The final six candidates in the race for Asheville’s city council are by now veterans of many forums and panel discussions. Wednesday’s Council of Independent Business Owners (CIBO) forum emphasized issues of particular interest and importance to Asheville’s business community, yielding some answers frequently heard on the campaign trail and some that moved into more wonkish territory.
“Lots of issues that have been high profile in the campaign aren’t necessarily of the highest importance to the actual business of city government,” commented state representative Brian Turner (D) before the forum, adding that he was hoping for a discussion of some nuts-and-bolts topics.
Turner was not to be disappointed, with questions ranging from control of the city’s water system to stormwater utility services to the proposed massive interstate construction projects for the I-26 Connector and upgrades to I-26 between Asheville and Hendersonville.
After brief opening statements from each candidate, CIBO President Rod Hudgins, who acted as moderator, asked: “The latest Court of Appeals ruling was unanimous in transferring the water system from the City of Asheville to the MSD (Metropolitan Sewerage District). If this ultimately happens, how will you make up the loss of revenues and cash flow produced by the service?”
Brian Haynes expressed his hope that the city will win in its fight to retain control of the system. If it does not, then the city should work with the county to ensure that the water system does not become privatized. That would be “the worst thing that could happen,” Haynes concluded.
Current council member and Vice Mayor Marc Hunt reported that revenue from the water system currently accounts for a little less than a third of all city revenue, and that those system-related revenues defray some of the overhead costs shared among city departments. City Manager Gary Jackson began contingency planning for the possible transfer of the system two years ago, said Hunt, but if it happens, “it is going to be tough.” There are some tentative thoughts around how that would happen.
Rich Lee said the city would take a financial hit of about $2 million in the event of a transfer. Coming on the heels of last year’s state-mandated discontinuation of the business privilege license tax (which resulted in a loss of $1.5 million), a water system transfer would be another blow to the city’s ability to generate revenue. However, Lee “won’t contemplate another tax increase” immediately after last year’s increase in the property tax rate, and said the city will have to find other places to make up the difference.
“The city must continue to invest in doing whatever we can to save the water system,” Julie Mayfield contributed. If the transfer occurs, the city will have to look for opportunities for savings. Mayfield offered a caveat: “I am not interested in backing up the city or stopping progress on the many needs we have around affordable housing and transportation infrastructure.”
Lindsey Simerly pointed out that control of Asheville’s water system affects much more than just city revenues. Employers and the jobs they create are attracted to the city by its plentiful supply of high quality water, she said.
Keith Young agreed that every legal avenue for fighting the transfer must be exhausted. If, despite those efforts, control of the system goes to the MSD, Young suggested looking to funds from the hotel occupancy tax administered by the Tourism Development Authority. Young acknowledged that recent efforts to spark conversations about funneling some of those funds (which are mandated by the state government to be used for travel and tourism-related advertising) toward infrastructure and public safety costs have not yielded results.
“There have been many reports about the needed upgrades to I-26 from AVL to HVL and then there is the connector as well. If elected, will you support the conclusion of the NCDOT question?” asked Hudgins.
Each candidate agreed that the interstate projects are needed and inevitable. Three candidates, Lee, Simerly and Haynes, advocated for a smaller footprint than many of NCDOT design options specify. Simerly said that option 4C, a six-lane plan, looks promising. She also expressed enthusiasm for greenway components of that plan, noting that greenway amenities will not only provide needed transportation options but also create new revenue in the city through tourism.
“The need is clearly there in terms of travel demand,” commented Mayfield. “Right now the connector project is designed to get people through Asheville, not into Asheville. It doesn’t do enough to reconnect neighborhoods and to benefit the city as opposed to the people just travelling through,” she concluded.
Young seemed frustrated by the slow pace of progress on the project, saying “We have to get this done.” He pointed out that the Burton Street area, an historical African-American neighborhood, will be severely impacted unless the current plans are adjusted.
In their responses to a question about development in the River Arts Distric t(RAD), several candidates commented on parallels between eminent domain issues related to the RAD project and the interstate expansion projects. On balance, Hunt said, the project is “a big win for community.” He pointed out that a form-based code revision of the zoning for the area is underway, and he pledged to “circle back” to business owners to make sure their concerns have been addressed through that process.
Haynes said the city should ensure that business owners whose properties are taken by eminent domain should receive fair market value for those properties.
Hudgins asked whether candidates are satisfied with city stormwater utility services. If candidates are not, what are their grievances?
Mayfield responded that the question refers to recent fee increases. Those increased fees may not be perceived to have sparked a corresponding increase in investment in the stormwater system. Mayfield said we are moving into a time in which we need to explore green infrastructure development to reduce costs and improve effectiveness of stormwater treatment.
Studies are currently underway to study the necessary strategies to improve stormwater management, according to Lee. He believes storm drain backups on Haywood Road demonstrate the importance of ongoing maintenance of stormwater infrastructure.
Hunt gave an historical perspective, saying that the city discovered a few years ago that the piece of equipment needed to remove silt from ditches on Town Mountain and Sunset Mountain had been damaged during Hurricane Ivan. That discovery demonstrated that a need for more maintenance and investment existed.
Haynes noted that stormwater issues illustrate the need for the city to preserve green space so that the amount of hard surfaces creating runoff can be minimized.
Hudgins’ invitation to each candidate to direct one question to an opponent received a muted response. Lee said he had spent more time with the other candidates than with his own family lately, and jokingly asked why none of them seemed eager to take up his candidate karaoke challenge.
Finally, Hudgins asked each candidate to outline his or her top three infrastructure priorities for the city if elected.
In the order Hudgins called upon the candidates, their answers were:
Mayfield: multimodal transit, affordable housing, attention to traffic calming and street resurfacing
Lee: street and sidewalk maintenance (especially downtown), traffic calming, greenways
Hunt: transformative projects in the RAD, investment in deferred upgrades to the water system (ran out of time to list a third priority)
Haynes: sidewalks, traffic calming and transit
Young: transit system, water system, sidewalks and bike lanes
Simerly: maintenance of existing infrastructure, fully fund affordable housing trust fund, Walton Street pool rehabilitation
One final question came from the audience: yes or no, would you be in favor of a return of the leaf trucks?
Hunt, Simerly and Young complied with the format of the question, answering “no.” Haynes said he misses the trucks, but doesn’t know if returning them to operation is possible from the budgetary standpoint. Lee also reported missing the trucks, but said the Congressional Budget Office has warned that the next recession is likely to be only a couple of years way. Mayfield is troubled that the city is no longer providing leaf bags. “If we need another solution, we should figure it out,” she said.
Hudgins thanked the candidates for answering all of his group’s questions and “being real nice about it.”