Asheville City Council

After a month of bargaining, jockeying and pleas for unity, City Council members remain sharply divided on how to combat drug trafficking. But at least this time they came away with a decision of sorts.

Despite Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower‘s repeated attempts to sell his colleagues on a $1 million law-enforcement blitz in Asheville’s public-housing complexes, however, it was an alternate plan that won the crucial four votes at the June 1 budget work session.

Ever since Mumpower dropped his budgetary bomb back in early May, there’s been grumbling among his fellow city leaders about both the nature of the proposal and the media-grabbing way it was introduced. At the time, Council members Holly Jones and Terry Bellamy blasted the initiative for focusing only on low-income, nonwhite neighborhoods and not embodying a “holistic” approach that also included job and educational programs.

In what he stressed was his fifth attempt to achieve a compromise, Mumpower detailed a 21-point plan that carried the same substantial price tag. And to drive home his point, he cited information from the Asheville Police Department indicating rising local heroin and methamphetamine use to complement an already severe crack problem.

“The future is not as bright as it needs to be, or we want it to be,” declared Mumpower.

At its heart, the argument revolves around not only the initiative’s focus, but also its cost. Both Mumpower and Council member Joe Dunn repeatedly stressed that the situation calls for a swift and emphatic police crackdown. Only then, they maintained, can social programs that beef up education and job growth begin.

“It’s going to have to be a show of force,” insisted Dunn. “If we’re not going to find the money for more officers, we might as well not go there.”

But to satisfy Mumpower’s request, the APD would need 12 more police officers at a first-year cost of $1 million, interim Chief Ross Robinson confirmed. The next year, with training and equipment expenses out of the way, the city’s financial hit would shrink to about $550,000.

“This is the year to step up and do our weeding,” Mumpower proclaimed, adding that $1 million isn’t much compared to the amount Mission St. Joseph’s Health System and other local facilities spend on drug users each year.

But Mumpower’s plan gives no indication of where to find the money, and the non-law-enforcement components aren’t included in the $1 million figure (see sidebar, “A Tale of Two Blueprints”).

Jones and Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, were equally adamant that without those social programs, the community would not support the initiative. And without a broad base of support, such a local war on drugs would be doomed to failure.

Battling battle plans

At the start of the June 1 meeting — whose only agenda was to work on ironing out the remaining budgetary disputes in the face of the looming June 30 deadline — Mumpower handed out copies of his three-page Comprehensive Compromise Proposal Plan V to members of the media and those sitting in the audience. Hot on his heels came Newman, distributing a two-page document called the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, which bore his name as well as those of Jones, Bellamy and Mayor Charles Worley.

In order to be adopted, a drug plan would have to be included in whatever budget Council members eventually approve (a final vote is scheduled for the June 22 formal session). At press time, a public hearing on the budget was slated to be held during Council’s June 8 formal session.

“I know there are probably several different views,” said the mayor as he opened the meeting, but with three names on Mumpower’s document (the third was Council member Jan Davis) and the remaining four on Newman’s, it soon became apparent that only those two views were really at stake.

Mumpower’s latest version of his plan contained many of the original components; first and foremost was the call for a hefty chunk of cash. The following measures were also included: instructing newly appointed police Chief Bill Hogan to establish a hard-drug interdiction program, creating both a task force and a multidepartmental committee, and improving the relationships among the various drug-fighting agencies.

The initiative did call for a “Jobs Won!” program and an adult-mentoring program as well. An earlier attempt to launch a jobs program had ended in failure due to lack of community interest and involvement, Mumpower later told Xpress.

But as Newman pointed out, the $1 million in Mumpower’s plan would be spent on the initiative’s cardinal point: beefed-up law enforcement.

The Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, noted Newman, includes funding for a tutoring program intended to foster better education while creating jobs; additional money would be earmarked for affordable-housing and community-policing efforts.

The total package would cost an estimated $600,000, and the plan also takes a stab at answering the big question: Where would the money come from? (Although Budget Director Ben Durant had previously reported that Asheville has some cash to spare, that money is apparently destined to replenish the city’s fund balance.)

The plan calls for a 0.5 percent reduction in the proposed raises for city staff and/or the proposed increases in the city’s contribution to 401(k) plans. Other budget items targeted for cuts include the capital-improvements allocations for vehicles and city parks (see sidebar).

City Manager Jim Westbrook said he would pursue whatever avenues Council instructs him to. But he also asked for permission to seek other funding sources.

“We haven’t been lavish with raises,” cautioned Westbrook, adding that 401(k) increases are supposed to keep pace with the increasing cost of living.

Newman, however, urged Westbrook not to lose sight of the bigger issue. “If you’re not going to talk about personnel cuts, there’s not a million dollars,” he said.

That kept the money in the spotlight, as Council members tossed around ideas on how to fund either initiative without inflicting too much pain.

“We believe it is irresponsible to propose huge increases in government spending without explaining how it will be paid for,” states the alternate report in an apparent reference to Mumpower’s plan.

But the vice mayor took exception to the use of the word “irresponsible,” calling it a personal attack rather than a practical one. He chided his fellow Council members, urging them to steer clear of personal insults — and calling the attempt to find such funding “arrogant.”

Jones responded that she thought it was her charge as an elected official to make such suggestions.

“I had heard that staff wanted us to give you that direction,” she told Westbrook.

The ABCs of funding

Even Joe Dunn, Mumpower’s ally on the drug plan, affirmed that he thinks it’s irresponsible to increase government spending; he also renewed his call for Council to speak with a unified voice. That done, however, he had a funding idea of his own: raiding the local Alcoholic Beverage Control Board’s treasury.

“The board had $14 million in sales last year,” Dunn said. “It has $1.7 million in the bank right now.”

Noting that the ABC Board already provides more than $150,000 in state-required educational funding plus additional donations every year, Dunn suggested that Council reach out and grab some extra dough.

“If we demand — not ask — that $62,000 be given where we want it, we could fund two, three or four of these [unfunded items in the Mumpower plan],” Dunn declared. “We need to have these boards working for the best interests of Asheville.” That money, he said, would be in addition to whatever the board would otherwise provide (last year, the ABC board gave the city $581,000, all told).

“We have a community crisis here,” asserted Dunn. “We need to hold them accountable.”

But he continued to insist that any extra funding should finance a police crackdown rather than jobs and educational measures.

“I do think we’re treading on a slippery slope. For the city to create enough jobs to end drug use, that’s never going to happen,” argued Dunn. “And I think we’ve done all that we can do as far as education.”

Davis agreed.

“We got a problem, folks,” he said, reminding Council members of the recent fatal stabbing in Pritchard Park. “What you gotta do is get rid of these people that are terrorizing the neighborhoods; then social programs will fall into place.”

But Jones emphasized that the Safe Neighborhoods plan was compiled with the input of the community — a necessary element for success.

“To characterize these initiatives as social services is just incorrect,” argued Jones. “We need community involvement. If they don’t support it, it ain’t going nowhere.”

In the end, it was Mayor Worley who tried to steer the meeting toward some sort of conclusion.

“There’s a lot we have in common,” he said. “When you listen to both proposals, we’re probably a lot closer than we realized. I think we’re getting to the point where we’re going to have to make decisions.”

Although a formal vote on any such plan will have to wait until the June 22 formal session, a straw vote was taken to give city staff some interim direction.

And even after Mumpower scaled back his request to $750,000, the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative prevailed on a 4-3 vote.

Some change did come out of the debate, though, as several components of Mumpower’s plan seemed to gain some support among Council members: establishing a local component of the federal Weed and Seed Program (a community-based initiative that follows law-enforcement “weeding” with social-assistance “seeding”), quarterly Council updates by the police, and tapping the ABC Board as a funding source.

Still, Mumpower hasn’t given up on his law-enforcement approach. In a later conversation, he told Xpress that he plans to keep pushing at the next few meetings — and even when future budgets are up for consideration.

“It’ll happen eventually,” he predicted.

A tale of two blueprints

Here’s a look at the two drug proposals now on the table:

Comprehensive Compromise Proposal Plan V

Supported by: Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, Council members Jan Davis, Joe Dunn

Estimated cost to the city: $1 million

Where the money goes: hiring, training and equipping 12 police officers

Also includes:

• Street-level drug-interdiction plan to be drawn up by police chief

• Hard Drug Interdiction Task Force and Enforcement Advisory Committee

• Quarterly Council updates by police

• Establishing a “For Our Kids” program in each public-housing development

• Community hot line

• Therapist volunteer program

• Jobs Won! program through private businesses to provide jobs

• Multi-agency partnerships with DEA, attorney general, FBI, etc.

• Drug education on local public-access channel and in school

• Firearms buyback program

• Adult-mentoring system (through churches and volunteer groups)

• Establish local Operation Weed and Seed program

• Encourage private employers to support drug-free workplaces and drug screening

• Seek additional funding from ABC board

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