Faced with a host of infrastructure wants and needs, Asheville City Council members were nonetheless reluctant to charge ahead with a proposed bond issue during their inaugural work session on March 18. An uncertain economic future seemed to dampen the prospects for issuing some $10 million worth of general-obligation bonds.
Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant suggested the move as a way to fund things like sidewalks and greenways, as well as improvements to city recreation centers. But there is a hitch, he noted: Such bonds, often accompanied by an increase in property taxes, must be approved by both voters and the state’s Local Government Commission. Mayor Terry Bellamy encouraged Durant to explore comparable cases in other cities that have avoided raising taxes.
Those considerations, stressed Durant, make it essential to get voters on board. “You want projects that are highly visible and can get community support,” he said. “If we’re going to take on any significant amount of debt, you want the public behind you on that.”
The city has held similar referendums several times since 1981, with mixed results. And the specter of a nationwide economic slump raised another red flag.
“Is now the right time, given the economic atmosphere?” asked Durant. “We need to answer that question.”
For some on Council, the answer was no.
“We are in a clear state of economic turmoil,” declared Council member Carl Mumpower. “Our timing couldn’t be worse.”
Council member Robin Cape agreed. “We are not in a stable economic climate,” she said. “We are facing a budget year with a constrained staff.”
And though Council member Brownie Newman said he’d like to see more on the idea, he didn’t want to rush into it. Waiting until 2009, he argued, would allow more time to rally community support.
Durant is slated to return to Council in midsummer with a list of projects that could be funded by the bonds.
Ahead of the curve
Since adopting a traffic-calming policy in 2000, the city has implemented some form of calming along 10 of Asheville’s 400 miles of residential streets, Assistant Director of Transportation and Engineering Ken Putnam reported.
Those measures, which range from four-way stops to concrete islands, vary in both cost and effectiveness, he said. Putnam’s presentation, requested by Newman earlier this year, revisited the policy implemented under former Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek. According to the staff report, Newman wanted to examine alternatives to some of the approaches the city has been using, such as speed humps.
“We don’t have any magic answers to traffic calming,” said Putnam. “I don’t think any one of these strategies will do what we want to do.”
Traffic calming is intended to serve two purposes he said: slowing traffic and encouraging motorists using neighborhood roads as shortcuts to choose other routes.
That said, Putnam’s presentation did cover islands, speed humps and four-way stops. But he also mentioned nongovernmental programs, established by residents in other cities, that seek to raise driver awareness and increase cooperation.
Such programs, he said, may help reduce negative public reactions to traffic calming.
“Traffic calming is very controversial,” warned Putnam. “We don’t get 100 percent consensus when we go down this road.”
Neither drivers nor residents are always happy about obstructions in the road, and as Newman pointed out, many of those strategies require extra signage—an eyesore in residential areas.
Putnam, however, championed one method—on-street parking—as a quick, cost-free solution. “It’s one of the most effective things we can do at no cost,” he said. But the appropriateness of on-street parking varies, because at least a 10-foot open lane must be maintained. Additional problems arise when garbage trucks cannot access curbside trash cans, but Putnam said neighbors usually respond to requests to move their cars on collection days.
Among the structural devices, speed humps are the most cost-effective, said Putnam, but they create problems for emergency vehicles. A speed hump, he noted, can delay a fire truck by five seconds and an ambulance carrying a patient by 10 seconds.
Council took no formal action on Putnam’s information but said it may revisit the issue later.
Council member Holly Jones proposed that the city get involved with the Countdown to Zero Coalition, formed after the Buncombe County commissioners set a target date of 2012 to stop euthanizing healthy animals (see Buncombe County Commission, Dec. 13, 2006 Xpress.)
The initiative comprises animal-advocacy groups such as the Asheville Humane Society and the Animal Compassion Network, as well as county government.
“It has really helped [address] that tragedy in the last couple of years,” said Jones. “But there is still a lot of work to be done.”
At this point, she noted, the city’s participation does not entail committing money or staff time—which cleared the way for other Council members to support the idea.
“I’ve asked a lot of different ways, ‘What’s the catch?’” Jones told her colleagues.
The item will appear on the consent agenda for the March 25 formal session.
Planting a seed
Ever heard of salvia? Mumpower has, and he’s concerned about it. Said to have hallucinogenic properties, Salvia divinorum is sold in local head shops, he noted.
The unlikely topic came up at the end of a discussion of Council’s upcoming legislative agenda, as Mumpower tried to gin up support from his colleagues to call on the General Assembly for a change in the herb’s legal status. No one was biting, however, and the conversation quickly moved on. But drug use and interdiction is not a topic that Mumpower typically lets go of easily, and this may not be the last Council hears about salvia.