- Asheville City Council Jan. 26
- Housing Trust Fund retooled
- Water system could face more pressure
- Council meeting prayer discussion postponed
Local public-access cable channel URTV saw its share of drama in 2009, with allegations of infighting and improper board dismissals claiming the spotlight, but the Asheville City Council is hoping the situation will improve in the new year.
At their Jan. 26 meeting, Council members approved another 90-day extension on funding for the channel, now known as the WNC Media Center. In the interim, city staff will craft a longer-term agreement with the station that may include instructing its board to comply with state open-meetings and open-records laws.
The station's troubles first came to Council members' attention last July when, in anticipation of their making one of the city's two appointments to the URTV board, several station producers and one self-described private investigator railed against one of the nominees for the position. Board dismissals amid claims of backroom dealings followed, leading Council to consider what level of oversight it should have over the group, apart from making board appointments and allocating about $45,000 annually in cable-TV fees.
Council member Jan Davis, who chairs Council's Boards and Commissions Committee, said he'd recently visited the station's headquarters, met with the board, and come away with a good impression. "From what I saw, most of the bumps in the road have been dealt with," reported Davis.
That observation was backed up by several Media Center associates who said the initial scandal had been blown out of proportion. Producer M. Nelson Staley urged Council members to allocate the full funding, so the channel could proceed without further discussion. Ninety percent of the station's producers and board members, he maintained, are happy with the way the group is operating. "You've let this little bit of complaint, and a few people, affect it so we only get 90 days," said Stanley.
Another proposal by city staff — that Council stop making appointments to the station's board — did not appear to gain traction. Assistant to the City Manager Lauren Bradley explained that the suggestion was intended to clear up the question of Council's regulatory responsibility concerning the public-access channel, which she said "is not black or white but shades of gray."
Absent Council appointments, the station would work along the same lines as any other nonprofit the city contracts with, and Council could hold it to the same performance expectations, noted Bradley.
Davis, however, saw that approach as giving up whatever leverage the city has in reforming the channel's operations. "At this moment, I am not willing to give up any ability to influence that station," he said. "I don't want to run it, but I don't want to lose accountability to the public either."
The extension, effective Jan. 26, is intended to give staff sufficient time to draft a new contract, rather than having to continue approving piecemeal allocations. Council approved the partial funding 5-0, with Council member Bill Russell absent and Council member Esther Manheimer asking to be recused from both the deliberation and the vote. URTV, she explained, had been represented by an attorney employed by the Van Winkle Law Firm, which also employs Manheimer. But that attorney, she noted, left the firm in December.
The local real-estate market continues to evolve, affecting residential construction in Asheville. Meanwhile, Community Development Director Jeff Staudinger told Council, the demand for affordable housing here continues to grow. That fact plus the city's straitened finances means it's time to adjust the guidelines for the Housing Trust Fund, he said. Asheville makes annual contributions to the fund, which gives low-interest loans to developers willing to include at least some units in their projects that fit the city's definition of "affordable housing." Interest on the loads helps grow the fund. But the current city budget allocated just $300,000 — half the usual contribution.
The proposals included an increased emphasis on multi-unit rental housing rather than standalone units for sale to individual owners, with a goal of awarding 75 percent of the annual funding to such rentals. Another change favored funding energy-efficient developments located along public-transit corridors.
Staudinger also noted that the fund would be configured so that developments containing more of the affordable units would pay a lower interest rate on their loans. That sat well with Council member Gordon Smith, who said, "I'm really impressed with the set of regulations you have brought forward."
The new guidelines were approved 6-0.
A rising tide
By 2037, Asheville's water system will be facing a demand of 41 million gallons per day, predicted Eric Nease, project manager for Jordan, Jones & Goulding. The Atlanta-based consulting firm assembled a water-system master plan for the city last year. The problem with that figure, he explained, is that the city's three water-treatment plants can process a maximum of 37 million gallons per day, which is expected to be reached by 2025.
To keep up with projected population growth across Buncombe County, Asheville would have to build a new treatment plant sometime within the next 15 years. "The biggest thing in this master plan is getting you to understand that you are going to need that," Nease stressed.
For Mayor Terry Bellamy, the issue linked with recent Council discussions concerning the restrictions on water revenue imposed by the state's Sullivan Acts, which prohibit the city from charging customers outside the city limits higher rates. "Clearly, we're seeing the impact of growth [on] our ratepayers," she said. "To me, it's another way to continue the conversation about the asset we have in water."
Council member Cecil Bothwell and Vice Mayor Brownie Newman wondered whether conservation efforts could lessen the impact of population growth, with Newman recalling the positive response of water users during a voluntary conservation campaign in 2007.
But Nease said the situation looks unavoidable. "If you continue to have growth, someday you're going to have to re-evaluate [the need for a new plant]." he warned.
Davis, meanwhile, took the opportunity to broach another topic: opening the Bee Tree reservoir to recreational use. An avid fisherman, Davis has occasionally aired his desire to make the lake accessible to nonmotorized boats. Both the Bee Tree and North Fork reservoirs have been totally closed to the public since 2003, when Council suspended student tours of the facilities due to security concerns.
Noting that such a decision would be political, Nease recommended erring on the side of caution. "That's a big decision," he said. "You have two pristine watersheds; it would be hard to get them back if something happened to them."
Davis, seemingly unsurprised, replied, "I'm used to that answer."
Prayer palaver postponed
Although it was listed on the agenda under "new business," a discussion of the policy concerning the invocations before Council meetings was postponed due to the absence of City Attorney Bob Oast: He was unavailable to brief Council members on the legal ramifications of such prayers because he was in a Buncombe County courtroom next door, representing the city in a lawsuit by Biltmore Lake residents fighting city annexation.
At the beginning of each meeting, Council members take turns giving invocations or calling for a moment of silence (despite the recent hoopla over Bothwell's alleged atheism, he delivered the invocation on this particular occasion). In January, he Buncombe County commissioners decided to continue starting their meetings with prayers, despite a memo from County Attorney Michael Frue warning of possible constitutional challenges to the practice in the context of a pending Forsyth County lawsuit. (On Jan. 28, U.S. District Judge James Bealy ruled that sectarian invocations in official meetings violate the First Amendment.)
Brian Postelle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 153.