Asheville City Council

A month after the Downtown Social Issues Task Force’s plan for dealing with graffiti found a cold reception from Asheville City Council members, task force representatives were back with proposals for addressing panhandling and public intoxication.

But at Council’s Aug. 17 work session, these plans, too, were greeted with a measure of skepticism.

The panhandling proposal seemed to founder on the suggestion that the city install lock boxes where people could give money for distribution to nonprofits dealing with homelessness and related issues.

The idea, explained, task force member Dwight Butner, is to take the issue to the givers rather than the receivers.

Butner is the owner of Vincenzo’s restaurant and serves on the board of Hospitality House, a local nonprofit serving the homeless.

“We need to educate people that it is illegal to panhandle downtown,” said Butner. “If people know there are programs in place to take care of these problems, they are more likely to say ‘no'” to panhandlers.

To that end, the task force’s report suggests a public-relations campaign including signs and suggestion cards as well as lock boxes.

But even before Butner had explained the nuts and bolts of the plan, he advised Council to evaluate the performance of the existing panhandling ordinance, passed in November 2002.

“Not to imply that it is ineffective,” said Butner. “But check in and see how it is being enforced.”

Council member Terry Bellamy said, “I know firsthand that it is being enforced,” adding, “It is a problem of the courts.

“It is important that panhandlers know there are limits,” she continued. “Our ordinance is pretty clear.”

Butner agreed, saying that the fear of convictions being overturned by a higher court, as well as concerns about overpacked jails, discourage prosecution.

The task force, made up of stakeholders and other city residents, was formed a year-and-a-half ago and charged with studying assorted problems, such as rampant begging, intoxication and graffiti.

But after the group’s anti-graffiti plan received heavy criticism at Council’s July 20 work session, task force member Kitty Brown publicly scolded Council members, saying, “In the future, you’ll have to treat people with more respect.”

And this time around, task force representatives faced what Council member Jan Davis called a “kinder and gentler Council.” But Davis also fretted that courtesy might be getting in the way of raising substantive concerns.

After both task force presenters had had their turns at the podium, Davis noted: “Maybe we’re not getting to the meat of this issue after being put in our place by another presenter. Maybe we’re not asking the questions we need to. But the reality is, it boils down to enforcement.”

Most of the discussion, however, centered on the lock boxes, which city staff had already expressed misgivings about, according to Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower. “That’s probably the death of that issue,” he observed.

But Butner said the city needs to face the reality that panhandling is here to stay.

“It won’t go away,” Butner proclaimed. “We need to manage it.”

And even something as seemingly benign as putting boxes for donations on the street brings its own legal quandaries, cautioned City Attorney Bob Oast. Besides the security question, Oast warned of a possible “Pandora’s box” of First Amendment issues. If the city allows one nonprofit to put out collection boxes, he said, it may need to let others do the same.

Council member Holly Jones called that argument “awfully weak,” predicting that once other groups hear how little money is actually collected, no one will want to pursue the option. And while Butner admitted that the boxes probably won’t even bring in enough money to pay for their own maintenance, he said the real point is to discourage people from giving to panhandlers by offering them a way to assuage their guilt.

And if the city shoots down the plan, downtown business owners are ready to place boxes and signs inside their own establishments.

“This is going to happen,” Butner told Council. “Everybody’s been sitting around waiting for you to do something. Now we’re saying let us do something.”

“We honestly don’t think we will be able to eradicate panhandling downtown,” Butner told Council. “If you don’t buy that premise, this is an exercise in futility.”

In the zone

But even as one subcommittee of the task force was recommending a “soft” approach, another one was calling for more restrictions in dealing with public drunkenness.

“This is one of the most daunting and difficult issues to take on,” task force member Pat Whalen told Council.

Reading from the group’s massive (200-plus pages) report, Whalen said the bulk of the problem concerns a few repeat offenders: Some 15-20 people are arrested 20 or more times a year, at a cost to taxpayers of $600,000 annually.

Whalen also noted that 90 percent of these chronic offenders have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

Among the task force’s proposals is a 0.5 percent tax increase on beer and wine sales, with the proceeds earmarked for housing and treatment (including a 24-hour detox program) for people arrested for intoxication and substance abuse. The increase would have to be approved by state legislators.

The report also calls for “inebriate safety zones,” which would be off limits to anyone with 10 or more intoxication or drug convictions within a year.

Council member Joe Dunn, who’d already expressed misgivings about a tax levied by the ABC “or any other non-elected body,” also worried that the zones might generate friction in the community because some areas would have one and others wouldn’t.

Whalen, noting that intoxicated pedestrians are more likely to be hit by cars, argued that safety is a valid criterion for designating certain areas. He also admitted that local restaurateurs have expressed concerns about the alcohol tax.

City staff will examine the panhandling proposal and make a recommendation to Council; meanwhile, Council members plan to continue discussing the public-intoxication plan.

By any other name

Even something as simple as amending language in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance to make it more consistent spiraled into an unexpected discussion of religious designation.

Joe Dunn was unhappy about a proposed amendment to section 7-8-21(b), which would change the word “churches” to “places of worship.”

Calling the term vague and politically correct, Dunn worried that the change could open the door for “people to come to Asheville saying they want to worship trees.”

The UDO uses the term “places of worship” in all other comparable references, and Oast reminded Dunn that the Constitution limits governments’ ability to regulate religious land use.

Holly Jones, meanwhile, argued that the word “church” is itself exclusive.

“I don’t feel “church” represents faiths present in Asheville,” she said. “Language is important. A Jew does not look at his place of worship as a church; they call it a synagogue.”

But Dunn only seemed to grow more frustrated.

“Why don’t we use ‘church’ and get done with it?” he sputtered. “This politically correct thing is driving me crazy. And that’s what’s going on here. You can’t offend anybody.”

In the end — and despite both Jones’ arguments and Mumpower’s attempts to mediate — Dunn insisted that the wording be discussed and voted on separately at the next formal session. And though she didn’t take part in the initial discussion, Terry Bellamy seconded Dunn’s demands.

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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