- Asheville City Council meeting Feb. 9
- Retooled parking-deck rates not a problem, says Putnam
- Clingman Avenue to get bike lanes, roundabout
- Council zeroes in on federal funding requests
By this time next year, the city of Asheville may provide health-insurance benefits for the same-sex partners of city employees, a step many champion as a move toward greater equality for the city's gay and lesbian workers. At their Feb. 9 meeting, Asheville City Council members voted 4-2 to support the idea "in concept," instructing city staff to research and draft a recommendation for consideration in March (Council member Bill Russell was absent).
Council member Gordon Smith proposed the move, saying that providing benefits such as health care and bereavement leave to the partners of gay and lesbian city employees in committed monogamous relationships would help recruit and retain quality workers, especially at a time when salaries are frozen. Married city employees already enjoy such benefits, but in a state that doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, gay couples don't have that option.
"We [provide benefits] to let them know that we care about them and their families," said Smith. "Tonight, we can continue that tradition and provide equal compensation for equal work."
The move, he said, would also send a message that would attract gay tourists and entrepreneurs to the area, bolstering the local economy. "Gay people want to come to places that are safe and welcoming communities," asserted Smith.
Several North Carolina cities and counties already provide such benefits, but no details were available on how such a system might work in Asheville. Human Resources staffers will have to research the potential costs as well as how many of the city's 1,100 employees would even be eligible. Benefits would be available only to same-sex couples who, unlike straight, unmarried couples, are prohibited from marrying, Smith explained. As he envisions it, gay and lesbian couples would provide proof of their partnership and register with the city, agreeing to give notice if they ended their relationship.
The vast majority of the roughly 25 people who weighed in on the issue — including local police officers, ministers and partners of city employees — voiced support for the move.
Asheville resident Jerri Goldberg, whose partner is a city employee, said she's proud of the openness to diversity here — but not so proud of the disparity in the city's benefits policy.
"Just because the city employs openly gay people does not mean those openly gay people share in the same rights as their straight counterparts," noted Goldberg. "When it comes specifically to domestic-partnership benefits, it equates to unequal pay for equal work."
Fifth-grade teacher Shannon Fields said the message goes beyond the gay and lesbian community. "If we as a city are really for democracy, this is something we need to pass," she said.
Asheville police Officer Kathleen Beane, standing before Council in her uniform, said she's unable to provide insurance for her partner and their daughter.
"It really does make me feel of less value that I can't provide the same protection to my family that other people can," she revealed.
Restaurateur and Asheville Downtown Association member Dwight Butner, meanwhile, said, "The last thing the government needs to be involved with is telling people how to live and who to love."
And the Rev. Hamilton Fuller, an Episcopal vicar, emphasized that although his denomination has taken an inclusive approach toward homosexuals, he wasn't speaking about matters of faith. "This is not the venue for that," said Fuller, declaring, "This is a liberty and justice and civil-rights issue."
But the Rev. Keith A. Ogden of Hill Street Baptist Church saw things differently: He would not separate religious and political matters. Speaking on behalf of the group Concerned Clergy for Spiritual Renewal, Ogden said homosexuality is a sin that city leaders shouldn't support.
"I have to give a theological position, because I have a calling on my life; I didn't choose it. I didn't choose my skin color: That's a civil right. But the homosexual lifestyle, that's a lifestyle choice."
Warning that Asheville is becoming "more and more like San Francisco," Ogden warned that the city "is on its way to Hades in a hand basket."
Telecommunicator Justin Parker of the Asheville Police Department opined that United States law is derived from the Christian Bible. "That is our culture; that is our background as a nation," he argued. "My religion … says the homosexual lifestyle is sin."
But religious principles weren't the only objection raised. Absent the clear dividing line of marriage, asserted city resident Tim Harrison, it would be too difficult to determine who's entitled to receive benefits. "Without the definition it provides, there is the opportunity for mistakes, abuse or even fraud," he said.
That the discussion arose at all should come as no surprise: Both Smith and Council member Cecil Bothwell campaigned on the issue, and Council member Esther Manheimer also voiced support for the idea during her campaign. Meanwhile, Council member (and now Vice Mayor) Brownie Newman told Xpress last October that he'd wanted to address the issue but was waiting for a more receptive City Council (see "Domestic Bliss?" Oct. 14, 2009 Xpress).
Notwithstanding the various invocations of faith during public comment, Bothwell pointed out that different churches have different views concerning homosexuality. "There's no one religious position on this," he said. And as for those who object to their taxes being spent in this fashion, he noted, "There is a homosexual population here, and they're being forced to pay benefits for straight people in this town."
Manheimer said she looks forward to seeing staff return with some concrete details, adding, "This is truly an issue of fairness, and I often wonder why we are still arguing about it."
Manheimer also praised the courage of those who spoke up during public comment about such a delicate and private issue. "It takes a lot of bravery to get up and talk about your personal life," she said. "I didn't have to get up and tell you about my marriage. I never had to get up and tell you that my marriage was solid or how long we're going to be together. I appreciate that you had to go through that, and I apologize that you had to go through that."
Council member Jan Davis and Mayor Terry Bellamy, though, both aired concerns about how the issue was being advanced. Smith's motion included an outright affirmation of support for the general concept of domestic-partner benefits — a step David said he was uncomfortable taking without seeing some details.
"I'm asked to support something that I don't have the background on," noted Davis. "How are we going to pay for it? I just feel like this got here in an unusual way."
Reserving her comments till the end of the discussion, Bellamy seconded Davis' objection to a premature vote of support. But the mayor went on to oppose the move on other grounds, asserting that her job is to represent everyone in the community, some of whom object to this idea. "We all choose to live in Asheville. We all choose to make this place our home, and we all choose our lifestyle," said Bellamy. "I'm not going to support the motion. I'm not going to support it now, and I'm not going to support it when the information comes back."
City staff will return to Council March 9 with a proposal for domestic-partner benefits — the same day Council members have scheduled a special work session to discuss the city's health-care coverage.
Back in September, Council retooled the rate structure in city parking decks to eliminate cheap exits after 7 p.m. Previously, people retrieving their vehicles after that hour paid a flat rate of $1 or $2, depending on which deck they were parked in — regardless of how long the vehicle had been there. But when the city made the rates the same at all hours, the change drew objections from folks who work downtown at night, some of whom were said to have switched to street-side, metered spaces that are free after 6 p.m. Both the city and business owners, however, want to keep those spaces free for people patronizing downtown bars and restaurants.
"If that was really happening, that would be counterproductive," Transportation Director Ken Putnam told Council. But over the last three months of 2009, he reported, there was little evidence to support that thesis. Overall, about 400 fewer cars used the decks — and even that insignificant difference, he noted, could simply be due to severe winter weather. "It kind of proves wrong the things we've been hearing," said Putnam.
Meanwhile, thanks to the rate change, parking-deck revenues actually increased during that period, totaling about $65,400 — $18,300 more than what the former rate structure would have brought in.
Bothwell, however, saw a flaw in Putnam's logic, saying it's possible that people who would have parked street-side are now patronizing the decks because downtown workers are grabbing all the metered spaces. City Council did not ask staff to take any action on the report.
An uphill push
Bicyclists traveling from West Asheville to downtown via Clingman Avenue may soon find that steep uphill climb safer. City Council approved a $503,827 contract with Moore & Son Site Contractors of Mills River for the first phase of a reconfiguration of Clingman Avenue. The work will include restriping the route to include bicycle lanes on both sides of the street. The initial phase will extend as far north as Clingman Place. The plan also calls for a roundabout at the intersection with Roberts Street, the site of the Phil Mechanic Studios. River Arts District pioneer Pattiy Torno hailed the roundabout, which she said will be a boon to both pedestrians and motorists trying to cross Clingman there.
Continuing the bike lanes the rest of the way to Patton Avenue will be more difficult due to the presence of utility poles and other infrastructure, Public Works Director Cathy Ball told Xpress, but work on the first phase can proceed while those details are being hashed out.
City Council also winnowed the list of federal funding requests for the 2010-11 fiscal year, with each Council member selecting his or her top five choices. In a work session earlier that afternoon, they'd discussed 18 possible projects suggested by city staff. The five most popular among Council members were affirmed on a 5-0 vote at the end of the meeting (Bellamy had been excused due to a previously scheduled engagement). All five eventual picks were items that staff said had support in Rep. Heath Shuler's office.
The requested appropriations are:
• $3.5 million for City Hall restoration;
• $1 million for energy-efficiency retrofits for municipal buildings;
• $2 million for a solar-farm project supplying power to the Mills River Water Treatment Plant
• $600,000 to buy a hybrid diesel/electric bus for Asheville Transit
• $1.4 million for a fiber-optic emergency communications system.