Months after leaked body camera footage showed a white former Asheville police office beating a black Asheville resident, Asheville City Council will hear an update on efforts to make policing data more transparent to the public at its meeting on Tuesday, July 24.
In response to a petition by Code for Asheville, a civic technology advocacy group, Council had ordered staff to speed up its work on promoting data transparency during its April 24 meeting. An update on the city’s progress occurred during the May 15 meeting. Jaime Matthews, assistant to the city manager, and Scott Bardwell, business and technology manager, told Council that crime reports and the Asheville Police Department manual could be released soon, but other data sets — specifically, citizen complaints and use-of-force information — would require additional review by staff.
At the time, that message didn’t sit well with members of City Council.
“I thought this was going to move a lot faster — I was hoping we’d be addressing these things and voting on them within a month,” Council member Brian Haynes said during the May 15 meeting.
Acting City Manager Cathy Ball noted during the meeting that she didn’t have the personnel to deal with open-data concerns full time.
“We have to do this responsibly so we don’t end up getting sued, we don’t end up having issues,” she said. “I know that’s not popular; I know that there’s not fingers to clap. I understand that, and I’m OK with that.”
Planning for a transition
Advocacy groups say a lack of accessible transportation poses a severe obstacle for lower-income Ashevillians. Against that backdrop, members of Asheville City Council will vote on an ambitious new plan for the city’s mass transit system.
The proposal would increase bus service hours by 44 percent starting in fiscal year 2020, add a $50 million operating facility by 2024 and double the size of the vehicle fleet by 2029. In the short term, proposed service changes would cost $10.6 million in the FY 2020 budget, which is about $2.4 million more than the FY 2019 transit operations budget. The city’s current transit facility was built in 1971 and is nearing its federally established 50-year useful life.
The plan also recommends that the city assess the potential impact of going fare-free by allowing all riders to use the system for free on weekends. While the the cost of transit does not act as a major disincentive to most riders, the city learned through a public engagement process conducted as part of the preparation for the master plan that free service would result in increased ridership.
A sudden increase in ridership caused by a free system, however, could lead to issues with overcrowding and on-time performance.
Council members will also conduct a public hearing on awarding up to $900,960 worth of economic development incentives to GE Aviation to induce $105 million of investment in its Asheville facility.
The investment was first announced in early March. On June 5, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved $685,000 in economic development incentives in a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Ellen Frost opposing.
GE Aviation has said the investment would add 131 additional jobs at its Asheville plant, bringing the total tally of workers to about 550. The new positions would pay an average wage of $49,000, with 26 of the jobs paying an average annual salary of $92,000, and 105 jobs paying $38,356, excluding benefits.
City staff anticipate that the project will have a positive financial impact on city tax revenues. During the five-year grant period, the city would receive 50 percent of the new incremental property tax revenues on top of GE Aviation’s existing property tax revenues, after which the city would receive the full increased tax revenue. Staff anticipate the first grant payment of about $175,000 would be budgeted for FY 2021.
Council members will vote on a resolution to form the Asheville Buncombe Community Land Trust and recommit $1 million to the entity.
City voters approved a $25 million affordable housing bond in November 2016. City Council allocated $10 million of the $25 million to direct project investment in affordable housing. Of that $10 million, $1 million was set aside for a community land trust.
A steering committee formed to assess whether a land trust would be feasible has indicated that a trust capable of responding to affordable housing opportunities and targeting specific neighborhoods — “particularly predominantly African-American neighborhoods that are facing gentrification-driven displacement” — would be helpful.
Staff expect that the trust, however, will need to find additional sources of revenue for ongoing operations.
In other business
Council will conduct a public hearing on whether to relax rules that limit the brightness of string lights used at outdoor restaurants in Asheville. Specifically, Council will consider text amendments to the city zoning ordinance that would allow greater illumination per bulb before requiring shielding around the light.
Members of City Council will also vote on a litany of items on the consent agenda (26 in total). In brief these include:
- A resolution authorizing the acting city manager to execute a contract with Equinox Environmental Consultation and Design. The company would conduct a feasibility analysis for the eventual design of a greenway between Thompson Street and Azalea Park. The contract would cost the city $147,638.10. On top of this, the city would also set aside a 10 percent contingency.
- A resolution entering into an interlocal agreement with Buncombe County to co-fund a request for proposals to continue the city’s and county’s efforts to accomplish the goals set by the Energy Innovation Task Force, which is led by representatives from Buncombe County, the city and Duke Energy Progress.
- A resolution authorizing the city to apply for grant funding that would help pay for 10 new buses for the transportation department (the combined cost of 10 buses is almost $9 million) and a $90,000 feasibility study for a new transit maintenance facility.
- A resolution allowing the city to enter into contracts to make repairs to community recreational facilities damaged by flooding that occurred on May 30. The contracts would not be allowed to exceed $1,205,000 and would be appropriated from the unassigned fund balance in the city’s general fund.
Asheville City Council meets at 5 p.m. in council chambers on the second floor of City Hall at 70 Court Plaza, Asheville. The full agenda and supporting documents can be found here.