Hay named to Economic Development Commission
Usually, Mayor Leni Sitnick reserves her personal comments and recommendations for the end of City Council discussions. But when she took the lead at the Sept. 5 work session, several Council members objected.
At issue was who gets to serve on the Economic Development Commission. Earlier this year, Council granted $50,000 to the commission, which is administered jointly by Buncombe County and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. The EDC, in turn, added a seat on the commission for a city appointee.
Mayor Sitnick suggested that Council member Ed Hay should be appointed to that seat.
Council member Terry Bellamy smiled, but declared she wasn’t “happy with the process.” Council members should decide, collectively, who gets named to the new seat, she said. Council member Charles Worley backed her objection, saying the process should first entail — as it usually does — various Council members expressing interest in serving, followed by a discussion or vote by the full Council.
“I didn’t make an appointment,,” said Sitnick, interrupting.
“Let me finish,” Worley retorted. He then argued that when Sitnick makes a recommendation on an issue not yet openly discussed, “it makes it awkward” for the rest of Council, and it becomes “an insult” to Sitnick if the other members don’t agree.
“I’m just saying, this is a suggestion,” Sitnick countered.
Perhaps trying to lighten a tense moment, Council member Brian Peterson offered, “Once someone has suggested [an appointment like this], it’s hard to go back and say, ‘I don’t like Ed.'” Hay, who didn’t appear surprised at Sitnick’s nomination, laughed.
“Let’s start over,” said Sitnick to Bellamy and Worley. “Who would you like to appoint? My choice is Ed Hay.” Bellamy responded that another recent commission appointment had also been suggested by Sitnick (Chuck Cloninger, to the newly formed Passenger Rail Service Action Committee), with other Council members feeling as if they should automatically go along.
“My opinion is not sacrosanct,” Sitnick insisted.
Worley started, “Your suggestion comes in a way and manner …”
“I’ve heard that. Let’s start over,” Sitnick interjected.
Worley said he’d like to finish his statement. He emphasized that nothing on the Sept. 5 agenda clued Council members in to the appointment or the option of giving anyone else a chance to vie for it. “That being said, I’ll nominate Edward,” he concluded.
“I would like to [serve on the EDC],” Hay enjoined.
Bellamy seconded his nomination.
And Sitnick joked, “Let’s have a public hearing.”
Taxi rate hike approved
If taxi-cab drivers could collect fares on par with other similar-sized cities, they might respond more quickly to calls for service. And if the Airport Authority tweaked its current policy for taxi cabs, travelers might not get stranded late at night.
At least, that’s part of the logic behind Asheville City Council’s Sept. 5 decision allowing local cab companies to raise fares, and asking the airport for a little cooperation.
Some Council members reported receiving many phone calls about the long waits common after requesting a cab. Council member Peterson also noted a continuing problem with service at the Asheville Regional Airport. Pointing out that he lives in West Asheville, nowhere near the airport, Peterson mentioned that friends stranded at the airport with no transportation will call him late at night for a ride.
The Airport Authority contracts with Airport Ground Transportation, a private limo service, and doesn’t allow taxi-cab drivers to solicit for riders at the airport. But it’s not “an exclusive contract, as it’s been portrayed in the media,” Airport Director Mike Armour told Council members. While the contract affords AGT “some protection” from competition, other services are allowed to pick up and drop off riders. There’s simply no room for a cab stand where drivers can wait for possible fares, Armour noted. The Airport Authority is revising its master plan, however, and considering ground-transportation issues.
Taxi businessman Spiro Aliferis responded that the lack of a cab stand wasn’t much of an issue: “I’m not sure we could afford to keep cabs there.” But cabbies would like to be able to solicit fares at the airport instead of getting, as he put it, “chased off.” They’d also like a bigger rate increase than staff were recommending: The current rate is 95 cents plus $1 per mile — significantly lower than in such cities as Charlotte, Greenville, S.C., and Richmond, Va.
Staff had recommended raising the drop fee to $1.70 and the per-mile rate to $1.60, as well as setting a minimum fare of $3.
Aliferis asked Council to consider the rates requested at an Aug. 31 public meeting between city staff, cabbies and cab-company owners: $1.80 and $1.70, respectively.
Given the currently high gas prices, Council members agreed to the higher rate. But they didn’t relent on a staff recommendation that cab companies be required to increase their insurance coverage, which would raise the typical premium per car from approximately $1,600 to more than $2,200.
Mayor Sitnick and Council member Worley both admitted a little bias on the issue: Their fathers once drove taxis. Council member Hay remarked, “If taxi service isn’t good in Asheville, maybe it’s because we don’t allow them to make enough money.” Sitnick noted that rates haven’t been adjusted in 13 years.
Civic Center study
Read their lips: It’s not just another study.
On Sept. 5, Council approved a proposal to solicit an architectural feasibility study of the Asheville Civic Center. With two previous studies (one commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce, the other by the city) questioning proposals to upgrade the center for conventions, and skepticism abounding on whether to upgrade it as a sports arena, Council needs “to answer [these] questions, once and for all,” said Council member Hay, who heads the Future of the Civic Center Task Force. “Can we do it, and how much will it cost?” Hay and Council member Worley also mentioned the general consensus that the adjacent Thomas Wolfe Auditorium should be upgraded to make it a state-of-the-art performing-arts center.
But Council member Bellamy wanted to know how much another study will cost, adding, “Where’s the money coming from … to pay for it?” Although bids for conducting the study will not be received for another month or so, Council member (and architect) Barbara Field hazarded a guess of $40,000-$50,000.
City Manager Jim Westbrook said that since no money is set aside for the study in the current budget, it would have to be funded from either the city’s contingency or general fund. The state, he added, doesn’t like cost ranges to be included in requests for proposals.
“This is not, quote-unquote, ‘another study.’ This is an action step,” Mayor Sitnick assured Bellamy.
Council members informally agreed to request proposals from architectural firms specializing in sports arenas, but emphasized that all of the functions of the Civic Center (and the adjacent Thomas Wolfe Auditorium) are important.
Housing Trust roughed out
Asheville’s new Housing Trust Fund took form on Sept. 5, when Council gave initial approval to a staff proposal for allocating $400,000 set aside earlier this year for the new fund.
Non-profit organizations, for-profit developers and individual property owners will be eligible to borrow money from the fund, said Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan. Only loans, not grants, will be available. Eligible projects include the acquisition of land or existing buildings, rehabilitation of existing property, new construction (including infrastructure such as streets), and second-mortgage assistance — all related to housing development. The administrative costs of such projects are not eligible, according to Caplan’s report.
Although Council members approved Caplan’s draft proposal, they requested a few possible adjustments: Bellamy questioned allowing the city to borrow from the funds, and asked that Council receive status reports on the fund quarterly instead of annually; Worley asked that individual developers or homeowners be eligible, a distinction that wasn’t clear in the draft Caplan presented; and Mayor Sitnick suggested that Council review the loans case by case, at least for the first few months.
Council members took no immediate action on Caplan’s proposal.
East End subdivision OK’d
After years of effort, a new affordable-housing development came one step closer to brick-and-mortar reality: On Sept. 5, Council informally approved plans to build seven homes on city-owned property on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
As a first step, Council authorized staff to seek bids from developers wishing to buy the two-acre lot (appraised at $77,000) and build the subdivision. The homes built must be at least 960 square feet, contain at least three bedrooms and 1.5 baths, sell for no more than $90,000, and be sold to households with incomes not exceeding 80 percent of the area median income, City Planner Randall Barnett reported.
Council members indicated they’ll approve the solicitation of bids, but asked Barnett to meet with adjacent property owners to assure them that a steep hillside in the back of the lot will not be disturbed.