Brochures advocating the approval of $74 million in bonds greeted audience members at every table and set the tone for the State of Asheville speech delivered by Mayor Esther Manheimer on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The flyers, paid for by Go AVL Bonds Committee, advised, “Financial experts agree that bonds are the smart way to build a city,” but don’t cite which financial experts are being referenced.
The speech focused on how the city can foster equity in three key areas; approving the $74 million in proposed bonds, Manheimer said, would act as a catalyst for that vision.
According to Manheimer, equity, diversity and opportunity are key needs for the city. “Equity is different than equality. Equity is when the [need] meets you where you are,” she said.
“What can a city do?” asked Manheimer, explaining that minimum wage, rent control, discrimination ordinances to protect transgender residents and other issues are controlled at the state level. “No, cities can’t do that,” she said.
“We can focus on service delivery, community engagement and planning with an attention to equity,” she said.
Manheimer said City Council is focused on identifying gaps in equity when it comes to delivery of city services, noting that most single family homes have had recycling programs for years. Until last year, however, recycling was not offered in the city’s public housing complexes. “This is unacceptable,” she said, going on to state that 280 households residing in public housing now have access to recycling.
On the issue of transportation, Manheimer said the city is expanding sidewalks, greenways, bus service and more.
In regard to public safety, Manheimer touted the partnership between citizens working with Police Chief Tammy Hooper to review policies and the use of force. “It’s an opportunity to review with an eye toward equity,” she said. That task force is set to deliver recommendations over the next few months, according to Manheimer.
She also said the city wants to have a staff that is representative of the city it serves. “That is reflected in hiring process, but we can do better,” she said. Manheimer said minority recruiting efforts have met with success in the city’s fire department, noting 21 percent of 2015 employment applications were from minorities.
Finally, she said the city is establishing an Office of Equity and Diversity to focus on how it can mitigate disparity in service delivery, hiring and contracting.
Manheimer’s second talking point was equity in policy. “Affordable housing is an equity issue because it’s a basic need everyone has, and we have an equity imbalance when it comes to housing,” she said. However, she noted the city has helped leverage 732 affordable housing units over the past five years via the city’s housing trust, land use incentives and other means. Manheimer also noted the city is working on its first effort to turn public land into affordable housing on Hilliard Avenue.
In regard to children and education, Manheimer stressed the need for after-school programs. She also spoke of the success of the City of Asheville’s Youth Leadership Program, which provides summer employment and mentoring to city high school students to promote college readiness.
Manheimer highlighted city initiatives aimed at helping minority-owned small businesses such as events showcasing opportunities to earn contract work from the city. Asheville also contributes to a $250,000 Community Capital Fund that provides support when traditional lending isn’t available, she said.
The mayor also noted that the city is working with processes it can’t control, but can help guide; such as the Interstate 26 connector and Duke Energy substations. “The Department Of Transportation controls the [I-26]project, but the city has worked with the DOT to mitigate effects in city neighborhoods while still moving it forward,” she said.
She wrapped up the policy portion by bringing up House Bill 2, which mandates people use bathrooms associated with the gender on their birth certificate, and said, “While Asheville can’t avoid the legislation, we have voiced outrage and opposition to the bill.” That statement received a round of applause from the audience.
“Asheville has robust community engagement, but this year grew it even more,” said Manheimer, citing the new Online City Hall as an example. She also said the city created new community task forces to look into issues such as short-term rentals, comprehensive land use planning and what to do with the so-called ‘pit of despair,’ located across the street from the Civic Center.
Manheimer went on to tout projects such as improvements to the Livingston Street area that will feature roundabouts, bike lanes and sidewalks.
Manheimer showed a video about the bond package that touted the general obligation bonds as a “safe and common way” to invest in infrastructure. Next, the video stated that Asheville’s per capita debt is lower than the state average, but the presentation did not state what either of those per capita debt numbers are.
The video went on to state that if the full $74 million in general obligation bonds is approved, it would require a property tax increase of 4.15-cents per $100 of property value. At that level, a home valued at $275,000 would see a property tax increase of $110 a year.
“To advance these initiatives, we need to get behind the bond initiatives. It is growing what we’ve been planning for so long,” she said in her closing remarks.
Before the speech, people outside the U.S. Cellular Center passed out flyers entitled “The State of Black Asheville.” It notes several inequities between the city’s minority populations. You can view that flyer below.