Asheville is a destination of distinction. And that’s not just a matter of opinion: The National Trust for Historic Preservation has bestowed that title on the city. The prestigious award, shared by just 11 other cities nationwide, was announced by members of the Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County at the Sept. 24 Asheville City Council meeting — which started out as a love fest but quickly turned into a political turf battle.
At issue were the city’s continued efforts in what City Manager Jim Westbrook calls “re-engineering.” For those unfamiliar with the euphemistic parlance of bureaucrats, re-engineering is the process of reducing spending, streamlining, consolidating departments or otherwise tweaking the system in an effort to improve the bottom line.
But that bottom line has some people in the community wondering whether cuts today will cripple the city tomorrow and thereafter.
Here are two examples of re-engineering efforts proposed by Westbrook’s staff:
• Eliminate the positions of the two teachers who run an award-winning, water-conservation-education program for the city and offer them jobs as reservoir workers with salaries seven levels lower on the pay scale. Ironically, this comes at a time when the state is reeling from a drought, and other municipalities (including nearby Woodfin) are enacting strict water-conservation measures.
• Cut the number of commissioners on the award-winning Historic Resources Commission in half — when the city is finally getting national recognition for the work this commission has done over the past 20 years.
Apparently, programs aimed at conserving water and Asheville’s unique architectural heritage are now in the crosshairs of Westbrook and his fellow re-engineers. But is this re-engineering an example of long-term vision or short-term myopia?
At the start of the meeting, Historic Resources Commission President Martha Fullington and her fellow commissioners showed a series of slides depicting many restoration projects undertaken by the group over the years. Included in their ranks were local developer Ron Hubbard, Stan Collins (president of the Biltmore Village Merchants Association), and UNCA economics Professor Pamela Nickless, who presented hard numbers revealing the positive economic impact historic preservation has on a city. Citing the example of Biltmore Village, she reported, “Property values have increased by 238 percent from 1990 to 1998, and they continue to increase.” Nickless also stressed that “historic preservation increases tax revenues” — a cogent point for a city facing hard times. “Existing businesses expand, new businesses are attracted to commercial districts such as Biltmore Village [which benefited from the HRC’s work]. The judicious use of tax incentives, such as the 50-percent reduction for local landmarks, encourages investment and rehabilitation. Tourism is, of course, our bread and butter, and studies have repeatedly confirmed that tourists are attracted to Asheville by our historic downtown,” she noted. “Without our historic architecture, our neighborhoods, our downtown business districts, we will cease to be the jewel in the crown of Western North Carolina. By protecting our past and our economic heritage, we also protect our future,” concluded Nickless.
After taking in all the facts, Council member Jim Ellis smiled and responded, “You’ve made Asheville so much more beautiful, so much more livable, and at the same time increased the tax base — and I thank you for that.”
It quickly became apparent, however, that the HRC representatives were doing more than detailing some of the projects that had earned Asheville the award; the presentations took on the tone of a well-organized lobbying effort. That impression was confirmed when Council member Brian Peterson inquired, in a not-so-subtle way, “There’s been some discussion about reorganizing HRC, and I was wondering where that was in the process.” Fullington answered right on cue: “Are you referring to a memo that came out concerning the reorganization?”
She went on to explain that HRC had received a memo from Planning Director Scott Shuford stating the city’s desire to cut the number of HRC commissioners from 14 to 7 — which she said could threaten the group’s success. In an interview with Xpress, Fullington read from the memo, which said the city had conducted its review of the commission to “reflect the impact of the city budget cuts and Buncombe County’s lack of funding commitment on the operation of historic districts and landmark design review, as well as improve the customer orientation of the HRC and logistical service by [city] staff to HRC.”
Fullington acknowledged that the recent statewide budget crisis has cause some funding problems — specifically, the county declined to fund their portion of the joint city/county body for the upcoming fiscal year. But she contested Shuford’s claim that “the County’s payment of these funds has not been consistent in recent years.” In fact, she asserted, Shuford himself provided data that contradicts the claim. The memo reported that in fiscal year 1999-2000, the city contributed $69,533 and the county contributed $5,258. In fiscal year 2000-01, the contributions were $91,275 and $8,432 respectively. And in 2001-02, the city kicked in $71,722 to the county’s $11,243. “Sure, it was inconsistent,” said Fullington, adding, “They were in a mode of increasing until they got blind-sided by the state budget cuts.”
Given the county decision not to provide funding, Shuford contended that Buncombe is overrepresented on the commission. The county now appoints seven of the HRC’s 14 members (the city names the rest). Shuford proposed a seven-member commissioner (five city and two county appointees) or, alternatively, having the city appoint all seven members.
Fullington explained that while the funding seems disproportionate, the vast majority of HRC restoration projects are in the city. “There’s no zoning in the county,” she pointed out. But the memo, noted Fullington, also reflects city concern about the way the HRC has conducted itself. Again, she read from the memo: “A 14- member commission is unwieldy to manage from a logistical and customer-service perspective. … HRC meetings tend to be extremely informal, due in part to the large number of members. Formalization of the conduct of the meetings would provide improved customer service by providing applicants and participating members of the public with a clearer perspective of HRC’s procedures and actions. … A considerable amount of work done at HRC meetings could be handled by [city] staff.”
Once again, Fullington took issue with Shuford’s claim, saying: “I don’t think I remember Scott Shuford ever sitting through an entire HRC meeting. It concerns me that the city is using HRC as an outlet for trying to trim its budget. We are volunteer commissioners and cost the city nothing, except for some postage to do mailings. The allocated funds are spent by the city staff [who provide administrative support to the commission]. He failed to mention that five of the seven county appointees live in the city; he risks losing the expertise of seven commissioners.”
Although the memo is only a proposal right now, it did indicate that the next step would be discussions between the city manager and his county counterpart. If they agree on reductions, the matter would be entertained by City Council and the county commissioners.
After several uncontested rezoning hearings, the mayor opened the floor to public comment. While a steady rain fell outside — a welcome, albeit miniscule respite from the drought that has plagued the region in recent months — the talk inside the chamber quickly turned to the city’s attitude toward the precious liquid.
Hazel Fobes, president of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air, began detailing a little-known city plan to gut an award-winning, water-conservation-education program. “Steps are under way which could drastically reduce the scope and impact– or even abolish — the program of education of children and citizens’ groups on the importance of water conservation,” she began. “One position being heard is that we do not need conservation; rather, that we need to produce more water in order to generate income.”
Fobes’ revelation perked up the ears of all in attendance. The simple fact that water issues were being discussed in a public setting marked a significant change from recent practice. Until this meeting, negotiations surrounding the beleaguered Regional Water Authority had dropped out of the public’s view, seemingly disappearing into a black hole or backroom where there was no opportunity for citizen input on matters affecting this public resource(see “Troubled Waters” elsewhere in this issue). Fobes went on to discuss the elimination of the two conservation education positions.
“The Water Authority,” she noted, “approved a program and budget for the year 2002-03 that includes funds for these two posts and for an active public-education program. Any radical change in that provision, in our view, requires a full consultation with, and hearing by, the board of the Water Authority — not policy-making by the Water Resources Department. The City Council and county commissioners approved that program and budget and should be informed of any radical change in its implementation. … To say that we don’t need conservation is a shortsighted position. What will the situation be in five years, 10 years from today? The Water Authority should undertake a full discussion of this matter without delay and report to the Council and the commissioners.”
The news quickly led to a lively discussion among the Council members, with Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, Holly Jones and Brian Peterson peppering City Manager Jim Westbrook with questions regarding the proposed change. It was one of the livelier exchanges at a Council session in some time. Westbrook tried to assuage their concerns, saying he would explain the move to each of them “individually” outside the public forum and adding that he planned to inform the Water Authority as well, to gain their support.
But other members of the public grabbed the baton from Fobes and continued to spill the beans on what appears to be a unilateral and unpublicized move by city staff to alter a program whose charter and funding lie within the Authority’s domain, not the city’s. Mayor Charles Worley, who also serves on the Water Authority board, tried to defuse the situation by noting that the changes “are a Water Authority decision, and we will be ultimately going to the Authority.” Jones grilled Westbrook about the city’s role in all this, questioning whether the city was being a “good steward of the land.” Westbrook said the proposal was a re-engineering move, but added, “We would agree that this case is extremely important; we’re just trying to now find a different way, but yet not take away from the educational aspect at all.”
Xpress has learned that the proposal includes eliminating classroom visits by any city water-conservation official — a strange way, indeed, to promote conservation.
Informed sources told Xpress that the two teachers were offered jobs as technicians at the North Fork Reservoir — positions for which neither has training — at roughly half their current pay. Materials presented to the press by Hazel Fobes outlined lesson plans the teachers had created, which Fobes said have been highly popular in the school system.
One member of the public who followed Fobes was former Water Authority member Gary Semlak. “When I heard about proposed changes to the water-education program, I was absolutely chagrined, he said.” Semlak then detailed the drastic actions other parts of the state have been forced to take due to the drought. “Tom Frederick [former director of the city’s Water Resources Department] on numerous occasions indicated that our water efficiency is really what saved our bacon [during the 1998 drought]. Water efficiency is a long-term effort that should not be diluted in any way.”
One of the most emphatic voices heard was that of former Mayor Leni Sitnick. “Recognizing full well the budget problems … I hope that you don’t look to generate revenues by dissolving, even in part, this crucial function. Stop the leaks — that’s a way to generate revenue. We have an Environmental Protection Agency award for this program, we have state awards for this program, other states are emulating this program. … This is a program that is a jewel. The media will have a heyday at this time of drought if the city and the Water Authority allow any part of this program to be diminished. I ask City Council to let the people know how prudent you think it is to take any part of this essential role-model program and diminish it or dissolve it.”
David Hanks, the city’s interim Water Resources Department director, then took the lectern and tried to cast doubt on the information presented by members of the public asserting “Not everything you’ve heard tonight is factual.” But when asked by Xpress after the meeting to support that claim, Hanks refused, saying he wouldn’t comment until after he’s spoken to the Water Authority. This seemed odd, since he hadn’t felt a similar need to consult the Authority before publicly questioning the veracity of Fobes, former Authority board member Semlak, and a former mayor who’d also served on that body.
But a former director of the targeted program offered a stinging critique of both Hanks and the proposal. In an interview with Xpress, Jennifer Currie opined: “Hanks is a water-maintenance supervisor acting as interim director and making a decision to do away with the education portion of this program; what’s his background in water conservation? This is a program that has been in place for seven years. They’re only thinking about the short-term goals for the city. This [proposal] is saying that conservation isn’t important. Never mind that we have one of the highest per-unit costs [to consumers] for water in the state — this city makes money off of water. They aren’t interested in conserving it, they’re interested in selling it.”