Designing frameworks: Council readies for legislature’s return

Last year, relations between the North Carolina General Assembly and the city of Asheville were marked by hostility, public wars of words and even a lawsuit. At a special meeting yesterday, March 18, however, multiple Asheville City Council members expressed a desire to improve things this year, even though looming legislation could cost the city further revenue.

Lobbyist Jack Cozort, the city’s point person in Raleigh, cautioned that while the N.C. General Assembly’s “short session” is only planned to last from May 14 to early July, there may be some major impacts on the city. He said possible laws overhauling zoning and limiting how cities can spend funds from utilities they run looked unlikely until the 2015 session.

On the plus side, he said that some Republican legislators might press for changing last year’s regulatory overhaul to give more authority back to local governments to deal with environmental issues. “Maybe it’s an acknowledgement they went too far on this bill,” Cozort noted.

But, he noted, a bill overhauling business privilege license taxes seemed likely, and, if adopted, could leave the city short about $1 million in revenue.

“The bill as currently written is going to result in a substantial loss of revenue,” said Cozort, adding that rather than halting the changes, his hopes are based around giving cities another source of revenue to offset the loss.

Vice Mayor Marc Hunt observed that the loss will be roughly equivalent to a 1 cent per $100 property tax.

City manager Gary Jackson also noted that there will be “winners and losers” in the legislation, with “big box stores” saving money and “mom-and-pop shops” like many of Asheville’s local businesses possibly paying even more taxes, so Council might have to look for some way to offset the loss for smaller local businesses. City staff is already working with the League of Municipalities to study the impact of the new law on small and mid-sized businesses.

“I think we can be more effective the more we coordinate with other cities across the state,” Hunt added.

To better deal with such legislative issues, Cozort had a number of suggestions for Council members. He said that they should take a page from several other cities, such as Cary, and designate a specific staff person — who, typically, answers to the city manager or city attorney — to work on issues related to the legislature and coordinate with that staffer to accomplish Council priorities.

“They’ll follow the issues, get together, decide our strategy, decide who’s going to deal with whom and the best way to approach it,” Cozort said. “But you’ve got to have a person that both your legislative delegation recognizes is the person he or she can go to here in addition to being able to come to me in Raleigh. That’s important.”

He also advised Council to draft up a list of ongoing priorities, both sweeping and specific. That, he said, will give him guidelines about which legislation to support or oppose a bill if it’s brought up suddenly, even if he doesn’t have time to consult with Council.

Historically, the city attorney has played a major role in crafting the city’s annual legislative agenda — the specific laws and changes it will push for in a year — but a new City Attorney, Robin Currin, takes office May 1. Mayor Esther Manheimer suggested that in the meantime Council’s new Governance Committee draft up a list of general priorities and an agenda as Cozort suggested.

Monday night, May 17, while speaking to a forum on the future of the city’s water system, Manheimer noted that many cities, including Asheville, felt the legislature was increasingly hostile to their interests, and that city officials were seeking to band together to protect themselves.

However, at the March 18 Council meeting, she and a number of other Council members noted that they still hoped to improve relations with legislators.

Council member Jan Davis said that during the SoCon basketball tournament, he had good conversations with Reps. Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey, two Republican local legislators who co-sponsored the water legislation that the city’s currently fighting in court. Moffitt and Ramsey have also sparred with city leaders on a number of other issues.

“That little reaching out does a lot; we’re so used to an adversarial position that I was quaking when I called them, but I grit my teeth and held on,” Davis said. “Quite frankly, there are good things we can do besides the adversarial stuff.”

“Some sort of constructive delegation before the short session begins is important,” Hunt added. “We do have an opportunity to improve the way we work with them.”

Manheimer said she hoped to “design a framework for the relationship” with legislators. Council agreed that staff should play a bigger role with coordinating legislative issues, and setting up a point person and list of priorities as Cozort suggested.


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