Council member Kelly Miller caused a stir during the Asheville City Council’s Jan. 27 meeting when, backed up by the city attorney, Miller declined to recuse himself from a vote on asking state legislators for permission to reallocate room-tax revenue. Miller is executive director of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is funded by the 4 percent tax on hotel and motel rooms.
This was only the second Council meeting for Miller, who was appointed in December to serve out the final year of Holly Jones’ term after she was elected to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in November.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis proposed asking the N.C. General Assembly for permission to allocate 1 percent of the room-tax revenue for improvements to the rundown Asheville Civic Center. The request would be added to Council’s legislative agenda, a list of requested action the city sends its representatives in Raleigh each year, early in the legislative session. Davis’ motion didn’t specify whether the city wanted to reallocate a portion of the existing revenues or increase the tax.
Last year, the tax raised about $6.7 million. The money is funneled through the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, which, by law, must use it to promote local tourism. The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the CVB’s parent organization, opposes increasing the tax or redirecting that revenue.
On Dec. 9, when Council members were interviewing prospective Council members, Miller was asked how he would handle conflicts of interest between his roles at the CVB and on Council. “When I find that there is a conflict of interest, in having checked with legal on this perhaps, I would definitely recuse myself,” Miller said then.
Seated among his fellow Council members, however, Miller said he’d “done some thinking about this” and that, having discussed the matter with City Attorney Bob Oast, he now planned to vote on the issue.
“I represent the citizens of Asheville,” Miller declared. “And if I see a different way to [address Davis’ proposal], I’m going to suggest it.”
Miller’s employment by the Chamber, said Oast, doesn’t fit the legal definition of conflict of interest, which requires it to be “direct, substantial and identifiable.”
But some on Council were obviously uncomfortable with that viewpoint.
“It is hard for me to imagine that if I’m paid to do a specific thing, then to come back here and vote contrary to that … it seems like some real tension,” noted Council member Brownie Newman.
“I’m really surprised at what our city attorney tells us—that this is not a conflict of interest,” added Council member Carl Mumpower, pointing out that he’d made the motion to appoint Miller back in December. “In my personal view, there clearly is.”
The issue had already cropped up last month, when Miller participated in a discussion of the room-tax issue during the City Council retreat. That sparked some discussion in the community about a possible conflict of interest, but this was this first time that Council’s request had come to an official vote.
Mayor Terry Bellamy pointed out that she’d repeatedly recused herself from votes concerning funding for Mountain Housing Opportunities when she worked for the local nonprofit. In some cases, noted Bellamy, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations prohibited her from voting. In other instances, however, she recused herself merely to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
“Sometimes the lines are blurred,” said the mayor. “I chose to leave the room because I didn’t want to give the appearance that I am trying to influence Council members.”
Nonetheless, Bellamy also urged restraint. “Before we start tarring and feathering people, make sure we have all the facts,” she advised. “And that we give people the benefit of the doubt.”
Sticking to his guns, Miller argued that a unanimous vote would send state legislators a stronger message. Accordingly, he proposed changing Davis’ wording by asking the county’s tourism leaders to develop “positive taxation policies” that “improve the overall health and awareness of the Asheville area brand experience.”
But that idea did not catch on, and Davis’ room-tax request narrowly made the legislative list on a 4-3 vote, with Mumpower, Miller and Council member Bill Russell opposed.
City eyes economic-stimulus funds
Funding requests were the order of the evening, as Council members wrapped up both their state and federal legislative agendas. They also approved a resolution of support for the economic-stimulus package working its way though Congress, tacking on some recommendations of their own.
The resolution asks Congress to give some weight to funding initiatives that fit with Asheville’s infrastructure priorities, such as public-works and housing projects and a transportation-stimulus program.
City staff had already assembled a substantial list of “shovel-ready” local projects that federal funding could jump-start. In December, Bellamy forwarded her list to the N.C. League of Municipalities, along with mayors from North Carolina’s other largest cities, seeking to keep them, rather than just state agencies, in the spotlight (to view Asheville’s wish list, go to www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles).
The city’s list wasn’t up for deliberation, but that didn’t stop Mumpower from taking issue with it. Bellamy, however, tried to head him off at the pass, proclaiming, “This is not an issue we’re going to debate tonight. The federal government is going to debate whether to fund it.”
“I don’t think it’s your place to tell us how to debate,” retorted Mumpower. Holding up a copy of the Asheville Citizen-Times, he criticized the recommendations as backroom politics, saying the list had been sent to the league without proper deliberation by Council.
Newman pointed out that the need for infrastructure funding had been discussed at the January retreat, and Bellamy said those needs are no secret. “We cannot deny the city of Asheville has a lot of capital needs. … If we put it all together, the number would be staggering.”
Furthermore, reiterated the mayor, this particular discussion was intended to determine whether Council wants to be part of the national stimulus campaign. If so, the city needs to have projects in the hopper.
Miller agreed, saying, “We need to be at the table as a community and be ready to pull the trigger.”
But Mumpower remained unconvinced, challenging the whole concept of a federal stimulus package. “The idea that you can spend your way out of an economic crisis is like saying you can drink your way out of alcoholism,” Mumpower declared.
Nonetheless, Council approved a motion instructing City Manager Gary Jackson to continue working with city department heads to identify projects that could be tackled quickly if stimulus money became available. The motion was approved on a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed.
Stopping foreclosure blight
City Council also agreed to seek a federal neighborhood-stabilization grant in response to the subprime-mortgage crisis.
In September, HUD allocated $3.9 billion for such projects nationwide. North Carolina’s share is $52 million, to be distributed by the state Division of Community Assistance, and Asheville is seeking $3 million.
The idea is that vacant and abandoned houses negatively impact a community, touching off a chain reaction of neglect, abandonment and crime. The funds from this program are used to buy foreclosed homes and sell them to low- and medium-income owners, Real Estate Manager Nikki Reid explained.
“Thankfully, we do not have the extent of problems that others have,” noted Planning and Development Director Judy Daniel. “But we do have foreclosures.”
In fact, said Reid, numbers provided by the state Department of Commerce show that West Asheville has the highest percentage of subprime mortgages in Buncombe County, making the neighborhood highly vulnerable to foreclosures.
“The ‘Weed and Seed’ area and west Riverside is going to be our prime directive,” Reid told Xpress. Ironically, the ‘Weed and Seed’ area includes the Burton Street neighborhood, which would be targeted for demolition under the Interstate 26 connector plan endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Buncombe County commissioners (see “Buncombe Commissioners,” Jan. 14 Xpress).
Mumpower, a consistent opponent of any sort of government funding, attacked the plan, saying he objected to it “from any number of directions.”
But Council member Robin Cape gave it her support, noting, “This is one of the approaches to dealing with pretty dramatic changes in our community.”
Council members authorized the grant application on a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed.
From goats to green
Speaking of foreclosures and West Asheville, the high-profile site of a 2008 eviction on Sulphur Springs Road got Council’s nod for a conditional rezoning, clearing the way for a three-story, 27-unit, mixed-use development there.
“The property itself has a colorful history,” reported consultant Gerald Green, representing Eco Concepts Realty and Development.
In February of last year, Gabriel and Livia Ferrari were evicted from their home at 22 Sulphur Springs Road. The property is known throughout the neighborhood for its unconventional architecture and populations of chickens and goats.
The Ferraris were evicted for alleged failure to pay property taxes, an action that came at the end of a long-running fight with the city over the condition of their property. After the eviction and foreclosure, Green told Xpress, the property was sold at auction. According to a staff report, it’s currently owned by Buncombe Realty.
With plans for solar panels and energy-efficient appliances, the developers say the project will be West Asheville’s first mixed-use structure to conform to LEED standards. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a program of the U.S. Green Building Council, has developed widely recognized standards for rating sustainable development.
Council unanimously approved rezoning the property from RM-8 to Urban Residential, and Cape asked staff to consider whether the development would be compatible with the city’s Comprehensive Bicycle Plan.
On the heels of Council’s Jan. 13 loosening of restrictions on siting pet crematories, the city seems to have its first taker. But the prospect has the developer of an adjacent project smoldering.
The owners of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, located just inside the city limits near Candler, requested a rezoning from RM 16 to Institutional District so they can build a pet crematory near the southern boundary of their 38.8-acre property.
But a residential, retail and office project already under way along the cemetery’s southeast boundary could have trouble selling units if animals are being cremated next door, said representatives of the developer, the FIRC Group. The Florida-based development company is owned by Tony Fraga, who withdrew his massive Haywood Park project in downtown Asheville in November, in response to objections by City Council.
Forest Lawn spokesperson Dan Funchess said the crematory needs to be located there because the state Cemetery Commission demands a clear separation between human cemeteries and crematories and those designated for animals.
But FIRC Group attorney Rick Jackson took issue with that analysis, saying there’s plenty of space available on the Forest Lawn property. “Why is it acceptable to move a crematory as close as possible to a high-density development simply so it cannot be seen from the human cemetery?” he wondered.
Jackson’s point seemed to hit home with some Council members, who sympathized with the plight of having a crematorium next door.
“It’s certainly a concern,” said Russell. “Especially if I was one of the residents in that development.”
Funchess, noting that crematory emissions are tightly regulated, asserted that a fireplace or a fast-food restaurant “where they do flame-broiling” emits more particulate matter than the crematory would.
Mumpower, however, said he wouldn’t want such a facility for a neighbor in any case, adding, “I don’t care if nothing comes out of your pet crematorium.”
But Newman agreed with Funchess’ assessment, saying that many crematories are located in heavily populated urban areas.
“It’s sort of a psychologically unpleasant use,” conceded Newman. “But there’s no evidence that it [is dangerous].”
Mumpower proposed tabling the issue while Funchess tries to find a more viable solution.
Mumpower’s motion was approved 6-1, with Newman voting no.