Tony McDowell, Budget & Financial Reporting Manager, City of Asheville

NCLGBA: The People Who Balance NC Communities

We invite you to hear from North Carolina’s local government budget professionals who believe in the value of public service and consider it an honor to bring value to their communities in their respective roles. Twice a month we will be highlighting NCLGBA members who are an important part to the balance in their communities.

Today we will hear from Asheville’s Tony McDowell.

The City of Asheville, with a population of 90,918 (2016 est.), is the largest city in western North Carolina, the 10th largest in the State, and is the county seat of Buncombe County.  The City is the regional center for health care, manufacturing, transportation, banking, professional services and retail trade.  Other leading industry sectors include tourism, government, hospitality and food services.  Asheville has more breweries per capita than any other U.S. City, and is the home to the east coast production facilities for both Sierra Nevada and New Belgium.   The City is surrounded by mountains, many with elevations above 5,000 feet.  In its July 2017 issue, Outside magazine named Asheville as one America’s twenty-five best towns ever, specifically citing Asheville as the best place to spend a summer day. The City’s total Adopted Budget for FY 2017-18 is $175.4 million, which includes a General Fund budget of $120.7 million.

What was the biggest challenge facing your community this fiscal year and how did you address as part of the budget development process?
Asheville faced a number of high profile challenges during the most recent budget process. On the revenue side of the budget, the FY 2017-18 process followed a reappraisal of property in Buncombe County which prompted a lot of discussion around the property tax rate. Average property values in the City increased around 30%, so there was a great deal of concern about the impact of property taxes on the overall affordability of housing in the City especially since voters had already approved a General Obligation (G.O.) Bond package in November 2016 that carried with it a property tax rate dedication. In the end, staff was able to deliver a budget to City Council that included a revenue-neutral property tax rate for general operations and only a 3.5 cent increase for the G.O. Bonds.

Even with adoption of a revenue neutral tax rate, the City was still able to include additional funding for two key focus areas during the budget process – transit and public safety. Despite a reduction in federal grant funding, we were able to fund key service expansions in transit, provide funding for a new transit management contract, and begin addressing the need to replace an aging fleet of buses. The public safety budget included the addition of 15 police officer positions that will allow for the creation of a new downtown unit. This was the first addition of patrol officers in approximately 10 years.

The budget process this year also included the highest level of citizen involvement in the 19 years that I’ve been here in Asheville. The public hearing that we held in June lasted almost four hours, and the meeting rooms were full for all of our work sessions as well. It was exciting to see so many citizens actually interested in the budget!

What drew you to a career in public service?
I wanted a career in which I was not just earning a paycheck but one in which I felt like I was making a difference in the community that I lived in, and working in local government budgeting is perfect for that. I live in the City of Asheville, about ten minutes from downtown, so I can actually see the projects and services we fund impacting my own neighborhood every day.

What career advice do you wish someone would have shared with you when you started your first local government budgeting job?
Take advantage of every opportunity you have to learn more about local government – whether it’s attending classes at the School of Government, getting involved with the NC Local Government Budget Association or getting out in the field to learn more about your own organization’s operations. If you have career aspirations to be a city or county manager, there is no better place to start your career than in budget.

How do you create public value for your organization?
I create public value by striving to be a positive representation of a local government employee.

What excites you most about FY 2018 in your community and your department?
Three years ago our City Council dedicated 3 cents on the property tax rate to enhance our Capital Improvement Program, and we are now beginning to see the positive impact of that investment in our community. The City recently completed a project around the New Belgium brewery in our River Arts District. The City constructed greenways, added sidewalks, and made other infrastructure improvements in that area to support the brewery and its operations. In addition, the City is getting very close to beginning the construction phase of the $50+ million River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project (RADTIP), a multi-modal transportation project that includes the installation of sidewalks, street trees, public art, bike lanes and greenways. Also, on November 8, 2016, Asheville voters approved a $74 million general obligation (GO) bond referendum for Housing Affordability, Parks and Recreation, and Streets, Sidewalks and Bike Lanes. It’s the City’s first successful GO bond referendum since 1986. I’m excited about working with departmental staff from across the City to begin implementing this new program in FY 2018.

Specifically in the Budget Division, I’m very excited to begin an update to the Priority Based Budgeting (PBB) model that we first implemented two years ago and explore ways of better integrating the PBB data into budget decision making. We are also going to be working to develop a more robust multi-year forecast model; and finally, we have several City Council members who are interested in us incorporating Participatory Budgeting into next year’s budget process.

If you didn’t work in budgeting, what would you do?
Great question, and one I don’t have an easy answer to. I love working with numbers, doing financial and statistical analysis, and then telling the story behind the numbers; so my guess is that I would probably work in a field where I could utilize those skills.

Tell us something about yourself that others may not know.
I enjoyed playing table tennis (ping pong) as a kid, and have recently gotten back into playing. I joined a table tennis club here in Asheville about a year and a half ago. It’s a great way to relieve stress during the budget season and I actually won 2nd place in a City of Asheville employee tournament last fall.

Also, I’ve always been a big music fan – anyone who is a friend of mine on Facebook already knows that about me. I love seeing live music, especially in small clubs, and I’m lucky enough to live in a place that provides ample opportunities to indulge my musical interests – in the last year I’ve been to around 35 live music shows.