- $136 million budget approved
- Council creates “one-stop shop” for permitting development
- 51 Biltmore project delayed for want of funding
Besides approving a $136 million budget, Asheville City Council members also faced an agenda laden with sustainability and energy-efficiency issues at their June 23 meeting.
That the budget was approved with little fanfare or discussion came as no big surprise: For the past few months, Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant has reported at every Council meeting on the progress in eliminating a projected $5 million shortfall. But this time, Mayor Terry Bellamy appealed to Durant to make his appearance brief.
“I read you loud and clear,” Durant replied. “And I can do it in a minute if you like.”
The only comments came from Council member Carl Mumpower, who branded the budget “irresponsible,” and from Bellamy, who said she supported it even though she, like others on Council, had problems with some of the measures taken to close the fiscal gap. Both Bellamy and Council member Brownie Newman have objected to halving the City’s Annual Contribution to the Housing Trust Fund.
“I know this wasn’t an easy budget, but looking where we are going, I think we’re laying a good foundation,” said the mayor.
Council approved the budget for the next fiscal year (which begins July 1) on a 6-1 vote, with Mumpower opposed.
Sussing out sustainability
But the budget wasn’t the only hefty document up for consideration. Council members also signed off on a 201-page Sustainability Management Plan designed to guide the city toward its goal of an 80 percent reduction in emissions from city-run facilities and systems by the year 2050.
The plan was drafted by the CDM consulting group in the wake of Council’s 2007 decision to commit to the reduction target. The goal is to trim emissions incrementally by 2 percent per year. Alongside tailor-made recommendations regarding land use, waste disposal and transportation, the plan also factors in such steps as Council’s 2007 decision to require all new city-government buildings to conform to LEED standards. In addition, the management plan outlines needed upgrades to existing city-owned buildings (to view the entire plan, go to www.ashevillenc.gov/green).
City Energy Coordinator Maggie Ullman noted that although the plan includes recommendations for implementing its various components, some steps can’t be taken immediately due to budget constraints.
On the whole, Council members praised the plan, and City Manager Gary Jackson said that having a road map for achieving the ambitious emissions-reduction target would help city staff get the job done. “It’s extremely beneficial,” Jackson told Council. “If we want to achieve your goal … we have to have a plan.”
Council member Kelly Miller agreed, saying, “It gives a good compass to go forward.”
Council member Robin Cape said she’s read several other municipal sustainability plans, and this one left her “very impressed.” But regular updates, she suggested, would help keep things on track. Only two weeks before, Cape reminded her colleagues, they’d discussed the city’s failure to meet goals in a regional solid-waste management plan.
Mumpower, however, pooh-poohed the idea, arguing that, like other large-scale long-range plans before it, this one will unnecessarily constrict City Council, forcing it to make piecemeal changes to the plan in the future.
Bellamy, meanwhile, said she had concerns about some of the document’s details but would support it and “see how it plays out.” The mayor agreed with Cape that regular updates would help keep the plan on track while maintaining transparency.
But it was Newman who voiced the most passionate support for the plan, declaring, “Over the next couple of decades, we have to reduce the amount of pollution we are putting into the atmosphere by 80 percent, or we are endangering the future generations of our children.”
The sustainability plan was approved 6-1, with Mumpower opposed.
Balking at bikes
Meanwhile, a proposed Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant application proved more problematic. The $804,700 grant was one of four requests for federal stimulus funds presented for Council’s consideration. This one included money for Fire Department efficiency upgrades, replacing the Civic Center’s HVAC system and energy-efficient lighting for City Hall.
But some on Council balked at allocating $13,500 for a bike-sharing program for city employees. Lauren Bradley, assistant to the city manager, said the money would pay for four standard bicycles and two electric models, plus helmets, locks and equipment maintenance. In a recent survey of city employees, she noted, it was one of the most-requested initiatives
But the price proved to be a high hurdle for Council members.
“It’s unbelievable that we’d consider [$13,500] for six bicycles,” said Vice Mayor Jan Davis. “That’s amazing.”
Cape said she supported the idea but added, “Hopefully we can get more bikes for [the money].”
At Bellamy’s suggestion, the bike element was removed and the money redirected to fund expanded responsibities for the “sustainability outreach coordinator” position that was also included in the grant proposal. The application was approved on a 6-1 vote, with Mumpower opposed.
In yet another sustainability-minded action, City Council amended the 2008-09 budget to formally allocate $2,625,000 that had already been earmarked as matching funds for partnering with the N.C. Department of Transportation to buy five hybrid-electric city buses. This decision came on a 5-2 vote, with Davis joining Mumpower in opposing the move.
Earlier that evening, while Bellamy was still on her way back from meetings in Raleigh, a resolution supporting the establishment of an independent energy-efficiency administrator for the state of North Carolina was killed on a split vote. Initially part of the consent agenda, the resolution endorsing a bill currently in the state House was set aside for further discussion at Mumpower’s request. He objected to expanding the state bureaucracy, and Davis called the idea too vague and “open-ended.”
Even Miller, who went on to support the idea, expressed concern about spending more money at the state level for something that could probably be handled better locally. The resolution failed on a 3-3 vote, with Cape, Newman and Miller endorsing it and Mumpower, Davis and Council member Bill Russell opposed.
Done in one
Council members did find consensus on another item, unanimously agreeing to establish a “one-stop shop” for developers in the Public Works Building on South Charlotte Street. Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson said it would make permitting cheaper and more convenient for developers, for whom time literally is money.
The idea, which came up during Council’s January retreat, originally targeted the Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel Road, but the budgetary slump prompted staff to consider the Public Works Building, which the city already owns. The renovation is budgeted at $390,000.
“We certainly had larger aspirations and larger needs when we were looking at Innsbruck Mall,” conceded Richardson. But he maintained that developers would still benefit from the scaled-back version.
Jackson agreed, proclaiming, “If it was important to save builders and developers time and money when money was fast and loose, it is never more important for us to cut the time and cost of plan review, permits and inspections than when money is tight and timing can make the difference between developers making their profit margins.”
Richardson said he expects the new facility to be up and running by August.
Strapped for cash
The city’s joint venture with the McKibbon Hotel Group to build a hotel and parking deck at 51 Biltmore is still looking for funding. Wes Townson, vice president of acquisitions for McKibbon, told Council that the double wallop of a credit freeze and an 18-percent national hotel-occupancy slump makes finding financing difficult.
Credit, said Townson, “is very cold, but perhaps not yet frozen. It’s just very hard to find lenders — not just in the hospitality industry.”
Meanwhile, noted Transportation and Engineering Director Cathy Ball, the development agreement and option to purchase the Biltmore Avenue property from Public Interest Projects was due to expire in July unless Council approved a six-month extension, with the city and McKibbon each paying the local development firm $5,000.
For his part, Townson assured Council that discussions were under way with a bank, and that they were negotiating the terms of a loan.
Council approved the extension on a 6-1 vote, with Mumpower once again on the short end.
The McKibbon Group, meanwhile, is also negotiating with the city concerning another hotel project on Haywood Street.