You could say it’s symbolic: The radios used by the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department are incompatible; neither system can receive the other’s signal. City/county differences loomed large at Council’s Jan. 7 work session,and though the matter of the incompatible communications systems wasn’t on the agenda, the topic nonetheless sparked some heated discussion.
It started when Council members turned to a seemingly straightforward agenda item: where to find the $309,790 needed to replace and maintain the APD’s radio systems, including both hand-held radios and transmitters. Finance Director Bill Schaefer reminded Council that the contract with the supplier, Motorola, has already been signed and that the only real decision before Council is determining where the money will come from. Schaefer recommended a five-year lease through Sun Trust Leasing Corp. Without such financing, noted Mayor Charles Worley, the money would simply have to come out of the city’s general fund.
But the situation that has left the two local law-enforcement agencies essentially disconnected drew questions from Council member Joe Dunn.
“I hate to dredge old things up, but is there any equipment we can buy to maybe enhance better communication?” wondered Dunn.
City Manager Jim Westbrook responded that the problem lies with the county’s upcoming purchase of equipment that isn’t compatible with either the APD or the State Highway Patrol system. The 800 MHz radios favored by the city are in use statewide.
“We have made the offer with the county for several years to take a look at this, and they haven’t done much looking,” added Schaeffer. “The commonality you are looking for, it’s the county that’s out of step.”
But Dunn wasn’t interested in playing the blame game.
“The county’s got a system, we’ve got a system,” he said. “Our citizens are not being well served, because we don’t want to work with them and they don’t want to work with us.”
800 MHz radio systems, almost universally used by public-safety agencies across North Carolina, are generally believed to broadcast a cleaner signal, according to Chris Morgan of the Asheville Fire Department. But the VHF, 150 MHz system that will be used by the Sheriff’s Department beginning in June is less prone to interference in mountainous areas.
To communicate, said Westbrook, APD and Sheriff’s Department personnel will have to go through their own dispatcher, who would also be equipped with a radio from the other system.
At this point, however, the city is committed to its system, having used 800 MHz for the past decade. Schaefer pointed out that the city’s new equipment purchases amount to “rolling maintenance” on an already functioning system, and Westbrook noted that replacing all its equipment would cost millions. Worley, meanwhile, reminded Council that they had already approved the replacement costs as part of this year’s budget.
But Council member Carl Mumpower defended Dunn’s questions. “We have two noncompatible systems,” he said. “Whoever’s fault that is, we’re still going to have two incompatible systems. And we’re gradually becoming educated to that, and we’re concerned. I don’t think we need to apologize for being concerned.”
Worley, attempting to keep things moving, acknowledged that the topic merits future discussion, but he repeated that a contract had already been signed and that only the financing was on the agenda.
Dunn concluded the discussion on a somewhat rueful note, observing: “I’d have asked these questions a year ago if I had known what I know now. That being said, I’ll shut up.”
The question of adopting the financing plan will remain on the agenda for the next formal meeting.
Muddying the waters
Council is expected to approve a security system, including fencing and cameras, to protect the North Fork water-treatment facility against tampering and terrorist activity. North Fork Lake, outside Black Mountain, is Asheville’s primary water source, said Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks.
The cameras, he said, would be closed-circuit and infrared-capable. In response to a question by Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, Hanks said the fencing would not surround the entire watershed because of its size (20,000 acres) and the fact that the Blue Ridge Parkway runs through it. Patrolling the whole area, he said, would be cost-prohibitive, and in any case, the Sheriff’s Department would be the first responder in an emergency. That revelation revived the concerns about interagency communications.
“In this day and time, we need to have the best communication,” said Dunn, suggesting that Council invite a county representative to come talk with Council members.
Council member Brian Peterson proposed that City Council, the Board of Commissioners and staff should get together for a joint meeting.
“We may say, ‘Why can’t we work this out?’ and they may have reasons,” said Peterson, reminding Council that the disagreements between Asheville and Buncombe County aren’t limited to this topic. “It’s just a mess,” he said. “It’s better if we start talking a little bit and clear up some disagreements.”
Dunn added that he had recently spoken with Rep. Charles Taylor, who told him that the federal government is more willing to provide funding to cities and counties that are on the same track.
“We are getting money from the feds now,” said Dunn. “But it never hurts to get some more.”
Not so fast
Discussion of two consent-agenda proposals that would commit city funds and labor for park development was postponed until the Jan. 14 formal session.
Both projects involve providing a match for grants from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to develop recreational facilities along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. According to Parks and Recreation Department plans, the new Azalea Road park will include soccer fields, disc golf and a playground; the phase IV development at the French Broad River Park on Amboy Road will provide a picnic area, a wetlands interpretive area, river overlooks, a boat landing, trails and parking.
But Mumpower, citing a bloated consent agenda, asked that both proposals be removed; instead of being lumped together with the other consent-agenda items in a single vote, they will be considered separately (and will be open to public comment) at the next formal session.
City funds affordable housing
Pending Council approval on Jan. 14, the city will lend $587,000 to developers to build affordable housing.
The money will come from the Housing Trust Fund; it includes both the current year’s budget allocation and funds remaining from the previous fiscal year, explained Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan.
The five developers receiving the loans will build a total of 69 units — some for rental and some for sale — for low-income families and individuals.
Seven developers, said Caplan, submitted proposals during the five-week application period. And though she was glad to see the money snatched up quickly, Caplan said she would like to see the day when there’s enough money to support a six-month application process, which would encourage more developers to get on board. “If we had more money, we would have more applicants,” she noted.
Still, Council member Holly Jones — who chairs Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee (on which Mumpower and Dunn also serve) — said the developers’ response is encouraging.
“The good news is that the community will respond,” she declared.
The city of Asheville is taking applications to serve on the School Board. Applicants must be city residents and must live within the Asheville School District. The deadline for applications is Jan. 24. For more information, call 259-5601.
Applications are also being accepted for the Board of Adjustment and the Metropolitan Sewerage District Board. The application deadline for both bodies is Jan. 17.