Council funds Transit System improvements, waives arts-event fees, passes smoking ban

Asheville City Council began its budget deliberations at 3:30 p.m. Xpress Senior News Reporter David Fobes began his live Twitter-based coverage at 3:37 and ended at 9:32 p.m. What follows is a compilation of Forbes’ tweets.

City staff is noting that the city is eligible for a $480,000 Federal Transportation Administration grant to help cover transit operations, which it is touting as good news.

Staff budget presentation: The employee cost-of-living increase might be frozen to help close the budget gap, but with allowance for a boost to those making below median income. But city will also need to take $1.7 million from health-care reserves and increase health-care premiums 5 percent due to rising costs. Some possible service cuts to close gaps could include dropping least-used evening transit routes, cutting brush-collection services, reducing community center hours.

Vice Mayor Brownie Newman: This is the “toughest budget year since I’ve been on Council” He is praising staff recommendations.

Mayor Terry Bellamy is asking staff to look at cost of increasing bus service along Merrimon corridor.

Staff is also recommending freezing 15 “upper-to-mid-level” positions incl CEO supervisor, assistant budget director.

Council members Bill Russell and Jan Davis are recommending reducing funds taken from parking revenues this year, due to the federal transportation grant. Davis says this is a “good time to keep [parking funds] in reserve” unless there’s some specific need; let the federal grant fill gap this year.

Bellamy is concerned about cuts in staff overtime and training. “There’s a breaking point in staff morale.” Bellamy is proposing cutting Parks & Recreation allocations to avoid staff cuts. Bellamy is talking about “fairness. Even the funds for paving has taken a hit… Parks & Rec has not taken that much of a hit.”


Council deliberating on how to cut the budget.

City Council begins its formal meeting with proclamations for Motorcyle Awareness, Foster Care and Historic Preservation months in May. Also May 16-23 is proclaimed National Public Works Week.

There are 110 buildings on the historic register in Asheville. Since the 1970s, about 200 historic buildings have been demolished.

Council discusses whether the Asheville Design Center should be exempted from cuts to city funding going to outside nonprofit organizations.

Representatives of Mountain Memory Walk, Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, Downtown After 5 are all asking for exemptions from the proposed decrease in city support.

Kitty Love of Arts2People says it’s the “wrong time to start cutting back on cultural programming.”

Davis is wondering if funds for Strive Not to Drive week are “needed in this economy.”

Council member Gordon Smith: Lowering vehicle miles traveled is the “A-number-one thing we can do” to improve health, air quality.

Council continues until May 25 the consideration of pursuing matching grants for some transit programs, when it will have more information.

Council member Bothwell makes a motion for cuts, for changes to city sponsoring events. No one seconds the motion.

Bothwell says that Council shouldn’t pick and choose between events, but rather should cut sponsorships across the board or not at all.

Smith says Council has “stark choices to make if we’re going to support this type of programming” or else put it outside of government.

Davis says: “We’re in difficult time.” He says cuts are necessary — except for the Holiday Parade.

Newman proposes the idea of cutting funds less this year to create a “transition period” for the impacted events.

Bellamy says the city needs to stop changing rules on events. “We’re creating more antagonistic feelings than allies.” She suggests a delay before cutting event funding.

After more than an hour into the meeting, some items still under debate are pulled from consent agenda.

Bothwell says the “elephant in the living room” is the choice between lower services or raising taxes.

Council delays tackling event-sponsorship cuts until the May 25 meeting.

Council unanimously passes motion to take $2.4 million from health-insurance reserves, and allow employee contributions to keep health-care program running.

Sustainability Advisory Committee is presenting the Burton Street Community Center recycling-music video. One of the committee’s priorities in 2010 is bringing city’s development laws into line with its sustainability goals.

Council is considering Community Development Block Grants for the coming year. Grants recipients would include the Housing Authority, Mountain Housing Opportunities, Habitat for Humanity, among others. Asheville gets $1.5 mil a year in CDBG funds. Council passes these grants unanimously.

The city’s goal for community housing is to add 1,200 units in the next five years.

Council is taking up a proposal to improve its bus system, launch a new Transit logo and marketing program.

Avl resident Mike Fryar: “Don’t know why city would want to waste money” on advertising the bus system it should find funding.

Transit Commision Chair Hannah Raskin says, “You have opportunity to do right by our citizens” by supporting the proposed improvements.

Supporters of the transit proposal point out that $130,000 of its $163,000 costs are paid for by federal grants. Rest paid for by savings in transit dept, they say.

Council passes operational changes unanimously, and passes the $150,000 marketing plan 6-1, with Russell voting against, citing concerns over spending.

Transit changes will make the most-used routes run every 30-minutes, instead of hourly, and provide service until 10:30 p.m.

Transit Vice Chair Paul Van Heden says that both Sunday service and expanded service are also needed, but says the newly approved steps are “a good start.”

Council member Manheimer speaking about parking decks says: “It’s ironic we have to pay someone to operate an automated machine; I hope we’ll grow past that.”

Council is considering waiving about $30,000 in fees for arts events in Pritchard Park. One artist is endorsing the proposal, telling Council about the benefits of hula-hoop events in park.

Bothwell says that Council agreed to delay considering fee waivers for other groups, why not wait on park events too, and consider all at the same time?

Davis calls its “good judgement” to waive fees for rest of this fiscal year, consider it along with other fees for next year.

Newman says he sees park events as different: “We’re supporting this because we’re trying to reclaim our space,” which had been “troubled.”

Bothwell says the fees are not being waived as much as for drum circle. “We’re starting to make value judgments.”

Waiver passes 6-1, with Smith (who wanted to extend waiver through next year) opposing.

Bellamy says the city needs to decide on fee rules soon, stop changing them, because groups “need to know what to expect.”

Bellamy says that nuisance courts and arts events “really transformed Pritchard Park.”

Motion by Davis to extend waiver through 2010 passes 5-2, with Bothwell and Smith against.

Council votes unanimously to give the Larchmont Project $200,000 from housing trust fund. While this amount is more than what’s currently in fund, staff say more payments are on way, and that the fund will have the necessary balance by time the loan is made.

Council is considering the proposed smoking ban on all city property, including parks and greenways, but not sidewalks and streets. The penalty for breaking the smoking ban would be a $50 fine. The proposed smoking ordinance would cover a wider area, but carry a reduced penalty. The old penalty was a $200 fine.

Bothwell is wondering about enforcement, asking, for example: “Will this infringe on the beer festival?”

Smith says he talked with the county, which passed a similar smoking ban last year. “They’ve yet to write a single citation.”

The Downtown Association supports the smoking ban, but restaurateur Dwight Butner has concerns over effect on business.

City ordinance would also give the city manager the ability to create smoking areas, spots out of public view, and not near any ventilation system intakes.

Newman says it’s somewhat of a contradiction to say citizens can’t smoke in a secluded spot on a greenway, but a city worker can near City Hall. He says there’s a strong civil libertarian argument against this, but a strong public-health argument for an outright ban.”

Smith says the biggest ways to improve air quality don’t include a smoking ban.

Manheimer says: “Part of what we’re doing is sending a message” with the ban.

Asheville resident Jeff Turner says the ban “sounds like Nazi Germany … [I] put my life on the line to be able to smoke.” He says he’ll be first to break the smoking ban.

Bellamy says, “I don’t believe we’re dictators.” We’re not stopping people on private property, but there is a health concern in parks.

The smoking ban passes 6-1, Bothwell against. It takes effect July 1.

Council is planning to meet a delegation from Osogbo, Nigeria, early next month, including its mayor and the area’s king.

Mayor is praising the city staff’s performance during the Obama visit, saying “It was like an orchestra.”

Council’s thoughts also going out to the victim, the victim’s family and the bus driver involved in the recent bus crash. City Manager Gary Jackson says, “I can’t release the details,” but the news about victim’s recovery is “very positive.”

A Montford resident is criticizing the city for its lack of brush collection on the sidewalk. Brush collection has been delayed throughout city due to winter storms. City Manager Jackson says, “We own this problem,” and apologizes, saying that brush trucks are working fast as possible.

During the public-comment period, Jeff Turner, who spoke earlier, praises Council for “fiscal responsibility” and apologizes for his “spirited outburst” over smoking ban.

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30 thoughts on “Council funds Transit System improvements, waives arts-event fees, passes smoking ban

  1. Piffy!

    [b]Asheville resident Jeff Turner says the ban “sounds like Nazi Germany … [I] put my life on the line to be able to smoke.” He says he’ll be first to break the smoking ban. [/b]

    Too. Awesome.

    Seriously, who is teaching these people about WW2? Because they seem really misinformed about this’nazi germany’ they constantly refer to.

    For example, i had no idea ww2 was fought to secure our right to smoke cigarettes.

  2. dpewen

    I am sure he is a teabagger and those are just words they spout … they have no idea what they are saying.

  3. J

    Gordon Smith breaks streak! Votes ‘nay’ twice!

    Why is it that chickengreens like Gordon keep talking about the need to lower vehicle miles traveled yet he keeps driving his car? Care to lead by example?

    Now the Housing Trust Fund has a negative balance. Way to restore the fund, Gordo.

    Bothwell’s right about the council beginning to make value judgments. Just a couple of weeks ago it raised fees for many businesses and builders, and now we’re waiving fees for other various groups; never mind the transit cuts, staff layoffs, and negative balance in the Housing Trust Fund.

  4. Kay Hoss

    J, the vote to fund the Larchmont developer (and by extension, their investors) from the taxpayer-subsidized HTF – with a negative balance after the allocation – was priceless. Go, Esther!

    But the discussion over whether to invest tax dollars into ‘re-branding’ the transit system in order to attract more business – while simultaneously claiming that it is an essential service for optionless riders – was worth the watch. Russell was the only member who even addressed the material issue in the motion (paying for marketing @ $150,000) and the others, well, the ‘multi-modal’ rounders made me dizzy.

  5. Asheville Dweller

    The way this council conducts buisiness is a Joke . . . .

  6. Gordon Smith

    Ok – I’ll take the bait.

    The Housing Trust Fund does not have a negative balance. By the time MHO requests a drawdown of funds, the funds will be available. I’m very excited to be on the Housing and Community Development Committee with Councilman Davis and Vice Mayor Newman. We had the opportunity to help MHO construct Larchmont – a 60 unit affordable housing development for people with incomes from $15k – $40k per year.

    We voted last night to expand transit service to include 30 minute routes on four of our five main corridors. This is going to make riding much more convenient for many more people. We are freezing new hires and holding off on Cost of Living increases in salaries, but we are not planning on laying off any staff.

    We all need to lower VMT. I’ve taken up riding my bicycle more frequently and making fewer trips. I’m filling my tank about 3 times every two months right now. The notion that anything short of perfection is failure is absurd.

    I don’t expect this anonymous commenter to ever respectfully approach these issues, but I felt it important to correct the disinformation and drop two cents.

  7. Kay Hoss

    Gordon Smith:
    According to MHO, the income range you stated is not exactly correct; the $40,000/yr income is for a family of four – not an individual’s income alone – although that’s immaterial to the larger conversation. That kind of statement has led some to claim that single school teachers and others who are significantly over-income can potentially be subsidized tenants, though.

    I heard Jeff S. (CDBG Coor) say that the HTF is now about $100,000 short of MHO’s (now approved) funding request but he expects the funds to be restored by the time the loan is awarded. Isn’t MHO also one of the earlier recipients who must pay the money back to replenish the fund so it can be re-awarded to them? Is it wise to earmark tax dollars for the purpose of granting those loans (30 year loans with 2% interest-only payments until maturity), particularly since it appears the loan ultimately enriches the project’s private investors?

    BTW, expanded public transit is a good thing, as is the hiring freeze, particularly in light of the need for additional scrutiny of the human resources department and City personnel matters in general.

    Keep on riding….

  8. J

    Screwy Hoolie (Gordo),

    First, I didn’t realize you were on the bike more. You should have put it on the blog; way to walk to the talk.

    You say the HTF does not have a negative balance. Well, if you read the staff report attached to the agenda, it states: “If the loan is approved as requested, the available fund balance will be reduced by $400,000 to -$117,090.76″. The loan was approved, so I assumed the rest of the staff report came true. Did I assume wrongly?

    Lastly, about your comments on respectfully approaching the issue. I didn’t realize with your history of referring to your opponents as bed wetters, pants wetters, chicken littles, race-baiters, and being the creator of Peanut Butter Charlie Time that you were into respect these days. I can now shamefully say that I thought you were exercising political savvy when you started being polite, but it’s clear that you’ve seen the light. Maybe we should gather at City-County plaza and sing “Amazing Grace” to celebrate; Maggie Lauterer can lead the way.

    We pick on you because we love you. What would we talk about if it wasn’t for you?

  9. Gordon Smith

    Thanks for asking these question, Kay.

    I’m not aware of any precondition regarding the MHO HTF Loan. They went through a rigorous process to qualify.

    The project is executed by a non-profit entity that utilizes federal, state, and local monies to meet a broad community need. If there are any “private investors” involved in MHO, they’re you and me.

  10. JWTJr

    Saying the balance isn’t/wasn’t negative is accounting semantics. When your balance is negative and then you take a loan to get the account out of overdraft, you just owe more money. You are further in the red when you look at the entire picture.

    Ask Greece, Portugal and Spain what its like to borrow too much.

  11. JWTJr

    Also, I could swear that I heard a councilperson say that this project won’t cost Asheville any money. Was I dreaming?

  12. Kay Hoss

    Gordon says: ‘private investors involved in MHO, they’re you and me.’

    I’m unclear on this. Who are the beneficiaries of the Low Income Housing Tax Credits for the Larchmont? In other words, who are the members of the LLC who are buying those lucrative tax credits and will own the project? Certainly not ‘you and me.’

    This may be overly simplistic, but it does appear that ‘you and I’ are paying for it with our Federal, State and local tax dollars but the investors will actually be the ones to benefit financially.

    My instincts oppose these kinds of additional tax cuts for the rich, but that’s just me. I guess one could argue it’s for a good cause.

  13. Asheville Dweller

    Or to waste money they dont have on luxuries that only a few benefit from.

    Like I said “The way this council conducts buisiness is a Joke . . . .”

    Its funny most them have a check book or a budget and wouldnt dare go against it, but when it comes to Tax payer dollars its spend spend and spend some more of what we cannot afford.

    Theres a budget and they need to balance it, stop spending, and make cuts its pretty simple.

  14. Piffy!

    Asheville Dweller, did you magically become a fiscal conservative after a Democrat won the white house? Where was your fiscal rage for the previous 30 years or so? You pretend that cities dont routinely run deficits, or that the city of Asheville only recently began the practice.

    Just go back to sleep, partisan.

  15. JWTJr

    pff – Where is the line on deficit spending? The US is close to loosing our AAA rating. That would be a catastrophe of the highest order. Sit back and watch if you want.

  16. Tiger Lilly

    It’s hard to buy the argument that open air smoking is a public health issue, especially downtown, where car and bus exhaust cause much more air pollution. Sure, litter is an issue, so why not a litter ordinance (or isn’t there already one)? The best thing that could be done for air quality downtown would be to ban the majority of motor vehicles… but of course everyone owning their own car is a social virtue…

    Call me a cynic, but I expect the unstated intents of the smoking ban are to (a) discourage an undesirable image in Pritchard Park and (b) promote a social stigma of smoking. Why not be honest about it? Because that would sound more like government intrusion into personal behavior than “public health”.

  17. Piffy!

    jwt- i am just wondering where your sense of perspective is. governments routinely run deficits. this isnt something new to this particular council, as you seem to be trying to pretend. also, the federal government is not the city of asheville. you seem unaware of this. it is evident you are not actually concerned about said ‘catastrophe’ either, but are merely feigning concern to get in your partisan digs about so-called ‘communists’.

  18. JWTJr

    Most states have very significant and problematic deficits. One hike in interest rates and we’re all in as much trouble as CA, Ill, NY and Fla.

    I don’t really think that is a good scenario.

  19. Kay Hoss

    ‘governments routinely run deficits.’ pff

    I believe that local (as well as state) governments must operate under a balanced (not deficit) budget. And along with their fund balance, their credit rating is determined accordingly. As an exception, the Federal Government can operate under a deficit budget with options like The Social Security Trust Fund to ‘borrow’ from under deficit conditions.

  20. Kay Hoss

    I still believe that a state ‘deficit budget’ means that spending must be cut accordingly to make the budget balance. A deficit in a state budget is a reflection of an anticipated reduction in revenue; projected spending reductions must be made to then balance the budget.

  21. Mysterylogger

    Pff so quick to spew NPR rhetoric, completely ignores that Dweller like myself have been on these boards screaming for Fiscal responsibility for quite some times, bringing up conservative just shows how they cant really think for themselves, and only thinks its terms of black and white.

    Awesome watching Pff fail . . . . regulary . .

  22. JWTJr

    “Awesome watching Pff fail . . . . regularly.”

    Snark only carries you so far in life.

  23. Asheville Dweller

    “Snark only carries you so far in life”

    Can go for alot of the posters on here.

    Funny when someone points out Facts to Pff they becomes silent or havent thought of any cute retort that has nothing to do with the conversation.

  24. Ben Simpson

    Yes, Gordon is really excited to fund his pet projects (desperate need?) And raise the taxes on the poor suckers that live here. How about some relief for the people whose money you are spending? Thought not, we need to get rid of these money wasters ASAP. The only thing green they pass is the budget going to the developers! Watch city council bs for their own credibility?

  25. Gordon Smith

    Thanks for the lively comments.

    The budget is nearly complete and will be balanced. I’ll be thrilled to return to this comment thread after we adopt the balance budget that holds the line on property and sales taxes.

    Kay – MHO is a non-profit entity. This entity is the recipient of the tax credits.

  26. Kay Hoss

    GS: ‘MHO is a non-profit entity. This entity is the recipient of the tax credits.’

    Nonprofit entities eg. 501(c)(3) are exempt from paying taxes and don’t need/use tax credits. I’m a little fuzzy on the mechanics, but I recall that Prez Reagan instituted a low income housing tax credit program for housing agencies to exchange or ‘sell’ their tax credits for private investments. The result is that the private investors reduce their tax liabilities with those credits — in other words, they get a significant tax break. Again, not real familiar with the process but fairly certain about the intent and result of the long-standing program.

    Do you know if a limited liability corporation (an LLC, not nonprofit) will ultimately own the Larchmont? I thought I heard that said at one of the meetings but not sure about it.

  27. Gordon Smith

    Kay,

    Off the top of my head – MHO will contract for property management but will retain ownership as I understand it.

  28. J

    I want to know what Gordon knows that the rest of don’t. The press reports that the Housing Trust Fund has a negative balance, the staff reports say the fund has a negative balance, the City Council minutes indicate that the trust fund has negative balance; but here we have a City Council member who flat out says the HTF does not have a negative balance. How could the rest of us be so wrong?

    It appears what Gordon is saying is that MHO, or at least someone, will be making money off of the Larchmont. To contract out, money must be coming in from somewhere. If money’s coming in, that means there’s a chance for a profit to be made. Should we be heavily subsidizing developments that are going to turn a profit? And let’s go out on a limb and suppose the tax credits are sold for equity, wouldn’t that create private investors?

  29. Ben Simpson

    Big surprise that the Mayor who worked for MHO over 10 years would put their funding above anything else. Give them the money to upgrade the Larchmont infrastructure, jack up the bus service but lets cut non essential city services like trash pickup and employees. We could just rename the city to TrAsheville, then we will have all affordable housing, who wants to live with taxes that high and weak city services? Look at the potholes? Smell the garbage and the corruption!

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