A long, hard look

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be taxed.

That is, of course, provided the state legislature agrees to the 1-cent increase in the local prepared-food-and-beverage tax proposed by the Asheville City Council at their annual retreat, held at UNCA’s Kellogg Center in Hendersonville. The proposal, one of several goals set during the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 gathering, is an attempt by city leaders to secure funding to renovate the Asheville Civic Center. While the question of what to do with the aging facility has long simmered on Council’s stove, the decision to move forward with a funding proposal marks the first time the city’s cooks have stood shoulder to shoulder in agreement on a vital ingredient of that project — namely, how to pay for it. In an interview with Xpress, Mayor Charles Worley called the tax increase “the best proposal, given that it’s available and 50 percent of the tax is paid by folks from outside the area.” The mayor estimated that the tax increase could generate $3.2 million annually. Revamping the Civic Center is expected to cost anywhere from $27 million to $35 million, depending on which renovation plan Council chooses.

But getting Raleigh’s blessing remains a big “if.” Given the state’s own desperate need for more revenue, the mayor acknowledged that state lawmakers’ willingness to endorse the proposal is far from certain: “We haven’t had any sort of vibe from Raleigh on this,” he conceded, adding, “They have their own struggles to contend with; but we remain optimistic, and we’ll work hard to push for it.”

Controversial proposals

Council members also considered asking Raleigh to approve a plan proposed by Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino to install special cameras at city intersections to nab folks who run red lights. This measure, too, would require state approval — a fact that seemed to gravel Council member Jim Ellis, who noted that “19 cities [in North Carolina] already have the cameras. We should be number 20. The legislature should make this statewide.”

But the scuttlebutt from Raleigh is that Rep. Martin Nesbitt doesn’t like the cameras and would oppose any effort to install them in his district. Given that obstacle and the lack of consensus on the issue among Council members themselves, it was agreed to table the idea until later this month, when Council will formally adopt a list of legislative requests to send to Raleigh.

Annarino and city Fire Chief Greg Grayson outlined a proposal in which Asheville would become the “public-safety answering point” for all 911 calls originating in Buncombe County. Currently, the county’s 911 call center (in the Public Health Building) fields all the calls, transferring the ones that originate within the city limits to the city’s 911 center (located across City/County Plaza in the Public Safety Building). Often, the caller has to restate the nature of the emergency. That, said Annarino, creates a lag time of several seconds per call; collectively, those seconds add up to 11 minutes of lag time per day. And since a majority of the calls are transferred to the city, it would make sense — and cut the lag time — if the city handled all the calls and transferred the county calls to their call center, argued Annarino. City Manager Jim Westbrook concurred, telling Council that the county “transfers 84,000 calls [annually] to the city; if we took over, we’d transfer back only 11,000. That’s a heck of a lot less.”

Besides improving response time, it would also mean increased accountability on the city’s part. “We are willing to accept the responsibility of taking the calls,” said Annarino, adding, “When a delay does happen, we can deal with it internally. … This isn’t about Buncombe County’s professionalism, but if there is a glitch, we need to be held responsible.”

And reducing the lag time, noted Grayson, could also improve the city’s insurance rating, which could save money. “Insurance companies,” he said, “see that handoff as an opportunity for error; they see it as a liability.” But asking the county to relinquish its current role could be difficult, said Annarino. Because along with all those calls comes the revenue from a 50-cent 911 surcharge residents pay as part of their phone bill — roughly $26,000 a month, all told. “We might find some county resistance to give up that revenue,” he warned.

The duplicated 911 systems exist because the city and the county use different — and incompatible — radio systems (see “Mixed signals,” Jan. 15 Xpress). A county dispatcher can’t directly contact a city vehicle and vice versa, hence the need for the handoff between dispatchers.

Council member Joe Dunn, sighing in exasperation, questioned why the city is even considering changing to a “new” system that would still involve a transfer of calls. “Is this about safety or money?” he queried. “If we can combine the two systems, we can eliminate the handoff. Any handoff is too much — there could be a person with a coronary that could die from this,” pleaded Dunn.

But his comments about “improving communication” between the city and county seemed to reach beyond the matter of differing radio frequencies, cutting to the heart of the long-running turf battle between the two pillars of local government. “I’m not sure we’ve done everything we can to cement city/county communications,” observed Dunn. “How are we going to succeed at other issues that are much more cloudy? This would seem to be a mutual issue, but now we might create further rancor by proposing this.”

After much discussion, Council members decided to invite Jerry VeHaun, the county’s director of emergency management, to their next work session to discuss the matter.

Speaking from the heart

After briefings by assorted city department heads, each Council member presented a wish list of goals for 2003. Council brainstormed variations on the stated goals, eventually coming up with about 30 possibilities.

Some members made infrastructure or economic development their top priority. But Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy used the occasion to air some dirty laundry in a very public way. Speaking a firm, unwavering voice, Bellamy said she hopes “our Council will stop being so divided, and I hope that some Council members will stop belittling other members’ initiatives. We talk a lot about working together in public, but behind closed doors, something else is happening. …We profess to be Christians, so let’s start acting like Christians. Let’s come together, rather than apart.”

When she finished, silence filled the room. Her colleagues’ eyes roamed everywhere, but few would meet the vice mayor’s gaze; most simply stared at the floor.

After the brainstorming, Council members identified their favorite proposals, narrowing the list to those that drew a significant number of votes. Here are Council’s goals for the year:

• focus on clean-water and clean-air initiatives;

• invest in infrastructure and promote Neighborhood Corridor Districts;

• ease the UDO process for infill development;

• reduce the cost of affordable-housing construction projects;

• let city firefighters vote on whether to choose a retirement plan based on Social Security or maintain a department-managed plan;

• hire more police officers;

• replace aging vehicles in the city’s motor pool; and

• improve the quality of life for citizens.

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