Asheville City Council didn’t have much to say after Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn presented the city’s proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2018-19 at its last meeting on May 15 — combined, her outline of the document and Council’s remarks lasted just over four and a half minutes. City residents will likely not be so concise at Council’s regular meeting in council Chambers at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22, when a public hearing will take place for comment on the spending plan.
One key element of the $180 million budget, however, is already off the table: Council voted at its last meeting to approve changes to Asheville’s parking policies. By eliminating the first hour free in city parking garages for all patrons who stay longer than one hour, as well as raising the daily maximum and monthly parking rates, Council estimates it will generate an additional $960,000 in annual revenue, which will be used to fund the city’s transit system.
Council members voted 5-1 in favor of the parking resolution, with Brian Haynes dissenting and Julie Mayfield — chair of Council’s Planning & Economic Development Committee, which oversees transit and parking — absent from the meeting. Vijay Kapoor said that, while he’d heard concern from members of the downtown business community over the parking increases, he believes the changes will fill a significant budget gap for items that benefit the area, including expanded transit hours and the new downtown police district.
Whitehorn did not mention funding for expanded policing in her budget presentation, even though the document itself contains $2 million more for the Asheville Police Department compared to fiscal year 2017-18. This figure includes $466,000 for 15 new officers to staff the downtown district and $847,000 in overall compensation increases to discourage turnover in the APD. Council members Sheneika Smith, Keith Young and Haynes had expressed hesitation about the additional spending at an April 10 work session but did not voice those concerns again on May 15.
The formal vote to adopt the proposed budget is scheduled roughly a month from the public hearing at Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, June 19.
Moving towards equity
A number of other items on Council’s agenda for the meeting do explicitly deal with concerns over policing. First is a presentation on reducing racial disparities in traffic stops to be delivered by Ian A. Mance, staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Mance will return to Council to speak in support of proposals made by the Asheville-Buncombe NAACP in April 2017 to deprioritize stops for low-level regulatory and equipment violations and require written authorization for consent-based vehicle searches.
In his documents for the presentation, Mance notes that the APD conducted roughly 50 percent more traffic stops of black drivers in 2017 than in 2016, while stops of white drivers increased by just 0.1 percent over the same period. Black drivers are also disproportionately more likely to be stopped for minor regulatory and equipment issues such as broken tail lights: Under Chief Tammy Hooper, blacks have accounted for 28 percent of such stops despite making up approximately 12 percent of Asheville’s population.
By reducing emphasis on these stops or prohibiting them altogether, Mance argues, the APD can improve its relationship with the black community, as has occurred in other North Carolina cities such as Greensboro and Fayetteville. Requiring written consent for vehicle searches made during these stops, he adds, will also support racial equity in policing.
City staff will present on its progress toward the items set forth by Council during a March 20 work session on APD equity and transparency. In a memo issued before the meeting, Jaime Matthews, assistant to Interim City Manager Cathy Ball, notes that staff have already implemented immediate criminal review of excessive use-of-force complaints and brought in consultants 21st Century Policing to review the APD’s practices and policies.
Other actions are taking place on a longer timescale. Changes to the city’s personnel policies and Civil Service Board rules around employee removal for “terminatable conduct,” for example, won’t be implemented until July 2019. Funding for an outside attorney to represent residents who bring complaints against law enforcement is also still under consideration.
The memo also mentions proposed state-level legislation on police accountability, which Mayor Esther Manheimer introduced at the May 15 meeting. Those bills will be up for discussion on Tuesday; last week, Council members Kapoor and Smith voiced concern that they hadn’t had a chance to properly assess the legislation.
Together, the three proposed bills would allow City Council to create a new citizen review board with subpoena, oathing and disciplinary powers; permit the APD to release body camera recordings to Council and the new review board; and let the city manager release the results of disciplinary hearings against police officers.
Finally, Council will determine who to interview for the newly formed Human Relations Commission, a subcommittee of which will likely receive the powers mentioned in the proposed legislation. The group will consist of 15 members, with recommended composition quotas including six African-Americans, two Latinx individuals and two to three members living in public housing.
In new business, Council will vote to approve $242,000 in grants to 19 community organizations from its Strategic Partnership Fund. This funding level represents a nearly $100,000 increase over last year’s grants. Despite the additional money, however, most of the community organizations will receive smaller grants than they initially requested, and two groups that applied for grants — River Arts District Artists and LEAF Community Arts — will not be funded.
Council will also conduct three public hearings on proposed zoning changes. UNC Asheville is seeking approval to build a new multipurpose building in association with expanded student housing, while the Princess Anne Hotel hopes to convert its existing dining room into a public restaurant. The most contentious change would approve a 248-unit residential development at 39 Bradley Branch Road in South Asheville, roughly two miles from the Asheville Regional Airport. In his report on the proposal, Todd Okolichany, planning services division director, noted concerns from surrounding property owners about traffic, stormwater runoff and contamination due to the site’s history as an unregulated landfill.
The last public hearing of the agenda concerns debt financing for capital projects through up to $48 million in limited obligation bonds. The Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority will also give its State of the Airport presentation, which notes that total passenger traffic was up by more than 15 percent in 2017 compared to 2016 and by more than 50 percent compared to 2012.
City Council will also consider items on its consent agenda. Unless specifically singled out for separate discussion, these items are typically approved as a single package. In brief, they include:
- An additional sanitary sewer easement to the Metropolitan Sewer District at 345 Montford Ave., as well as to accept a sidewalk and stormwater easement for the McCormick Place project adjacent to the McCormick Field baseball stadium.
- Authorization to seek grants from a federal low- or no-emission vehicle program for electric busses, a federal job access and reverse commute program to fund a bus route to Black Mountain, and a French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization program for paratransit services.
- Contracts for the Asheville playgrounds bond project at Herb Watts Park, West Asheville Park and Lakewood Park, as well as the Tempie Avery Montford Center Improvements bond project.
- A public hearing on June 19 for a Land Use Incentive Grant for Sweetgrass Apartments — the same South Asheville project under zoning discussion at Tuesday’s meeting. The grant would award $842,360 to the developer, Madison Capital Group, over four years, a subsidy of $33,015 for each of 26 planned affordable housing units.
- Allowing the possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages and/or unfortified wine at multiple specific public festivals.
Finally, the Council will issue the following proclamations to designate honorees for certain days, weeks and months:
- June 4-10 as Vegan Challenge Week
- Announcement of the Volunteer of the Year Award
Asheville City Council meets at 5 p.m. in council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall at 70 Court Plaza, Asheville. The full meeting agenda and supporting documents can be found here.