They’re the bane of many city residents: drivers who ignore the posted speed limits on Asheville’s residential streets. But outside of more police enforcement, the methods used to slow speeders down often is too costly and too slow to come about because of a complicated and time-consuming process necessary to erect traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps and islands, Council member Brownie Newman told his colleagues during City Council’s Feb. 19 meeting.
“If you go out and ask people throughout Asheville what is the single biggest concern in your neighborhood, many will say, ‘People driving too fast in our neighborhood,’” said Newman.
Without taking a formal vote, Council members unanimously agreed to have city Traffic Engineer Ken Putnam report back on March 18 concerning possible changes in Asheville’s approach to traffic calming. The city suspended its traffic-calming program in 2006 due to high costs (as much as $115,000 per mile), though private developers have continued to fund various traffic-calming measures in their projects.
The key to resurrecting the program, Newman maintained, is considering less-expensive, low-tech alternatives such as speed humps or maybe even simple paint patterns, as well as streamlining the bureaucracy. In the past, residents had to wade through a complex and time-consuming 11-step process.
Only Council member Carl Mumpower disagreed, saying he opposes traffic-calming devices in general because they tend to exacerbate problems on surrounding streets. Mumpower added that Putnam’s report should also take a close look at how well police are enforcing posted speed limits.
“I have questions about putting obstacles in our streets,” said Mumpower. And safety concerns aside, he noted, many residents haven’t been happy with the devices that have been installed. Referring to the neighborhood adjacent to the Wal-Mart Supercenter in east Asheville. “They asked for traffic calming and, boy, they really got it,” said Mumpower. He also fretted that some areas, such as north Asheville’s tony Kimberly Avenue (which had been targeted for traffic calming), would take precedence over other streets.
“I hope we don’t indulge this neighborhood,” said Mumpower, adding that “it could bleed the traffic problem off to other neighborhoods.” The residential thoroughfare carries about 8,000 car trips per day, said Putnam.
“We’re a valley surrounded by mountains,” countered Mumpower, adding that Kimberly residents must realize their street has become an important north/south thoroughfare.
Newman, meanwhile, argued that making the process cheaper and easier would enable more streets to receive calming devices.
Too much fun
Mumpower was also odd man out on the next agenda item: the in-kind support the city provides for a slew of co-sponsored events. On a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed, Council agreed to continue the city’s support through the end of July. After hearing a report from Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Director Roderick Simmons, however, Council members balked at making more such commitments after that—at least until Simmons can provide more detailed information about both the costs and financial return to the city. Simmons said he could provide full details to Council in eight weeks. He said his department is developing an accounting matrix that will, for the first time, give Council a complete picture of the costs per event for things like police, fire and sanitation services, as well as other expenses absorbed by the city (see sidebar, “Brought to You by Our Sponsor”).
Several Council members emphasized that they don’t want event organizers to think the city isn’t willing to help. But they were alarmed by the fact that the Oasis Shrine Parade planned for this November, for example, is projected to cost the city more than $44,000. Council members also asked organizers to help by scaling back their events or finding other ways to reduce the cost to taxpayers.
Mumpower proposed that the city suspend all such support until the costs could be determined—and until more pressing issues, such as law enforcement, are addressed. “I will not support any more co-sponsorships until we eliminate our open-air drug markets,” he declared.
Simmons said the city could expect to spend almost $250,000 in 2008 if it approved its co-sponsorship of 34 events. And since many of them occur several times during the year, it amounts to a total of 101 occurrences, he reported. The actual dollar amount, noted Simmons, is far beyond the $72,000 figure presented to Council last year. Much of the increase is due to a fuller accounting of in-kind support and lost revenue due to waived fees on facilities, permits, water usage and so on. In addition, the city has seen an increase in the number of requests for co-sponsorship. In 2007, for example, there were just 46 co-sponsorship occurrences.
“If this program continues to grow at this rate, the city of Asheville risks a significant drain on limited resources, which could result in inadequate service to the city and to the co-sponsor applicants,” Simmons warned. “Additionally, the current process of co-sponsorship approvals coming at the start of the calendar year does not give other city departments who support these events adequate time to plan their budget for these events.”
Some Council members expressed astonishment at the costs Simmons cited. And none more so than Mumpower, who called it an “obscene” misuse of taxpayer money. “It’s simply hard to argue for a quarter-million dollars,” he said.
Following the money
On a brighter note, Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant told Council members that “Asheville is living within its means.” Based on what he termed “very conservative” estimates, the city should end the fiscal year on June 30 with $960,000 more in revenue than was originally budgeted. Meanwhile, expenses are projected to be $40,000 less than what was budgeted. And though the city’s fund balance—a reserve fund to deal with special occurrences and projects—will decrease by $5.32 million to $16.5 million, that’s still well within the parameters set by the city. The minimum fund balance is 15 percent of expenditures, and Durant said he projects this year’s fund balance to wind up at 18.1 percent.
Nonetheless, he noted, those figures are not as positive as what the city has seen in recent years. The financial picture would be even rosier if it weren’t for ballooning health-care costs, which are 13 to 15 percent higher than last year.
Mumpower criticized the dwindling fund balance, noting that the money has been spent on several one-time projects and capital expenditures, including maintenance projects deferred in prior years. The city, he said, is doing a poor job of managing its money, adding that deferred maintenance typically only leads to higher costs down the road. In fiscal year 2005-06, noted Mumpower, the city’s fund balance was more than 30 percent.
“We’ve shaved about 12 percent in two years,” he told Durant. “I would suggest we’re living incrementally beyond our means. … We’re whittling away our savings. … I don’t think it reflects well on this Council and previous Councils.”
But that didn’t sit well with some of his colleagues. Council member Holly Jones reminded Mumpower that the city had passed a balanced budget and was projected to come in nearly $1 million under. “I think we’re being prudent,” she said. “I take great issue at any darts being thrown at [our] management.”
Council members did find consensus on another issue, however, unanimously agreeing to present a united front on annexation when the issue is discussed in an upcoming public hearing. Slated for 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 19 (location not yet determined), the Asheville meeting is one of a series being held by the N.C. House Select Committee on Municipal Annexation to discuss possible changes in the state’s annexation rules. Rep. Bruce Goforth of Asheville, who chairs the committee, has already held one meeting on the issue.
City Council has argued that it should have the ability to make annexation a condition for access to its water system, saying it will send as many members to the meeting as possible to protest what it considers unfair treatment of Asheville.