Asheville City Council

  • Council members debate scheduled raises
  • City accepts parkland donation

With its budget-writing chores nearly done, Asheville City Council members spent the bulk of their brief June 17 work session addressing odds and ends. Most of the conversation centered on how best to tackle the city’s youth gangs.

Sign of the times: In this file photo, gang officers with the Asheville Police Department identify gang graffiti. A majority of Council members indicated they believe that jobs are the best antidote to gangs. Photo By Jason Sandford

Most Council members clearly seem to believe that a strong effort to create job opportunities for teens would be the best long-term approach. But Council member Carl Mumpower reiterated his oft-stated view that eradicating the city’s open-air drug markets—especially those operating in plain sight in the city’s public-housing complexes and surrounding neighborhoods—is the logical first step.

“We’re just chasing symptoms,” said Mumpower. “Until we stop open drug markets, dealers will only continue to corrupt our neighborhoods. … We’re losing generations of our kids.”

Mayor Terry Bellamy said she’s been hearing from public-housing residents who were “hard-pressed” to find fault with city law enforcement, adding that she believes job creation and enrichment programs are the key. In addition to existing city-funded initiatives, Bellamy said there are other successful local programs that Asheville would do well to consider funding or partnering with in the future.

“We can’t just arrest all our kids,” she said. “We can’t arrest our way out of the situation. We need a holistic approach.”

Mumpower retorted: “The only people we need to arrest are the people recruiting our kids to sell drugs. … We just have to go after the people who are corrupting our kids.”

In the end, however, jobs, social outreach and enrichment trumped Mumpower’s plea for tighter policing. The city has already budgeted $806,233 for a number of youth-focused gang-prevention programs in the coming fiscal year, according to staff. Some of those programs focus on preparing youth to enter the work force, either directly or by improving academics. But City Council opted to add more to the kitty, earmarking $50,000 for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County. And at Bellamy’s urging, the EDC funding came with a condition: At least a portion of the money will be used for teen employment and work-force development.

Council members also agreed to pitch in $10,000 to help fund the Each One Reach One Youth Coalition, whose summer basketball program caters to upward of 250 youth deemed to be at high risk of gang involvement. The money would pay for team uniforms, supplies and referees.

Council held off on two other spending requests totaling $53,190, wanting more information. Although both offer job training, neither targets high-risk youth. The Mission Possible program ($28,190), a collaboration between Mission Hospital and the Asheville City Schools, which will train 30 mostly low-income high-school students for summer jobs in health care, was looking for help with salaries, supplies and student stipends. Better Skills-Better Jobs ($25,000), run by the Asheville Housing Authority, would focus on women ages 20 to 35.

Because it was a work session, none of these funding decisions was formally adopted, however. A public hearing and final vote on the proposed $134.5 million budget were scheduled for June 24; the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Pay to play

Another budget issue is a scheduled 5 percent increase in City Council salaries. Despite a lean budget caused by a general economic downturn aggravated by rising costs for energy, health care and materials, Council members are slated to receive a increase in salary and expenses, bringing their total compensation to $24,987 (mayor), $20,071 (vice mayor) and $18,281 (other Council members).

Council members routinely receive a 5 percent raise each fiscal year, noted City Manager Gary Jackson.

On an hourly basis, “We make far less than people washing dishes,” said Council member Robin Cape, adding that she thinks it’s important for city residents to understand how much time it takes to serve on Council and the sacrifices some have to make as a result. By not raising pay, she said, “We’re keeping this an elitist position” that only the rich can afford to fill—which could impact the socioeconomic makeup of future Councils.

Council member Holly Jones, who’s seeking a seat on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, agreed, adding that while opposing the raises might be the politically correct thing to do, hers would amount to only $11 more per week. “I’ve been told by others we don’t get paid enough,” said Jones.

Cape sounded a similar note, saying the raises would amount to a “drop in the bucket.” The whole issue of Council pay is a “conversation the community needs to have,” she added, pointing out that Council members are routinely asked to give time to various groups and events, in addition to the actual work of serving on City Council.

“We take good care of our employees; we should take good care of our Council members,” Cape proclaimed.

Vice Mayor Jan Davis, who owns a successful tire store downtown, said he’s had to hire someone to take up his slack, but that otherwise he’s fine with the existing pay level. With rising fuel costs, however, the slight raise in Council members’ expense accounts would be a welcome boost, added Davis.

Council member Bill Russell, who owns a successful insurance agency, said he, too, is fine with the existing pay level, though he conceded that he can afford to take that position more readily than some.

Mumpower, a psychologist by trade, was dead set against the raise. “It’s my pleasure to grandstand on this issue,” he said. “I think we’re subsidized at a reasonable rate. I think raising our compensation package is an insult when we tell people we’re having a tight budget year.”

Other business

Council members also gave the go-ahead to receiving four acres of land being donated by Progress Energy. The transfer was slated to be formally accepted at Council’s June 24 session, with a closing on the deal expected by the end of the month.

The former site of a gas-manufacturing plant, the parcel is adjacent to Jean Webb River Park on Riverside Drive. A portion of the property runs under the West Asheville Riverlink Bridge.

After extensive remediation to clean up toxic chemicals left behind by the gas plant, the site is now available for certain restricted uses under state law—including parks and recreation, City Attorney Bob Oast explained. A plan for exactly how to use the land should be completed by the end of the year, added Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons.

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