Mountain Xpress: I’ll start off with a major issue for Asheville, and that’s affordable housing. If elected, what are you going to pursue that will improve that situation?
Chris Pelly: Supporting housing along transit corridors, I support allowing residents of public housing to have vouchers to be able to live wherever they choose, as opposed to living in public housing.
Anything with the affordable housing trust fund?
Yes, continuing our support of that.
The city of Asheville has had some very up and down budget years recently. One of the debates has been how to best balance things. In case of another shortfall, would you push for balancing it more through revenue or cuts? In either case, what specifically might be raised or cut?
Number one, a balanced budget is my prioirty, doing everything possible not to raise taxes in a recession. I would probably be looking at some cuts.
Honestly, I haven’t given too much thought to it generally. In the past we’ve been able to rely not filling positions that become vacant, things like that. One of the things that I’ve done successfully in the sidewalk campaign is that everyone recognizes we need sidewalks in the city, but I’ve been very successful in helping leverage the Department of Transportation to help pay for sidewalks on Tunnel Road since that’s a state-maintained road. So I will be looking for areas of revenue outside the city budget to help meet some of the needs in this community. Many of the roads that most need sidewalks are state-maintained roads, whether it’s Leicester Highway, Patton Avenue, Hendersonville Road or Tunnel Road and the Department of Transportation has realized that that’s got to be part of the menu of services they provide.
When we began our campaign in East Asheville on Tunnel Road we went to the Department of Transportation and told them we needed their help with this. Very clearly, at the beginning of that campaign, they told us “we don’t do sidewalks, that’s a city function.” By the end of that campaign, we’d brought them around. So leveraging outside sources like the Department of Transportation is one way to help enhance a tight budget.
Speaking of that, relations with Raleigh, especially the General Assembly, have been somewhat strained, especially for the past year or two. You’ve had the proposals for the water system and things like that. What would you do to try to improve relations with Raleigh and defend the city’s interests as well?
Number one would be to defend the city’s interests and that means the city, the taxpayers, the residents of Asheville own the water system, and defending it, to prevent any state takeover of the water system.
We’re between a rock and a hard place, because the state legislature can control many of the basic functions of the city of Asheville, so it’s keeping the door open on communications, it’s actively letting our representatives know what our needs are and trying to build relationships that way.
What are some improvements you think need to be made to the transit system and how do you think they should be paid for?
The new transit master plan is great, dropping from 60 to 30 minutes, I think that’s terrific: more people can rely on it. One thing I have heard from residents is that they’d like to be able to access the transit system, but walking from their home to the new stop is unsafe, so one additional benefit of expanding the sidewalk system would be to make transit system more accessible for residents who otherwise don’t feel safe walking to the transit stop right now.
Speaking of that, infrastructure’s been a major point in your campaign, it was a major point in your work as an activist and neighborhood leader. What plans do you have to pay for the infrastructure improvements the city needs, which are pretty considerable?
There’s a couple of options. As I talked about earlier, it’s leveraging outside sources. When we did the parks in Haw Creek, we did two parks, Masters Park and Haw Creek Park. It wasn’t just simply city money, it was state money, it was DENR money. For Masters Park it was getting Buncombe County to contribute a third of the cost of that. When we were doing the sidewalks, it was the city and the state, of course, but we also got Safe Routes to Schools funding to help pay for part of improvements.
What I feel like I’ve been very successful at is finding all the sources and bringing together and leveraging one off the other rather than just dumping it all in the lap of city taxpayers.
Now, having done all that, I recognized that it may still be more than the current budget will allow, and I would like to have a discussion on Council for consideration of a bond referendum with specific, targeted goals of improvements solicited from community residents where they most want these improvements made. It would be a specific, targeted bond referendum that would be put forth to the voters to decide “yes” or “no” whether they support that.
There’s been a lot of controversy in recent years about city staff, with the HR department mess and most recently the controversies in the Asheville Police Department — the evidence room, the settlement of the sexual harassment suit, that officer remaining employed. Do you believe there needs to be greater transparency and accountability from staff and if so, what steps will you take to try to ensure that?
I think we need greater accountability from the city manager on down. I guess I’ll leave it at that right now. There’s also things we can be doing within the police department about vulnerable communities that may not feel that their interests are being represented. The LGBT community may not feel like, if there are harassment issues, they can safely report that versus a police department that’s open and has a liaison with different communites so people can feel comfortable reporting problems when they happen so there’s more accountability within the system.
A large number of people in Asheville are also renters and some cases emerge where there housing conditions are substandard. What steps do you think the city should take to better protect renters and their rights?
Well, it’s one more example of where the state has knocked the lights out from under the city by rescinding the [ability to issue a] minimum housing code. That was one measure that would help tenants, because it would require periodic inspection of rental units to ensure they were up to code.
So what are we going to do? I like to think most landlords see it as in their self-interest to maintain properties to keep their values up. Asheville has the housing certificate of occupancy but, wait, that’s been rescinded to.
Yeah, it’s complicated.
Let me get back to you on that.
What steps are you taking in your campaign for office and how do you think the campaign’s going so far?
My campaign slogan is “neighborhoods united.” It’s really the way I’ve tried to serve in East Asheville for the past 15 years in a leadership position. I am trying to bring that same leadership style to City Council. I believe that when you bring people together and get them invested in the process, you get great results.
When we did the parks and sidewalks in West Asheville, literally hundreds of people were involved in those campaigns, and the level of ownership felt by folks out there is very high level. I think they care about what’s happened and I want to try to invest the entire city to approach things that way.
I am working right now with neighborhoods in South Asheville. They approached us when they saw our success getting sidewalks on Tunnel Road and said “how did you crack the code?” on getting sidewalks.
That’s the leadership I’ve tried to provide, what I’m doing in East Asheville I’m doing in South Asheville and I’ll do that city-wide. If neighborhoods can articulate a need, I will represent that on Council.
One area of some controversy recently was the downtown master plans changes passed, that raised the threshold [for Council review of a development], how would you change those if you’re elected?
I appreciate the process for the creation of the Downtown Master Plan, a lot of people were involved in that, a lot of investment in that. The one area where I do have concern is handing over to the Planning and Zoning Commission the ability to approve buildings up to 125,000 square feet or about the size of the BB&T building. I fear that an unelected body making decisions like that will come back and haunt Council because people do want accountability in their public officials. P&Z doesn’t have to face the voters, Council does.
That’s the only concern, but I’m willing to see how it plays out, but that’s my fear, that that’s eventually going to happen.
On the issue of development, you have these public-private partnerships like 51 Biltmore and you’ve been very critical of that project. You’ve also been very critical of the Linamar deal. What do you think the city should do to encorage economic development that doesn’t have the risks you see in those deals?
For 51 Biltmore, I recognize we need parking downtown. My concern about that one was that was at the same time we were seeking sidewalks in East Asheville, and the city was saying “we don’t have money for that” at the same time we’d just completed paying off bonds on the existing parking decks, freeing up about $750,000 a year in parking revenues that we could use for other transportation options.
But instead, the city immediately re-obligated itself with 51 Biltmore. My concern was that here’s an opportunity to free up some revenue to mee some of those other infrastructure needs of the city, but we passed on that.
The best thing I think we can do right now for economic development is support the AB-Tech 1/4 cent sales tax and help create a workforce ready so employers can come here.
The folks in Weaverville, Thermofisher, they’re adding jobs at the same rate as the other folks and they didn’t demand any economic incentives. I think I described it as vulture capitalism, picking apart the communities and playing one against the other, and Asheville, I think we don’t have to play that game.