Read their lips: No Asheville City Council member likes the idea of raising property taxes to pay for renovating our aging Civic Center. But given the questionable prospects for the other funding options, Council members haven’t flat-out rejected a tax hike.
Among those options is a 1-cent, local-option sales tax espoused by Buncombe County officials, Council members were reminded at their Feb. 20 work session. If approved by the General Assembly, it could pump $10 million a year for five years into city coffers alone. But local delegates to the state legislature appear to have “a lack of enthusiasm” for the sales-tax option, Mayor Leni Sitnick mentioned. As state legislators grapple with a nearly $1 billion projected budget shortfall, they are not inclined to advocate any new taxes, she observed.
“If the county succeeds with the sales tax, that solves our problem. [But if it doesn’t] we need a fallback position,” declared Council member Charles Worley.
First on the fallback list is a 1-cent food-and-beverage tax, and dead last is a 1-cent property-tax increase. Somewhere in between is yet another possibility: an increase in the hotel-room tax.
A tax on prepared foods and beverages (restaurant tabs, primarily) would be paid in part by visitors to Buncombe County, whereas Asheville taxpayers would shoulder the whole burden of any city property-tax hike. Considering the Civic Center’s regional nature, a food-and-beverage tax is fair, argued Council member Ed Hay.
And Sitnick declared, “I’m not going to [support the property-tax option] for the Civic Center when 80 percent of its use is by non-city residents.”
“I’d just as soon take that [property-tax] option off the table,” added Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger.
But Worley and Council member Brian Peterson objected, wanting to keep Council’s options open. Peterson also called for holding a public hearing as soon as possible, to gauge public support for any of these ideas, urging, “[Let’s] start getting public input and making some decisions.”
Several other Council members responded that it’s premature to hold a public hearing: Efforts to build support among restaurant owners for the food-and-beverage tax, for instance, are just beginning, both Worley and Hay noted. “We have time, over the next month or so, to build support,” said Hay.
But with a mid-March legislative deadline approaching, Barbara Field pointed out that Council can ask legislators to submit a “dummy” bill for the food-and-beverage tax “and tweak it later.”
City Attorney Bob Oast mentioned that they’re called “blank” bills, these days.
But whatever the name, Council’s chances of getting legislative approval for any tax may be hampered by the county’s push for a sales tax and the local Tourism Development Authority’s request for a 1-cent increase in the hotel-room tax, Cloninger observed.
And whatever the city’s prospects for landing a minor-league basketball league, “We still have to fix the Civic Center,” Field remarked.
After a lengthy discussion, Council members directed Oast to request the blank-bill provision for the food-and-beverage tax. They also noted their intention to formally endorse Buncombe’s push for a local-option sales tax, tentatively agreeing to hold a public hearing in March.
Funds for low-cost homes
Last year, Asheville City Council members established a Housing Trust Fund, pitching $400,000 into a revolving-loan program for affordable-housing projects. On Feb. 20, they approved the first loans: $195,000 to Ron Moser Homes to build 18 houses; $65,000 to Neighborhood Housing Services for four homes; and $140,000 to Mountain Housing Opportunities to create 40 rental units for low-income elderly residents.
Council members had a few questions about the loans. Moser is a for-profit developer; NHS and MHO, both nonprofits, will receive no-interest loans through the program. Council member Charles Worley said he was a little concerned that the MHO loan, in particular, requires no payback for 20 years.
Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan replied that both MHO and NHS had received high points during the selection process for the affordability of their units. Eleven applications were received and evaluated on such factors as the company’s or nonprofit’s financial capability and the amount of funding requested per unit — with an eye toward getting more bang for the buck, she explained.
Worley asked Caplan to give him a breakdown of each applicant’s “score.”
Mayor Sitnick reminded Worley that the trust fund is meant to give for-profit developers an incentive to build affordable housing, “balanced with continued support of the nonprofits” that are working to address the city’s affordable-housing needs.
Just do it
Never mind that a pending lawsuit could block funding for the new Clean Air Community Trust. Asheville City Council members directed city staff to start advertising for candidates to the trust’s board.
The trust would leverage grants and its board members advocate for environmental-improvement projects and programs, City Attorney Oast reminded Council members.
It was created — in name only, so far — when the city and county established the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency last year (Haywood County’s withdrawal from the former multicounty air agency had prompted the dissolution of the old agency). The remaining partners, Asheville and Buncombe County, created the new Air Quality Agency and agreed to funnel their shares of the leftover permit fees collected by the former air agency into a new community trust.
But Buncombe County resident Betty Donoho took Asheville and Buncombe County officials to court, saying state law requires that the monies be given to the Buncombe County School Board. Meanwhile, Buncombe and Haywood officials have been negotiating to determine exactly what Haywood County’s share of the money should be. Oast reported that the case will be heard in mid-April or early May. He asked Council members whether they wanted to proceed with setting up the board that would oversee the community trust.
“My legal opinion is — we can establish the trust … and get moving,” said Council member Ed Hay.
“Let’s just do it,” said Mayor Sitnick.
Other Council members agreed, directing staff to solicit applications during the next quarterly cycle of board-and-commission appointments.
A school board report card
Susan Fisher was understandably sentimental and a bit teary when she brought the entire board of directors and several officials of the Asheville City Schools to Council’s Feb. 20 meeting: In one month, her stint as board chair will come to an end. It’s been her privilege, she said, to work with a school board that has the education of children at its heart.
Fisher reported that the efforts of the school board (whose members are appointed by City Council) and School Superintendent Karen Campbell have resulted in some promising trends: Third-grade African-American students are testing higher in reading, and the achievement gap between African-American and white high-schoolers appears to be narrowing. “But we are by no means satisfied with where we are,” said Fisher. Minority scores have “remained flat” in some areas, and there’s more to be done to prepare city schoolchildren to meet new state standards.
While praising the school board’s work, Council member Terry Bellamy urged board members to find more ways to increase parents’ involvement in public schools and eliminate the achievement gap.
Council member Worley voiced the hope that the upward trend for African-American students in the early grades would gradually carry over into the middle- and high-school years as well.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Alice Hart echoed that sentiment, noting that the achievement gap has not dwindled as quickly as hoped.
To that, Sitnick quipped that middle school and high school are “the hormonal years — they’re the most difficult.”