Council trims bond referendum package to three categories, $74 million

Asheville city seal

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At any time before the August 9 meeting of Council, the bond issue can be withdrawn.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.




About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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10 thoughts on “Council trims bond referendum package to three categories, $74 million

  1. Margie Kluska

    I agree with Gwen Wisler’s comments. Better to focus on fewer projects and ensure their success.

  2. Fin

    Also phone surveys are not an accurate discription of public opinion. Who the hell still has a land line?!?!

  3. Lulz

    Where’s the money going? Where has it been going? You mean museums, non-profits, and fluff ends up costing more because of neglect? You mean the RAD, the brewers, the artist, downtown BS, has taken away resources that should’ve been used for the actual role government is tasked with? Vote no on this bond. Make these buffoons and loons cut their pet projects out and use the increasing tax collections via their phony FEES for actual infrastructure improvement. Period.

    • luther blissett

      Shorter Lulzl0l1@1@: never refinance your mortgage when the interest rate is low; ideally, live in a ditch for 10 years and then pay cash for a home.

      (We know where the city spends its biggest chunk of its budget outside the water system: cops and firefighters.)

      Bonds for capital infrastructure make sense when interest rates are at their current lows, especially for projects that have a long lifespan: do it once, do it properly, do it for the long haul. Take advantage of the time value of money. Bonds for everybody’s laundry list… not so much, and it’s harder to justify bonds for maintenance unless these are urgent capex-heavy repairs that would otherwise force a facility out of use. So I think Gwen Wisler’s approach makes sense: take a focused approach on big infrastructure projects that provide a long benefit to the city.

      • Lulz

        LOL, but it’s like not. We are getting doubles taxed and fee’d to death. Where is all this money going? Where is this big payoff of tourism and breweries? Good grief man. They sold out the place to every shark around and yet none of it is paying off. What the hell good is it if you’re building hotels and other craps if the strain it puts on the entire area is still being shouldered by those that live here?

        • luther blissett

          Let’s drop the schtick and look at the numbers.

          The city’s budget is around $100m per year excluding the water system which is its own self-contained thing. Just under $50m is Public Safety, and $38m of the Public Safety budget is salaries and benefits. This means that more or less all of the city’s property tax revenues go towards running the police and fire service, and a third of the total budget goes towards paying cops and firefighters. Want to fire some of them? Cut their health insurance?

          Everything else has to be paid out of redistributed state taxes (sales, gas, utility) and other miscellaneous fees.

          Time value of money, man. Basic economics. Borrow when the borrowing’s cheap for capex projects, instead of having to do things piecemeal, as long as it’s on projects that are still standing once the bonds are paid off. Sort out the sidewalks and bus shelters, join up the disjointed bits of the city, help the people who have to tramp through the mud on narrow verges in winter to get to work.

          • Big Al

            By your own numbers , if “the city’s budget is around $100M” and “just under $50M is Public Safety”, then how can you say “more or less all of the city’s tax revenues go towards running the police and fire service”? That is only HALF of the budget. Where is the other $50M spent?

            I will trust the city more when it stops pandering to elites like the Art Museum (who goes there, anyway?, nobody I know.)

            I recently watched the Julian Price documentary and had to contain my laughter when they discussed affordable housing downtown as a priority. Maybe 20 years ago. The only people who “live” downtown now are the bums, and City Council INVITED them in.

            Say NO to and bond until the madness stops. Stop feeding these monkeys and maybe Asheville will become less of a zoo. Or maybe “Animal Farm” is a better analogy.

          • luther blissett

            how can you say “more or less all of the city’s tax revenues go towards running the police and fire service”?

            Reading is fundamental. When you don’t read things properly, you jump to all sorts of dumb conclusions.

            What I said was “more or less all of the city’s property tax revenues.” Property tax. Property tax. Property tax. Property tax revenues for the 2015-16 budget were projected at $55m ($51m if you discount the automobile property tax) and the public safety budget is $46.5m. So, the most predictable and measurable source of revenue for the city pays for cops and firefighters, with not much to spare.

            Do you want to fire cops and firefighters?

            Sales tax revenues are variable, and subject to manipulation by the power-drunk gerrymanderers in Raleigh, as are the other distributions of statewide taxes.

            The city budget is public record. But you have to be willing to read it.

            You won’t find any argument from me about the Art Museum. But borrowing when interest rates are low to fund long-life infrastructure projects should be uncontroversial stuff, unless you really like walking in mud or paying for suspension repairs. And your obsession with “bums” and “monkeys” says more about you than anything else.

  4. Yep

    So Gordhead saw no ‘fluff’, huh? Gordhead is all about the fluff …

    WHY has CITY COUNCIL not addressed the dreadful infrastructure in YEARS before NOW ??? WHY has AVL always been so
    MISLED ???

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