Asheville City Council

It was an unusually peaceful day at City Council.

Asheville City Manager Jim Westbrook announced that a city/county land swap could resolve the dispute over the county’s proposed satellite jail. Council member Brian Peterson suggested that Council formally ask local delegates to the state legislature to back one or more proposals for funding improvements to the Civic Center: a countywide 1-cent sales-tax increase, a 1-cent hotel-room tax and/or a 1-cent tax on prepared foods. (All of these measures would require approval by the General Assembly, which is unlikely to come without the support of the local legislative delegation.) City staff presented a draft of a written policy for funding outside agencies (a first for Council), sparking an hour-long debate. Council members narrowed the field of school-board candidates down to 10. And Council also heard a request that the Dreamland Flea Market sign be designated a historic landmark.

But with no hot debates to keep them rooted to their seats and no need to ask the mayor for permission to leave for a moment, Council members casually stepped out to fetch Coca-Colas, a Dr. Pepper (Peterson), Nestea (Barbara Field), Planter’s Peanuts (Chuck Cloninger), cranberry juice (Charles Worley) and coffee (Leni Sitnick) from the small room adjacent to the first-floor conference area. And Council members even managed to disagree politely — Cloninger pushing ahead with the agenda, Terry Bellamy pointedly but sweetly asking for time to finish her questions about a mayoral appointment to the Housing Consortium.

Taking advantage of the calm, Sitnick reminded everyone that she has only nine months left as mayor, asking them to help address one of her pet peeves: getting rid of illegal signs on utility poles (including those left over from the November elections).

“Should we ask staff to look into public floggings?” joked Peterson.

Jailhouse swap

To stave off Buncombe’s much-contested plan for a new minimum-security jail on South Lexington Avenue, city leaders are poised to swap or sell a staff parking lot as an alternative site, City Manager Westbrook informed Council on Feb. 6.

The lot, which is adjacent to the county’s Detention Center, the lot has been identified as the best site for the new facility, although the Buncombe commissioners recently bought the Union Transfer property on South Lexington Avenue for that purpose.

In recent talks with county officials, city staff have asked Buncombe to join in long-range planning for the courthouse/City Hall area, particularly to address current and future parking needs, Westbrook noted.

Council members had little to say about the news. Vice Mayor Cloninger said it “sounded good.” Worley said he is delighted to have both sides work on long-range planning. Bellamy cautioned that members of the nearby Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church are concerned about the impact a second large jail facility — which county commissioners have said may be needed within the next decade — would have on redevelopment of The Block (the traditional African-American neighborhood centered on Eagle and Market streets).

And Mayor Sitnick remarked, “We’ve all learned a good lesson in this. … [The city and county] need to communicate better with each other.”

A sign for Dreamland?

The Dreamland Flea Market is long gone, and so is the old Dreamland Drive-In, where movies were last shown in 1990. But the sign remains.

Sign owner Joe Pless asked the city’s Historic Resources Commission to designate the marquee a historic landmark. That would exempt the 125-square-foot structure from the city’s sign ordinance and allow it to remain standing.

But HRC members voted 4-7 against his request late last year, and city staff recommend that Council allow the ruling to stand.

Historic Resources Director Maggie O’Connor reported that, to qualify for the historic-landmark designation, a sign must be significant to the history and character of Asheville, be “notably aesthetic or creative,” or constitute “an important example of [the] technology, craftsmanship, materials or design of the period in which it was constructed.” The Mountaineer Inn sign on Tunnel Road has landmark status, O’Connor mentioned.

The Dreamland sign was revamped in the 1990s, she reported. And because neither the flea market nor the drive-in theater exists anymore, it “is considered an abandoned sign,” O’Connor noted.

Council members — who will vote on the issue at an upcoming formal meeting — asked a few technical questions and viewed pictures of the sign. But they made no decision on the request.

Outside agency funding

Last year, the city granted about $300,000 to “outside agencies,” including the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the YWCA and other nongovernmental organizations.

Council has never had an official, written policy regarding such funding, Asheville Audit and Budget Director Ben Durant told Council members on Feb. 6. A year ago, Council had asked staff to draft one.

Durant presented a draft of the new policy for Council to review: It outlines the application process, proposes funding specific programs rather than an agency’s operating expenses, and distinguishes between “start-up” and “ongoing” funding — in effect, setting limits on how many consecutive years an agency can receive city funds.

Vice Mayor Cloninger said he hopes the formal guidelines will “free up money” for a greater variety of agencies and programs. Historically, some agencies have been funded year after year, he noted.

Council member Field approved of the proposal overall, remarking, “We want to allow ourselves some flexibility [in awarding the funds].”

Mayor Sitnick asked that agencies receiving funding be required to report back to the city on how the money is spent.

Council member Bellamy asked Council to consider delaying implementation of the new policy, to avoid causing problems for agencies that have already applied for funding. Noting that the deadline to apply for funding comes before Council will formally approve the policy, Bellamy argued that agencies submitting applications later would have an advantage, because they could tailor their requests to the new guidelines.

And Council member Ed Hay suggested that agencies receiving ongoing funding for work that relates directly to city services (such as the Community Relations Council’s federally mandated work on fair-housing issues) be shifted to the regular budget of the appropriate city department.

“We’ll lose track of them,” countered Cloninger, urging that outside-agency funding be kept separate.

Durant sided with Cloninger, noting that current financial-reporting standards call for listing outside agencies separately.

City Manager Westbrook agreed, cautioning Council that the level of funds allocated to outside agencies is “approaching [the equivalent] of 1 cent on the [property] tax rate.”

Cloninger recommended that staff tweak a few technical items in the draft policy and bring it back to Council at the Feb. 20 work session.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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