As she introduced Asheville’s proposed general obligation bond referendum for discussion, Mayor Esther Manheimer pointed out that the specifics of the three bond packages — $32 million for transportation infrastructure, $25 million for affordable housing and $17 million for parks & recreation — had been hashed out in several previous worksessions and meetings. And during the short public hearing that followed, it did indeed seem that most bond supporters as well as opponents viewed the outcome of Tuesday evening’s vote as a foregone conclusion. All seven members of City Council agreed to put the $74 million question to Asheville voters in November.
Voters will be able to cast a separate vote for each of the three bond categories. If all of the bond measures are approved, Manheimer explained, city tax payers will see a maximum property tax increase of 4.1 cents over the current city tax rate of 47.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That would result in an increase of $110 for a $275,000 home, she said.
A property tax revaluation currently underway could result in a smaller tax rate increase if property values increase more than 1.5 percent overall, city Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn said in an interview prior to Tuesday’s meeting. The results of the revaluation will not be available until January, she said.
Retired attorney Sidney Bach, who voiced objections to the bond in two previous meetings of Council, called the public hearing “window dressing, in collaboration with certain unelected city staff, to foist a poorly planned and unnecessary pie-in-the-sky $110 million financial burden upon the city and its residents for years and years to come.” In citing the $110 million figure, Bach spoke of the bond principal amount as well as the interest charges that would be added to it during the bond period.
The bond proposal, Bach said, does not include any funding for fire, police, emergency services, teachers or schools. “Where are your priorities?” he asked Council.
Manheimer responded that a fourth category that would have provided funds for repairs to city fire and police stations was included within the original bond package city staff presented to Council. Manheimer said Council reached the consensus that, while fire and police services account for nearly half of the city’s budget and are important to Council, funding for those projects wasn’t the right fit for the bond issue. Also, she said, “My understanding is that we can’t use this money for teachers or schools.”
Another possible use for bond funds, a $1 million update to the city’s transit center on Coxe Avenue, was removed from consideration after the city learned that the project didn’t meet the state’s requirements, Manheimer said. Prior to the meeting, Councilmember Gordon Smith said that the project was not far enough along in the planning stage to meet state requirements for bond measures.
Betty Council said she hopes that the city’s African-American community, which makes up about 13 percent of the city’s population, will benefit proportionately from the bond funding.
Greg Borom of Children First/Communities in Schools and Timothy Sadler spoke in favor of the $25 million affordable housing package. Borom urged Council to look closely at housing for those making 30 percent of area median income, saying that more attention had been paid to those making at least 60 percent of median income.
Smith said that, during the 2015 Council election, members of the community had shared the issues and needs that are most important to them. The bond referendum, he said, will “allow people to decide whether to accelerate toward those issues they’ve communicated to us.” Councilmember Cecil Bothwell expressed a similar sentiment, saying the bond referendum is an opportunity to “let the people in the community decide if they want to take this on.”
During the public comment session, former Councilmember and Vice Mayor Chris Peterson spoke strongly in opposition to the bond referendum, calling it “a $75 million Ponzi bond.” Over the past eight years, he said, Council has “taxed and fee-d us to death.” Council’s claims that the bond funding will help poor people are “bull,” he said. “The average person in Asheville earns $28,000… You’ve got people all over this government making over $200,000. That’s very wrong.”
Council approved its consent agenda unanimously. A previously-scheduled hearing on a zoning ordinance amendment to introduce screening standards for utility substations was continued until Council’s next meeting on Sept. 6. The delay, Manheimer said, would give more time for “community conversations” on substation plans for downtown Asheville.
The body appointed Bridget Herring to the Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment.