Asheville City Council

Voluntary conservation measures instituted by the city last October are paying off—the North Fork Reservoir is full to overflowing, Water Resources Director David Hanks reported during the Asheville City Council’s April 8 formal session. North Fork, the city’s primary water source, is currently about 3 inches over “full pool” and is actually running over its spillway, he said. Ironically, however, that calls for canceling the conservation measures—even though the entire state of North Carolina is experiencing conditions ranging from abnormally dry to extreme drought—because the Water Department’s flood-prevention policy calls for keeping the water level 3 feet below the top of the dam.

That conclusion, Water Production Superintendent Leslie Carreiro explained, comes from the computer-projection system the department uses to determine the appropriate water level at North Fork. Instituted after the floods of 2004, the system uses factors such as usage and weather trends to calculate how full the reservoir can be without risking a catastrophic, emergency water release in the event of heavy rains.

North Fork’s current level, she said, is a testament to the success of the conservation measures, which reduced demand by 2 million gallons per day.

But the abundant supply could become a problem if the region saw a repeat of 2004’s hurricanes. And though Gov. Mike Easley has asked all North Carolina municipalities to continue conservation efforts, Hanks says it’s time to suspend the city’s voluntary measures and even release some water to get the level down.

“What we want to do here is follow the plan,” said Hanks. “We spent a lot of money on it, and this is what it is telling us to do.”

In addition, noted Council member Jan Davis, the Bee Tree Reservoir is due to come back online in about a month, further boosting Asheville’s water surplus. “Though,” he continued, “I still think we should be fishing up there.”

To Council member Robin Cape, the news underscores Asheville’s conservation consciousness. “Our community really stepped up and saved a lot of water,” she said. But Cape worried that lifting the conservation measures while also lowering the water level might be too much, considering that summer typically brings a big increase in demand.

“Tell me how we’re not going overboard,” she asked.

But Hanks said he didn’t expect a dramatic jump in demand. “People conserving don’t just turn around and stop conserving,” he said.

Cape also addressed the bigger drought picture, noting, “You’ve got Atlanta three hours away looking for a water source.” In its quest to quench its water shortage, Atlanta has looked toward Western North Carolina for possible relief.

Hanks, however, said that while there are some cases of towns tapping distant water sources, Western North Carolina’s topography would make this impractical. And transporting water by truck quickly becomes cost-prohibitive, he told Xpress.

Meanwhile, said Hanks, a Water Resources Master Plan, now in the works, will address Cape’s concerns in more detail and deconstruct the intricacies of the city’s system and policies.

Oops!

by Hal L. Millard

Unlike businesses, individuals or other groups, governments such as the city of Asheville are exempt from most civil lawsuits—or, at the least, from having to pay damages resulting from suits that are filed against them. If this weren’t the case, the reasoning goes, it could invite an endless stream of frivolous claims that could ultimately become a drag on taxpayers, inhibit the delivery of services and hamstring government operations in general. So if, say, your kid breaks his arm falling off the monkey bars at a city- or county-owned park, just suck it up.

But that special protection goes only so far, city Risk Manager Betty Coulter explains. If, for example, that government-owned set of monkey bars has not been properly maintained and secured, then you might have a legitimate claim.

Despite the city’s broad legal immunity, Asheville still pays out thousands of dollars each year for actual damages in cases where it has been found negligent in some way, says Coulter, who’s served as risk manager for more than two years. The city, for example, paid out $237,233 in fiscal year 2006-07, she says. The city is not required to pay any punitive damages or to pay for pain and suffering, she adds.

At its April 8 meeting, City Council unanimously agreed to earmark $450,000 from the city’s roughly $5 million general liability fund balance to pay off claims in addition to what had been specifically budgeted this year for such payments. But the budget amendment, says Coulter, doesn’t mean there’s been an increase in claims this year.

“We have claims from prior years that have closed this year or are settled,” she explains. “When claims go into litigation, it could take years [to settle and finally pay].”

In some years, she adds, the full budget allotment isn’t used and the balance is plowed back into the general liability fund (which the city maintains because it’s self-insured). An actuarial analysis of prior years guides budget writers in deciding how much to allocate for liability claims.

Barring a catastrophe, says Coulter, most claims never exceed $2,500. And though she didn’t remember exactly which claims the $450,000 would cover, Coulter said such payouts often stem from claims related to busted water pipes, property damage or injury due to motor-vehicle accidents, or injuries on government-owned premises caused by negligence.

“Typically our claims are fairly routine—and usually small,” she reports.

 

The peculiar situation in which the city finds itself points up the complexity of water issues. An April 10 update by the state’s Drought Management Advisory Council shows much of Western North Carolina in severe drought, with a few counties in extreme drought.

“Until further notice, the NCDMAC strongly urges the implementation of drought-response actions for all water users located in or dependent on water resources from the areas of the state experiencing [even moderate or impending] drought conditions,” the update states.

In Asheville, however, water is already flowing over the spillway, and Hanks says the governor’s office, recognizing the city’s unique situation, has recommended following the flood policy.

Yet Hanks subsequently issued a press release, dated April 11, stating: “While conditions in our area have recently improved, the city still encourages everyone to be mindful of our water source—not just here but in the surrounding counties and states—and to continue to practice general water-conservation measures, as Gov. Easley has asked of all North Carolinians. He says we all need to make water conservation a way of life in North Carolina in order to make our state drought-proof.”

Now playing at Pritchard Park

All the world’s a stage: A committee is asking the city to back an idea to schedule performances at Pritchard Park. Photo by Jonathan Welch

First it got a ranger and a kiosk. Now, the Pritchard Park Committee is recommending a regular schedule of performances—partly funded by the city—at the diminutive downtown green space. The plan would help attract a more diverse crowd to an area whose popularity with homeless people regularly prompts complaints from local business owners, committee members Adam Pittman and Kitty Love told Council.

The committee has already secured $15,000 in matching funds from private donors, noted Love, adding, “[We can] get together and design the use of a public space.” The committee, she said, recommends appointing a group to oversee the scheduling of programs such as puppetry and classical-music performances.

Pittman said the performances would attract a diverse crowd. “If we dilute the park with as many faces as there are in Asheville, Pritchard Park will have a whole new vibration,” he said. The $10,000, he said, is seed money meant to help build momentum for the program.

But City Council wasn’t ready to pull the trigger. “As you all know, we are in a tight budget year,” said Council member Brownie Newman. “We are in a position where we may have to cut some basic services.”

Mayor Terry Bellamy said she would like to see an itemized budget from the group before committing any funds.

On a 5-1 vote with Council member Carl Mumpower opposed (Bill Russell was absent), Council asked city staff to look for potential funding sources in the draft budget for the next fiscal year and report back in two weeks.

The city, however, already has a process in place for holding special events in public spaces, including Pritchard Park. A group wishing to stage a performance fills out an application and pays $100 for the first three hours and $25 per hour after that. The Parks and Recreation policy assigns a higher priority to events specifically hosted or sponsored by the city.

History-onics

Judging by a brief discussion during the meeting, Asheville may soon reconsider its approach to private homes that are designated local historic landmarks. Currently, the city provides a 50 percent property-tax credit. In return, the owners must preserve their homes’ historic exteriors.

During a discussion of the Hammond-Knowlton House on Kimberly Knoll, however, Newman voiced misgivings about the system. “I question the strength of this public-policy tool,” he said. “We’re providing a significant public subsidy for something that isn’t a firm commitment.”

Homeowners, said Newman, can break off the deal at any time and significantly modify—or even tear down—historic properties.

Mumpower, meanwhile, said he doesn’t see why the city should offer such subsidies to begin with when the local housing market places a high value on historic homes.

But Cape maintained that the city has an interest in preserving historic architecture as an engine driving tourism, arguing that the tax break is similar to other economic incentives.

And though Davis said he would be open to revisiting the system, he added, “Changing the rules in the middle of the game is something I am not supportive of.”

A broader discussion would have to wait, however, and the historic designation for the Hammond-Knowlton House was approved 4-2, with Newman and Mumpower opposed.

 

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