Council stakes out goals, talks team-building at annual retreat

LISTING GOALS: Asheville City Council members listen to Police Chief David Zack during a meeting to set priorities for the coming year. Photo by Brooke Randle

If last year’s Asheville City Council annual retreat started with a bang, the 2023 event began with a whisper.

Absent this year were demonstrators who demanded changes to the Council’s handling of homelessness, growth and the environment. In fact, the public was essentially absent at the retreat, which took place March 2-3 at 200 College St. And unlike last year, Council members appeared to be in lockstep on many issues.

“For this retreat, in terms of what I hope we accomplish, is building that consensus, growing together as a team, learning more about each other and how to work with each other,” said Mayor Esther Manheimer. “And helping provide very clear goals for us, for our community and for our staff as we build that stage for the work to come for this next year.”

While the event was mellow compared with other years, it was no less newsworthy. Xpress rounded up four takeaways from the meeting.

Feeling fuzzy

Led by moderator Nicolas Beamon, Council members started the retreat with a lengthy discussion about the sometimes hard-to-define roles and responsibilities they and city staff hold, which they referred to as being “in the fuzzy.”

“I think the challenge is, how do you manage through that fuzziness without confusion, without it adversely affecting you and negatively impacting relationships,” said City Manager Debra Campbell. “It is extremely important that there be positive relationships between staff and elected officials. Otherwise, we just can’t function as a team.”

Manheimer added that the Council often finds itself having to react to the public while staying on course and managing expectations.

“We were probably covered in the [news]paper every day; you would think nothing else was happening,” she said. “So, I think Council members feel a great deal of need to be responsive to the community. … But we’re a policymaking body. And that is a slow-moving process.”

The Council was asked to rate its progress on a list of team-building agreements created in 2021 that would “ensure an environment of respect, trust and productive dialogue.” Of those, Council members said that they had improved on speaking up early and often, requesting information from city staff and verifying if their take on a situation was accurate. Agreements that “broke down” over the past year included being curious about each other’s perspectives, avoiding surprises and speaking directly to one another rather than about each other.

Beamon noted that all but one person on the current Council, Sage Tuner, were running for office last year, which could have contributed to a “campaign mindset” among the governing body. Manheimer beat out challenger and Council member Kim Roney in last year’s mayoral race, while incumbents Sandra Kilgore, Sheneika Smith and Antanette Mosley held onto their seats. Newcomer Maggie Ullman was the top vote-getter in the race.

Fleshing out priorities

Beamon then asked Council members to flesh out some specific goals for this year, based on the six priorities laid out last year: equitable, affordable housing and stability; homelessness strategies; improving/expanding core services; neighborhood resilience; reimaging public safety; and reparations.

Under those topics, members brainstormed measurable actions to complete during the fiscal year, such as contracting out staffing positions to provide basic functions like cleanliness and public safety; improving public-facing amenities like parking signage, garage maintenance and lighting; and implementing short-term goals recommended by the Community Reparations Commission and from the Stop The Harm audit.

Council also added “climate” to its neighborhood resilience priority to include goals related to the environment, such as establishing a ban on plastic bags (the city implemented the first phase of the ordinance in December, which prohibits the use of plastic bags for curbside leaf collection.)

Budget concerns; bond referendum for 2024

City Finance Director Tony McDowell and Budget Manager Taylor Floyd offered preliminary results from an ongoing public survey on city budget priorities that reveal that public safety, transit, water infrastructure and affordable housing are among residents’ top concerns.

Floyd also noted challenges for the upcoming city budget such as the estimated $37.5 million needed for improvements to McCormick Field, expansion of transit services and employee compensation among the ever-growing list of expenses.

Last year’s budget included $300,000 to increase full-time employee wages to a minimum of $17.70 per hour. However, Just Economics of Western North Carolina pegs this year’s living wage in Asheville, the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs, at $20.10 per hour. Employee compensation accounts for roughly 56% of the city’s current operating budget, Floyd said.

Council also revealed that it’s considering a general obligation bond referendum for 2024. Asheville residents last approved three city bonds in 2016, including $32 million for transportation projects, $25 million for affordable housing projects and $17 million for parks projects. In November, voters countywide approved two bond measures addressing affordable housing and open space conservation. Combined, the bonds totaled $70 million.

APD needs salary increases, community support

The budget discussion also included remarks from Asheville Police Chief David Zack, who addressed the department’s needs and challenges. Zack noted that the APD has roughly 141 officers out of 238 positions, resulting in about a 40% vacancy rate. He said that in order to attract and retain staff, the agency needs to “be the highest paid in the state.”

“We’re in a constantly competitive environment, and we’re not competing for officers locally. We are competing for officers nationally,” Zack said. “And, as it’s already been said, we’re talking about a city that’s in North Carolina where the cost of living is the highest.”

Council member Turner pointed to calls from business owners and members of the public to increase public safety downtown, but Zack replied that intense community criticism in Asheville also contributed to officers’ departure.

“Our city has a reputation for being unfriendly to law enforcement,” Zack said. “Reputation is a difficult thing to change.”


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4 thoughts on “Council stakes out goals, talks team-building at annual retreat

  1. Pierce

    More bonds. People complain about how unaffordable this town is and then vote for these bonds so such a complete lack of common sense. This town is full of idiots it seems.

    • R.G.

      Yep! I have two affordable rentals. I’ve kept rent below market for years. One more bond and I’ll convert them to STRs so that I can afford to live here, dine out and enjoy subsidized Single A baseball.

  2. rwd

    Council talks about warm and fuzzy…but that is always present…just read what the mayor says…building consensus and fostering a team approach to things. Who gives a rats behind about the councils ability to be reasonable to one another ! The City has real needs and responsibilities to it’s residents. Every election cycle there will be the need for consensus and team building and this is a drain and waste by elected leaders. Sooner or later the residents will tire of the warm and fuzzy, consensus team building approach the council continues to bring up !

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