Friends & Neighbors,
Climate change and migration is the biggest public safety issue of our time. I agree that we must treat this issue with the urgency required, and that we need a Green New Deal for Asheville. But how we do that is very important. Since our most vulnerable neighbors are those with the least resources, and since we are a community that is woven together, we need each other to be invested in a resilient community. I think the proposed 3-cent property tax is going about it the wrong way.
At the recent City Council budget work session, members of Council presented a proposal for a 3-cent property tax increase for “Asheville’s Urgent Climate & Affordability Funding Response.” This proposal had input from a number of community advocates, and I am thankful for the participation of these partners to ensure that our urgent priorities would be funded. After reaching out to many of them, I’m here today to explain why I do not support the property tax increase as proposed, and why we need further conversation. In addressing these points, I will offer a community engagement opportunity I’m familiar with:
- This initiative’s list of priorities is what we have been advocating for over 5 years. This is the hard part. What we see in this proposal is exactly what I’ve shown up with community for and begged Council to fund the past 5 years: evening service hours for the bus, more frequent transit hours for South Asheville, renewables and resilience for low-income neighbors, tree canopy repair and maintenance, our housing trust fund and the community land trust. Coming out against this was hard. But I must speak out against the false narrative that suggests we cannot meet the urgent needs of our community through budgeting tradeoffs and other funding mechanisms which would spare us from worsening economic inequality in our community. This is why I have advocated with Family Friendly Affordable Buncombe to ensure the additional property taxes from the sale of Mission Hospital weren’t swallowed up in the City’s structural deficit when they should be benefiting the health of our community. Join me in emailing our entire Council to fund our immediate needs in our current budget: ashevilleNCcouncil@ashevilleNC.gov
- We have to demand accountability and transparency in local revenue processes. There are resources available to fund our community’s urgent priorities, but we’ve got to address the false narratives so we can do this work. Here are some of the funding solutions already in our community:
- Let’s start with the City Budget. I’ve advocated alongside neighbors through 5 years of city budgets, and we’ve watched as the majority of City Council wasted one opportunity after another to provide for our needs. Today’s proposal aims to raise a projected total of $4.5 million in property taxes. If we had allocated a Million Dollars For The People, which we made the case for in 2017, we could have funded $3 million of these priorities already. In 2019, we saw a $500k surplus in the budget, but it didn’t get earmarked for paying fire-fighters $15-hr., our tree canopy protection, or evening transit hours. It could’ve at least been a one-time allocation to the housing trust fund! Instead, we saw 100% approval for the City Manager’s budget without a deep dive into investing in our needs, and the hot tears on my face stung. We need to dive in now, ask where revenue from new business and development is showing up in the budget and see what’s driving the structural deficit.
- As a resident of Asheville, I am also a resident of Buncombe County. There is ongoing advocacy for the County to step in to cover the cost of para-transit for our transit system as the governing body that handles Health & Human Services. It’s one of the most direct ways to participate in funding existing and future extensions into Buncombe County. This would open up the ability to fund evening service hours and the second year improvements of the Transit Master Plan, which increases much-needed services to South Asheville with potential for County extension. These are steps we can take towards preparation for a reliable, regional transit system where we can remove fares as the barrier to use.
- I’m very disappointed that the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) didn’t choose in its new Tourism Management & Investment Process (TMIP) to fund the very popular Downtown Circulator! A trolley-style service like the one in Knoxville would honor our city’s history of having a trolley, could be fully electric with a fast-charging system, would be a solution to getting our visitors out of cars while supporting our Downtown businesses and workers, and would look really beautiful in our city. It would also free up that part of the Transit Master Plan so the city could fund other needs. I have submitted this input to TDA, and you can contact the TDA here.
- The TDA is an appointed group of our neighbors in the city and county who allocate our occupancy taxes. I’m ashamed our community has allowed so many resources to flow to tourism advertising without accountability, and that while the community has been having a hard conversation about adjusting the spending, the members of the TDA have approved an additional $1-million in advertising. Since our neighbors on the TDA refuse to urgently address our most pressing infrastructure needs, we must now go to the County Commission and request that they no longer accept the funds, to essentially abolish the TDA, so that we can come together as a community to restructure it. I’m thankful to Ami Worthen and other neighbors who are joining in this conversation. I am not against tourism, and I don’t want to let our tourism industry and visitors off the hook for participating in funding infrastructure solutions. But we’re in an abusive relationship with our TDA, and it has to stop. We’re talking about $25 million of public funds that could be used to meet public needs. We need to figure out how to democratize the next iteration of the TDA, since unelected members are currently distributing our hotel taxes in an unaccountable way. As the only responsible way for us to hold the TDA accountable and to force a restructure of the spending, email our County Commission with me and ask them to repeal the tax.
- A deep conversation about funding from the Dogwood Health Trust is needed to address our social determinants of health in the region. Community leaders like Carmen Ramos Kennedy have repeatedly addressed issues of equity in the decision making processes, and if we’re going to address our community’s wounds of racism and classism, we need people at the table who can advise from both a professional and lived experience. We’re talking about $70 million being allocated this year, and need to keep our eyes on what that means. I know too many families who have dealt with the pain of our inequities in health care, and that losing Mission Health’s non-profit status is yet another blow. This funding could address line items in our City and County budget to make room for funding line items in the 3-cent proposal. Let’s make the time to get informed on the funding processes here.
- We need dedicated funding for transit. Over the past 4 years of serving on Asheville’s Multimodal Transportation Commission and the Transit Committee, I have reviewed the commission’s funding proposals. In my opinion, a quarter-cent sales tax would have been the best option to back up to the previous one for AB Tech, but the embezzlement of our County funds by our former County Manager obliterated trust and made it unlikely that this option would have public support. A prepared foods tax limited to places that serve alcohol would be directed at tourist-focused bars, breweries, and restaurants while not taxing folks at the grocery store and other places that don’t serve alcohol. The law requires that this type of tax would have to fund transit. That would fund future years of the Transit Master Plan, making room for other funding streams to address a Green New Deal for Asheville that includes renewables, securing our ecosystem, and deeply-affordable housing. Since this action would require approval by the North Carolina General Assembly, I ask that you join me at the polls this year to ensure we elect officials we can count on in Raleigh to represent the needs of the people. Early voting and registration times and locations are here.
- The proposed property tax increase will get in the way of our next bond. I see climate change as the biggest public safety issue of our time, and there are very specific things we need to do as a community to secure a Green New Deal for Asheville. This will require a bond program, but it must be carefully planned with an equity lens, securing an anti-gentrification tool kit, eviction protection fund, and homeowner repair fund like what we see in the “Neighborhood Stabilization” part of the housing bond in Durham. I don’t see how we could responsibly and equitably raise property taxes now while considering the next bond, which means raising taxes twice while our community suffers from lack of affordability. As we have seen with prior property tax increases, most residents and local businesses are going to experience increases in rent above and beyond the amount of the property tax increase. Our community is too vulnerable to not address this carefully. If we force this property tax increase as proposed, there will not be enough public support for the next bond we need.
What happens next? Council may approve the 3-cent property tax themselves, or put it on the ballot as a referendum for community input, which may be a good way to ensure community engagement. I would support a referendum for voters to weigh in, but I do not support Council approving this plan unilaterally. We have to keep in mind that this tax would not be required to stay dedicated to these issues in perpetuity, so future Councils could change how the revenue is spent.
As a long-time community advocate, I understand that it might seem two-faced that I wouldn’t support the tax-increase when it names exactly what I’ve said we need to be doing all along. I’m on record for 5 years, attending every budget hearing, work session, and Council retreat. I know that we have to get serious about using what we have in a responsible and accountable way. We need more people on Council to instruct the City Manager to prioritize our budget and to leverage additional funds for a resilient community we all benefit from. What is clear from this 3-cent proposal is that the Council does not have enough political will to do that yet. It’s one of the reasons I’m running, asking my community to vote for representatives who can be trusted to be faithful to this work. We need an off-ramp from the false narratives of resource scarcity. Let’s stay focused on the hard truths that define our community’s needs so that we can rally public support for real, long-term solutions that will prepare us for the climate crisis while advancing equity for everyone in our community.
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