Thursday, August 11, 2016

He’s baaack! Peterson tells audience why Bond issue will result in $180MM city debt

Atty. Bach says money will become “a slush fund”
By Roger McCredie

Peterson is back, "Ponzi scheme" is reality
In Shakespeare’s 
Macbeth the ghost of Banquo – whom Macbeth has just had murdered - - appears seated among the guests at dinner, causing severe indigestion and a general cessation of merriment.  If any members of Asheville City Council ever read the play, they may have recalled that particular scene on August 9, when Chris Peterson came to the public comment podium.

The last time Peterson addressed Council, on May 17, he was forcibly ejected from the council chamber while calling the city’s 2016-17 budget “a Ponzi scheme” and accusing Council and city administrators of “feathering your nest” on the backs of city taxpayers.

$74 Million Bond
This time the subject under discussion was a package of three general obligation bonds, totaling $74 million, that Council during the meeting voted unanimously to put before the public on the November 8 general election ballot.  The bond issues to be voted on include $32 million for transportation and infrastructure improvements, $25 million for affordable housing and $17 million for parks and recreation.  Voters will be able to vote yea or nay on each issue separately.  The three-bond total is the most money to be sought from taxpayers by the city since the 1980’s.

Attorney, Sidney Bach "this is window dressing'
And before Peterson even put in his appearance, local attorney Sidney Bach, speaking against the bond issue during public comment, was quick to point out that the $74 million advertised price tag conspicuously ignores the $36 million in interest that the bond indebtedness will generate.  The total cost involved, he said, will therefore be $110 million.
“In reality,” Bach told council members, I believe all this [inviting public input] is merely window dressing by the City Council.”  He said there is a “collaboration with the city and certain unelected city staff to foist a fully planned and unnecessary pie-in-the-sky $110 financial burden upon the city and its residents for years and years to come.”

Property tax increases will hit renters harder
Bach said the resulting property tax increases will ultimately be passed along from landlords to tenants, working an additional hardship on renters who are already struggling to meet their housing costs.  

“Ironically, under the guise of spending taxpayers’ money for affordable housing, you will in fact be creating more unaffordable housing for those already paying high rents in order to live in Asheville.

“In the meantime, those private contractors and private equity interests who will be using the money to construct so-called affordable housing will be laughing all the way to the bank,” he added.

Bach then began to list things the bond money should include but which, he said, it does not.

Bond does not, police, emergency services, schoolteachers... 
“There is not a single penny that you have provided for fire, for police, for emergency services or equipment.  Not one cent for schoolteachers, not one cent for public schools,” Bach said.  “Where, one must ask, are your priorities?

Then he dropped the bomb.

$74 Million slush fund“There can be no doubt,” Bach said, “that for the unelected staff at City Hall [the bond money] will become a $74 million slush fund to use as they please.”

Bach added he feels the bond issue is being “railroaded” through the approval process “under the cover of so-called public information, a biased public poll that failed to mention fundamental facts and now this so-called hearing.”

Bach’s public poll reference was to an opinion sample of 400 likely city voters conducted in early July by Campaign Research and Strategy, a Columbia, S.C.-based political polling firm.  The city paid CRS $8,000 to conduct the poll, which CRS said showed that 80 per cent of those interviewed favored the bond issue.  Critics called the poll sample too small for a city of 83,000 and said it could easily be skewed towards those who would favor the bonds anyway.  In an interview with the Asheville Tribune  CRS executive Tige Watts said interviewees’ names were culled from 2012 voter records and then filtered through several layers of screening until 400 names were chosen.  He admitted the poll’s margin of error – 4.9 per cent – was wider than industry averages and said the latitude was in fact due to the small polling sample.

Only three members of the public, after Bach, participated in the hearing per se.  Resident Bettie Council urged the city to “unlock” up to 20% of the bond proceeds, should the issues pass, and focus it on the betterment of the African-American community.  Greg Borom of Buncombe County Children First, asked Council to explore ways to “direct funding towards deeply affordable housing” for households with incomes more than 30% below average area income.  Resident Timothy Sadler told Council the bond proceeds would provide “a great opportunity” for city government to exercise “creative thinking” in funding projects to promote racial equity.

Council approves bond package anyway
Council approved the three bond packages one by one, with members offering some comments of their own. Councilor Gordon Smith said the city has been “doing its level best” to meet citizens’ needs, but “what the bond questions allow is for the people of Asheville to decide whether to accelerate towards those aspirations they have communicated to us.  And if they choose to do so, we’ll be right there with ‘em.”  He did not elaborate as to what those aspirations are, or how the city plans to accelerate to meet them.

Less floridly, Councilor Cecil Bothwell observed that “there are arguments on both sides” of each of the bond issues.  But, he said, “the point is to let us have a debate about it between now and then [election day].  So … whether people support it tonight or not is not the question; the question is, can we have a discussion about this going forward.”  He did not indicate how opinions about the bonds were not relevant in what was supposed to be a public hearing about them.  

Earlier Bothwell noted the city estimates that funding the bonds will cost the owner of a $275,000 home – which is said to be the average price of an Asheville house – about an additional $10 per month.  “That’s not a big hit,” he said.

General comments on the bond
The meeting headed down the home stretch, having consumed only about half an hour, when it reached the time for  general public comment.  A couple of speakers briefly addressed topics unrelated to bond money.  Then Mayor Esther Manheimer glanced around and asked if there were anyone else …

And a familiar figure approached the lectern.  “Hello, Council,” it said.  “Chris Peterson.”

In comes Peterson
“I’m not going to talk to the Council, I’m going to talk to the people looking at me on TV,” Peterson said, although addressing the audience, as opposed to speaking to Council directly, was one of the tactics that got him thrown out of the May 17 meeting.  But there was no reaction from the dais and he continued.

“I named this the $75 million Ponzi Bond,” Peterson said, “because of all the mistakes the council has made the last eight years.  You have taxed and taxed and fee-ed us to death.”
Peterson said, “You’re not telling the people the truth.  You’ve got [another] $36 million in interest [on top of $74 million].  You already owe $80 million.  Do the numbers.

“You sit there and proclaim that you’re for poor people?” Peterson asked.  “That’s just bull.  This affects poor people worse than rich people,” he said, echoing Bach’s earlier comment.  “If rich people get taxed, they can afford it.  You’ve got people up here [with] salaries over $200,000 a year.  The average person in Asheville makes $28,000.  That’s wrong.

“Anybody out there that votes for this, you are going to be taxed according to $180 million … for the next 10 years,” Peterson said.  

Numbers don't lie. Politicians Lie.
“You,” he told Council members, “have nothing in your savings account.  You’ve depleted it.  You are down to only what the state makes you keep by law.  You people don’t know anything about budgets.  I’m sorry.  You need to look at the numbers.  Politicians lie.  Numbers don’t.”  And the former Vice Mayor of Asheville returned to his seat.

Bothwell fired a parting shot at Peterson.  “As a long-time independent business owner … and as a person who now makes less than $29,000 a year, I think our taxes are an amazing bargain,” he said.  

Bothwell’s Wikipedia page identifies him as “an American politician, writer, artist, musician and builder.”

In an interview earlier this year, Peterson told a reporter, “[City Manager] Gary Jackson, if he’s a praying man, must be praying hard this bond package goes through.  If it doesn’t, his whole house of cards collapses.”
# # # # #
To Watch and Hear Sidney Bach:
To Watch and Hear Chris Peterson:

RogerMROGER McCREDIE is a well-known Asheville-based journalist. His investigative reporting for the Asheville Tribune on such topics as New Belgium Beer, the "Bruingate" bear hunting sting and the city's takeover of Pack Place earned national attention.  His feature writing appears regularly in Capital at Play magazine and he contributes to several blogs including the recently launched "Tavern Voices."

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