourly compensation, the department's annual pay wasn't enough to keep it competitive with other North Carolina fire departments.

    "While the adopted budget doesn’t achieve our goal of bringing starting firefighter pay up to $18.25/hour, I’m genuinely appreciative of the council’s willingness to hear our union’s concerns and take a large step in the right direction of fair and competitive wages," Taylor told the Citizen Times after the June 11 vote.

    "We still have lots of work to do, and I will continue to worry about how our newest Asheville firefighters will make ends meet, especially if they hope to raise a family in the city in which they serve. But we aren’t going anywhere as a union."

    Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email shonosky@citizentimes.com or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. Please support local, daily journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.

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