Asheville City Council

Raising taxes can be the kiss of death for any politician, especially in an election year. “It’s a soul-searching, gut-wrenching thing to do,” commented Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick during City Council’s Feb. 27 formal session. But she went on to note that it’s something the city hasn’t done in 10 years.

With that in mind, Council unanimously approved a resolution asking the local legislative delegation to introduce bills in the General Assembly that would generate new revenues and cut expenses. The resolution lists a number of potential new taxes, only one of which would actually be adopted. All of them are meant to serve as backups, in case a 1-percent local sales tax increase proposed by Buncombe County is rejected. All these proposals require state legislators’ approval.

Clearly, city leaders are hoping that the county’s sales tax will be implemented. But just in case, they’re considering other taxes, including a citywide 1-percent tax on prepared food and beverages and a bill that would authorize municipal governments to levy “a menu of local option taxes, if approved by the voters.”

The resolution also asks local representatives in the state House to continue working to pass a bill, introduced by Rep. Lanier Cansler (R-Buncombe), that would exempt the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson from paying the state Department of Transportation nearly $1 million a year in “nonbetterment costs.” These costs are incurred when water lines are relocated in connection with highway projects, and the DOT passes on the expense to the Water Authority. No other water authority in the state pays for these relocations (see “Taking the Plunge,” Feb. 28 Xpress). Mayor Sitnick described the unusual arrangement as “an amazing burden” that results in higher water bills for local residents.

Throughout the evening, Council members cited the need to fix the aging Civic Center as a key reason the city needs more revenue. In fact, the food-and-beverage-tax proposal listed in Council’s resolution includes the phrase “the proceeds to be used for capital projects in the city that benefit the region and support the tourism industry, including renovation and maintenance of the Asheville Civic Center.”

But during the public-comment portion of the meeting, two people — Mickey Mahaffey and Sharon Martin — questioned the wisdom of making the Civic Center a higher priority than other, more basic needs. Mahaffey noted that while the U.S. as a whole is not in an economic depression, “some 25 percent of our community [members] are, and these people have basic needs, which must be met before we talk about renovating an entertainment venue.”

Council member Barbara Field explained that the Civic Center plays an important role in the community. “The high school has its graduation there, the symphony plays there,” she said.

Tourism and fairness

Tax issues once again loomed large when Council members turned their attention to appointing new members to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. The two appointees would represent the owners of big hotels (more than 100 rooms) and small hotels (fewer than 100 rooms) respectively. Herman Turk was named as the large-hotel rep. But two people vied for the small-hotel position as, one by one, Council members cast their votes. In the end, Victor Trantham was appointed, backed by Council members Terry Bellamy, Ed Hay, Charles Worley and Barbara Field. Council member Brian Peterson supported the other candidate, Catherine Sklar. Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger was absent from the meeting, and Mayor Sitnick abstained, refusing to vote for either candidate.

“I think that they are both good people and represent their industry well; however, I have one philosophical difference with both of them,” the mayor explained. Although tourism is Asheville’s primary industry, the city has a 3-percent room-tax rate, while the state average is 5 to 6 percent, noted Sitnick. She added that while tourism is a good thing for the city, it does have impacts on our community, such as increased air pollution and litter, and these costs are borne by city residents. “Both of these candidates don’t feel the need to raise [the room tax] to 5 or 6 percent and earmark a little of that for the Asheville infrastructure. We all need to start helping each other — it’s important for the tourism industry to give a little back.” Sitnick’s comments prompted thunderous applause.

Send in the clowns

Tricked out in neon-colored wigs, floppy yellow shoes, plastic marijuana leaves and bulbous noses, two representatives of Asheville Hemp, calling themselves the Cannabis Clowns, waddled into Council chambers in an effort to (in their words) “educate” City Council members about cannabis and industrial hemp. Seeking to comply with a state law that prohibits wearing masks in public meetings, both clowns sported name tags. Dan Waterman and Dave Mittler described their clown stunt as an effort to “disarm the City Council so that they would come out of their composure [and] understand us.”

The two had previously circulated fliers and issued press releases announcing their plans to disrupt the meeting. (The flier also referred to Council members as clowns.) But the two clowns merely filed in with the other members of the public, took their seats and waited for the public-comment portion of the meeting.

The day of the Council meeting, Community of Compassion, another local organization working to change cannabis laws, issued its own press release condemning the clowns’ actions and distancing the COC from this splinter movement.

Questioned about the press release, Mittler responded, “We’re glad to see other people do stuff, but what is Community of Compassion doing other than collecting money?” And when asked if the leaves around Waterman’s neck were hemp, Mittler replied, “We’ll indulge in those after the meeting” (the leaves were plastic).

When the mayor acknowledged the clowns, allowing Waterman to approach the lectern, a few Council members could be seen suppressing grins or biting their lips. Waterman began his presentation by commenting: “Mayor, I’d heard that you are a shrewd politician, and you’ve proved that tonight. I compliment you on your tactics [apparently referring to the fact that he was the last person to be called for public comment]. Waterman proceeded to read aloud from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and passages from an unnamed book about the history of cannabis and cannabis legislation. The disjointed, often rambling presentation lasted the full 10 minutes allotted to group representatives, and Waterman said he would be back at the next public Council meeting in two weeks. (He failed to mention whether he would be in full Bozo regalia.)

After Waterman had finished, however, Mittler approached the lectern, asking for 10 minutes to represent yet another marijuana-related group. But the mayor, questioning the group’s existence, made a motion to adjourn the meeting. She also (over Mittler’s frequent interruptions) asked City Attorney Bob Oast to draft a policy specifying what constitutes a group or organization. Then, withdrawing her motion, Sitnick offered Mittler three minutes to speak (the usual amount of time allotted to individuals). Mittler declined and the meeting was adjourned.

In an interview after the meeting, the mayor commented, “Well, they certainly were dressed appropriately.”

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