Opening moves

by David Forbes March 22, 2017

With major decisions at stake from policing to energy to housing, Asheville’s elected officials, bureaucrats and locals are off to an early start fighting over the shape of the coming budget

Above: CFO Barbara Whitehorn, who heads up the city’s budget efforts. File photo by Max Cooper.

Locals packed City Hall’s first floor conference room on March 14 as Asheville City Council began the process for sorting out its annual budget. While some of the deliberations may run to the highly technical or deadly dull, these annual late afternoon worksessions — held just before Council’s formal meetings — are where some of the most important decisions of the year are made. But while it affects just about every aspect of the city, this part of the process doesn’t get a huge amount of outside attention. This year is different. Hence the packed room.

As staff went searching for extra chairs Mayor Esther Manheimer noted it was the most interest in a budget session she’d seen in her nearly eight-year tenure as an elected official. Sitting alongside the staff members there to observe and answer questions, most of the locals had showed up to oppose a controversial plan from Asheville Police Department Chief Tammy Hooper to expand patrols in the core of the city. They said that the $1 million in annual funds Hooper sought should instead go to housing, anti-poverty programs and addressing the city’s long history of de facto segregation.

Manheimer noted such attendance was “fantastic” (perhaps with a slight note of hesitation, as the reason was a backlash against a move endorsed by city staff and some on Council). She also cautioned the attendees that holding up the signs some of them carried was against the rule in Council meetings. The mayor also added that public comment generally isn’t a part of work sessions, but would be allowed in some later hearings and meetings as the budget wrangling continued over the coming months.

The packed room and the early controversies indicate that, like this year’s coming Council election, the increasing political upheaval in Asheville is set to continue. For a multitude of reasons locals are overall more upset, more engaged and more ready to shake things up than before. This year’s budget is particularly key; a “crossroads,” for the city, as CFO Barbara Whitehorn dubbed it.

On that, everyone seemed to agree. What direction the city should take is another matter. As this first work session was an overview, a lot of ideas and factors were thrown out in the discussion. Here’s some of the important points that did emerge.

Federal housing cuts could have a devastating impact — As one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the country, the full-blown housing crisis Ashevillians face remains a major issue. Federal cuts might complicate that further, as the Trump administration aims to savage the budget of Housing and Urban Development by $6 billion. That would include eliminating community development grants entirely, leaving the city short $2 million a year in its efforts to fight poverty and the housing shortage.

Council member Gordon Smith asked Whitehorn how the city would deal with such a hit (or massive cuts to federal transit funds as well). She replied it was beyond staff’s ability to anticipate how those would play out until they knew more.

But Whitehorn noted the proposed cuts would definitely mean some of the city’s housing programs would “disappear completely.” Smith asked Council members to carefully consider if the city should step in to make up the lost funding, asserting that state and federal governments seemed intent on shifting the burden of social services from the very wealthy to local property owners.

The state could also hit Asheville’s sales tax funds — The city also gets a share of state sales tax. As the tourism industry has boomed, those funds have seen a “meteoric rise” in the last few years, as Whitehorn put it, though she anticipated that leveling off in the coming year.

But a proposed state Senate bill could lead to more populous cities and counties losing sales tax revenue by changing how North Carolina distributes that money. In Asheville’s case, the city would stand to lose about $500,000 a year if the law goes into effect. Manheimer anticipated “bad news” on this front.

Property values spiked massively, leading to some big decisions for Council — Following Buncombe County’s recent revaluation Asheville property values went up by an average of 25 percent — a massive spike — due to the aforementioned gentrification. The city remains one of the most expensive housing markets in the state.

That’s particularly important for the city’s budget because property tax is the lion’s share of its revenue. Under N.C. law, it’s one of the only things Council has independent authority to raise or lower. When property values skyrocket like this, local governments will typically consider lowering the rate to a point where they’ll make a similar amount of money to the previous year, meaning property owners won’t usually pay a major increase. This is known as “revenue neutral” in budget jargon. In Asheville’s case, the revenue neutral rate would mean lowering from the current tax of 47.5 cents per $100 of property value to 39.5 cents.

So if the city wants to bring in more revenue than the year before, they wouldn’t lower the rate quite to that amount. Each cent hike in the property tax rate brings in $1.3 million more a year for the city and amounts to about $20 more a year bill on a $200,000 home (though property owners also have to pay Buncombe County, school and fire district taxes).

Whitehorn emphasized that because local voters passed $74 million in bonds during last year’s election, the city would have to at least devote 3.5 cents of the property tax to covering those debt payments. That meant the city’s rate was likely to be 43 cents.

She also noted that the budget had some increases to factor in, projecting it would include $270,000 for expanded bus system hours, $600,000 to deal with increased health insurance costs and and $1.75 million for city staff pay hikes.

But if the city wanted to bring more funds to bear, whether to deal with a hit from the state or federal government or to start any new programs, that might end up changing the rate further. However, there were early signs of political wariness against a hike. Manheimer, who’s running for re-election, noted she was “very concerned” about how the city sets the tax rate and requested more specific information about how the staff pay increases will be allocated.

Expect a push on energy efforts and transit — One of the big new policy pushes came from Council member Julie Mayfield, who had a list of energy initiatives to propose. Mayfield’s the director of the environmental non-profit Mountain True and one of the main members of the Energy Innovation Task Force, comprising representatives from city government, Buncombe County and Duke Energy.

Mayfield’s seeking $1 million for weatherizing low-income families, noting it would both help alleviate poverty and strain existing on the power grid. Homes in worse repair use a lot more energy, and on cold winter mornings that’s straining the area’s electrical infrastructure. She’s also seeking $500,000 to partner with the energy giant and county government on a marketing campaign and $50,000 for the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability think tank that’s helped the task force craft its energy policies.

The low-income energy program got the most traction from her colleagues. Smith supported it, as did Council member Cecil Bothwell, with the latter noting “global climate change is an existential threat to humanity.”

The discussion also verged into transit, which Council member Keith Young noted remains a major priority of his, alongside affordable housing. Bothwell said that he’d like a report on the cost and level of upgrades and service extensions the bus system could accommodate at any given time. Given that rider advocates have pushed improved transit service relentlessly over the past three years, expect that to be another topic of debate going forward.

The bonds rev up —  In addition to any expansions of services, the city also has to decide on major infrastructure projects each year. This year, Whitehorn emphasized, most of those are coming out of bond funds, with particular focus on ramping up street and sidewalk improvements ($32 million of the bond funds are tagged for transportation infrastructure).

Expect this to come back up a lot more in the ensuing budget work sessions, one of which will focus on infrastructure specifically. Also, as bond funds can potentially be re-directed to other projects as long as they deal with the same overall need they were passed for, expect some debate about where exactly this pool of cash should go.

About that $1 million for police… — Then there’s the issue that’s emerged as a major battleground this budget cycle: the early public backlash to expanding the APD.

Not coincidentally, this comes at a time when trust in the department is at a particular low. Hooper’s initial honeymoon period as chief, where she tried to cultivate a reputation as a reformer, rapidly ended last year, after APD Sgt. Tyler Radford shot and killed Jerry Williams this summer.

The aftermath rocked the city and tapped into a long history of mounting distrust around racial disparities and policing here. In the weeks that following, Hooper was criticized for not meeting with Williams’ family and for her handling of releasing information. Under her leadership the APD also broke with its previous practice and clamped down hard on protests criticizing the department, with a deputy chief even outright misrepresenting or lying about the circumstances of a demonstration to the public and police committee members.

While the District Attorney’s office found Radford innocent of wrongdoing late last year, controversies continued. In September, Officer Shalin Oza slammed a teenager to the ground during an arrest at Hillcrest. In February Oza again became the target of public controversy when a video showed him holding an AR-15 while threatening to arrest teenagers in Montford.

Hooper defended the latter, asserting that Oza using a semi-automatic rifle to detain a group of black teenagers with a bb gun was justified because there was also recent gun violence in a public housing development over a mile away. To put it mildly, the statement prompted a backlash, and a petition for Oza’s firing gained over 600 signatures.

Meanwhile, an analysis of APD traffic stops revealed some significant racial disparities, and an alliance of the local NAACP, Code for Asheville and the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice pushed for several reforms in the early months of this year. These issues both came up at the Feb. 1 police committee meeting, which saw both a presentation on the proposed reforms and sharp criticism of Oza’s actions.

Though crime only rose one percent citywide in 2016 Hooper’s touted an increase in incidents — including aggravated assaults — in and near downtown with “heat maps” showing upticks in bright orange and red. She’s claimed that the current downtown unit is overworked and that the additional $1 million per year would hire 15 additional officers to cover the area 24/7.

That would include expanding more patrols into South Slope and the River Arts District, areas that overlap with Southside, a traditionally black neighborhood hit hard enough by gentrification that both the city and federal government have done studies on the problem.

So Hooper’s push, debuted at the Jan. 24 Council meeting, collided head-on with community distrust and the increased activism for police reform shaped by the events of the past few years. Even the gentry-friendly Asheville Downtown Association found increased policing a low priority in a December poll of its members.

The backlash to Hooper’s hike has drawn in a broad array of opponents including some business owners, longtime homeless advocacy organizations, anti-poverty activists and left-wing political groups. They’ve attended board meetings, including a police committee listening session where even some of those not associated with the effort (and occasionally critical of its tactics) also said that community trust in the APD remained very low.

This isn’t the only arena where similar pressures have played out. Late last month, following public pressure, the Buncombe County Commissioners agreed to shift $500,000 initially tagged for a jail expansion to prison diversion and community investment programs.

At the budget session the opponents of the increase observed the proceedings, though they had dollar bill stickers and other signs of the issue that brought them there.

At the budget session Council asked for more information on the issue. Smith, who’d offered cautious support for Hooper’s hike last month, wanted to see a presentation about the chief’s justifications. So did Manheimer and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler. Bothwell mentioned the debate would be front and center at Council’s next Public Safety Committee meeting on March 27. By all indications, this issue is sticking around for awhile.

‘Over-policing is already happening’

About 10 of the police hike opponents gathered outside City Hall between the work session and Council’s formal meeting.

“Over-policing is already happening,” Amy Cantrell of BeLoved House said. “If we double the police unit downtown we know that’s going to directly impact people of color, people without housing, people that may not have the proper documentation on them. We already have people that don’t feel safe because of who they are.”

Instead, she said, the city should put the $1 million into things that actually helped the community, like “transit and housing. We have a black community that had continued to be robbed of all the things they need over many, many years. We need an investment back in the black community.”

Dee Williams, who heads the local NAACP’s criminal justice committee and is running for Council with the support of the Green Party, asserted that the opponents of Hooper’s hike are engaged in “a mighty fight.”

“This money can be better used,” Williams said. “We’ve all seen the effects of what institutional discrimination has done to people in this city, marginalized people, people of color.”

Cantrell promised they would keep returning throughout the budget process until the city granted their demands.

Short sparring

By comparison to the multiple issues and conflicts parsed over in the budget session, the formal meeting that followed was unusually short, less than a half hour.

The city actually took one step related to the budget, setting its fee changes for the coming year. Along with property taxes, fees and charges are the other area local government controls. In previous years, that has seen some controversy, especially if it felt the city was levying too high a charge for people using basic amenities. But this year, it looks like the fees are one of the only aspects of the budget that won’t be the subject of a debate.

There aren’t any major hikes to controversial fees like transit or parks. The city added fees for renting out a new community center on Riverside Drive, had minor increases in water and stormwater fees and increases for businesses buying bus passes in bulk. Parking fees are set to rise from $1 an hour to $1.25, with small increases in the cost of other parking passes as well. This all passed unanimously, without contention on Council.

During open public comment, Williams again asked Council to reconsider the move towards stepped-up policing.

“In our communities we’re suffering immeasurably,” she said. “There’s a lot more ways we can use that $1 million than putting it into the police department.”

She also wanted Council to put the reforms proposed in response to the traffic data into practice in the budget and directly hear the recommendations of SCSJ attorney Ian Mance.

“We don’t want another $1 million to be used to perpetrate more violence against African-Americans, folks who we have documented as receiving disparate treatment,” she continued, urging Council to compare the data and Mance’s proposals with Hooper’s claims.

Cantrell also spoke, saying increased policing “means our city becomes less safe” for many marginalized groups, and increased jail populations while targeting the vulnerable while investments in black, latinx communities and transit would create jobs and improve lives.

Angel Archer, from the Party for Socialism and Liberation, also supported the move, stating the money needed to go to housing because “Asheville is one of the least affordable places to live in the country. The local economy is becoming a playground for rich people. The chief acknowledges the cause of the increase in crime is poverty, but when you increase policing in an area in response to that what that does is protect the property values. It makes it so the inequality that’s producing the crime continues.”

The latest dust-up

Then the focus turned to a fracas on Council itself. Manheimer criticized Bothwell for calling the Haywood Street Task Force’s work “a pile of crap,” among a stream of other invective, in a March 8 email to consultant Chris Joyell and task force chair Andrew Fletcher (a busker representative whose appointment Bothwell initially endorsed).

“We’ve had a lot of online discussion about our Haywood Community task force,” Manheimer noted. “I have a little bit of concern of Council member communications with our task force members and with our consultant, who’s running that force.”

“We are trying to allow this task force that we voted for and put in place to do this work. I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to interfere with the task force and their work.”

She added that Bothwell’s conduct had left her “disappointed” and “I’m concerned that they will not feel at liberty to do their work and give us their recommendation without undue influence from Council.”

“I would hope in the future we would all refrain from communicating with task force members in this way while they’re trying to perform their work.”

This is one of those issues where a few sentences between Council members just scratch the surface. The task force was appointed by Council with representatives from an array of local organizations to try to start reaching some sort of agreement on the contentious fate of the “pit of despair” site across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence.

Over the past decade, attempts to turn the city-owned site into a parking deck or hotel had failed in the face of public backlash and legal challenges. The matter became a flashpoint in the 2015 elections, tying into larger debates about public space in a gentrifying city. In that election, advocates of a park or public space on the site won two out of three open Council seats, though they remained divided on the question. The appointment of a 17-member task force followed quickly.

However the task force’s role was constrained to narrowing down some potential uses for the site and not weighing in on the particularly thorny questions of design, how many areas would or wouldn’t be public space and if it would be public or privately owned. That particular ball would appear to remain in Council and staff’s court after the task force wraps up.

As that point neared Bothwell, who was active in the push for a green space on the site and is running for re-election this year, condemned the task force’s work, claiming that parks advocate Julie Nelson was bullied by realtor and city recreation board representative Dean Pistor (who called her a “bitch,” something Fletcher claimed he asked him to apologize for) and that the citizen group had accomplished nothing.

“Basically, what I saw tonight is that you are going to present to Council exactly the same choices my fellow Council members decided to avoid a year ago,” he wrote. “Hurrah. And I am well aware that many people invested a whole lot of time. But, in real life, no forward progress. Kumbaya to your heart’s content, but either-or is very real. You plant a tree or cut down a tree, there isn’t a meaningful middle ground.”

The email ended up public and the online discussion that followed, as the messages ricocheted around various social media, ranging variously in intensity roughly from “kerfuffle” to “shitshow.” Bothwell’s assertions didn’t go unchallenged. Fletcher and the committee’s two vice chairs, architect Michael McDonough and green space advocate Susan Andrew, wrote a message to Council and staff claiming the committee had worked fairly. They noted that both the selection of the task force chairs and a list of possible temporary uses for the space had all passed unanimously.

This is the second time in recent months a city committee assigned to wrangle a tough topic has run into a public fight over its process, though the last time had some key differences. Late last year, the board appointed to recommend a course of action on allowing more Airbnb-style rentals became the center of public controversy as well. In that case, a majority of the task force supported keeping the current prohibitions. The minority who favored expanding them then claimed the process was broken and Bothwell, who’s also been an advocate of loosening the rules, agreed. A majority of the task force later signed a letter sharply disagreeing with Bothwell and claiming the process had been fair. But he countered that he doesn’t believe such task forces work, something he reiterated in response to Manheimer’s criticism.

“The thing that triggered me, which got lost in the wash in the news reporting, was that there was bullying going on in the task force,” Bothwell said, claiming moderators had done nothing to stop Pistor’s behavior and the incident had left Nelson in tears, breaking the task force’s rules about treating each other respectfully.

“We can’t have that kind of behavior and that’s the thing I was really most upset about.”

He also noted he was part of Friends of St. Lawrence Green, a group favoring a park on the site that had contributed $5,000 towards compensating Joyell and the Asheville Design Center. That funding, he claimed, gave him “standing” as a member of the group to criticize the process outside of his position on Council.

“It was a private email that someone decided to distribute,” Bothwell continued. “I think bullying of people tacitly approved by adults is way worse than using strong language in an email. I will try to refrain from interfering will task forces in the future and I will frankly vote against having task forces of this nature in the future.”

There are no such thing as private emails from elected officials writing to anyone else about public business, according to N.C. open records law. With rare exceptions like directly consulting with a city attorney about a confidential legal matter all those emails, regardless of which account they’re sent from or who they’re sent to, are public record.

This Monday, the Haywood Task Force voted 16-1 (with Nelson opposed) to move its recommendations for uses for the space forward. They’ll make a presentation at the March 28 meeting, after which all these tensions will migrate back to the Council dais.

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