- Asheville City Council April 27 meeting
- Council bans smoking in parks
- Bus service ramped up
- Budget shortfall mostly closed
Among the many strategies Asheville has embraced to balance next year's budget is cutting aid to local groups. Part of that approach — requiring event organizers to pay a greater share of the costs — loomed large at Asheville City Council's April 27 session.
Thirty-three outdoor events meet the city's criteria for assistance. A proposed measure singled out six — the Asheville Drum Circle, Greek Festival, Holiday Parade, Downtown After 5, Goombay and Shindig on the Green — reducing their fee waivers by 50 percent to save the city an estimated $57,148 annually.
Apparently, Council members didn't view the move as controversial; the new requirement, which would take effect July 1, were on the consent agenda, a list of routine matters approved en masse at the beginning of Council meetings.
But a bevy of groups came forward seeking exemptions from the cuts.
Marie Shirley asked Council to exempt the Alzheimer's Association's Mountain Memory Walk, which she termed not simply an event but "an opportunity to start a conversation."
Oralene Simmons of the Martin Luther King Jr. Association stressed the importance of the group's annual events celebrating King's legacy. "This is the only event sponsored by the city of Asheville that is a local, state and federal holiday," she pointed out. "We would urge support from City Council for the waiver of fees for this event that we would like to produce for our citizens as we have for the past 29 years."
Downtown Association President Byron Greiner sounded a similar note on behalf of Downtown After 5 and the Holiday Parade, saying, "We've created events that energize downtown and bring people here. A discussion of [the changes to event fees] should really be brought before the Downtown Association for review."
Kitty Love of Arts2People, which coordinates the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival, also opposed the measure, saying, "I think it's the wrong time to start cutting back on social programming that's produced via the community. Cities and states all over the country are starting to recognize that funding arts and culture pays back."
Council members seemed sympathetic but uncertain how to proceed. Cecil Bothwell made a motion to proceed with the cuts, but it failed to find a second.
Mayor Terry Bellamy, noting that Council had already asked event sponsors to shoulder more expenses last year, underscored the need to give groups time to adapt to the new status quo.
"We're creating more antagonistic feelings as opposed to allies," she said. "We can't keep changing the rules." Bellamy and Vice Mayor Brownie Newman proposed treating the next fiscal year as a transition period for event organizers.
Council member Jan Davis, conceding that "We're in a tight time," fondly recalled his experiences at Downtown After 5 and felt the city should offer some support for the Holiday Parade, which it had handed off to the Downtown Association as a prior cost-cutting measure.
"We're going to have some stark choices to make — [whether] to support this type of programming or find a way to do it outside the city," observed Council member Gordon Smith.
In the end, Council unanimously opted to postpone a decision till its May 25 meeting. But that wasn't quite the end of it.
"I'd like to point out the elephant in the living room throughout this budget year [that], based on economic predictions, may well be an elephant for the next several years," said Bothwell. "That's the decision about whether we're going to be a lower-service community or not. The alternative to that is to raise taxes, and that is something that's pretty much off the table as far as most people on Council are concerned."
If residents want to maintain the current level of services, he added, they should press Council for a modest tax increase.
The Downtown Association had more success with a push to continue waiving usage fees for the arts events held in Pritchard Park. Advocates maintained that events such as hoop dancing make the park safer and more accessible. Council members mostly agreed, voting 6-1 (with Smith opposed) to extend the waivers through June 30. Then, in a separate action, Council further extended the waivers through the end of 2010 on a 5-2 vote, with Smith and Bothwell opposed.
Smith had proposed extending fee waivers for the events through next summer. Bothwell, meanwhile, felt Council was making a "value judgment" by favoring the Pritchard Park events, but proponents argued that the safety concerns make this a unique situation.
"We're supporting this because we're trying to reclaim our park from being a very troubled area," noted Newman.
Smoked out (again)
A new state law banning smoking inside bars and restaurants took effect Jan. 1. The law also empowers municipalities to approve even stricter rules, and on April 27, City Council did so, banning smoking on all municipal property, including parks and greenways, on a 6-1 vote.
Bothwell, the lone dissenter, had worried earlier about the ban's implications, asking, "Is this going to infringe on the beer festival?" He also cited the difficulty of enforcing the law and said it was hypocritical for the city to have smoking areas for its own employees (which the ban exempts) but punish someone for smoking in a secluded part of a park.
Smith, noting that Buncombe County had passed an even stricter ban with no exemption for employees, said, "They have yet to write a single citation: The idea is that it will be more of a community-policing effort."
"We're sending a message," chimed in Council member Esther Manheimer. "As a mother of three kids, that's the real important part to me."
For Asheville resident Jeff Turner, however, the ban smacked of fascism. "I'm a veteran, and this sounds like Nazi Germany up here," he declared. "I'm willing to put my life on the line to be able to smoke, and you people are sitting up here like you're in some Third World regime taking away people's rights with your dictating."
Turner swore he'd be among the first to violate the new ordinance. During the public-comment period, however, Turner apologized for his "spirited outburst" and praised Council for its "fiscal responsibility" in tackling budget issues.
Smoking is still allowed on sidewalks and public streets. And though it does have a wider reach — smoking was previously prohibited only inside city buildings — the ordinance (which takes effect July 1) also lowers the fine from $200 to $50.
Council unanimously approved a series of transit-improvement measures, including running buses every 30 minutes on the most-used routes and following the same routes for day and evening service. But Council member Bill Russell balked at supporting a $150,000 marketing campaign to promote the changes (which was approved 6-1), citing concerns about the cost in tight times.
All told, the marketing and route changes will cost an estimated $163,000, with $130,000 coming from federal stimulus grants and the rest from savings due to more efficient routes and ending evening service a half-hour earlier.
"You're doing right by your fellow citizens, connecting them with jobs, connecting them with health care," Transit Commission Chair Hanna Raskin observed. "You have the opportunity to do right by our citizens once more by supporting this."
"This is a good start," said commission Vice Chair Paul Van Heden, adding that Council should also adopt other proposals in the city's Transit Master Plan, such as expanded hours and Sunday service.
But Fairview resident Mike Fryar took a dim view of the marketing campaign, saying, "I don't know why the city would want to keep wasting money like this."
The city also appears close to closing the remaining $1 million budget gap through a variety of measures staff presented in a pre-meeting work session.
An eleventh-hour offer of $480,000 in Federal Transit Administration moneys averted the need to tap the parking fund to keep the transit system afloat. Other proposals include freezing the salaries for 15 mid- to upper-level positions and eliminating cost-of-living increases for staff making more than the area's median income (about $41,000).
Council members praised staff for finding ways to avoid further cuts in services. Over the past two months, Council members have given the nod (albeit sometimes tentatively) to cuts and fee increases to make up a projected $5 million budget gap.
After further deliberations and public hearings in May, Council members will finalize the budget in June.
David Forbes can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.