City goals a tall order

Running a city isn’t cheap — and, while taxpayers shell out the money, City Council has to figure out how to stretch the available funds to try to meet the many screaming needs. Asheville City Council capped off this year’s retreat, however, by whittling down the list to five top goals for the fiscal year 2000.

The typically arduous task was made easier, this go-round by some eye-opening departmental reports, Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger explained.

During the retreat, city staff highlighted the seemingly unending roster of things needing attention, including city streets and sidewalks, the transit system and the Asheville Civic Center. And then there are assorted other goals, such as providing better recreational facilities, streamlining development, increasing diversity in the work force, and implementing the city’s Strategic Plan for Sustainable Economic Development.

Council had to combine some of the goals to fit them all in. And, perhaps more importantly, the city may have to tighten its belt to accomplish all of them.

“I’m concerned we are biting off too much, financially,” said Council member Brian Peterson. “[What] if we adopt five goals and, three months from now, find out we can’t really do that? It seems that most of these items carry a pretty big price tag.”

Cloninger explained that he feels the goal-setting process is more to prioritize the city’s needs. “We’re not actually saying we’re going to be able to fund all the [goals], but we shouldn’t let that affect what we think are the priorities for the coming year,” he declared.

Mayor Leni Sitnick, noting that the city has many projects leftover from past goal-setting sessions — some still awaiting funding — said that the cost of all those ventures combined must be “in the hundreds of millions.

“In government, you get little crumbs until you fill a whole cookie,” she continued. “We could put our entire $56 million [budget] into streets and sidewalks, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

Sitnick spent a long time listing the many ways Asheville currently fills its coffers, and then said the city — which hasn’t raised taxes in 10 years — may have to “take a hard, cold look” at ways to generate more funding.

Council member Barbara Field wasn’t so coy about the “T” word. “I think citizens are more concerned about how we spend the money than whether or not we raise taxes,” Field said. “We need to do a good job with what we get.”

The lowdown on city streets

A pavement-management study by N.C. State University, presented at the retreat, ranked the condition of Asheville’s maintained streets dead last among cities in the state. On a 100-point scale (with the state average hovering around 85), Asheville’s 365 miles of streets averaged just 74.

“They said these were the worst streets they’ve seen,” City Engineer Cathy Ball reported. “Sixty-five percent of streets are in need of repair and maintenance (at an estimated cost of $10.6 million), and 20.5 percent of streets got a rating that they are uncomfortable to drive on.” The steep terrain around Asheville has much to do with the poor conditions, Ball pointed out. The lay of the land also ups the cost of needed repairs, making it $18,000 per mile higher than the state average, according to the survey.

The city’s Public Works Department has an annual budget of $2.6 million — but $1.8 million of that goes, each year, to pay debt service on the $20.2 million bond issue approved by voters in 1986. The remainder is allotted to sidewalk maintenance and construction, and street resurfacing. (The 1986 bonds paid for major sidewalk construction on Wall Street, Patton Avenue and Broadway Avenue, but fell short of meeting what many viewed as more pressing needs.)

Council member Ed Hay asked how Asheville can get its streets up to speed.

The recommended solution, Public Works Director Mark Combs noted, is to emphasize maintaining the good streets, and improving poor ones, until the bonds are paid off in 2008. Instead of repairing the streets that are in the worst condition first, this approach would implement a preventive-maintenance program — and triple resurfacing efforts. “We are doing zero preventative maintenance right now,” Combs said. Even the crucial road-surface treatments to prevent water infiltration are not being done, he revealed.

“For every dollar required to rehabilitate a pavement that has reached 75 percent (year 12) of its designed life, it will take at least four to five dollars to fix the same pavement, if the work is delayed three years,” reported Combs. He cited Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard as a prime example: That street is approaching the 12-year mark, but it still provides a smooth ride now. It could use some preventive maintenance — such as a thin resurfacing –but if the work is delayed for a couple of years, the cost will likely rise. In other words (as Combs put it), a $10,000 repair could become a $50,000 reconstruction.

Field said she thought the city’s policy of worst-first fixing had already been eliminated by Council. “When the bonds were purchased, we chose to fix the streets in good condition first, with the majority of the money,” she pointed out.

“That philosophy is correct; it just never was implemented,” replied Combs. “The public thinks it’s crazy to spend money on streets that appear to be in good shape.”

The bottom line? Combs asked Council to approve an additional $800,000 per year for street improvements — saying it would take Asheville 10 years to get the street conditions under control.

“Ten years sounds like a long time, but it’s not, really,” observed Cloninger.

Sitnick explained that she had heard many complaints about the city’s road conditions during meetings with citizens about the failed Parks and Recreation bond referendum. “The voice of the people is [that] they want the streets improved,” she declared, adding, “This is a commitment we’ve got to see through.”

What’s bugging the bus service

Bruce Black, interim director of the Asheville Transit System, wants to point the way. The city has more than 700 marked bus stops, but you can’t find a route map anywhere. That, says Black, makes it very difficult for the average person to navigate the transit system.

“I challenge anybody in this room to get from the Asheville Mall to the south of town,” Black told Council and city staff. “We think it’s very difficult to navigate our bus system. We need color-coded route maps. We need to remove the fear. We need signage at the transit center. All you see is a sign that says [bus number] ’15.’ What does that mean? I don’t even know.”

Disincentives to use the transit system tend to become incentives to seek other modes of travel, asserted Black. With that in mind, he aims to increase city-bus ridership by enhancing the bus depot — as well as upgrading the shelters and generally making it more comfortable to ride a bus.

“The only [areas in which] we could compete with the automobile [are] … convenience and comfort,” he said. To facilitate that, Black wants to increase the frequency of bus service to twice an hour for most routes, add padded seats to all buses (and luggage racks for the airport route), and keep the whole system operating until later at night — partly with an eye toward capturing some of the preteen market.

“When I was a kid, I always rode the bus,” Hay recalled. Peterson asked Hay if his kids ever ride the bus now. “I don’t think so,” he replied.

Black also wants the city to add vehicles that are better suited to Asheville’s hilly terrain, urging Council to authorize selling six of the large buses to buy nine smaller ones. “The bottom line is, buses are charging up and down hills with diesel engines,” he said. “It looks and feels like something awful. We need to get vehicles that are a little smaller, more friendly.”

“There’s less air pollution with the smaller buses, too,” added Sitnick.

Another priority for Black — and one the mayor has, essentially, demanded — is giving city-bus riders more protection from the elements. The transit system now has10 bus shelters and 50 benches. Requests for additional shelters and benches are received weekly, and Black would like to add 33 shelters and 230 benches — as well as 16 crosswalks at bus stops, and security cameras at the bus depot on Coxe Avenue.

“What I’d like to see is a way to get shelters at every bus stop and improve the weather amenities at the depot,” the mayor revealed. “If it’s 19 degrees out, no matter what your age is, you’re freezing.” Sitnick asked Black to find out how much it would cost to enclose the depot and heat it effectively.

Other transit-system improvement projects, as described by Black, include a new bus lift (to raise the 30,000-pound vehicles, so mechanics can work on them) and a roof for the “bus barn,” as well as establishing a vehicle-replacement fund. To help pay for the all additional services — projected to cost $1.5 million over six years — Black suggested that the city raise the municipal vehicle tax (which is added to vehicle-registration fees) from $5 to $10. The tax now generates $250,000 per year for public transit.

“In my two years in office, I think I’ve had two complaints about having to pay a vehicle tax,” commented Sitnick.

Getting smarter about “smart growth”

City Planning Director Scott Shuford had the retreat buzzing with phrases like “smart growth,” “sustainable development,” “development streamlining” and “conditional-use zoning.”

Shuford allowed that the city’s goal should be creating a sustainable-development pattern — to help balance economic objectives, social goals and natural resources for future generations. “Why is sustainable development important?” he asked rhetorically, before answering, “We’re running out of land for development — which creates high land prices, lack of affordable housing, an out-migration of industry, and an over reliance on the service sector.”

What would such a model look like? As Shuford sees it, neighborhoods would be preserved — but land would also be set aside for greenways and commercial/industrial development. Pursuant to his plan, developers would be interested in promoting sustainability because of simpler rules; a quicker review process, possibly by a single board; and increased density, with conditional-use zoning. Residents would like the pattern, he added, because it would offer high-quality, convenient commercial development, and diverse housing options in neighborhoods with ample public space.

“Development pressure creates an artificial conflict between neighborhood and development interests,” said Shuford. “Our citizenry sees development as a competition between economic and quality-of-life goals.”

Council of Independent Business Owners Director Mike Plemmons said he is basically pleased with the proposed changes. (Over the years, CIBO has been a frequent critic of the city’s regulation of development.)

Peterson and Sitnick offered differing opinions on the impact of the sustainable-development proposal. Peterson said that he’s sympathetic to voices that would oppose change in their neighborhoods.

“I’m wondering if maybe we’re going too far to please the development community,” he observed. “My concern is that we’re cutting out the public from the review process, and that’s what the development community wants.”

The mayor, however, said she feels the proposal would get the public involved in the development process earlier — and eliminate some of the political headaches later. “This is the kind of development that will be ultimately sensitive to Asheville, with its topography, uniqueness and need for jobs,” she avowed. “The public will feel their feelings are being heard up front. This is frustration reduction, as I see it — holistic development.”

Council member Charles Worley voiced support for the sustainable-development plan — along with Hay, Field and Cloninger. Field cautioned, however, that Council would have to be unanimously behind the plan in order to gain the community’s support.

Asheville City Council goals for the year 2000

• Aggressively move forward with implementing the Sustainable Economic Development Plan.

• Adopt policies and ordinances to promote “smart growth,” including: streamlining the development process; improving the quality of life; increasing diversity on city boards and commissions and in city staff; continuing to implement the Housing Action Plan; working with the Metropolitan Sewerage District and the Regional Water Authority on growth issues; and expanding communication efforts with city residents.

• Increase funding for street-and-sidewalk repairs, while promoting traffic-calming measures and synchronizing stop lights to improve traffic flow.

• Determine how to fund the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department’s capital needs.

• Continue to work with the Civic Center Task Force on the future of the Civic Center, including developing a multiyear capital-improvement plan.

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