Long meetings make for tensions that rival the Kosovo crisis, declared one exasperated Asheville City Council observer on June 8.
But instead of ethnic tensions, the testy squabble that night stemmed more from philosophical differences (as well as a city-staff-vs. Council spat). Mayor Leni Sitnick said 10-cents-a-day is far too little to charge Honda Hoot participants for the privilege of parking downtown during the group’s June 22-26 event. Vice Mayor Ed Hay deemed the discounted rate acceptable, considering the Hoot’s overall $7 million local economic impact. Hoot representative Charles Keller said that he’d struck a deal with city staff and thought it should be honored. And then city staff waded into the fray, complaining about mixed messages from Council.
“We enjoy coming here [to Asheville] a lot, but we [also] enjoy having some parking spaces,” Keller told Council members. He urged them to accept staff’s proposal that preregistered Hoot participants would pay 50 cents for a five-day parking sticker, and latecomers would pay $3. Keller reminded Council that he had met with them last September. It was his recollection that Council had subsequently directed city staff to work out the details of a parking plan with Hoot organizers — and, he explained, the 50-cent proposal was the result. Keller said he was unaware that the deal still required Council’s approval — and, what’s more, that Hoot organizers had sent out brochures and event information to potential participants, detailing this year’s arrangements.
Sitnick replied, “We had not approved it yet.” She said it’s unfair to charge Hoot participants what amounts to 10 cents a day, when city residents, employees and other visitors to Asheville may soon have to pay 75 cents per hour to use metered parking spaces (the current hourly rate is 25 cents). When Council member Earl Cobb offered a compromise — that preregistered participants pay $3 for the week, and latecomers $5 — Sitnick said she could support that, calling Cobb’s figures “[not] an unreasonable request on our part.”
Keller reiterated that he had been told to work out a deal with City Finance Director Bill Schaefer and had had no idea that he needed to come before Council for final approval. He said city staff had repeatedly told him, “It was an internal matter.”
To which City Manager Jim Westbrook interjected that he had never said Council’s approval was not required.
And Sitnick emphasized, “Staff doesn’t make policy; Council does.” It was her recollection (and she read from the minutes of the meeting referred to by Keller) that Council had discussed setting a parking-and-fee policy for special events like the Hoot.
Keller said he could see that parking fees are, in general, a “tough issue” for Council (he had just sat through almost three hours of city-budget discussions, which included an extensive report of why downtown-parking rates need to be raised). He’d also heard Council members complain about the allegedly unfair practices and towing charges of a local towing company (Sonny’s). But Keller seemed to be feeling some frustrations of his own, as he repeated his claim that Hoot organizers had believed they had an agreement with the city. “I kind of feel like I’m getting a Sonny’s tow job here this week,” he observed.
Schaefer then shared a bit of his frustration, telling Council that he’d first attempted to put the proposal before them in March, only to be directed to send it to the Fees and Charges Subcommittee (made up of Council members). After winning their approval, the proposal hit another snag when it was deemed to pertain to “special events” and so entailed amending a city ordinance. That said, he returned to subject under debate: the exact nature of city staff’s dialogue with Hoot organizers. He offered this assessment: “We worked out a tentative agreement.”
But that wasn’t the “whole truth” even for Schaefer, who had more to say to Council. “I have a problem with understanding where you’re coming from,” he observed. The deal with Honda will bring the city substantially more parking revenue than have past events, he pointed out. (Last year, parking fees from the Hoot brought in about $750; in priors years, nothing was charged.) Schaefer also noted that the Hoot has preregistered 4,000 participants — 1,000 more than they had anticipated. At least 1,000 additional participants are expected to show up the week of the event. This year, under the terms of the tentative agreement, he projected, parking revenues will total at least $5,000.
With that, he recommended that Council approve the proposal.
But Council member Chuck Cloninger cited other considerations: Council is dealing with a variety of downtown parking problems and is considering raising parking fees, in general. He added that it had been his understanding that city staff was going to report back to Council on the details of the Hoot proposal.
“We did,” Schaefer replied.
Vice Mayor Ed Hay stepped into the mounting fray, remarking, “We’re missing the point here: The Honda Hoot brings $7 million into the city.” He pointed out that the Civic Center gains revenue from the event, local hotel rooms get filled, restaurants sell food, and the city gains sales-tax revenues. “This is good for the city,” Hay insisted.
“[But] all future events are going to want the same deal,” countered Sitnick. She mentioned the phone calls she has received from residents and downtown-business owners — most of them complaining about the noise, street closures and general inconvenience caused by the Hoot. “[Council] has to represent all the people,” she said, emphasizing, nonetheless, that she appreciates the group’s wanting to hold the event in Asheville.
After listening to an hour of this three-sided squabble, Asheville resident Hazel Fobes urged Council to get on with the meeting and come to the bargaining table. “It’s a little bit like NATO and Milosevic in here this evening,” she remarked, observing that both sides were hearing only what they wanted to hear. “Look at what time it is,” Fobes added, pointing to the clock. “It’s a quarter till 9.”
Fobes argued that Council should have just “stayed out of it” and let city staff handle the negotiations. If Council reneges on the proposal, she said, the Hoot might not come back next year. And if Keller has to relay a last-minute rate increase to his constituents, “They’ll have his head,” she predicted.
On that note, Council member Barbara Field jumped in with a motion that Council adopt the 50-cent proposal. Seconded by Tommy Sellers, it passed, 5-2 (Cloninger and Sitnick opposed).
Asheville City Council members want to be perfectly clear: Increasing downtown-parking fees merely represents an effort to cover the cost of providing parking — it’s not an attempt to raise funds for constructing a Grove Arcade parking deck.
With this and other points explained, the public was invited to speak at the June 8 public hearing on the city’s proposed 1999/2000 budget.
Most commonly heard from the handful of speakers were calls for Council to: trim the luxuries, such as the newly created public-information-officer position; increase the budgeted amount for construction and maintenance of streets and sidewalks; and drop plans to create the new position of center-city director.
“It seems extravagant to spend almost $50,000 on a new public-information officer, just because City Council has received some bad press [this past year],” said Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods Vice President Brian Peterson.
As for the proposal to create a center-city-development director, Downtown Commission Chair Carol King told Council that it is much needed. Such a director would serve as a liaison between the city and downtown businesses, support the city’s new economic-development director, and oversee the development of a new center-city plan. A few decades ago, downtown was nearly dead, but thanks to private investment and city-staff support (the city had a downtown-development director until a few years ago), it has become a thriving part of the city once again, King explained: Since 1994, for example, the assessed value of downtown real estate has increased from $105 million to $150 million.
But downtown is changing, and the city needs a plan for it that looks to the future, including the adjacent neighborhoods. “Today’s growth calls for a new plan [and] a new focus,” declared King.
On another note, Buncombe resident Don Yelton suggested that the city set aside a small percentage of its budget — perhaps using money saved from making the cuts mentioned by Peterson — to give to the Regional Water Authority, so it can repair its leaky distribution pipes.
Asheville Area Rescue Squad Deputy Chief Tony Gilbert pleaded with Council to fund his organization in the 1999/2000 fiscal year. A Council subcommittee has recommended not funding the squad — which, among other things, provides ambulance service for the city and county, and a volunteer medical team at Bele Chere. In asking Council to reconsider, Gilbert also tossed in a mild threat: If Council doesn’t fund the group, the rescue squad will be forced to take back a jaws-of-life tool that it lent the city Fire Department for rescuing car-wreck victims trapped in their vehicles.
Council members, who won’t vote on the budget until June 22, made little reply to any of these suggestions. But Sitnick did say she was reconsidering the public-information-officer position (she had originally asked for it, at Council’s 1999 retreat). And Fire Chief John Rukavina said city staff would be able to compensate for the loss of services and equipment provided by the Rescue Squad.
Weighing heavier on Council’s mind was the proposed budget for city parking services.
City Finance Director Bill Schaefer noted that parking services are an “enterprise fund” — meaning user fees are supposed to cover the maintenance and operating costs for the parking decks, metered spaces and surface lots owned by the city. Parking services have yet to break even, however — requiring, at times, a large subsidy from city coffers, he explained. Eleven years ago, that subsidy approached $1 million, he noted.
Last year, parking services did come close to breaking even — but this year, Schaefer said, long-overdue maintenance costs, plus a few unexpected emergencies (repairing the elevator-shaft roof on the Civic Center Parking Deck, replacing old parking meters, and installing new ticket equipment in all the decks — will create a $500,000 shortfall. If Council raises parking rates, that amount could be cut in half, he continued. Schaefer emphasized that parking-meter rates haven’t been raised since 1991. Parking-deck fees for monthly customers last increased in 1995, when City Council raised them to $38 (the fee was $20 in 1988).
A recent parking study concluded that parking fees need to be raised for another reason: Too many downtown workers feed the meters all day, taking up spaces intended for downtown visitors and shoppers. As a result of the study, city staff recommended raising the fees — to 75 cents an hour for metered spaces (currently 25 cents), $50 for monthly parking-deck privileges (currently $38), $30 for monthly surface-lot spaces (currently $20 and $25), and $10 for parking fines (currently $5).
Schaefer, Hay and other Council members voiced concern about media reports alleging that the increases were being proposed as a way to fund a parking deck for the Grove Arcade — which, when completed, will house shops, restaurants and residences. “This has nothing to do with the Grove Arcade [renovation],” Hay commented. “The increases are an effort to make parking [services] break even,” he said.
The city’s most recent parking study concluded that a new deck is needed, both to meet current downtown parking needs and to accomodate Arcade shoppers.
Council member Chuck Cloninger added that the meter-rate increase is aimed at deterring people who feed the meters all day and encouraging them to use the decks instead (as an incentive, the hourly rate in all decks will remain 50 cents). He also observed that the city’s decks “have had a tremendous impact on downtown economic development. … They have been a major tool in the redevelopment of downtown.” As for the proposed rates, Cloninger reported that, during his recent Charlotte visit, he had had to pay $9 to park in a deck for a mere three hours.
But Council member Field complained that the monthly rate increase hits small businesses hard: The owner of TOPS For Shoes, who rents about 40 spaces per month for his employees, would face an annual increase of approximately $6,000.
With that in mind, O.T. Tomes suggested that Council increase the rates incrementally over the next few years, “rather than putting the whammy on [customers] all at one time.”
Council members made no decision on parking rates, or any other aspect of the $59 million city budget. But Sitnick remarked, “Years ago, we were told no one would use the parking decks. We’re the victims of our own success.”