At its second work session on a possible bond referendum, members of City Council heard more details about the specific projects city staff members have targeted for bond funding. After considering projects in four categories — infrastructure, parks and recreation, affordable housing and public safety — Council decided to move forward on all but the public safety proposals. The total price tag of the rough draft stands at $74 million, though several Council members said they were hoping to trim that figure to an eventual bond amount of $40 to $60 million.
On Friday, July 1, the city will present the categories and overall scope of the bond package it determined today to the Local Government Commission, a division of the Department of State Treasurer that oversees state and local debt financing. City Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn must make application to the LGC by July 8 to keep the matter on schedule for inclusion on the general election ballot in November. At the July 26 meeting of Council, a public hearing on the bond issue will be scheduled. After this meeting, the scope and categories of the bond package may not be changed. The public hearing will take place at the August 9 meeting of Council, after which Council will vote on adopting a resolution authorizing the bond order.
At any time before the August 9 meeting of Council, the bond issue can be withdrawn. Until the July 26 meeting of Council, the amount of the bond can be reduced (but not increased); the bond categories cannot be changed.
Infrastructure / Transportation: $32 million
Public Works Director Greg Shuler said that the $16 million slated for street resurfacing would fund projects that would otherwise take over six years to complete. The bond funding would be added to the $2.5 million the city currently allocates annually for street resurfacing.
City Transportation Director Ken Putnam said $3.5 million is tagged for sidewalk maintenance and $6.3 million is for four miles of new sidewalks. The funds would help the city clear a huge backlog of high priority sidewalk needs, Putnam said. $1.9 million for pedestrian and transit system safety improvements would pay for accessible crosswalks, signals and bus shelters. Finally in the infrastructure category, Putnam identified $4.6 million in greenway projects, including the Swannanoa Greenway from South Tunnel Road to Azalea Park.
Project maps show that the proposed projects appear to be evenly distributed throughout the city.
Parks & Recreation: $17 million
Parks & Recreation Department Director Roderick Simmons summarized proposed spending on city parks and recreation facilities, which he said was needed to provide flexibility for meeting programming needs and to accommodate the growing numbers of citizens participating in programs. Simmons also said that the majority of the spending identified in the 2005 Parks & Recreation Master Plan has not been funded, and that many parks facilities require maintenance above current budget allocations.
The largest chunk of proposed Parks & Recreation spending is $4.65 million to complete the second phase of the Dr. Wesley Grant Southside Center, which will add a gymnasium and multipurpose facilities. Another $4 million would address maintenance and upgrade needs at Memorial Stadium, which Simmons said is used by 12 sports leagues, school teams and other groups.
Jake Rusher Park is the only city park south of the Shiloh neighborhood. Simmons said the facility is a well-used passive park that is popular for picnics, birthday parties and other community events. $825,000 would add restrooms and upgrade the playground and gazebo.
At the Montford Recreation Center, $1.7 million would fund upgrades including outdoor amenities, building accessibility improvements and parking improvements. $520,000 would add restrooms and an information kiosk to Richmond Hill Park. $2 million would cover maintenance needs at outdoor courts and playgrounds, while $1.2 million would pay for ballfield maintenance and lighting. $2 million would be set aside for land acquisition for new parks.
Affordable Housing: $25 million
Council considered four potential programs for supporting the development of affordable housing. Assistant Director of Community and Economic Development Jeff Staudinger referred to the 2015 Bowen Report, which concluded that Asheville will need more than 7,000 units of affordable housing by 2020. The current pace of affordable housing development of 100 to 200 units per year falls far short of meeting that need, as well as Council’s goal of 2,800 new units by 2022.
Staudinger proposed a homeowner developer loan program of $7 million to help housing developers access capital for creating new affordable units for homeownership. While 75 percent of those looking to buy housing in Asheville are seeking homes under $200,000, only 13 percent of the homes available for sale fit into that category. Additionally, developers continue to have difficulty accessing financing for building homes to sell in this category, though credit for rental housing development has become more readily available.
Community land trusts purchase homes in rapidly gentrifying areas (such as census tract 9 and the River Arts District) in order to permanently preserve those homes as affordable. $3 million is targeted for creating a community land trust program.
A $15 million chunk of funding is requested to repurpose city-owned property on South Charlotte Street for an affordable housing development. The funding would actually pay for relocating city functions such as the sanitation garage and the city’s fleet service currently occupying the properties, as well as environmental remediation of previous contamination.
An additional $5 million was requested to supplement the city’s affordable housing trust fund program. Staudinger said immediately after the meeting that he was unsure which component had been removed from the initial $30 million request over the course of Council’s discussion.
Public Safety: $13 million requested, removed from consideration
Upgrades, renovations, repairs and expansions of city fire and police stations didn’t make the cut. While Manheimer said she believed upgrading Asheville’s public safety facilities is necessary, she feared the projects would “not be appetizing” to the public as a bond question.
Manheimer said she fully supported the infrastructure and transportation projects. “We need to do more,” she said. “We probably have $100 million [in transportation needs].” Manheimer favored the Parks & Recreation package with the exception of the $2 million for land acquisition. Rather than embarking on a number of new programs to support affordable housing development, she recommended allocating $5 million to the affordable housing trust fund and foregoing the other initiatives. Mannheimer’s recommendations totaled approximately $52 million.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said she struggles with the overall size of the funding package and hopes it can be trimmed to $40 -$45 million. Combined with other city spending in the River Arts District, she said, she is concerned about the city’s ability to create “highly successful” project outcomes for too many new projects. Wisler said she hopes to spend $10-$15 million on parks and recreation, $25 million on infrastructure and $5 million on affordable housing.
Councilman Keith Young agreed with removing the public safety category. He ranked infrastructure as his top priority and favored spending the entire proposed amount in that category. His second priority he identified as affordable housing. He advocated for trying some innovative new approaches to increasing affordable housing in the city, comparing gentrification to a form of cancer. The pain of cancer, he argued, can’t be countered “with an aspirin.” Likening the affordable housing trust fund to an aspirin, Young said the city needs to try some of the new ideas presented by Staudinger. Finally, Young said he would fund parks and recreation to the tune of $11 million.
Councilman Gordon Smith said he supports $32 million for infrastructure (“I don’t see any fluff there”), $17 million for parks and recreation and $21 million for affordable housing. Smith said he is uncertain about the redevelopment of the city-owned property on Charlotte Street because he believes the project would also function as a significant economic development boost. Also, Smith pointed out, it would be eight to ten years until the Charlotte Street project would come out of the ground.
Councilwoman Julie Mayfield expressed support for nearly all of the proposed projects, and also asked that $150,000 be included in the Parks & Recreation funding to support the preservation of the Thomas Wolfe cabin. Mayfield hesitated to remove public safety facility renovations from consideration.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell agreed with Mayfield that voters should have an opportunity to consider the public safety projects. He said he wouldn’t include the $15 million Charlotte Street redevelopment project, and expressed the hope that the eventual bond amount could be close to $50 million. Bothwell reiterated earlier questions he had posed to City Manager Gary Jackson and Whitehorn about the additional cost of administering projects funded through the bond. Jackson responded that he estimates an increase of roughly 15% above the eventual bond total, a cost that would need to be funded through property tax revenues beyond those associated with the bond itself.
Councilman Brian Haynes said he would prioritize the bond categories in the following order: infrastructure, affordable housing and parks and recreation. Haynes supported eliminating the public safety category. In the affordable housing category, Haynes said, establishing a community land trust would be his top priority. He hopes to see a total bond amount of around $60 million, he concluded.
City Director of Communications and Public Engagement Dawa Hitch said a polling firm has been retained to conduct opinion polling on the potential bond categories and priorities. Results will be available to City Council by July 15, she said.