- Asheville City Council June 22, 2010 meeting
- $136 million budget approved
- Council ponders reopening pedestrian bridge
- URTV suddenly solvent
At their July 22 meeting, Asheville City Council members pulled the plug on the Asheville Film Festival not with a bang but a whimper, jettisoning the event on a 6-0 vote.
"There's a sadness right now; I thought it was a great festival and had the potential to be an even greater one," said Council member Jan Davis. "My hope is that whatever we do, it has a heritage here, and privatization can be a very successful model."
Whereas most festivals are run by nonprofits or private companies, Asheville's was an in-house affair shepherded by the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department. But after overseeing it since 2003, city staff now wanted it gone, citing its unbroken history of losing money ($23,968 last year) and the city's current budget crunch.
"This comes with some regret: It has been a love of the staff to do this," City Manager Gary Jackson told Council. "But this comes with a recognition that we're here to provide core services [such as] public safety, police, fire. This is simply something that government can't do as well as the private sector."
Council members seemed to agree, though not without some sorrow. And they left it to staff to figure out how to dispose of the official trademark and web address (though that decision will still need Council approval).
Local filmmaker Tom Anton, who's pulling together his own event for September 2011, had expressed interest in taking over the city's festival, but he now says he's "not interested in obtaining the logo or the website or any funding from the city. We've already had tremendous response from the community" for the Asheville International Film Festival.
However, there may be another suitor: Andre Gower of CinemaSouth. "The alternative is to find someone who can execute a successful event and show just what Asheville has to offer," he told Council. "I've got 30 years' experience in the entertainment industry." (Reporter David Forbes is an organizer for yet another such event, the Ricochet Film Festival, scheduled for this September.)
"It's a little disappointing that we put all this money in and built this brand, and now there's kind of an end run around it," Council member Esther Manheimer observed. "It's a learning moment."
After months of compromise, wrangling and debate, City Council unanimously approved a $136 million budget for fiscal year 2010-11. (Council member Bill Russell was absent due to a family emergency.) Originally showing a $5 million deficit, the budget avoids raising taxes or drawing more from reserve funds by cutting training, overtime and temp jobs while raising water fees, among other measures.
In addition, city staff found $143,000 in fees recently paid to the city that can be used to build more sidewalks, which are needed in many neighborhoods.
That, however, still leaves the city facing many financial challenges.
"We are a wonderful place to live, work and play, but demand for city services is growing," noted Mayor Terry Bellamy. "The way to pay for those services is diminishing; it's time we thought about a bond referendum for our community. How are we going to pay for parks or streets or greenways without additional funding? We don't want to raise taxes, but everybody wants increased services, so we're at a crossroads."
Ultimately, said Council member Gordon Smith, the choice is stark: lower taxes and lower services or higher taxes and higher services. "Eventually, there's nothing left to cut," he said.
Council also discussed a nonagenda item: reopening a pedestrian bridge across Interstate 240 after Swannanoa resident Anthony Gilmore was struck and killed June 16 while crossing the highway to reach the Hillcrest Apartments public housing.
Smith, who's called for reopening the bridge and clearing an overgrown sidewalk linking it to downtown, said Gilmore's father has gathered 300 signatures from Hillcrest residents supporting the move.
"It is time to revisit this issue: 1994 was a different time, a different police chief and a different attitude toward communities, crime and drugs," noted Smith. "What we're doing right now isn't working; people are running across that street and getting killed."
Council member Cecil Bothwell said he and other Z-Link volunteers planned to clear the sidewalk on June 26.
Davis, however, urged caution. "It's not a good situation, but it's very important to realize it was closed for a reason. … As bad as the traffic situation was, there were also lives lost to the drug trade and trafficking. I wouldn't want to make a hasty decision based on emotion; we need to have that discussion."
At Bellamy's suggestion, Council agreed to send the issue to its Public Safety Committee for consideration, saying there needs to be a "comprehensive conversation" involving city staff, Hillcrest residents and the state Department of Transportation, which would have to sign off on reopening the bridge.
Board member Bob Horn briefed Council on the WNC Community Media Center's current services, including public-access television, web radio and video training.
But the big news came later, when Council asked about the Media Center's much-publicized financial woes. "I've heard you're going to close in September or October; I also hear there's a plan to save it," said Smith. "What's the situation?"
"We got behind on our funding from the county, so we let the community know," answered Horn. "We thought we'd be proactive. We weren't having funding issues ourselves; we just needed the money owed to us. … Basically, at this stage, we calculate we can continue on until this time next year."
Buncombe County recently released $48,000 in PEG funds— money paid by cable subscribers specifically to support public channels — but pointedly refused to give the nonprofit any additional money, as many URTV producers had urged. Now, however, Horn was telling a decidedly different story.
Not everyone was buying it. During the public-comment period, local public-access producer Steve Holland called for an investigation, saying the numbers don't add up. "There are too many issues converging before you about the [Media Center]," he said. "Had the board made efforts to understand the funding situation, we wouldn't have the current crisis."
URTV representatives, Holland emphasized, had repeatedly said they needed $200,000 to $300,000 just to keep operating, but they now seemed content with far less. Holland also criticized the previous ousting of dissenting board members.
City staff said they're drawing up a new, multiyear contract with the Media Center. Davis noted that "discrepancies" in the various claims about URTV's funding situation and management need to be examined before a new agreement is signed.
• Bellamy's motion to ask the DOT to fund east Asheville sidewalk improvements failed 3-3, with Davis, Smith and Vice Mayor Brownie Newman opposed because the item wasn't on the agenda.
• Conditional zoning for the life-safety tower being added to the Buncombe County Courthouse was approved 6-0.
• Council voted 5-1 to renew lease agreements with two mixed-use projects near Biltmore Avenue. Bothwell voted no, saying the deals amount to subsidizing hotel chains in exchange for more parking and that the city needs to start taking steps to reduce automobile use.
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.