From beginning to sunset: Xpress coverage of the June 22 Asheville City Council session

As Asheville City Council started its June 22 meeting, Xpress reporter David Forbes provided live coverage, starting with this Tweet:

Live, from City Hall, it’s Asheville City Council!

More than four hours later (about average for the municipal body), he offered his last Tweet, snapped a photo of the sunset over downtown and signed off for the day, having covered these major actions by Council:

• The 2010-2011 budget passed.
• Council members declined to fund the Asheville Film Festival, officially putting an end to a city-run event.
• Council members approved reduced debt payments by the Grove Arcade.
• Discussed the possible re-opening of the Hillcrest pedestrian bridge, but deferred to City Manager Gary Jackson recommendation that the situation be assessed by police and by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
• Shifted $143,000 to the sidewalk budget but not enough votes were mustered in support of asking the DOT to consider East Asheville sidewalks. Dissenting members noted the latter item had not been on the printed agenda.

Here are Forbes collected updates from the meeting.

Council member Bill Russell was absent due to “family emergency.”

Mayor Terry Bellamy greets delegation from Chiapas, Mexico. Mayor of San Cristobal thanks Asheville and wants to promote “cultural exchanges,” agreements between universities.

Bellamy touts art agreements between city, UNCA, Warren Wilson as example to delegation.

Council’s adds discussion of re-opening Hillcrest pedestrian bridge to agenda.

Council member Gordon Smith: Father of the man killed crossing I-240 last week has gathered 300-plus signatures from Hillcrest residents calling for officials to re-open bridge.

Smith remarks: “What we’re doing now isn’t working,” and says it’s time to change the approach.

Bellamy wants to refer to Public Safety Committee. She reminds people of sidewalks on Hill Street and the bridge across to Westgate, and she says the issue needs “comprehensive conversation.”

Council member Jan Davis says it’s “not a good situation,” but the bridge was closed for a reason — to keep out drug dealers.

Council member Cecil Bothwell says it’s a “shame it takes a tragedy to bring this up.” He mentions that he’s clearing brush from nearby sidewalk with volunteers on Saturday.

Council member Smith notes: “Certainly have to address crime and drugs,” but policing has advanced. He’d like to see the issue addressed in six to eight weeks.

City Manager Gary Jackson suggests doing an assessment with police and the state Department of Transportation before bringing the matter to Council committee.

Next: URTV Board member Bob Horn makes a presentation on station activities and the channel’s pending September closure.

Public-access channel URTV now part of WNC Media Center. Horn plays video touting its video training camps. (Pardon, WNC Community Media Center is the proper name.) Horn also touts expanded operations, including Internet stream, Web radio, training activities.

Horn: “We see media center as conduit” for community. He thanks city for their support.

On URTV funding, Horn says: “It’s been taken care of” with county monies and will stay open until “this time next year.”

Council next hears proposals for energy independence pilot program with loans for improving 60 to 100 homes. Staff reports that they’re about 80-percent done with designing the program, but the state legislature needs to clear up “bugs.” Asheville is pursuing clearer energy legislation with Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Charlotte and other towns.

Vice Mayor Brownie Newman “still believe[s] there’s so much enthusiasm in Asheville” for energy savings, and says he’s glad the city’s moving forward.

Next, it’s conditional-zoning requests — one for converting Sand Hill residences to office space.

Council member Esther Manheimer makes motion to adopt but has questions about traffic improvements at nearby intersection. The Sand Hill zoning passes 6-0.

Council next considers Life Safety Tower that will add and open up more space in Buncombe Courthouse. Staff says the tower won’t be visible from Pack Square.

Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton says it’s an “exciting project [that will] allow us to bring the court house into the 21st Century.”

No one comments during the public hearing, and Council approves the tower, 6-0.

Next, Council considers next fiscal year’s budget, which has been a subject of discussion and debate for months. Budget cuts include staff training, temporary positions; budget raises water fees but keeps taxes and fund reserves the same. The only modification to the budget is a $143,000 allocation for sidewalk repairs.

Administrative Director Lauren Bradley mentions that the $143,000 is funds the city has already collected but hadn’t included for spending in the original, draft budget.

Traffic Director Ken Putnam notes that federal funds may help to build sidewalks in the near future.

Mayor Bellamy says Council needs to think about how “we’re going to pay for sidewalks” improvements without new funding sources or taxes.

Newman encourages citizens to come to planning meetings and speak up for their neighborhood’s needs.

Manheimer says she’s “hoping budgets will be uphill — or downhill, however the expression goes — from here,” as there’s little money for capital improvements. It’s “extremely unpopular to raise taxes,” she remarks, but doing so might be more fair than some other ways of raising money for big improvements.

Council member Smith says there’s a choice between low taxes and service or increasing revenues. We’re beginning to see service cuts. “Eventually, there’s nothing left to cut.”

Bellamy points to cuts in festival and outside-agency funding. “We’ve cut everything we can cut.”

The Asheville city budget passes, 6-0.

Council next debates putting East Asheville sidewalks on the agenda. Smith has concerns about the process.

Traffic director Kevin Putnam says DOT historically “doesn’t do sidewalks,” but that’s changing. New “complete streets” plan for multi-modal.

Manheimer remarks on sidewalks discussion: “This is sausage-making, you’re not supposed to watch this.”

A motion to draft a resolution calling for DOT to fund East Asheville sidewalks fails 3-3 on process concerns. Davis, Smith and Newman against.

Council members take a 20-minute recess.

To clarify sidewalks situation, in short: Bellamy proposed adding an item to agenda to ask NCDOT to fund East Asheville sidewalks. However, some Council members objected, noted feeling uncomfortable with voting on something not on printed agenda, instead of just discussing it.

Council considers extending development agreement on two downtown properties (future hotels) that have had trouble getting financing. City planner Cathy Ball notes the city has spent money on projects to help with deal and plans. Additional parking that the projects provide will be helpful.

Downtown hotel projects, including the controversial Ellington, have had trouble getting financing since downturn. Council member Smith remarks that downtown “parking problems seem like walking problems sometimes,” adding that you can get most places if willing to park about two blocks away.

Staff also shows details of a possible downtown shuttle on weekends, 14 hours per day.

Bothwell observes that the project takes city parking funds for the next 10 years and that he can’t see how we’re cutting festivals and housing fund while subsidizing hotels. He says he “could never vote for this” and won’t vote for extension.

But Newman comments, “If our plan is for more parking, these projects are a good deal.” He adds that it’s better for people to visit downtown than a “cookie-cutter, corporate” location.

The development deal renewal passes 5-1, with Bothwell against.

Film festival discussion follows. City Manager Jackson says that the city needs to privatize this. The city “doesn’t do it as well as private sector.”

(Full disclosure, Forbes notes in a Tweet: I’m an organizer for the Ricochet Film Festival, coming this September.)

City staff report that expenses outpaced revenue each year of Asheville Film Festival. They recommend discontinuing running it in-house. They also note that the city would have to dispose of the festival trademark, logo, etc.

Filmmaker Tom Anton, who’s creating Asheville International Film Festival in 2011 is “not interested in obtaining the logo or website from city.”

Local resident Chris Chiaromonte thanks the city for putting on film fest and says he hopes someone picks it up.

Andre Gower with CinemaSouth suggests an alternative — find someone who can put on event. “I have 30 years experience, I have resources.”

Haw Creek resident Fred English asks if he’s “the only one here not asking for a handout” and says the city shouldn’t fund it.

Council votes 6-0 to end the Asheville Film Festival. Council also decides unanimously to have staff decide to how to dispose of the brand and requests that they bring back a plan.

Up next: the reduction of the Grove Arcade debt payments to the city. Under the new proposed deal, the Arcade’s $60,000-per-year in property taxes would be taken off debt payment.

Arcade Treasurer Scott Hughes shows before-and-after renovation pictures, touting accomplishment in reviving it. The Arcade is “a true destination” for tourists, shoppers, locals.

Hughes admits there have been “mistakes” by the Arcade’s leadership. There have been issues woth start-up businesses and it’s taken time to fill spaces. The costs of repairing and maintaining the old building have been considerable. There’s “no way to accumulate enough money to pay all this debt.”

He says to Council members, “You have given the city a gift,” and says he believes the city should “appreciate it” and reduce the debt payment.

Under the proposal, the Grove Arcade will only pay $50,000 a year to city.

The Arcade can put money towards repair or to debt — not both, says Hughes.

Council member Bothwell voices concern that reducing the payments could help Progress Energy, which also loaned the Arcade money.

The reduced-payment proposal for the Grove Arcade pass 6-0.

Next up, public-access producer Steve Holland notes the need to review the audit report of URTV, and notes the lack of board oversight and funding issues. The current URTV situation demonstrates a “fundamental lack of planning.” The city needs to demand more accountability from URTV and should be suspicious of claims that problems are solved.

Bellamy: As the city’s currently working on a future contract with the WNC Community Media Center, the dissenting group should get a formal response.

Davis: “There have been discrepancies” in various claims about URTV. Those are worth examining before new contract is approved.

Chris Chiaromonte remarks that he “won’t defend URTV, already done its own defense,” and says he has issue with police issuing tickets for people sleeping at park. Chiaromonte, a homeless street preacher, explains, “All they want is a place to sleep, a place to drink their 40 and look at pretty women.

Bothwell says the city has a “huge, underused lot near McCormick field.” A shuttle there would solve a lot of problems. “We could do it this week.”

At 9:12 p.m., Council adjourned. Sunset over Pack Square Park.

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