Tuesday, December 20, 2016

CITIZENS FILE LAWSUIT TO PROHIBIT CITY FROM ISSUING BONDS

Action claims ballot language was misleading, so November approval is invalid
By Roger McCredie
Two Asheville property owners have filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the City of Asheville from issuing $74 million worth of general obligation bonds that were approved by the public on election day.
The suit was brought by retired attorney Sidney Bach and local businessman and former vice mayor Chris Peterson.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the voting results invalid.  Voters approved the three-bond bond package -- $17 million for parks and recreation, $25 million for affordable housing and $32 million for transportation – by a margin of approximately 70% - 30%.
Bach and Peterson charge that the language of the bond questions, as approved by city council and presented to voters on the Nov. 8 ballot, was “defective,” resulting in “an unfair misrepresentation of material facts” that made all three bond questions “inaccurate, prejudicial and misleading.”
Two defects in the wording of the bond questions render them no good, the plaintiffs say.  One is the apparently inadvertent use of the word “Charlotte” instead of “Asheville” in the authorization resolution approved by city council on August 9; the other is a shift in verbs that alters the meaning of an important clause.
The August 9 resolution calls for a public hearing “to consider the issuance of bonds by the city of Charlotte … ,”  an obvious mistake made as the result of “boilerplating” language from another city’s resolution and not caught by any subsequent proofreading – seemingly a small thing but sufficient to render the entire resolution bad, the lawsuit says.
“As it stands on the books right now, the authorization to vote on those bonds still stands in the name of the city of Charlotte,” Bach said Tuesday.
Also, public notices advertising the city’s intent said the city “shall” or “will” levy new taxes in an amount sufficient to pay for the bonds.  But the August 9 resolution backed off that language and substituted the phrase “may be levied,” making it sound as though there were a possibility issuing the bonds might not, after all, result in a tax increase.
But, the suit alleges, the city was always fully aware that the bonds, if passed, would raise taxes.  To change the wording to “may” on voter ballots rendered the entire statement false and constituted a misrepresentation, the suit says.
Bach said he was aware that his and Peterson’s attorney, Albert Sneed, personally pointed out the language inconsistencies to Mayor Esther Manheimer when there was still ample time to correct them before ballots were printed, but no changes were ever made.
Sneed and Manheimer are partners in the same law firm.
“This is all about due process of law,” Bach said.  “You can’t issue bonds, which represent money, based on faulty language.  
“Nobody is saying they can’t have a bond referendum but do it right,” he said.
Records show the suit was filed at 3:20 Tuesday afternoon.  Bach said he understands a copy was delivered to Manheimer prior to city council’s regular 5:00 p.m. meeting

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Tax Man Cometh

And if thou livest in the city, he just mayeth be back.
By Roger McCredie

The good news is, there’ll be no increase in the county tax rate this year.

The bad news is, that will make little difference to most Buncombe taxpayers because the property revaluation that’s now in the works will increase most properties’ value and result in higher taxes for 2018 anyway.

Those were the tidings county tax officers Gary Roberts and Keith Miller brought to members of the Council of Independent Business Owners at their breakfast meeting last week.

Noting that the county’s last across-the-board property revaluation took place in 2013, County Tax Director Gary Roberts told the CIBO audience, “It’s up to the Board [county commissioners] as to when we should do reappraisals but I think it’s wise to do it about every four years and that seems to be the consensus.”

Roberts noted that the county tax rate remains unchanged at 60.40 cents per $100 of assessed property value (up from 52 cents in 2013).  But yes, he said, given the current bullish housing market and four years’ worth of inflation, most property owners will notice an increase – in some cases a substantial one – when they receive their fiscal year 2018 tax bills.  The new valuations are scheduled to be in the mail by January 31.

“Of course,” Roberts added, “the values we set are only as good as the data we collect.  And we want to talk about the appeal process, not that anybody would appeal.”

(Polite laughter)

And at that point Roberts handed off to County Real Estate Assistant, who elaborated.

“We’re in the process of gathering data from 2400 different neighborhoods – 90,000 properties – and that’s a huge undertaking,” Miller said by way of explaining that the county uses a “package” approach, which involves calculating average land and structure values in a given area and applying them throughout that area, adjusting for size and specific location.

“In a situation like that,” he said, “you’re always going to have some highs and you’re always going to have some lows.  We don’t often hear [appeals] from people who think we’ve valued them too low.”

(More polite laughter)

“So no,” Miller said, “we don’t always end up with the best possible information.  We need input.  That’s why we encourage property owners to talk to us. Call us or e-mail us, follow us on social media or come by our office so we can discuss it face to face.

“Of course,” he added, “there’s a possibility that according to what other information we get, the valuation could go up instead of down, so there’s that.”

(Not-as-hearty polite laughter)

Earlier this year Roberts told the Asheville Citizen-Times that the county tax office believes some Buncombe neighborhoods are only being taxed at about what they should be, based on market value.  He named several outlying communities, such as Montreat and Enka, as well as several in-town locations including Montford, Kimberly, Beaver Lake, parts of South Asheville and the River Arts District.   

Property owners inside Asheville’s city limits will thus be facing a double whammy in the near future.  The countywide revaluation follows hard on the heels of city voters’ election-day approval of the issue of $74 million worth of city general obligation bonds.

The three-bond package comprises $37 million earmarked for transportation, $25 million for affordable housing and $17 million for parks and recreation.  The city has a seven-year window in which to issue the bonds themselves.

Once all the bonds have been issued, the resulting tax on them would raise the city of Asheville’s per capita debt to $1,748, nearly double the 2016 per-person burden of $947.

That figure will, of course, be in addition to whatever each taxpayer’s new county tax bill turns out to be.

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Vice Mayor hedges on how Housing bond money will be spent

Calls South Charlotte Street development “just a possibility”
By Roger McCredie
Asheville’s vice mayor told local business leaders on Friday that the city has not made any definite plans to spend $15 million in recently-approved bond money to repurpose and redevelop South Charlotte Street.
In fact, City Councilor Gwen Wisler told members of the Council of Independent Business Owners, “we have no formalized plan” in place for exactly how or where that three-fifths of the $25 million “affordable housing bond” approved by Asheville voters last month will be spent.
That revelation came in response to an attendee’s question as to when taxpayers could expect to see “a brick and mortar startup” on affordable housing.
Wisler, who had been summarizing the approach the city intends to take in using proceeds from the other two bonds approved -- $32 million for transportation and $17 million for parks and recreation – seemed momentarily taken aback by the affordable housing question.  

She pointed out that $10 million of the $25 million housing bond money is earmarked for the city’s affordable housing trust fund, which can be tapped as loans by private developers who promise to make a portion of their construction projects “affordable.”  

But as for the remaining $15 million, she said, “Hopefully it will be associated with some development of city-owned property for affordable housing.
“Specific projects we have not defined as yet, but we are looking at expanding what we may be doing around affordable housing,” she said.  “Right now, as you know, we have focused primarily on rental property and there’s talk in the future of home ownership and we’re figuring out what that model might be and, you know, we want to coordinate with the county, but I don’t know if we have a formalized plan set up yet.”
At that point, Asheville Unreported pointed out that development of the “South Charlotte Street Corridor” had been the city’s sole stated purpose for that $15 million all during the run-up to the bond vote. Printed material, the city’s own website and city officials discussing the matter all stated flatly that South Charlotte Street “repurposing” was a key element of the housing bond allocation.
Moreover, all city sources agreed that a central feature of the redevelopment would be the demolition of the Wolcott city garage and public works building – the “Taj-ma-Garage” – to make room for up to 400 affordable housing units, provided a developer could be found to make that happen.  The city, it said, would then construct a new garage facility, most likely further down South Charlotte Street, at a cost of about $5 million.   
The City of Asheville website said:
“The proposed $25 million in housing affordability bonds would provide additional support for the Housing Trust Fund, a program that assists in creating diverse and affordable housing choices. It would also enable the City to re-purpose city-owned land for development that supports housing affordability with the South Charlotte Street Corridor as a primary project.”
And an accompanying table showed:
PROJECT
AREA 
 INVESTMENT

Funding to re-purpose city-owned land for affordable housing
Primary Project: South Charlotte Street Corridor

$15,000,000

Housing Trust Fund
 Citywide    
$10,000,000



 But, Wisler told her audience on Friday that “South Charlotte Street was really just the first area that city staff identified that we could look at, but that is just very preliminary.
“The work just really hasn’t been done to conclude that the $15 million would be spent there.  Again what we are hoping is that the $1`5 million would go towards some aspect of affordable housing,” she said.
Apparently Councilor Cecil Bothwell considered the South Charlotte Street development a given because, during the early voting period, he announced that it had been a major factor in his decision not to vote for the affordable housing bond.
“I know the housing bond is well intentioned, but deeply question both the success of Asheville in boosting affordability, and a proposal that accounts for a big chunk of the housing bond,” Bothwell said in a Facebook post.
“An estimated $14-15 million to relocate seems like an enormous cost, both financially and environmentally. I think this idea was cooked up too quickly and with too little analysis. So I voted no,” Bothwell said.
Among those who followed the city’s pro-bond campaign, Wisler’s vagueness served as a reminder that, despite its name the bond offers no clear pathway to relief of Asheville’s affordable housing crisis, in terms of either homes or rental units.
It also underscored a principal objection of anti-bond forces: namely, that the city is in no way bound to spend the bond moneys on any of the specific projects it  mentioned it might use the money for.  So long as a given project can be made to “fit” into one of the three bond categories, money from that category may be used to fund it.

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Lurking neighborhood “density” issue emerges during city’s development forum

By Roger McCredie

The city likes the idea of greater urban density.  Neighborhoods don’t.  At least that was a sentiment expressed when the hot-button issue surfaced during the fall City Manager’s Development Forum, held last week at the U.S. Cellular Center.

City Planning and Urban Design director Todd Okolichany told an audience made up primarily of private developers, realtors and property owners his department is drafting a zoning change that would slash lot width and area requirements in residential areas by 20 per cent.

Insiders say the city has long been considering such a move because it would promote infill – and therefore create more density – within Asheville’s neighborhoods.

Simply put, the lot size reduction would allow for squeezing more new structures into smaller available spaces.  But that doesn’t sit well with residents who see a distinct possibility that adjacent spaces which presently allow them elbow room and privacy can be replaced by cheek-by-jowl new houses or apartments.

Haw Creek resident Barber Melton, who sits on both the Neighborhood Advisory Committee and the Affordable Housing Commission, told Okolichany flatly, that “a lot of neighborhoods don’t want increased density.  Haw Creek certainly doesn’t,” she said, “and 90% of other neighborhoods don’t either.”  

“There’s got to be a balance,” Melton said.

City officials have frequently said that increasing population density by infill and building “up instead of out” would help prevent urban sprawl and promote pedestrian use and multimodal traffic, thus making life easier for non-drivers.

Opponents have said it will result in traffic problems, increased pollution, higher taxes and a general decrease in quality of life for those affected.  Last year an editorial letter in Asheville’s Mountain Xpress warned that the city’s infatuation with density creation could lead it down the same road as the state of Oregon, whose so-called “smart growth” infill-based zoning program has largely backfired.

  “[The Oregon plan’s] goals were exemplary but failed to anticipate that the most ‘efficient’ way to populate the cities was directly opposed to the way that people actually wanted to live … residents did not want to give up their cars and backyards,” the writer said.

Still, the city sees the 20% reduction in lot width and area as a first step in going down the infill road, and it’s been contemplating the measure for some time now.   "It's to allow for more land to be used efficiently," Vaidila Satvika, an urban planner for the city, told WLOS-TV back in August.

Satvika’s take on those benefits was smacked down in the same segment by West Asheville homeowner Karen Mathews, who said, “I really don't want to look out of my bathroom window or my bedroom window into someone else's, six feet from my house.

"With it crammed in like that, how many people are going to want to be that close? I don't know if it's greed or if it's insanity,” she said.

One example of the city’s aggressive dedication to density-by-infill was the 2012 creation of The Larchmont, a Mountain Housing Opportunities- underwritten affordable housing complex that was built on the site of the old naval reserve headquarters on Merrimon Avenue.  That project met with considerable but futile pushback from North Asheville residents who feared further traffic congestion and objected to the scale of the buildings.

A prominent fan of  increased neighborhood density is city councilor Gordon Smith, who has frequently called it a key to relieving Ashevillle’s affordable housing crisis.  Smith has for years advocated major revisions to the city’s existing development code, which he says,  “kind of comes out of a 20th-century sensibility that may not be fitting what’s happening here in Asheville today.”

After the Larchmont victory. Smith wrote to a resident who had opposed the project, “The Larchmont looks great. I know you didn’t like it and didn’t want it, but the opportunity offered to the sixty families who live there is one I’m sure you can appreciate.”

Okolichany told the forum audience that the city will hold public workshops on December 6 and 7 as part of a review and update of its Comprehensive Development Plan.  According to the city’s website:

“Workshop attendees will hear an update on the planning process, learn about the key issues facing the community and most importantly see how the public’s ideas will be incorporated into the vision. Then, residents will get the opportunity to participate in fun exercises that explore alternate development scenarios, choose their preferences, and see the results in real time.”

There was no further description of the “fun exercises.”

The workshop schedule is as follows:

December 6
  • North Asheville Library, 1030 Merrimon Ave., 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.
  • West Asheville Library, 942 Haywood Road, 4 to 6 p.m.
  • Central Asheville opportunity at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, 285 Livingston St., 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
December 7
  • South Buncombe Library, 260 Overlook Road, 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.
  • East Asheville opportunity at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 290 Old Haw Creek Road, 4 to 6 p.m.
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Thursday, November 17, 2016

City says forum will give citizens a look At current economy, future plans

Early plans for bond money expected to be unveiled

Asheville’s Office of Economic Development will host its semiannual Development Forum Friday (November 18) in the grand ballroom of the U.S. Cellular center.

The forum, which will run from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., is being billed as an opportunity for stakeholders – to use a favorite cityspeak term – in the city’s development plans to have “an opportunity to learn about current development trends, regulatory updates, and management initiatives.”

Stakeholders in this case include “members of the development community, design professionals, contractors, real estate community and [last but not least] citizens.”

According to the city, those present “will hear the latest on the Asheville area’s current economic indicators and the financial and economic challenges facing the City,” including an update on the $74 million general obligation bond package (and its attendant $36 million in interest) that was passed by Asheville voters on election day.

Other topics include discussions of city development trends and shifting demographics, a summary of building permit activity, an update on the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan, a review of planning and zoning code amendments, and a look at the city’s non-revenue water program.

Of particular interest to many what the city has to say about plans for issuing bonds now that authorization for them -- $32 million for transportation, $25 million for affordable housing and $17 for parks and recreation -- has been approved.  The bonds passed by a three-to-one margin but opposition to them, though it materialized late, was intense.

If you can’t make it to the forum yourself, don’t fret.  Asheville Unreported will be there for you, and will tell you all about it.  Watch for our coverage.

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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Corporate donations pay for pro-bond campaign

Donors include engineers, builders, relatives of city staff
By Roger McCredie


Cui bono?”  “Who benefits?”  According to Wikipedia, the Latin phrase is “an adage that is used either to suggest a hidden motive or to indicate that the party responsible for something may not be who it appears at first to be.”

In this case a look at documents filed by the nonprofit that was formed to promote the $74 million bond package Ashevillians will vote on Tuesday shows exactly who is likely to benefit by its passage – or at least who’s counting on it enough to put money behind the proposal.

The third quarter contributions report of the AVL GO Bonds Committee, which was formed in August to receive and spend moneys to promote the bonds, lists substantial donations from several engineering and construction firms, as well as a $750 contribution from Equinox Environmental, the landscape architectural firm headed by David Tuch, husband of Shannon Tuch, Principal Planner in the city’s Department of Planning and Urban Design.

In all, according to the report, AVL GO Bonds raised $36,805 in cash and in-kind services between August 15 and October 24.

Only one individual contribution is listed:  a $100 gift from accountant David Worley.  The rest are from businesses.

Major donors included:
  • Altamont Environmental ($5,000), an environmental engineering firm that has received several city contracts related to the development of the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project (RADTIP).
  • Vaughn and Melton ($5,000), a consulting engineering firm with offices in both Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky.
  • McGill and Associates ($2,000), consulting engineers long used by the city, especially on water system projects.
  • Tennoca Construction Co, ($2,000), veteran of many city jobs; currently performing the  $6.9 million Craven Street Improvement Project, part of the city’s deal with New Belgium Brewery.
  • Mattern & Craig ($1,000), another engineering firm with long ties to city government, principal engineer of the RADTIP.
The largest in-kind contribution is for website design by Mountain True, valued at $2,350. A co-director of Mountain True is Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield.

For a complete listing of AVL GO Bond contributions and details, see the accompanying table and election filing below.

To date, according to the report, the pro-bond committee spent just under $13,000 for flyers, postage, stickers, t-shirts, signs and balloons, as well as just over $10,000 on billboards, approximately $8,000 on radio commercials, and $5,000 on newspaper advertising during the period indicated.  No figures later than October 24 are yet available.

The bond package includes a $32 million bond for transportation, $17 million for parks and recreation, and $17 million for parks and recreation. (The transportation bond includes an allocation for development of the Swannanoa greenway and greenway connectors. 

Greenway projects used to fall under parks and recreation but were moved by city planners to the transportation category.)

A principal objection to the bonds as presented has been that there is no guarantee the proceeds will be used for the specific projects associated with them. The only stipulation is that bond moneys from any of the three categories must be applied only to projects that can be shown to relate to that category.

Projects in all three bond categories, however, would involve engineering, architectural and landscaping services.

TABLE OF CONTRIBUTIONS AND RELATED INFORMATION
Click here to download this table as PDF
October 31, 2016AVL Go Bond Committee Disclosure Report
Click here to download Disclosure Report
TOTAL RAISED: $36,805.00
ContributorInformation
David Worley, Accountant
$100
“Mr. Worley has worked on a task force establishing procedures for the City of Asheville Affordable Housing Trust Fund”  
Source: www.worleycpa.com  
Alta Planning & Design
$500
Anything having to do with bike paths and greenways, Alta Planning does it.
In 2014, they were hired by Asheville City to study changing the RADTIP (River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project along the French Broad River) bike lanes to protected bike lanes.  In a later memo it was stated it could cost an additional $4 million to make this change.
The City approved the change to protected bike lanes in July 2015.
Altamont Environmental
$5,000
Has received several contracts with the City.
Contracted with Asheville to do work on the RADTIP
Designed the final left of the greenway connecting UNC-Asheville to downtown.
Contract fees not public.
ECS Carolina LLP
$1,000
Provide engineering consulting services
Has performed stormwater work for Asheville
Is listed by McGill Associates (see below) for Asheville’s “On Call Professional Services for General Projects”
Equinox Environmental
$750
Shannon Tuch works in the Planning & Zoning department for the City of Asheville. Her husband, David, owns Equinox Environmental, and also has several contracts with the City including the RADTIP project.
Kimley-Horn & Associates
$500
If it has to do with parking, it’s Kimley-Horn and they’ve had several contracts with the City of Asheville. From their website, “ The City of Asheville, North Carolina is a legacy user of the Kimley-Horn parking demand model.”
Mattern & Craig
$1,000
Mattern & Craig has been providing engineering services to the City of Asheville for years.  They are the principal engineering firm for the RADTIP project. In addition, Ken Putnam, Asheville current Transportation Director used to work for Mattern & Craig.  Gabriel Quesinberry, currently in charge of construction at New Belgium, used to work for Mattern & Craig and was responsible for the traffic study.
McGill Associates
$2,000
McGill has provided engineering services on a multitude of projects to the City of Asheville water system since 1984 and continues as their contractor on a myriad of projects.
City of Asheville made this firm what it is today.
Total fees paid by the City to McGill is in the millions.
Allegra Asheville
$500
Was paid $12,996.16 for stickers, cards, shirts, signs, balloons for this bond campaign.
Was paid $4,989.77 for postage; $4,047.23 for flyers and postcards
Sitework Studios
$250
Sitework is an engineering and architectural company in the RAD. Owner, Matt Sprouse, former member of Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission design committee, the Commission in charge of the RADTIP project and also working on RADLofts project for Harry Pilos in the RAD.
Sitework Studios has contracted with the City on several projects, including several related to RADTIP, including the Clingman Forest and Town Branch Greenways. This contract was originally $370,000 and this August was changed to $540,000.
Tennoca Construction Co.
$2,000
For many years Tennoca has been awarded several construction projects by the City. The most recent is the Craven Street Improvement Project. This project was part of the City’s agreement with New Belgium and also part of the RADTIP.  
This contract is for $6,901,570.66. (yes, almost $7 million)
The original estimated amount of this project was $2 million.  
Vaughn and Melton
$5,000
Vaughn and Melton is essentially McGill Associates competition and submitted their proposal to the City at the same time McGill Associates did for the same services. Looks like they want in on the action!
Land of the Sky Association of Realtors
$15,000
The form denotes $15,000 but does not indicate whether this was in-kind or cash.
IN-KIND CONTRIBUTIONS
Andy Oxy
Value $105
Helium use for balloons
MAHEC
Value $750
Graphic design of logo and mailer
Jeff Heck, CEO of MAHEC, wrote pro-bond editorial in Citizen-Times
MountainTrue
Value $2,350
Website construction, social media and communications
Asheville City Council member, Julie Mayfield is co-director of this nonprofit.
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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Guest Editorial from Ken Michalove

NOTE: This was submitted to the Citizen-Times by Ken Michalove.  We  share it here.

Guest Editorial:
Vote “NO” on the Asheville $74 Million in Bond Issues

I vote “no” on the $74,000,000 bond issues until there is appropriate spending balance and protection against 4 votes changing an entire capital spending plan at any Council meeting.

The City desperately needs infrastructure improvements.  However, those needs have been supplanted by excessive funding of: affordable housing; greenways; the river arts district; and, the Asheville Art Museum, as compared to the overall needs of the City.

As an Asheville taxpayer, I am not willing to write a blank check to future office holders that I don’t know that may have the types of special interests that are currently funded disproportionately; or, in the future, the latest social need, as they see it.  Are you?

Why did the Council wait more than 5 years to consider a bond issue?  Interest rates have been at an all-time low for years…we are advised that interest rates will be increasing in the near future, as soon as December 2016.

Do we have the progress reports on the status of how the CIP funds have been spent in the past 5 years compared to the actual 5 year CIP approved projects?  I think not.

There has been a proliferation of new City  “user fees” for services…trash, storm water ……these are taxes!  And, there will likely be more of those “user fees” imagined by future City Councils as they try to tell the public they are not raising taxes.

The 2013/2014 Council raised taxes 2 cents ($2 million dollars). That $2 million was to be spent in 2014, it was not spent as appropriated.  However, the Council didn’t reduce that tax. Result…the City has collected in 4 years $ 8 million on a project that was not started but the tax was not lifted.  The use of funds can be hidden, there are no watch dogs to bring these matters to the attention of the public.

Do you realize that with the adoption of the current City Budget the City Council has $131,223,086 million (a combination of the 5 - year Capital Improvement Program, “CIP”, and the Fund Balance) to spend on capital and other projects which they can change at any given meeting with 4 votes; and, they have done so in the past! Now the Council wants us to vote for an additional $74,000,000 million making it a total of $205,223,086 million that can be changed at any given meeting with 4 votes.

One of my fears is that the Manager and Council have under estimated their commitments and future pressure by special interests for Affordable Housing; the River Arts District and Greenways; and, with the passage of a $74 million bond issue, more CIP money will be disproportionately available for those types of projects.

Ken Michalove, former Asheville Mayor and City Manager

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