The recent discussions among Asheville's "progressive-leaning" City Council members have cooked up some real food for thought.
In a recent City Council meeting, Council member Gordon Smith made an eloquent appeal to provide city employees with same-gender partners — I don't agree with labeling them "same-sex partners," because we can't assume that they have sex — the same benefits extended to married, straight city employees.
Other Council members and the public at large also made eloquent and even courageous presentations on both sides of the matter.
The issue seems to be that recognizing a relationship between two gay people is morally offensive to many sincere people on the religious right. There's also the question of the additional cost to taxpayers to provide some of these perks.
If I interpreted the information I received from the city manager's office correctly, the city pays for health insurance only for actual city employees. Extending the privileges, however, would enable the significant other to buy insurance at the city rate, creating a significant savings.
This highlights a more global issue. The state of North Carolina does not allow same-gender marriage, thus depriving these couples of many rights and privileges extended to traditional marriages.
One possible solution would be to fire all the straight people and hire only gay city employees.
This would solve three problems. There would be no complaints about employee discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the city would save big money since, under state law, there would be no spouses to receive such perks as maternity leave (except, perhaps, on very rare occasions) that the city would have to pay for.
They would also avoid having to recognize same-gender relationships that offend the right.
Food for thought
The second item on the menu is the Downtown Master Plan. In the past several years, the city has discouraged, rejected or delayed hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of downtown construction. The property taxes on these projects would have gone a long way toward addressing Asheville's current budget shortfall.
Most of the objections were subjective preferences expressed by the more liberal, progressive members of the community. The proposed buildings were deemed either too tall, the wrong color, in the wrong place, out of scale, liable to cast a problematic shadow or to kill open space.
Many people wanted to preserve the downtown character as it was decades ago.
I suspect that I have lived in Asheville longer than almost anyone who reads this column, and I certainly wax nostalgic about the good ol' days in Asheville. I fondly remember the small-town atmosphere, the Rhododendron Parades, the V-J Day celebration on Pack Square, hanging out at Pritchard Park and the "Our Town" ambience our charming little city enjoyed.
I also remember the late '70s and early '80s, when half the town was boarded up and the only nighttime entertainment consisted of a few sleazy beer joints and the nefarious goings-on around the bus station on Coxe Avenue. It wasn't even safe to walk around after dark.
And more recently, if we had allowed and encouraged those big projects to go forward, by now we might have had a substantial, stable downtown population as well as first-class hotels whose demand for upscale services could have augmented a local economy grounded in the seasonal and sometimes-fickle tourism industry. All this could have coexisted with the beloved funk that attracts so many people to our city.
If the city leadership took a look over its shoulder, it would see that, in fact, all these policies merely encouraged the construction of a brand new city in south Asheville complete with retail, office and residential, not to mention the big-box shopping centers. This ambitious new development could well suck the life out of our downtown, with its scarce parking, street crime, and empty storefronts and office space.
Greenways, bike paths and additional public transportation would add to the gourmet presentation, but our strained city finances make such amenities cost-prohibitive.
None of us wants to see a return to urban blight, with stores boarded up and "Our Town" become an easel for graffiti and vandalism.
Deteriorating economic conditions have rendered the master plan recipe — conceived with the idea that developers were eager to throw big bucks at downtown — out of date.
We had better review this recipe and add a huge pinch of pragmatism if we're going to save this stew.
Food for thought
Meanwhile, for dessert, Council has been discussing requiring all contractors who provide services to the city to pay their employees a "living wage" (approximately $12 per hour).
There's no question that we need higher wages in the city to give workers a decent standard of living and housing they can afford, but there may be too much vinegar in this recipe.
Let's assume that a janitorial service wants to bid on a city contract. These are typically small businesses, and they rarely pay their employees $12 per hour, which would probably make them noncompetitive for non-city-related work.
The likely result of this policy would be to limit the pool of vendors and substantially raise the city's costs.
The other issue is that many of the people who pay city taxes, either directly or indirectly (as renters) don't make a living wage themselves. Would it be right to ask them to participate in this subsidy?
Maybe City Council should ask for a two-tier bid: one without the living-wage requirement and one that reflected the additional cost it would impose. Then it would be up to Council to make the call.
Food for thought
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[Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. He can be reached at email@example.com.]