Free bus rides?

Nearly a third of the way into the free-bus-ride experiment here in Asheville, it’s still too early to tell what, if any, lasting impact the program will have on the number of people using city buses. But I am willing to jump on board with the principles behind the program right now.

It’s exciting to see a public program in Asheville that embraces the ideas of reducing the cost to consumers, simplifying processes and setting deadlines on public investment.

Regardless of what happens with the buses, I applaud this change of direction by the Asheville City Council. In fact, I’d like to see the city expand this approach to other policy areas. Here are a few suggestions.

Property taxes

Why doesn’t City Council drastically reduce Asheville’s property-tax rate? This might inspire more people to build or buy within the city limits rather than out in the county. That, in turn, would spur even more revitalization of downtown and other nearly blighted areas without having to bribe businesses with incentives or taxpayer-underwritten grants.

It would also protect longtime city residents who are on fixed incomes or are low on the economic ladder from having to sell off their homes due to ever-increasing tax bills. The boom of new and refurbished homes, combined with a lower turnover rate of residents, would increase the value of land in the city even more over time — thus boosting the tax base.

The demand for property would also inspire denser development in older buildings or on underused land in the city. If Asheville’s property-tax burden were more competitive for investors, the city could grow “up” rather than “out.”

Just as reducing the bus fares increases ridership, reducing property taxes increases quality homeownership, property retention and home-improvement investment.

Education funding

The free-bus-fare idea treats all passengers the same. I say let’s apply the same principle to education funding.

Right now, not all the money earmarked for schoolchildren in Asheville is following those students to the schools they attend. Instead, the Asheville City Schools are keeping moneys that should rightfully go to other local educational institutions.

But shouldn’t the people actually teaching the child get the money to buy books and classroom supplies? If the child home-schools, that community investment should follow them home. If the child goes to Rainbow Mountain School, the investment ought to go there too.

Let’s treat all children the same and not put social litmus tests on how we disburse education funding locally. Either we invest in children’s education across the board, or we stop pretending that we do.

Remember the lawsuit won by the Francine Delaney School a few years back? The ruling entitled the charter school to a share of the school-tax revenues, fines and forfeitures parceled out to public-school districts, yet Asheville still won’t release those same funds to Evergreen and ArtSpace, the other two charter schools in Buncombe County.

I saw this situation up close when I served as board chair for ArtSpace. We were outraged that, despite the judge’s ruling in favor of Francine Delaney, the city schools insisted on getting paid for kids they didn’t teach. Let’s follow the bus-fare example and treat everyone the same.

Nonprofit organizations

The rationale behind the free-bus-fare program is that taxpayers will wholly underwrite the cost of the service for a set amount of time, encouraging the public to use it more and thus realize what an asset it is. Once that awakening has occurred, the thinking goes, the expanded ridership will generate enough revenue so that mass transit will no longer require such drastic and ever-increasing public subsidies.

Great idea! Let’s do the same with nonprofits that get money or other support from local taxpayers’ pockets. Set a deadline for the “free service” of taxpayer funding of any individual nonprofit. Once that time has expired, the group either stands or falls on its own. Because, just as with the buses, if the need is really there and people get the chance to experience the benefits, they’ll support the project, right? If they don’t, then I guess it means the need wasn’t really there after all — and we scrap the program or greatly reduce it.

Unified Development Ordinance

One of the most appealing things about the free-bus-fare program is its simplicity. No matter who you are, no matter where you need to go, you can hop on that bus and it will take you to your destination … eventually. And no matter how far you need to go, it will cost the same: nothing.

I wish the same thing could be said about Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance. There’s nothing simple about this monster. It doesn’t cost everyone the same amount to comply, it doesn’t always get you to your destination, and it sometimes even brings you to the wrong place — and you have to start the ride all over again.

Meanwhile, as some Asheville neighborhoods have learned all too well, the law doesn’t really protect anything. If the right company or developer knows how to work the system, they can get what they want, “unified development” be damned.

Consider this: The entire Declaration of Independence plus the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and every amendment passed over the last 200 years don’t come close to matching the page count of our UDO. Let’s simplify our regulatory system for development in Asheville. It may not be easy to change the way the city does things, but knowing what’s the right thing to do is pretty simple.

And now that a Council majority has adopted this new line of thinking, the sky’s the limit. City Council should apply these same principles to other local issues too: the Civic Center, water rates, forced annexation and maybe even drum circles. Then maybe more than just bus rides will truly be “free” in Asheville. And I’m not talking about dollars — I’m talking about liberty.

[Matt Mittan hosts “Take A Stand!” on WWNC-AM, Monday through Friday from 3-6 p.m. The show’s Web site is www.MattCave.us.]

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