A new state law adds another twist to the city’s decades-long effort to clean up The Block: Asheville City Council can ask the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to audit the sales records of a convenience store located at 55 South Market St. If alcohol sales exceed 50 percent of total store sales, the Commission can suspend or revoke the store’s permit.
That’s the gist of a new law that was adopted this past July and took effect Oct. 1, explained Asheville City Attorney Bob Oast at City Council’s Nov. 16 work session. The law applies to “certain types of businesses that hold ABC permits and are located in designated urban-redevelopment areas,” Oast detailed in his written report.
The store in question is operated by Elijah Jones; this isn’t the first time his business has been targeted by city officials and others urging renovation of The Block, who argue that alcohol-related problems seem to converge on — and, some say, even stem from — the store. Recently, city officials have looked into various nuisance-abatement laws, in an effort to end illegal activities that they say are occurring at and near the store.
Said Asheville Vice Mayor Ed Hay, “I know we’ve been trying to do [something] for a while. But could we be setting a precedent?” He wondered out loud if enforcing the new law might deter businesses, some of which might serve alcohol, from locating there. “What if Barley’s [Brew Pub] wanted to relocate down on The Block?” Hay asked.
Oast replied that Hay was asking a good question — one which he wasn’t sure how to answer. However, he noted, the new law appears to be aimed more at retail establishments where alcohol consumption occurs off the premises. He promised to research Hay’s question and report back to Council. But Oast emphasized one sure point: “The law depends on [a municipality] asking for [an investigation],” he noted, apparently leaving the city some discretion in applying the new law.
Field reflected that few establishments on The Block serve alcohol: primarily, The New Ebony Grill (and, perhaps, the Ritz). But those aren’t retail establishments (they are, respectively, a bar and a restaurant), she observed.
But one lawyer-by-trade on Council had a more political point: Council member Chuck Cloninger said, “I’m concerned about the appearance of picking on one establishment.” He asked Oast if there were other businesses in the redevelopment area that might be violating the law. “Are there others we should be investigating? … Why would we single out [55 S. Market]?”
“Anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of sales [at that location] consist of alcohol,” a cautious Oast responded.
“I’m well aware of the problems,” Cloninger said, adding that this knowledge did not diminish his concern.
“It could be that we’re singling out one individual,” Council member O.T. Tomes reflected. “But I don’t know what to say. Do we go ahead?”
Hay reiterated, “We’ve been working on this [problem] for years.”
So Cloninger, looking down the bench at his fellow Council members, confirmed that the majority of Council appears ready to ask that the new law be invoked for 55 S. Market.
Mayor Leni Sitnick asked that the issue be placed on the Nov. 23 formal agenda — rather than that meeting’s consent agenda, which is reserved for noncontroversial items that are unlikely to draw public comment.
And Oast indicated that he’ll investigate whether the law could or should be applied to other establishments on The Block.
Water to sell
This time last year, the well ran dry from drought. But now that there’s a surplus of the wet stuff, Asheville City Council members are beginning to press for reductions in residential-customer rates.
The long-awaited Mills River Treatment Plant is now on-line, pumping 4 million gallons per day into the system of the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson, Tom Frederick reported to Asheville City Council on Nov. 16. As head of the city’s Water Resources Department, Frederick oversees the day-to-day operations of the regional system. He was hired just in time to weather last year’s drought and then take the flak for construction delays that put the water-treatment plant nearly a year behind schedule.
So Frederick was more than glad to tell Council about a host of good things: The system’s primary reservoir — North Fork — is nearly full; the Bee Tree Reservoir is full (but off-line, in anticipation of state-mandated improvements to its dam); and the treatment plant appears to have passed its final 30-day test run. What’s more, Frederick’s department has completed a number of major projects, such as repairing the Biltmore Avenue water lines and building a Fairview reservoir. Further, the Water Authority has garnered a $3 million state grant that will fund a long list of water-system improvements, explained Frederick.
Next year, the Authority will ask for another $3 million in grant funds for “critical needs” — improvements necessary to address low water pressure, public-health issues, leaks and other serious problems, said Frederick. But with the flooding brought on by Hurricane Floyd this year, the rumor is that most of the state money may go east this time, he cautioned. And, local utilities with better bond ratings, such as Asheville’s, may be limited to $2 million in grants — with the local utility providing a $1 million match.
That could mean a substantially smaller grant for the Authority.
“The logic is to give the most money to [the utilities] least able to borrow,” commented Council member Barbara Field, in answer to the dismay expressed by some of her fellow Council members.
“It’s a redistribution of wealth,” said City Manager Jim Westbrook, who didn’t appear happy with the restriction.
But Council members had a few other points on their mind.
Mayor Sitnick urged Frederick to ask Authority members to keep up with efforts (and funding) for water-conservation measures. The Authority’s Water Efficiency Task Force played a key role in educating customers and encouraging conservation during the drought, Sitnick noted.
Frederick commended the WET Force, as well as other staff efforts to reduce consumption during the drought. But that reduction has yielded a loss in revenue. “We’re probably at a point right now where our focus needs to shift,” he suggested. The regional system is at its highest capacity ever: North Fork provides 17 million gallons per day (and has the capacity to deliver more) and, with state approval, the Mills River could pump about 7 mgd by this time next year. The Authority is now in a position to aid in economic-development efforts, Frederick asserted.
“That’s fine,” said Sitnick. “But number one: We never know when another drought is going to hit. And number two: We’ve got one of the highest residential rates in the state. It would be my hope that we continue to keep conservation in the forefront — if for no other reason than to inform residents and businesses how to keep their water costs down.”
The flip side is that revenues are flat, Frederick emphasized, mentioning a few industries, such as Milkco, that have either closed down or reduced their water use during the past year.
Council member Tommy Sellers, who serves on the Water Authority board, underscored that trend: He mentioned that even his employer, Highland Farms, has reduced its consumption. For example, he said, Highland Farms has stopped using a water-cooled ice maker that consumed 800 gallons of water per day, replacing it with an air-cooled machine. “We’re now saving 800 gallons a day,” declared Sellers.
That doesn’t do much for revenues, unfortunately. City Manager Westbrook pointed out that the Authority needs a base-line revenue just to maintain its primary operations — and, in addition to that, the system needs numerous improvements, including water-line relocations stemming from state Department of Transportation projects. None of this is being helped by a nationwide downturn in industries that use high volumes of water. Times are changing, and the newer industries are knowledge-based, not manufacturing, Westbrook noted. Nevertheless, he said, “We’ve got to sell water.”
That didn’t sway some Council members from their next, and most forceful, point: reducing water rates for residential customers. Cloninger said he’d like to see the Authority revise its current rate structure, which provides high-volume commercial/industrial users with a substantial price break over residential customers. “I’m not saying commercial users should pay the same as residents, but [their rate] should be higher than it currently is,” said Cloninger.
The current rates came from recommendations made by a consulting company, Raftelis, a few years ago, based on the cost of providing service, Frederick responded. But it is true, he noted, that Asheville-area residents pay more per gallon than 80 to 90 percent of their fellow residential users nationwide. Our commercial/industrial rates, on the other hand, are “very competitive.”
Cloninger then asked Frederick how much of the Authority’s revenue comes from industrial/commercial users, and how much from residents.
Frederick didn’t know the exact amount, but replied that — in terms of the volume of water used — commercial/industrial customers use 55 percent of the water sold, and residential customers use 45 percent.
Sitnick stuck to her suggestion that residential rates be reduced. “We’ve had a rate structure that punishes the [small-scale] user. [Because of the Sullivan Act], to some extent, Asheville taxpayers subsidize the out-of-Asheville customers.” (The Sullivan Act prohibits the Authority from charging non-city residents a higher rate, as is commonly done elsewhere).
No one disagreed with her.
Council took no formal action on Frederick’s report.