Holding the line

Asheville City Council May 24, 2011 meeting

  • City to extend Clingman bike lane
  • Brevard Road Ingles gets sign variance

Despite disputes over fee increases and rainy-day funds, Asheville City Council members approved a $132.5 million budget for the next fiscal year at their May 24 meeting. Passed by a 6-1 margin, the budget includes no property- or sales-tax increases.

Mayor Terry Bellamy cast the lone opposing vote, citing a number of concerns: water-rate increases for commercial and industrial customers; an increase in the household recycling fee; the lack of a cost-of-living increase for city employees; and the failure to meet Council’s stated goal of keeping the city’s reserve fund at 15 percent of total expenditures. In the current fiscal year (which ends June 30), the fund balance stood at 14.2 percent. Staff expects to maintain the same percentage in the new fiscal year.

Sharing Bellamy’s concern about water rates, Council member Bill Russell got his colleagues to commit to revisiting the issue at some unspecified future date, with an eye toward giving manufacturers a break compared with other large commercial customers. “When someone leaves the community and turns off a 24-inch butterfly valve that shoots water into a manufacturing facility, that takes money away from taxpayers, versus opening it up and creating a lot of revenue,” Russell argued.

Council member Cecil Bothwell challenged the idea of using the city’s water rates to attract and keep businesses here. “Is it a policy that the city needs to stick to of making all the citizens help provide jobs for some of the citizens?” he wondered. Bothwell added that he doesn’t believe municipalities should provide tax breaks to subsidize new development. “I think we ought to have development happen [because the developer] finds it attractive to be here, because we’re a great city.”

Bellamy, meanwhile, said the rate increase (a concern shared by several other Council members), coupled with the other issues, made it impossible for her to support the spending plan. “I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone that I’m not in support of the budget. Over the past few months, I’ve been clear at our work sessions about my [lack of] support for several issues that have come forward,” the mayor explained.

Several budget amendments were included in the consent agenda; one allocates $250,000 for the Clingman Avenue streetscape project. According to staff, the money was saved from two other recently completed construction projects: Patton Avenue sidewalks and Kimberly Avenue resurfacing. The amendment came in response to concerns by members of the bicycling community that the existing bike climbing lane, installed last year, creates an unsafe situation because it doesn’t extend all the way to Hilliard Avenue, causing the street to narrow abruptly on a steep hill. Among other things, the amendment will fund extending the bike lane to Hilliard.

“As someone who rides that hill pretty regularly on my bicycle, I can attest to the safety issues,” noted Council member Gordon Smith. Bellamy, however, objected to using sidewalk money for bike lanes, asking that the amendment be pulled off the consent agenda for a separate vote. It was approved 6-1.

Ingles expansion approved

After a pair of public hearings, City Council approved two measures clearing the way for an expanded Ingles grocery at 863 Brevard Road. Ingles plans to demolish the current 53,500-square-foot store and replace it with one nearly double the size, at just over 99,000 square feet. The redeveloped site will include a 4,800-square-foot gas-station canopy and retail kiosk. The proposed redevelopment was unanimously approved.

The second vote, on the signage for the new store, proved more controversial. It was necessary because the proposed 292-square-foot signage exceeded the maximum allowed by the city (167 square feet). Smith voiced concerns, saying, “It appears that this is the kind of standard signage package that Ingles asks for regularly whenever they’re doing any sort of building, and each time the variance is granted. At some level, I think that amounts to a special … exemption for a single company.”

Bothwell agreed, declaring, “I find it impossible to believe that anyone will turn in off the road and not be able to find the building. I think that allowing them to have excessive signs is ridiculous.”

Vice Mayor Brownie Newman disputed that view, citing similar exemptions made for Mission Hospital and the Biltmore Park Town Square development. The signage exemption was approved 5-2, with Bothwell and Smith opposed. No member of the public spoke during either hearing.

Other business

On other fronts, Council members:
• Heard a third-quarter financial report. Staff now projects a $1.35 million shortfall in general-fund revenue for the current fiscal year. As of March 31, the city had collected roughly $71.7 million — about 81 percent of the total projected for the year that ends June 30. Expenditures through March 31 totaled $60.9 million, around 68.4 percent of the budgeted total. The reduced expenses are expected to roughly balance out the revenue shortfall.
• Unanimously supported sending a letter to the N.C. General Assembly opposing legislation proposed by Rep. Tim Moffitt that would seize the city’s water system and turn it over to the Metropolitan Sewerage District.
• Appointed Brendan Ross and Brian Cook to the Historic Resources Commission, and Council member Esther Manheimer to the Metropolitan Sewerage District board.

— Christopher George can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cgeorge@mountainx.com.

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