"That story was only used to divide the community. ... It was only done to incite anger."
-- Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy
War is hell -- and, sometimes at least, so is politics. Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy says she's received death threats and other negative communications in the wake of a recent City Council vote to dramatically increase the rent for the U.S. Army Reserve Center, located on city-owned property at 224 Louisiana Ave.
Bellamy's revelation came during the public-comment portion of Council's Oct. 24 formal session. Fred English, a veteran, took the opportunity to upbraid and shame City Council for its Sept. 26 vote to raise the center's annual rent from $60,000 to $112,000. Using the chamber's overhead projector, English highlighted an Asheville Tribune commentary provocatively titled "City Council Screws the Troops." (Council member Carl Mumpower was the lone dissenter in the 6-1 vote.)
After letting English speak his piece, Bellamy said the Oct. 12 Tribune story had sparked an unspecified number of death threats, calling it one of the worst things she'd ever read in a newspaper. "That story was only used to divide the community," she said. "That report was horrible. ... It was only done to incite anger." She added, however, that City Council might revisit the issue at a later date.
Echoing some of the complaints in the commentary, written by Tribune Senior Editor Bill Fishburne, English said that such a drastic increase amounted to gouging the Army at a time when soldiers were in need of such things as boots and body armor. From 1950 to 2000, the city had charged the federal government a mere $1. Six years ago, a previous Council jacked the rent up to $60,000 a year. "Democrats," wrote Fishburne, "went after the Army's money just like any other war profiteer who jacks up a military price just because they can."
Taken aback by Bellamy's stiff response, English said he'd be the first one to jump into the fray if any Council member were assaulted. But in the meantime, he said, "It's my opinion and I'm sticking with it."
Asheville Police Department spokesman John Dankel said later that Bellamy had forwarded the threats to the department and that authorities were investigating the matter for possible criminal prosecution. "Definitely the Police Department is interested in any kind of threat against anyone ... and certainly public officials," Dankel told Xpress.
The balance of Council's meeting was decidely more tame. And while the reserve center may be facing higher rents, the city's bus riders are set to see a reduction in fares.
Like many small American cities, Asheville has provided only minimal public transit, at least since the demise of the trollies. Faced with limited hours of service and low-cost, city-subsidized parking in downtown garages, most residents have opted to drive rather than waiting to hop on a bus.
But a majority of the Asheville City Council remains convinced that if bus-system ridership could reach critical mass, it could aid the working poor, reduce traffic congestion and help alleviate the area's air-pollution problems, while easing the city's parking crunch. The three-month no-fare experiment has been judged a huge success, with a 60 percent surge in passengers. And with the free period set to end Nov. 11, Council members approved a series of measures at their Oct. 24 formal session designed to capitalize on that momentum. Reduced-fare options, a new annual pass and an additional hour of evening service, it is hoped, will provide more incentives for using the bus service.
Beginning Nov. 13, the single-trip cash fare will increase from 75 cents to $1, but the 10 cent fee for transfers will be eliminated. A book of 11 tickets will cost $7 (down from $7.50). The price of a monthly all-you-can-ride pass will be cut in half (to $15), and a new annual pass will be offered for $120. Seven bus routes will now run till 11:30 p.m. The UNCA "Bulldog Express" and the bus to Black Mountain will continue on their current schedules, ending service at 1 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. respectively, according to city Transit and Parking Services Director Bruce Black.
Council members voted on each fare change separately, and only the cash-fare increase and the extended service were unanimously approved. Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council members Carl Mumpower and Jan Davis voted against both the monthly and annual passes, and Mumpower and Davis also opposed reducing the cost of a ticket book. An attempt by the three dissenters to increase the cost of an annual pass to $171 failed as well.
The changes are expected to cost the city $115,428 this year. The additional money will pay for extra personnel, maintenance and ancillary costs, according to Black.
The extended service hours and the new fares -- especially the monthly pass -- should help create "habitual riders" and retain a sizable portion of those who took advantage of the fare-free period to try out the system, Council member Brownie Newman maintained.
"At this time, we've just got to get our numbers up," Council member Bryan Freeborn agreed.
In the past, some city leaders have argued that Asheville lacks the population density needed to support public transit, and Mumpower maintained that the reduced fares would amount to increasing an already-unacceptable taxpayer burden. "Mobility for our people is important," he said. "But this is an excessive subsidy, and we're going forward without [sufficient] data."
Council member Robin Cape retorted that the city already substantially subsidizes parking to entice people downtown. "I don't see much difference," she said.
According to a study released earlier this year by transportation-studies professor David Hartgen of UNC-Charlotte, Asheville's bus service is the least-effective of the state's 10 largest public-transit systems. The study was commissioned by the conservative/libertarian-leaning John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, which does not favor taxpayer-subsidized transit. The average bus trip in Asheville costs taxpayers $2.35, Hartgen concluded.
Downtown restaurant owner Dwight Butner sounded a decidedly more positive note at the meeting. Butner, who's active in the Asheville Downtown Association, hailed the new fares and service hours as a boon to business owners and employees, especially those working later shifts.
"I think this is a great step forward, and I'll probably be buying passes for my employees," he said.
One thing all Council members seem to agree on is the city's need for more parking downtown, where demand is increasing by 10 percent annually, according to a city staff memorandum. But they couldn't find consensus on a staff-generated downtown-parking plan, which will be sent back to the drawing board for more work.
Meanwhile, a controversial $23 million parking garage planned for city-owned land on Haywood Street adjacent to the historic Basilica of St. Lawrence and the Battery Park Apartments probably won't be built anytime soon. The plan became a hot issue in last year's City Council elections, fueled by senior citizens' concerns about having the garage shoehorned in right next to their residence. City Engineer Cathy Ball said the city doesn't own enough land to properly accommodate the structure, and the owners of adjoining property have shown little interest in working with the city.
"To go back and start [this] project again seems insane," said Vice Mayor Holly Jones. "We've got to stop the madness and do something else. It didn't work."
But Bellamy was adamant that the city must move full speed ahead to address the worsening downtown parking problem. "I want to turn some dirt in 2007," she declared.
If the city can't proceed with the Haywood Street garage, said Bellamy, then it ought to sell the property and use the proceeds to provide parking elsewhere. Several Council members suggested partnering with Buncombe County to increase the number of parking spaces on county-owned land along Coxe Avenue and near the courthouse.
Mumpower, however, objected to taking the Haywood project off the table. "That's where the need is; that's where the opportunity is," he said, referencing Ball's statement that the greatest need for parking is around the Civic Center. She also noted that the city had already spent $2.5 million on land acquisition and $1.5 million on design work for the Haywood garage.
"We need a comprehensive plan for parking and transit," said Freeborn. "We've been taking a piecemeal approach." And because of both the cost and the controversy, the Haywood Street project "doesn't look all that attractive," he added.
Building and planning
In other business, Council passed two budget amendments. One will fund assorted capital projects; the other will pay for more planning staff to review proposed development. The money will come from growth in the city's fund balance and an anticipated $1.5 million surplus in property- and sales-tax revenues.
Council members unanimously agreed to spend an additional $2.5 million to build a fire station on Sand Hill Road, put a new roof on the Civic Center, and add sidewalks in Haw Creek and along Patton Avenue, among other projects. And on a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed, they appropriated $132,996 to hire three new staffers: a zoning-enforcement officer, a planning-and-zoning technician and an urban planner.
Although the Planning Department's workload has increased dramatically over the past few years, the number of staff has not kept pace. "This will help us get back to the service level of two to three years ago," City Manager Gary Jackson explained.