- Vote postponed on Montford Commons tax incentives
- City ponders retooling health benefits
- Council considers handicapped parking changes
Early next year, nearly 700 people may become Asheville residents thanks to two involuntary annexations initiated by City Council July 27.
The residents in question live in the Coopers Hawk Drive area on the southtwestern edge of the city — which comprises 16 residents on 41 acres — and the sizable Royal Pines subdivision off Sweeten Creek Road, whose 388 acres encompass 670 residents.
Involuntary annexations are always controversial. Those affected are rarely happy about seeing their taxes rise and often resent the lack of any say in the process. Proponents, however, see it as a way to keep cities viable by absorbing those who use their services and live in urbanized or urbanizing areas but don’t pay city taxes.
And though Council’s action represented only the beginning of a process that will require public-information sessions, a public hearing and final approval of both annexations before they can take effect, that controversy was already plenty evident.
“The idea that people who live in the county are just users and abusers of city services is wrong, and it's insulting,” county resident Betty Jackson declared, asserting that unincorporated suburbs bordering the city limits benefit both parties.
“We work in town, we do business in town, some of us even own businesses, and all those things contribute to the city's coffers. … There's a win-win situation when you have people who live in suburbs and people who live in town.”
But Mayor Terry Bellamy argued that annexation is sometimes necessary, asserting that in many cases, the city doesn't receive its fair share of things like sales taxes.
“Asheville's not like any other city,” the mayor explained. “Seventy-five percent of sales tax collected in the city of Asheville doesn't stay in the city — that speaks volumes. We don't want to be the bad guy, but there are some realities. If people buy a shirt at the Gap in Asheville and they pay their sales tax, where does it go?” Because the state calculates sales tax based on a formula that emphasizes population and area, Asheville gets a smaller share than its economic clout might suggest.
Bellamy asked city staff to develop a document spelling out Asheville's financial situation and the underlying factors.
“Put our slides alongside Charlotte's or Greensboro's or Gastonia’s, and I think people would be amazed to see that the hub of Western North Carolina doesn't get as much taxes as people think we do.”
Council member Bill Russell, on the other hand, repeated his long-standing opposition to forced annexation in general, observing, “I don't think any one of those people would want to become part of the city, and we're about to double their taxes.”
But Council member Esther Manheimer, speaking about the Royal Pines area, countered: “This is an appropriate annexation where we can offer some services and they'll see a return for their tax dollars. Hopefully it will enable neighboring areas to see some of the benefits of being part of the city.”
“Can we even afford it?” Russell shot back.
The proposal to launch the Coopers Hawk Drive annexation was approved 6-1, with Russell opposed. Bellamy, however, joined him on the losing end of a 5-2 vote in the case of Royal Pines, citing the city's shaky financial situation. “Now is not the right time” for such a substantial undertaking, she maintained.
Seeking common ground
To hear the developers of the proposed 250-unit Montford Commons project tell it, a golden opportunity was at hand.
“This project meets many City Council goals, including the creation of work-force housing near the central business district,” attorney (and former Asheville mayor) Lou Bissette told Council. “It's near public transportation and meets the goals of walkability and sustainability. This property has been underused for many years. We ask that you seize the day and make this project happen.”
That, however, would require city support, according to developer Vince Smarjesse of the Frontier Syndicate. “You can't have just 20 acres of rental housing within walking distance of downtown and keep it affordable without a subsidy,” he told Council.
And therein lay the rub. The syndicate, which has already received preliminary approval for a federal loan, was asking for some $190,000 in exemptions from city permit fees.
But besides the permit, they're also requesting a 10-year exemption from property taxes, which would cost the city about $1.5 million all told. (The developers are also seeking a $1.8 million exemption from the county.)
That proved to be a bit much for many Council members, who spent months wrangling over how to address a $5 million deficit before approving the current budget in June. And though the Montford Neighborhood Association has endorsed the project, city staff noted that with projected rents ranging from $600 to $1,200 a month, many of the units wouldn’t satisfy the city's criteria for affordable housing.
Montford Commons would be built on a mostly vacant site between the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Isaac Dickson Elementary on Hill Street. The project received initial approval in 2007 but has had trouble finding private financing amid the economic downturn.
Council members generally said they’d like to see the project succeed but had doubts about the financial impact on the city.
“It's a great opportunity,” noted Council member Jan Davis, cautioning, “I have some real concerns, though.”
Council member Cecil Bothwell suggested replacing a planned parking deck with surface parking to reduce costs, given the proximity to downtown and thus the availability of other transportation options.
Bellamy, too, urged flexibility, saying, “I'd like to work out a possible win-win. … I wouldn't want to miss this opportunity.”
Council members agreed to work on finding mutually acceptable terms before revisiting the matter at their Aug. 24 meeting, and Bissette said the developer would be willing to “give it one more try.”
What the health?
City Council also deliberated two ongoing concerns: parking and health care.
Health benefits for city employees are a major expense for the cash-strapped government, and Council appointed a “blue-ribbon task force” to consider the issue and make recommendations.
Bellamy specifically asked if the group would be looking at implementing benefits for same-sex domestic partners, which Council committed to in principle (with Bellamy opposed) earlier this year (see “Asheville City Council,” Feb. 17 Xpress).
Domestic-partner benefits are indeed “part of the plan” that’s due to be presented to Council next June, Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson confirmed. Meanwhile, Council members will hear a report on the task force's progress in October.
On another front, Council was briefed on the current state of handicapped parking downtown. Increasingly, noted City Attorney Bob Oast, vehicles displaying handicapped placards are parking in ordinary metered spaces, sometimes for days at a time. But the status of metered spaces is something of a gray area in both city ordinances and state law, both of which generally allow people with disabilities to park for an unlimited amount of time in most places.
Confirming Oast’s report, Joe Minicozzi of the Asheville Downtown Association showed photos of parked cars displaying handicapped placards. Calling it “a matter of economics,” he emphasized that leaving such vehicles for extended periods of time curbs city revenues while reducing the amount of available on-street parking. Accordingly, Minicozzi urged the city to enforce the time limits in all metered spaces, regardless of motorists’ special needs. This, he said, would drive people to the decks, where reserving a space by the month costs far less than constantly feeding the meters.
Oast said he would take the suggestions into account in crafting a new proposal for Council to consider
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.