Public assets, backroom discussions

The Asheville Civic Center—groaning under the weight of age-related maintenance needs and multiple studies that have borne little fruit—has seemed to be making progress recently. The city’s current capital-improvements plan budgets $400,000 a year for repairs; an engineer is researching the feasibility of an innovative-but-controversial green roof; and perhaps most importantly, increased revenues have the facility on the brink of profitability.

The Civic Center Commission has pressured City Council to shore up the physical plant while applauding staff’s success in boosting bookings.

“We’re running out of dates months in advance now,” commission Chair George Keller reports. “And the Civic Center has just about broken even.”

But at their July 23 meeting, commission members learned that this forward momentum was playing out against a backdrop of closed-door negotiations between the city and Buncombe County aimed at settling their long-running water dispute. The Civic Center, it turned out, was on the table—one of a list of city assets that might be ceded to the county in exchange for various concessions (see article on page 20). Those negotiations have since fallen through, but their implications left Keller and others nonplused.

“It is a concern to me the negotiations would have proceeded as far as they [did] with the Civic Center as a bargaining chip,” said Keller. “What are all the pluses and minuses? Is it smart for the city and county to be doing all this behind closed doors?”

Council member Jan Davis, who chaired the most recent Civic Center Task Force and serves as Council’s liaison to the Civic Center Commission, shares Keller’s upbeat assessment of the facility’s recent progress. “I feel like there’s a tremendous amount of investment made by citizens,” he noted. Acknowledging that “past Councils have not been good stewards,” Davis went on to assert that the current City Council has “done a pretty good job with everything except maintenance—[and] as of two years ago, we came up with a plan for improvement.”

Just before the water negotiations fell through, Davis told Xpress: “I am not enthusiastically in support of giving [the Civic Center] as part of the water settlement. When we started discussing city amenities and properties as part of the settlement—we’re getting no guarantee the county will run it to a level that we’d find suitable.”

The proposal, developed out of the public view, would have given the following properties to the county: the Civic Center and its parking deck, McCormick Field, the municipal golf course, the Nature Center and Recreation Park.

In return, the city would have received water lines currently owned by the county, free use of the county landfill, and an agreement on the city’s ability to require new subdivisions to be annexed in exchange for water hookups. This last point appears to have played a significant role in the collapse of the negotiations. In addition, the city would have transferred ownership of the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center to the state.

But because state legislation would have been needed to move the settlement forward, the end of this year’s legislative session in early August closed a window of opportunity for resolving the dispute, leaving the city and county at an all-too-familiar place—an impasse.

This isn’t the first time the two local governments have swapped some of these same properties in the name of “tax equity.” In the early 1980s, Buncombe County received the Nature Center, the golf course, McCormick Field, the Aston Park Tennis Center and Recreation Park as part of the Water Agreement. According to the county Web site, Buncombe invested taxpayer dollars and grant moneys to improve these facilities, which reverted to city ownership when the Water Agreement was dissolved on July 1, 2005.

According to County Manager Wanda Greene, the recently proposed transfer of assets would have cut the city’s annual operating expenses by $2 million while increasing the county’s annual costs by $1.5 million. Yet the negotiations appear to have proceeded without any clear idea of the actual value of the items under discussion. In an Aug. 7 e-mail responding to questions originally posed to Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey, Greene wrote: “We don’t have current appraised value of the assets that would have been transferred from the city to the county or for the water assets that county would transfer to the city,” though she went on to note that “the value is significant.”

Apparently, the county would have been free to sell the ceded properties if it wished to. “There were no deed restrictions required for any of the properties,” wrote Greene.

As for where the money for repairing or renovating the ailing Civic Center would have come from, Greene said the state Legislature would ostensibly have provided support for any capital improvements to the Civic Center. “Beyond that, we would consider several funding sources: sales tax, property tax, fees and/or cuts in other areas,” she wrote.

Commissioner David Gantt believes the county would have been looking at a potential capital outlay of more than $100 million to provide for the arena, convention center, performance center, parking deck and debt-service components. “I do not think the county can raise property taxes alone to do what should be done here for a first-class facility,” Gantt wrote in an Aug. 9 e-mail. And although he believes the General Assembly would offer the city new revenue sources, in the end, “The taxpayer will fund most, if not all, of this,” he predicted.

For these reasons, Gantt said he favors negotiating “in public over thoughtful time, rather than in hasty meetings with incomplete information. This debt will last for decades.” Gantt also observed that the public can “often identify costs [and] benefits of policy better than experts in the field.”

Asked about the proposed trade-offs, Council member Carl Mumpower—the lone Council member who refused to participate in the closed sessions—replied: “One of the reasons that the negotiations collapsed is that the dollar discussion had more to do with illusions than reality. Careful and realistic consideration of the current and projected values of properties, transfer costs and deeper financial realities were not part of the equation.”

Keller, too, had little good to say about the negotiations, which he described as “Make up an answer and see how it works. I think it looks amazingly ad hoc. I don’t see any reason to choose these particular bargaining chips.”

Davis, meanwhile, said: “I think we [would have been] giving up a great deal of [city] assets for very little tax equity. … We’ve got people that’s worked for years and years in this community to put things together,” he noted, adding that he didn’t want to “watch it slip away.”


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