Asheville City Council

In poker, four of a kind will always beat three of a kind — hands down. And in politics, four votes will always prevail over three votes, whether you’re counting ayes, nays, raised hands or noses.

Such was the case at the Asheville City Council’s June 22 formal session, when city leaders adopted an operating budget for fiscal year 2004-05 on a 4-3 vote. But the divided opinion behind that slim margin primarily concerned only a single program, which accounted for less than 1 percent of the $98.5 million budget.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, City Council had splintered into two strident camps over how to combat flagrant drug trafficking in the city. Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower proposed spending $1 million to fund “Operation Hard Time”; the money would be used to hire 12 new police officers to crack down on drug dealing in public housing and elsewhere. Council members Jan Davis and Joe Dunn supported the initiative. But Mayor Charles Worley and Council members Terry Bellamy, Holly Jones and Brownie Newman favored what they called a holistic approach to the drug problem. Their “Safe Neighborhoods Initiative” includes job programs and support for affordable housing as well as increased law enforcement. And despite repeated attempts to hammer out a compromise, no one on either side jumped ship.

The Safe Neighborhoods Initiative included in the budget will allocate $600,000 to fund five new police officers, a summer youth program, and a tutoring program for students in public housing.

Last words

Most of the debate focused on the differing approaches proposed by the two camps, as both sides took advantage of this final opportunity to hammer home their points before adopting a budget. Brownie Newman began the deliberations on an optimistic note, saying he was glad City Council “had a focus on this discussion and zeroed in on one of the most important problems facing our community.” The Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, he added, “lays the groundwork for a comprehensive approach.”

Joe Dunn countered with a visual display. Approaching the lectern, he plopped down an Asheville phone book on the overhead projector, opened to a page displaying roughly two dozen numbers for cocaine- and crack-abuse hot lines. The abundance of such numbers, he argued, is proof that “we have got a tremendous drug problem in this city.” Dunn added, “This budget does not reflect the real needs of this community.”

Carl Mumpower echoed that criticism, observing: “We are being deceptive to say that social programs and housing are going to solve our drug problem. … How $200,000 spent on affordable housing is going to have any meaningful impact escapes me.” Mumpower went on to remind Council that he’d requested 12 new police officers on the recommendation of acting Police Chief Ross Robinson. “We asked for 12 because our acting police chief asked for 12 — less than that won’t do it,” declared Mumpower, adding, “Drugs are a cancer, and the [Safe Neighborhoods Initiative] is watered-down chemotherapy.”

The vice mayor also reported that for the past seven days, he’d visited an Asheville neighborhood that “wasn’t in public housing,” and on six of those days he’d observed drug sales. Pleading with the four opposing Council members to reconsider, Mumpower said that if the city chose to adopt the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, “I don’t know if we’re being permissive, protective or lazy.”

Holly Jones was equally emphatic in her rebuttal, declaring: “I take issue with this not being a strong effort. It is a strong effort, because it has heard the people!” Her comment reflected an ongoing debate over which plan had solicited more public input.

Jan Davis seemed to be seeking middle ground, saying, “Somewhere between the two plans is a good plan.” But he added that he wouldn’t support a budget that included the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, because “Police presence is important initially.” Davis also critiqued the way the program would be funded, noting that the budget had trimmed a proposed 3 percent merit pay increase for city employees to 2.5 percent, while Council members gave themselves “a pat on the back” with a $1,000 pay raise. (The budget adopted included a $1,500 pay raise for Council members and a $1,000 pay raise for the mayor and vice mayor.)

Mayor Worley waited until the end of the debate to chime in. When he did, he noted that while Council was divided on its approach to the drug problem, it was encouraging that the elected officials were united in their concern about it. Clearly sensing the split vote to come, Worley reminded his colleagues that the time had come to adopt a budget, adding, “It’s not the end of the world for either side.”

Noticeably subdued during the debate was Terry Bellamy, who’d traded barbs with Mumpower during previous budget sessions. She wasn’t completely silent, however. After Newman made a motion to adopt the budget, Bellamy leaned into her microphone and, without hesitation, said, “Second.”

Mumpower, Dunn and Davis were on the short end of the 4-3 vote to approve the budget.

A very expensive game

Council members also unanimously approved a Downtown Development Agreement expressing the city’s interest in having the Grove Park Inn explore the feasibility of developing a large, mixed-use building on city-owned property adjacent to City Hall on Marjorie Street.

The agreement, a contract that allows a municipality to negotiate the sale and development of publicly owned property with a private entity, is governed by a state statute intended to promote urban renewal.

Former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, an attorney representing the inn, said the agreement “starts a dance of sorts” in which both parties can explore the feasibility of erecting a building on the site.

The city and the inn did a similar dance last year, when the GPI proposed constructing two buildings around City/County Plaza. But amid considerable public outcry against the first proposed building — a mixed-use high-rise to be located just east of the Biltmore Building — the inn eventually announced that the project wasn’t economically feasible.

Nonetheless, said Bissette, the inn is still interested in exploring the second site. But he also stressed the need for the current project to make financial sense, noting, “The [Grove Park Inn] is not a not-for-profit entity.”

During the public hearing on the matter, Asheville property owner Julie Brandt — a key player in last year’s fight to block the first high-rise — urged Council to take into account the proposed project’s “very valuable” location. The city, said Brandt, should “ask that we get the highest price possible, not the lowest price allowable.” She also requested that the city require the inn to adhere to the city’s development guidelines for the downtown area.

Haw Creek resident Fred English, a frequent City Council watchdog, took issue with the exclusive arrangement between the city and a single developer. “Part of that property belongs to me; it should be put in the paper and sold to the highest bidder,” he declared.

That prompted Council member Brownie Newman to ask City Attorney Bob Oast why the city was using the Downtown Development Agreement option rather than issuing a request for proposals and holding an open design competition.

A Downtown Development Agreement, said Oast, gives the city much more control over the process. “You could have a design competition, but you’d lose front-end control over design,” he explained, adding, “This project has been out there for over a year, and no one with any means has expressed an interest.”

In a later interview with Xpress, City Manager Jim Westbrook explained, “There’s no need to have a design competition when you can control what the design is going to be from the start. With this agreement, we can tell the developer exactly what we want.”

GPI President Craig Madison told Council that while the building’s design is “still a floating target,” the inn has hired an architectural firm and spent $250,000 on preliminary studies. “Once again, I find myself in a very expensive game,” he observed.

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower said he’s grateful that the inn is still willing to consider the second building site, despite the “painful process” with site No. 1. But Mumpower also reminded Madison that “we used up a lot of community good will and found that [the high-rise] wasn’t doable from the beginning. … You were asked, ‘Can you make it work?’ and you said, ‘Yes,'” noted Mumpower.

Madison replied, “You are correct, and we failed.”

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