“I’m speaking as an African-American who’s been in the community. I want to see us do something concrete with this. It’s like we don’t exist in Buncombe County. It’s time to change it and to show we are serious about what we are doing. A lot of the African-American community doesn’t feel like they exist.” — Commissioner Al Whitesides
Commissioner Al Whitesides stated the African-American community feels “like we don’t exist” and Commissioner Mike Fryar threw a little shade at the city during an otherwise presentation-oriented meeting between Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council members on Tuesday, Feb. 7. The special joint meeting had no action items on its agenda but featured updates of various collaborative efforts between the county and the city. About 50 people, mostly county and city staff, attended the two-hour meeting.
Managing the partnership
County Manager Wanda Greene said she often gets asked what the city and county do together before going on to highlight partnerships such as the public safety training center, consolidated dispatch center and criminal information system. She also touted work with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She said the city and county have “had a lot of success” with joint efforts to retain and attract businesses.
Greene described the county’s Geographic Information Systems as “critical for everything from tax to public safety to public curiosity. It will tell you everything you want to know about land in Buncombe County or the City of Asheville.”
The county manager wrapped up her remarks with comments about the importance of the library system. While operational responsibility was transferred to the county in the early 1980s, she said, some branches operate in city buildings and the setup “seems to work well for the citizens.”
“We keep in regular contact. We share information. … Where we can team up, for example, law enforcement and emergency response. We partner in so many ways and serve the community seamlessly,” City Manger Gary Jackson said of the county-city relationship.
Commissioner Ellen Frost then brought up her concern about opioid use throughout the county and asked for the both governing bodies to look into solutions.
Jackson responded, “We have a drug trafficking partnership. It’s a significant issue in our community,” while also noting he believes there is an organized crime component to the influx of opioids the county is experiencing.
For an in-depth look at diverting opioid convictions and preventing overdoses, see Xpress‘ recent article on opioids.
Getting an assist
Next up, Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball gave an update on various joint capital projects in the works and on the docket. “When looking at capital improvement it’s a five-year period,” she said, noting public safety is a big effort. “One of city’s big initiatives is to add a fire station in the north area.”
Ball also mentioned the Eagle Market Street project and improving multi-modal transportation infrastructure. “We are focused on making sure our community can be accessed by anyone, choosing any mode of transportation,” she said. City and county staff members are trying to leverage state and federal funds for those efforts. Ball highlighted the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project’s new greenways and Carrier Park renovations as a success story, also noting the award grants to improve walkability on South Lexington and South Coxe avenues. “It’s [the South Slope area] booming and we need our infrastructure to keep up,” she said.
Lastly, Ball said city and county staffs are working diligently on the Interstate 26 connector project, saying that work reflects, “another great relationship between the city and county.”
Next, Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton touted the new Isaac Dickson Elementary School (which opened this school year) and the new indoor shooting facility. “It is very state-of-the-art and city staff has gone through orientation. We’ve had the sheriff deputies and state highway patrol using it and have already shot about 14,000 rounds so far,” he noted.
Creighton also updated elected officials on the $25 million renovation to Asheville High School, saying the project is on track for work to start by May. He noted that replacing the roof will be a three-year process.
County Recreation Manager Josh O’Connor provided an update about greenways. He said funding has been a mix of federal and state dollars, while other support has come from local governments, nonprofits and businesses.
O’Connor explained that the average cost of one mile of greenway comes in at $1.2 million, and that cost only covers construction without taking into consideration feasibility. He also noted that greenways must be compatible with the Americans With Disabilities Act in order to receive federal funds, which increases the cost. On average, he said, the federal government bears about 80 percent of the cost of the greenways and the county covers around 20 percent.
Frost then inquired about funding from the Tourism Development Authority, noting the TDA, “has not been receptive” in the past. O’Connor said he believes that Woodfin’s recently approved $4.5 million bond to support greenway construction will help attract more TDA money for greenways.
You can view the entire greenway presentation here.
The Energy Innovation Task Force, comprised of Duke Energy and representatives from the county, city, business stakeholders and nonprofits, is being billed as a “nationally unique partnership,” by City Council and task force member Julie Mayfield. “It doesn’t exist any other place in the country … a municipality working with a regulated monopoly. Eyes are on us to see how successful we will be,” she explained.
The goal, according to task force member Newman, is to protect the environment while saving customers money. Duke Energy has received approval from state energy regulators to build two natural gas plants to replace aging coal-fired generators at its Lake Julian power station. Duke says it will also need a third gas-fired unit to handle growing peak demand for energy. The task force is looking for ways to reduce energy consumption to minimize the need for that third plant.
In regard to energy efficiency, Fryar quipped that the city’s window policy, regarding how many windows a building is required to have, is a large waste, “The city is full of windows, windows don’t insulate.”
City Mayor Esther Manheimer noted, “We can discuss it further, later. I don’t want to get into a debate right now. It’s a state building code.”
Fryar shot back that, “It’s not a state code, it’s yours.”
Commissioner Joe Belcher then chimed in that, moving forward, both municipalities could take a look at how building requirements could improve energy efficiency and save money. He also expressed concern that too many people are paying more for their power bill than their rent.
Newman agreed, saying the county spends about $2 million annually to help low-income people pay power bills. That’s another reason the task force needs to come up with tangible solutions, he said: “It’s going to take the full community.”
Check out the library plan
Greene presented an update to plans for a new library in East Asheville. Through a series of community meetings, county staff has identified a desire for meeting space that will likely require a two-story structure, she said. It’s still unclear whether the current location of the East Asheville Library at 902 Tunnel Road can handle a larger building footprint. County staff is looking at alternative sites, while architects draw up potential designs based on community input. Greene says they hope to have those preliminary plans in front of residents by next month.
“The timeline is to have a plan everyone agrees on and determine where we can locate the library. We have it in our 2019 capital plan and would like to start construction in July 2018,” said Greene, noting the project would take 18 months to complete. In the meantime, she said people would have to utilize other, nearby, library branches.
A commission questioned
Manheimer wrapped up the joint meeting with a briefing on the county-city’s African-American Heritage Commission. She noted its goal is to find a tangible way to represent how the African-American community has contributed to Western North Carolina and said the commission has a retreat on Feb. 18 to look at how to use new funding.
Whitesides weighed in on the commission. “My family has been in Buncombe County for seven generations. I was on commission for a short term and I got off because I didn’t feel we were serious. I felt it was more window dressing than anything else,” he expressed. “It’s been around for three years and it’s finally getting some money. I’m speaking as an African-American who’s been in the community. I want to see us do something concrete with this. It’s like we don’t exist in Buncombe County. It’s time to change it and to show we are serious about what we are doing. A lot of the African-American community doesn’t feel like they exist.”
Manheimer responded, “I appreciate your comments. I’ve also had concerns about the commission. How do you empower a body to do what they want to do?,” she asked. She said she hopes having a facilitator will act as a catalyst to get toward quantifiable ends.
Whitesides then noted it goes beyond ethnicity and is also about the disparity of income. “It doesn’t matter what color they are, we have poor people. Until we address the poor people we are going to continue to have problems, and they will be more expensive as they go on. We’ve kicked the can far enough, now we’ve got to do something. We can’t afford to kick it anymore,” he said.
For a more in-depth look at Whitesides views, see Xpress‘ interview with him about economic justice.
Asheville City Council has a regular meeting set for Tuesday, Feb. 14 and the Board of Commissioners has its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 21.
However, both the county and city will turn their attention toward this year’s goals, and impending budgets, when they have separate, all-day retreats on Friday, Feb. 17.