“Right now it’s not an overwhelming problem.”
— Police Chief William Hogan on crimes committed by illegal immigrants
Despite a less-than-warm reception last month, Council member Carl Mumpower once again urged his colleagues to beef up policing of illegal immigrants in Asheville and the people who employ them.
But at the Aug. 16 work session, the response was basically the same: Most Council members aren’t ready to tackle an issue they believe is fraught with difficulties and not a critical problem (see “No Mas,” July 26 Xpress). They did, however, agree to consider a resolution at the next formal session urging Congress to enact meaningful immigration reform.
This time, Mumpower proposed dedicating two or more Spanish-speaking police officers to identify and detain illegal immigrants arrested on criminal charges. To do this, however, either the Asheville Police Department or the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department would have to follow Mecklenburg County’s lead by joining the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Delegation of Authority program. This would make the assigned officers de facto immigration agents, enabling them to access the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s database of illegal aliens whenever a suspect was arrested and processed. If the suspect was listed in the database, the officers could ask the ICE to issue a detainer authorizing them to hold the person for pickup by agency personnel.
Presently, the city has no authority to seize aliens suspected of immigration violations, though it does attempt to check their residency status after an arrest, said Police Chief William Hogan.
Mumpower also repeated his suggestion that Council ask the state and federal governments for the authority to hold employers accountable when they knowingly employ illegal aliens. Once again, however, Council members balked at the suggestion, saying it would be too difficult and costly.
Mumpower emphasized that he holds no animosity toward illegal immigrants and fully understands why they want to come here. He reiterated that he wants to target those illegals who commit crimes and, particularly, employers who flout federal law by hiring illegals.
“I personally feel illegal immigration is a harm to our country,” said Mumpower. “I don’t blame people who want to cross our borders to get here. It’s not a good/bad people thing. It’s about people breaking the law.”
Throwing down a handful of confiscated fake IDs and drivers’ licenses, Mumpower also lamented the problems faced by law-enforcement personnel who arrest suspected illegals. When the suspects fail to show up in court, the police can’t find them because they gave phony names and addresses.
But Council member Bryan Freeborn quickly got to the heart of the matter, asking Chief Hogan whether he thinks crimes committed by illegal aliens are a serious local issue and whether he would even be addressing the matter if Mumpower hadn’t brought it up.
“Right now it’s not an overwhelming problem” locally, said Hogan. He did note that an illegal immigrant had recently been arrested for rape and that the local cocaine supply comes from a Mexican cartel — but he said he has no way of knowing how many local drug runners or pushers are here illegally. Of the 13,711 prisoners processed at the Buncombe County Jail last year, 6.2 percent were identified as illegal aliens, said Hogan.
“When the chief needs tools, I’d think we’d grant him those tools,” said Freeborn, adding that the issue doesn’t seem important right now.
The real issue, said Hogan, is that ICE is underfunded and understaffed and often fails to pick up suspected illegal immigrants. Nationwide, he said, the agency is “overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. They are the ones that really need the help.”
Hogan said the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department may become a regional ICE processing facility for illegal aliens. At present, detainees must be picked up by federal agents based in Atlanta. A local ICE facility would operate under the same arrangement as Mecklenburg County does. Council member Jan Davis suggested that the city lobby to help make this happen.
Maxwell Street blues
Revisiting another lingering issue, Council heard a staff report on possible solutions to continuing problems with parking and truck traffic at Greenlife Grocery that have some Maxwell Street neighbors up in arms.
The best thing, said City Attorney Bob Oast, would be for Greenlife to simply continue its efforts to mitigate the problem. The business has been trying to redirect its deliveries to the Merrimon Avenue entrance; this has reduced traffic on Maxwell. But drivers coming from the West Coast don’t always know to do this, said Oast and Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson, and because the loading dock is on the Maxwell side, the trucks still cause congestion and create noise on the street. The store is also adding 22 parking spaces to the 89 now available. The new lot is behind another building on Merrimon that’s slated to become Greenlife’s offices.
The ideal solution, said Richardson, would be to move the loading dock — the root of the problem — to the opposite end of the store. But that would cost the business owner millions, he said.
Signs posted on Maxwell prohibit truck traffic. But that applies only to trucks using the street as a shortcut, said Oast. Trucks that need to access the street to reach its destination — including those using Maxwell to maneuver into the dock — are exempt. If the city prohibited all trucks, he said, that would also include moving vans and other vehicles serving the neighborhood.
“I just don’t think you can keep trucks off the street” legally, said Oast.
“I want to do what’s legal, but I also want to do what’s right,” responded Vice Mayor Holly Jones. “And this isn’t right.”
The real issue, said Council member Robin Cape, is a fundamental lack of planning.
“I want us, as a city, to be much better at planning rather than just permitting,” she said. “I wish we were better at integrating these things.” That would be easier to do if the city spent the money to hire more people for an understaffed and overworked Planning Department, noted Mayor Terry Bellamy.
Although the city and Greenlife have been criticized by members of the public, the media and others concerned about the project’s approval process, the business’s considerable success — surpassing the owners’ original projections and creating more customer and truck traffic than had been envisioned — is also a contributing factor, said Richardson. The 20,000-square-foot store generates 17,000 transactions per week. “That’s a significant amount,” he said, noting that it nearly matches the volume of the city’s major grocery stores, which occupy much larger spaces, have a lot more parking and easier vehicular access.
Something has to be done, said Freeborn, because Greenlife is precisely the type of urban-infill project that the city has championed. Besides reusing an existing structure, its proximity to residential neighborhoods encourages foot traffic and helps reduce automobile use. The problems at Greenlife, he said, might deter other developers from attempting similar projects.
Mumpower, on the other hand, said he believes there’s “been an effort by some to inflate this.” The problem, he said, is unfortunate and inconvenient, “but it’s not catastrophic.” And if Greenlife doesn’t take the proper steps to ameliorate the situation, said Mumpower, adjacent property owners can exercise their right to sue.
Cape, however, asserted that it is indeed catastrophic for those who live along Maxwell — and that the city would be doing the community a disservice if it didn’t try to address the problem.
“We should be open to continuing this conversation,” said Mayor Bellamy — and there, at least for now, the matter appears to rest.
My kingdom for a toilet
As part of ongoing efforts to improve downtown and adjacent areas for residents and visitors alike, Council members discussed one of downtown’s great shortcomings — a lack of public toilets.
There are 32 public restrooms in the city, Economic Development Director Sam Powers told Council. But that figure is deceptive, he added, since their hours of operation vary and their actual availability for use by the public may be limited. Some actually have “No Public Access” signs posted to deter vagrants, vandals and others who have abused them. In addition, noted Powers said, many are just plain hard to locate.
“When I saw the list of 32 bathrooms, I had to laugh,” said Cape. “I can’t find them.”
Bowers cited Black Mountain’s public restroom in the heart of its downtown — which has been a hit with visitors and merchants alike — as a possible model. Another possibility is Exeloos — the large, fancy, self-cleaning portable toilets used in Atlanta’s subway system. But at upward of $200,000 apiece, this option isn’t cheap, he said.
Taking a cue from Greenville, S.C. — where city officials have been impressed by the level of public/private partnership on such issues — Council members agreed on the need to start reaching out to various stakeholders to jointly address the need for public restrooms, as well as graffiti, trash and a host of other problems. Such a group effort, Council members said, could also improve signage and add informational kiosks to make it easier for visitors to navigate around town.
Noting that the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority has a product-development fund, Davis argued that Asheville itself is the “product” and that the city should work with the agency on providing core services, such as restrooms and street cleaning. The money, which represents a portion of the city’s hotel-room tax, must be spent on brick-and-mortar projects that will help attract more visitors.
Cape, meanwhile, suggested that Asheville consider forming a “Downtown Department” to coordinate and focus on these issues, which now may be spread over multiple departments. That idea struck a sympathetic note with Jones. Jazzed to get going ASAP, she exclaimed: “I propose the city take the lead tonight. This is something, doggone it, we don’t have to delay.”
The city did have a Downtown Development Department in the early ’90s; in response to complaints about the allocation of resources, however, its mission was expanded and the name was changed to the City Development Department. Today, the City Development Division is a branch of the Planning and Development Department.
In other news
Property-tax bills are being mailed this month, said Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant; the payment deadline is Jan. 5, 2007. In the wake of this year’s property revaluation, some will see their taxes increase, even though the tax rates have been lowered. On average, the assessed value of property in Asheville increased by 45 percent. So the owner of a $150,000 house would now find it valued at $217,500 — and the combined tax bill (city, county and school taxes) would increase by nearly $421, said Durant.
Asked by Council for a breakdown on the number of property owners whose bills would rise or fall, Durant couldn’t say. Nonetheless, Council members took great pains to say how proud they were of Council and staff efforts to keep tax rates “revenue-neutral” — meaning that any increase in city tax revenues this year would reflect new growth.
Only it wasn’t revenue neutral, the city said later in the week. City officials said the snafu will increase taxes by $1.3 million — less than 1 percent of the $117 million budget.