Asheville City Council members have learned their lesson well: Not so long ago, they routinely declared dozens of goals for one fiscal year — many of them impractical, much less achievable in such a short (governments, like glaciers, move at a different tempo).
In 1997, for example, Council members came up with nearly three dozen goals, grouped under a dozen broad categories (such as “Housing” and “Land-Use Policies”). In 1996, so many goals were set that Council member Chuck Cloninger joked, “We may have almost given our city manager a stroke.”
So year after year, City Manager Jim Westbrook kept pushing for a small set of goals — three or four, if he had his druthers — that Council and city staff could find strategies for accomplishing without having to double the staff or raise taxes.
Nowadays, Council members find five to seven goals a nice compromise between their political dreams and day-to-day reality. They’ve even whittled their traditionally two-and-a-half-day annual retreats down to a day-and-a-half; gone are the long Sunday afternoons spent wrestling with Godzilla-sized goals that often weren’t directly within Council’s realm of control (e.g., “Improve education in Asheville,” a 1996 goal).
At this year’s Jan. 19-20 retreat in Tryon, N.C., they hashed out six goals in less than three hours, with this caveat added by Vice Mayor Cloninger: “Go ahead and send a signal that we don’t want to raise taxes.”
Council’s 2001 goals are as follows:
• Increase the city’s fund balance. The fund balance is a reserve account that the state’s Local Government Commission recommends be no less than 8 percent of a municipality’s annual expenses. Council members learned that city expenses are growing faster than their fund balance, which has dipped below the 15-percent level Council members set several years ago as a standard policy. A low fund balance limits the city’s ability to borrow for major needs, such as a new downtown parking deck. A low fund balance also reduces revenues because the city gets less investment income from those monies.
• Create a cleaner Asheville. Council members would like to see the city partner with the North Carolina DOT to better clean city streets; they also plan to enforce the prohibition on utility-pole signs.
• Replace or renovate the Civic Center. Council members are supporting a push by the Buncombe County commissioners to persuade state legislators to approve a 1-cent sales-tax increase for a five-year period. That extra revenue could fund several city projects, including the Civic Center. Other funding options include a hotel-room tax or a food-and-beverage tax. These options would, presumably, capture revenue from tourists visiting the area.
• Promote economic development through continued support of smart-growth practices. Council member Terry Bellamy urged increased support and funding for the new Housing Trust Fund. Council member Charles Worley noted that the city needs the infrastructure to support the high-speed Internet access technology firms require. Barbara Field called for building the tax base by infill development and increased density within the city, before seeking to grow the tax base through annexation.
• Identify ways to reduce the reliance on the property-tax base. Council hopes to accomplish this by identifying alternative revenue sources that don’t overburden the city taxpayer (see Civic Center funding options above). The sales-tax option alone could net the city $10 million a year for five years, and Council members already have a list of probable projects — including the Civic Center, a Biltmore Village parking deck, improvements to streets and sidewalks, a new fire station, and redevelopment of such areas as the West End/Clingman Avenue neighborhood. Acknowledging that state legislators who represent Asheville and Buncombe have voiced only lukewarm support for the sales tax, Council member Field joked, “This is like fantasy world.”
• Improve relationships with state-government officials. Hay joked, “We tried the strategy of getting Barbara elected [to the state legislature], and that didn’t work.”
Does Asheville need cameras at major intersections to catch red-light runners? Or does such a use of technology smack of George Orwell’s 1984, with Big Brother looking over your shoulder?
That’s how Asheville City Council members Brian Peterson and Terry Bellamy felt about it, crying “invasion of privacy” when Police Chief Will Annarino proposed installing red-light cameras at historically dangerous intersections around town. “I think it infringes on individual rights,” said Bellamy.
The majority of Council members were swayed by Annarino’s arguments, however: More than 90 percent of intersection crashes involve someone running a red light, he mentioned early in his presentation. Before the retreat, Asheville police staked out one intersection and clocked 96 violations in a single hour. Police also sampled traffic-accident data in Asheville, counting 25 intersection accidents in a three-month period, Annarino continued. In one such accident, a man was killed near Interstate 240 by a driver who ran a red light.
In Charlotte, red-light violations and accidents were cut in half after one year of using the cameras, Annarino reported. The system automatically photographs vehicles entering and leaving an intersection when the light turns red and the vehicle speed exceeds 15 miles per hour, he explained. The photographed tag number of the vehicle allows police to send a notice of violation to the vehicle owner within 48 hours.
In one year, the city of Charlotte collected almost $3 million in civil fines with the system (the city and the camera company split the funds; Charlotte used its share for public-transportation projects).
“They call it the ‘flash police’ [in Europe],” said Public Works Director Mark Combs, whose brother overseas had a bit of personal experience with the cameras, he remarked.
The technology can help police catch hit-and-run offenders, too, Asheville Police Captain Tom Aardema added. While checking out Charlotte’s system, he observed Charlotte police using data from the cameras to catch the driver of a Ford 150 who ran a red light, sent a VW Rabbit flying, and then fled the scene.
But the systems multiple uses were part of what bothered Bellamy: “I’m not comfortable with that,” she said. Because the technology could “be used for something other than minor traffic violations,” individual rights might be at risk, she argued. Bellamy urged staff to address, instead, the traffic patterns and gridlock that encourage drivers to run red lights in the first place.
“You don’t break the law because it’s a bad intersection,” countered Mayor Leni Sitnick. “I’m [more] concerned about the civil rights of the person who gets hit.”
Peterson interjected, “I don’t like government watching people.” Neither he nor Bellamy supported the proposal, which would require approval by state legislators before Asheville police could implement it. Bellamy and Peterson, noting that a majority of Council members did support Annarino’s proposal, asked that legislators be informed that he request for approval was not unanimous.
In a potentially contentious exchange during the debate, Bellamy also asked that she and Peterson not be attacked because of their opinions (earlier, someone had wisecracked, “you are government” when Peterson made his remarks).
Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger remarked that what swayed him toward supporting the camera proposal was the fact that the resulting fines are considered civil penalties (as are parking tickets), rather than criminal violations that which could adversely affect a motorist’s insurance rates (if a police officer catches you, it’s a criminal penalty, however, Annarino added). But when Cloninger was asked whether he had ever run a red light by “dragging” through a right turn on red instead of coming to a full stop first, he replied, “I may have to plead the Fifth [Amendment].”
Council members also touched on the following items during the retreat:
• Council will soon consider expanding its extra-territorial jurisdiction into unincorporated parts of Buncombe County that fall within one mile of the current city limits. Considered a precursor to annexation, the ETJ allows a city to enforce building, fire and zoning regulations in urbanized areas that border it. Asheville has not updated its ETJ for several years; currently, it extends into only 7,648 acres around the city for zoning and subdivision review.
• Modernization is coming to City Hall’s manually operated, 75-year-old elevators: Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson recommended updating the brass-gated elevators to an automated system, at an estimated initial cost of more than $600,000. Parts for the historic elevators are getting more difficult (and expensive) to secure, he reported, showing pictures of a 1920s electric-switch device that sits in a small vat of mercury on the ninth-floor control room in City Hall. “We’re one of only two other places in the world that run this type of elevator,” said Brinson (Otis Elevator, which contracts with the city to maintain the system, has reported that the only other such system in use is in New York City.) The old cars would be retained for the new system, although the levers that now control up-and-down movement would be disconnected, Brinson noted. Current elevator operators would be moved to other positions in the city, if possible, and the historic brass gates would be removed but saved. The update would substantially reduce the city’s annual maintenance and labor costs, Brinson added. Vice Mayor Cloninger asked that a City Hall directory be more prominently placed in the first-floor hall near the elevators.
• Brinson also recommended creating a new Cultural Arts Division in his department by merging two positions (recreation-program supervisor and public-art administrator) into one. The new Director of the Cultural Arts Division would oversee cultural festivals such as Goombay!, the Urban Trail, the public-art board, the YMI and other cultural programs, as well as serve as liaison with the Arts Council. Reorganizing these programs under the Cultural Arts Division and creating a new director’s position would save the city more than $20,000 per year, Brinson reported.
• Public Works Director Mark Combs announced a possible street-cleaning deal with the North Carolina Department of Transportation: City crews would assume responsibility for sweeping state roads in Asheville, such as Merrimon Avenue; the DOT would pay for a new street-sweeper vehicle. The catch is that the city would have to hire an operator, at a cost of roughly $30,000 per year.
• By the year 2003, Asheville must submit a stormwater-control plan to the state and begin enforcing tougher federal water-quality regulations, City Engineer Cathy Ball reminded Council members at the retreat. The minimum annual cost of meeting these requirements is $120,000, she estimated. Ball also pointed out that this amount does not cover Asheville’s much-needed storm-drain improvements. Some North Carolina cities charge storm-water utility fees to cover capital improvements, such as the $90,000 Asheville spent fixing a culvert on Biltmore Avenue. The fee applies to all properties containing structures such as parking lots require drainage systems — including typically tax-exempt entities such as schools and churches, Ball noted.
PRODUCTION: PLEASE PLACE IN GRAY BOX
The things they say
There’s something about listening to hour after hour of reports while nibbling mini-Hershey Bars and sipping weak coffee that ferments the wit in city-department and Council-member heads:
• “Does it have pictures?” Council member Ed Hay asked, concerning the Cliff Notes version of a 400-page financial-reporting document City Finance Director Bill Schaefer briefed Council on. “No, but it does have room to color,” Schaefer bounced back.
• “Ah: So the old stick-and-nail is still the best way,” said Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger. He had just heard Public Works Director Mark Combs confirm that the old-fashioned way of picking up roadside litter is still faster than using an expensive vacuum machine.
• “I can see it now: ‘Justification: stupid city vote,'” Council member Barbara Field joked about new financial-reporting rules that will require staff to explain why city money was spent a certain way.
• Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson teased Police Chief Will Annarino about saying that the towels at Pine Crest Inn (where the retreat was held) were “so large and fluffy he couldn’t get his suitcase closed.” Council member Charles Worley kept the tease going, joking later, “I can’t find a single weak member of staff, except there’s one klepto.”
• “Instead of calling it the ‘retreat goals process,’ let’s call it the ‘advance goals process.’ This is not about retreating: We’re advancing,” said Mayor Leni Sitnick, quickly clarifying her use of military terminology: “We’ll eliminate the word I>attack.“