In an effort to rope in some of the federal money that’s on the loose, the Asheville City Council is considering whether to send a hired gun to Washington D.C.
City economic-development staff, noting a change in funding trends at the federal level, are urging Council to explore the option of hiring a lobbyist to help direct money to Asheville.
Grant money, once a reliable source of government funding, is becoming more restricted, said Economic Development Director Mac Williams. And with increased competition for that money, Asheville is losing out, Williams told City Council at its Jan. 21 work session.
The latest thing in Washington, Williams explained, is using the federal appropriations process to “earmark” funds for a given municipality. Lobbyists are often used to win such awards, which may be much larger than grants, he said.
Williams suggested that the city start exploring the lobbyist option, including setting aside $30,000 — the projected cost of hiring a lobbyist for the remainder of this fiscal year.
A lobbyist, he argued, “could help us position ourselves on their radar.”
But the idea met with instant opposition from some on Council, especially Council member Joe Dunn, who said he’d recently spoken with U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor.
“Taylor made it clear to me that he doesn’t want a lobbyist,” noted Dunn. “He said his office doesn’t work strongly with lobbyists.” The congressman, said Dunn, would rather see a menu of the city’s priorities and financial needs.
One might question how big a role the representative should play in determining how the city deals with federal legislators. Taylor’s appointment to the House Appropriations Committee’s Interior Subcommittee does make him a strong potential resource for the city, however.
And Asheville should make an effort to tap that resource, argued Dunn, pointing out that thanks to Taylor’s downtown office, all one has to do to talk to him is “walk across the street.”
Williams’ report to Council cites coastal Brunswick County, which recently secured $58 million with the help of a hired hand, as an example of lobbyists’ effectiveness. But the report also highlights the $4.3 million earmarked by Taylor to help fund a fiber-optic network in Western North Carolina — money reeled in without a lobbyist.
Council member Carl Mumpower turned Council’s attention to the cost. Although $30,000 might be enough to hire a lobbyist through June, the annual cost would probably be between $60,000 and $100,000.
Greenville pays $84,000 a year for its lobbyist, noted Williams.
“If we buy in at $30,000 now, we are setting ourselves up for next year,” warned Mumpower. “We are committing ourselves to serious dollars.”
Mayor Charles Worley weighed in in favor of a lobbyist, saying the investment would improve Asheville’s relationship with its representative in Washington while keeping the city abreast of opportunities for securing more funding.
“We know what our needs are, but we don’t know how our needs fit into this intricate process,” said the mayor. “I think it all fits together very nicely; I don’t think it offends our congressman.”
Council will continue to discuss the issue at its Jan. 28 formal session.
Shearing the schedule
The idea of reducing the number of meetings may have had a lot of support outside Council chambers, but a work-session discussion knocked the issue clear off the radar screen.
The proposal, shepherded onto the Jan. 21 agenda by Worley, would eliminate the work sessions normally held the first Tuesday of every month. The rest of the regular monthly schedule — two formal sessions and one work session, plus a special community meeting whenever there’s a fifth Tuesday — would remain unchanged.
Council member Brian Peterson immediately challenged the idea, arguing that there needs to be more communication, not less, between Council and city staff. Work sessions are typically a time for city staffers to brief Council on important issues before they go to a vote in formal sessions.
“I’d like to be better informed,” said Peterson, adding that he prefers two shorter meetings to one long one.
But City Manager Jim Westbrook, speaking on behalf of city staff, defended the stripped-down schedule.
“We don’t see any adverse effect,” he said.
Supporters of the revised schedule hope that switching to a single monthly work session would force discussion and presentations to become more streamlined and efficient. The change, added Westbrook, would also free up Council to meet with groups such as the Board of Education or the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on those Tuesdays and to attend special events, such as Raleigh’s Town Hall Day.
Peterson, however, remained unconvinced.
“I feel we don’t get enough formal briefings from staff,” he said.
Westbrook tried to quell fears that the new schedule would inevitably make for longer work sessions, maintaining that giving city staff extra time to prepare would ultimately result in shorter meetings.
Council member Jim Ellis came out in favor of the new schedule, noting that he’s never had a problem communicating with staff outside of Council meetings. But others, including Peterson and Mumpower, questioned the efficiency of having each Council member seek out staff individually on their own time.
“There is a difference between a work session and an informal meeting,” argued Mumpower. But the meat of the problem became evident as Council members continued to point out how much time this very discussion was taking.
“Knowing how much we all like to talk,” observed Dunn at the 10-minute mark, “I could see [the single work session] turning into a lot longer than we think it will.”
Twenty minutes later, the discussion was still under way.
A large part of each work session, noted Worley, is typically devoted to discussing the consent agenda, a list of issues to be voted on as a group at the next formal session. (In this case, the five-point consent agenda inspired an hour and 10 minutes of talk.) Such discussions, he said, weren’t part of work sessions when he first served on City Council. The practice, he argued, amounts to too much talk.
“It’s not necessary that we do that,” asserted Worley. “At least not to the degree we do it.”
In the end, Council sent the proposal back to staff, presumably to clarify how the meeting-free Tuesdays would be used.
Social Issues Task Force begins taking shape
Council got its first look at a suggested Downtown Social Issues Task Force — and had some suggestions of its own.
The task force, proposed by the Downtown Commission late last year, would consider issues such as homelessness, drug addiction and crime in the downtown area. The commission also provided a list of 28 community representatives it would like to see appointed to the task force. The extensive list would bring in people from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Asheville Downtown Association, the mental-health and drug-treatment communities, local colleges and adjacent neighborhoods, as well as staff support from the Asheville Police Department, the City Development Office and the city’s Legal Division.
Council members, meanwhile, had a few ideas of their own.
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy said she’d like to see someone on the task force representing affordable housing, and Council member Holly Jones proposed adding a couple of actual homeless people to the list. Peterson suggested adding someone from the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, and Mumpower spoke up for a representative from the Council of Independent Business Owners.
Council will return the amended list to the Downtown Commission to be reworked.