Asheville City Council

“Money doesn’t come from a magic bucket. It comes from people’s pockets.”

— Council member Carl Mumpower

The consent agenda is supposed to be a list of noncontroversial items that can be dispensed with via a single vote at the beginning of an Asheville City Council meeting. But on Oct. 10, discussion of the consent agenda took up most of an unusually short formal session.

It’s not uncommon for some agenda items to be postponed due to incomplete paperwork, as two of these were. Nor is it unprecedented for Mayor Terry Bellamy to recuse herself from a vote when her employer, Mountain Housing Opportunities, is involved. (The city’s acceptance of land from MHO was approved 6-0.) And the mayor’s vote against a resolution to allow alcohol at an Aston Park event was consistent with her usual practice (Bellamy never supports open alcohol at outdoor events on city property).

Still, three other consent-agenda items received more scrutiny by Council, and though all were approved, none won the usual unanimous support.

But you must pay the rent

Since 1950, the city has leased an 8.9-acre tract of land on Louisiana Avenue to the federal government for an Army Reserve Center. All told, the feds paid the city the trifling sum of $1 to cover the first 50 years. In 2000, Asheville upped the ante considerably, asking $60,000 annually. Now, with the lease up for renewal again, city staff wanted Council to approve an annual rent of $112,000, citing the property’s proximity to Patton Avenue and the city’s skyrocketing rents and land values.

Real Estate Manager Ed Vess told Council that the city had offered a three-year lease beginning with a slightly lower figure and increasing each year, but that the $112,000 figure had come out of the negotiations.

Council member Carl Mumpower was quick to object not only to the increase but also to charging so much for that particular use of the property. Speculating as to why the first 50 years at the site had cost so little, Mumpower said: “Can we guess there was a community spirit that said, ‘Let’s support our Army Reserve’? It seems like there is a balance between $1 and gouging folks.”

But Council member Robin Cape emphasized the site’s high-profile location in an area the city has targeted for future development.

Bellamy, meanwhile, noted that the Social Security Administration pays a great deal more than that to rent its Patton Avenue office, which has generated complaints because it’s not on a bus line. She asked staff to explore the option of moving the Social Security office to the Army Reserve site, thereby making it more accessible while saving Uncle Sam some money.

The item passed 6-1, with Mumpower opposed.

The grass is greener

Timing is everything. When City Council members approved spending $800,000 in 2004 to put artificial turf on five ball fields at Azalea Park, they had no way of knowing that flooding from Hurricane Ivan would devastate much of the park that same year. Nor could they have known that the original supplier would go out of business — or that the best price on replacement turf for the two destroyed fields would amount to more than twice the original cost.

But because the damage was caused by a flood, the city can ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help. FEMA has already approved $418,000 for park cleanup and repair — about one-third of the project’s nearly $1.2 million final cost. The work has been done, and after kicking in $183,589, the city is now seeking the remaining $597,473 from FEMA.

Mumpower was quick to speak out against the budget amendment that would allow for the reimbursement. “I do have a personal frustration with the amount of dollars involved,” he said, pointing out that the city had known all along that it was putting a park in an area vulnerable to flooding. “Money doesn’t come from a magic bucket,” he declared, adding, “It comes from people’s pockets.”

But City Manager Gary Jackson said the contractor needs to get paid. The options, he said, are either taking the money from the city’s general fund or getting it from FEMA, which Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant said he’s confident Asheville can do.

The budget amendment passed 6-1, with Mumpower opposed.

Hot enough for you?

Asheville will join 475 other cities, towns and counties worldwide in a push to combat global warming. The Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, a project of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, aims to reduce greenhouse gases. Asheville’s participation means the city will produce an inventory of local greenhouse-gas emissions — using software supplied by ICLEI for $1,200 — and craft a plan for reducing them.

“If we don’t know where we are, we don’t know what we can do,” said Cape, voicing support for the expenditure. The city’s involvement with the group dates back to 2005, when Asheville signed on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

Mumpower felt the idea was suspect, saying, “I have concerns about the potential for abuse.”

And while Council member Jan Davis felt the cost of the software wasn’t prohibitive, he didn’t want to create a new staff position or committee to deal with the data. Jackson said the work would be divided among current staffers. The city manager also noted that, while only the city would be able to use the software, outside agencies and nonprofits could benefit from the information it would provide.

This measure, too, passed 6-1, with Mumpower opposed.

Pole-vaulting

The sparring over money extended to one item that wasn’t on the consent agenda: new, decorative traffic-signal poles for select downtown corners. City Council approved spending $53,600 to upgrade the poles at the intersections of Broadway and College streets, Broadway street and Patton Avenue, and College and Charlotte streets.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is planning to replace those poles — at a cost of $100,000 to $150,000 per intersection — and the agency gave Asheville the option of kicking in the extra money, Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek told Council. Public input at a 2005 meeting showed a preference for the poles, which feature a curved arm and decorative base, he said.

“This is an excellent opportunity to move forward with aesthetic upgrades,” said Butzek. The design matches those of other poles the DOT is installing near Interstate 240 at its own expense.

But to some, aesthetic concerns didn’t justify the expense. “We need pavement; we don’t need poles,” said Fred English, a regular at Council meetings. “What do we need poles for?”

The Rev. Christopher Chiaromonte, an advocate for the homeless, said the money would be better spent on public restrooms. “You can spend $53,000 on light poles and still have public urination downtown,” he noted. Bellamy assured him that city staff is already looking at restroom options.

“I think [the poles] are very attractive,” said Cape, “but I have concerns about the cost.” She suggested that Council pass only the first of two related resolutions, which would keep the door open for upgrading the poles while giving the city 30 days before it would have to commit. In the meantime, Council could reach out to local groups interested in beautifying downtown, such as the Tourism Development Authority.

But once the first resolution was approved, Butzek worried about the 30-day time limit to raise the money. In response, Davis moved that the city commit the money now and then go hunting for contributions.

That motion passed 5-2, with Council members Brownie Newman and Mumpower opposed.

“When I think about the financial responsibilities we have, I can’t support that,” said Newman, who argued for finding donors first.

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