By Roger McCredie
The auditorium at Ira B. Jones Elementary School can seat several hundred persons. But fewer than a dozen were in it Monday evening to hear Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer make the city’s pitch for voting “yes” on the upcoming $74 million bond referendum.
That may have been a mixed blessing for Manheimer, who had to deal with some hardball questions and scathing criticism following a Powerpoint presentation that was designed to explain to the public why the city needs all that money, and why it should borrow it now.
Monday’s event was the first in a series of four such meetings to be held in various parts of town this month, leading up to voting on the bonds issue, which will be included on the November 8 general election ballot.
The mayor began with an overview of the three proposed bond purposes – transportation, affordable housing, and parks and recreation – with photos showing projects in each category that the city has completed. She then said now is an ideal time to be borrowing money because interest rates are low and the city enjoys a high credit rating, enabling it to obtain excellent interest rates. In turn the high credit rating is largely due, she said, to a low per capita debt of $274 per taxpayer, per year.
“Isn’t that a 2015 figure?” a reporter asked. “And using the city’s own figures, if we take a snapshot of the current indebtedness we see a current per capita indebtedness figure of $947, which is more than three times that. And that beginning in – “
“I have researched that sheet,” the mayor interrupted, referring to statistics compiled by Asheville Unreported based on input from the city’s own bond counsel. “It’s not totally accurate but it is true to say that once the borrowing for this year is completed [the per capita debt] debt will be somewhere around seven hundred and something. I’m not sure. It will increase.”
“So, the reporter continued, “using those same figures, the per capita debt would eventually be $1748, beginning in 2017 and going to when all the bonds are issued. That would put Asheville with fourth or fifth highest per capita debt in the state and only $103 behind Charlotte, a city ten times its size. Is my math wrong?”
“No, it’s – it is wrong, but it’s not all that far off,” the mayor said. She did not specify how wrong the $947 figure was, nor did she explain why she had initially quoted the $274 figure when she was apparently aware it was outdated.
“The relevant comparison isn’t the city’s size, compared to Charlotte” Manheimer added, “it’s the ratio of debt to the valuation of the property. Greenville, North Carolina, is almost exactly the same size as Asheville but it’s property value is about half so its [per capita debt] is higher.” She pointed out that this will probably be even more the case after the city conducts property revaluations in January.
The mayor told the audience that the city enjoys a AAA Standard & Poor’s bond rating, as is also claimed on the city’s website. She made no mention of an Asheville Unreported article, “The Strange Case of the Slipping Bond Rating,” that contained a screenshot of a State Treasurer’s Office document which showed the rating as AA+.
A reporter called attention to Manheimer’s recent State of the City address, in which she referred to the $74 million bond package as “a catalyst for equity.” What does that mean?” the reporter asked.
“That’s a good question,” Manheimer replied. “I thought about that a lot. Our [$17 million] parks and rec bond package does call for improvement in several areas of the city that are historically African American. I think that would be very much an equity issue.” She did not mention how the other bonds might contribute to a more equitable city.
The mayor confirmed that, within each given bond category, it is “technically possible” to repurpose monies for projects other than the ones officially listed in the bond questions, but said, “A lot of people are concerned about this and I wish there were some way that we didn’t have that flexibility.” She said she stands by her position that the bond moneys should go directly to the specified projects, with no substitutions.
“Well, are you going to be mayor for the next seven years?” asked former mayor Ken Michalove, who was in the audience. “Because on any given day, if you count noses [on city council] all it takes is four people to change that.
“The city desperately needs infrastructure improvements,” Michalove read from a prepared statement, “however, those needs have been supplanted by the City Council’s excessive funding of … greenways; the river arts district, and the Asheville Art Museum.”
Councils and managers change,” Michalove said. He asked the audience “Are you willing to write a blank check to people you don’t know, that have the types of special interests that are currently funded or in the future the latest social fad or need?”
Meanwhile, Michalove said, “There has been a proliferation of new city ‘user fees’ for service like trash and storm water. These are taxes! And there will likely be more of those so-called user fees imagined by city council members as they try to tell the public they are not raising taxes.”
Setting aside his statement, Michalove concluded, “I’m sorry to be blunt, but I don’t trust you, or this council, or this administration.”
And then came Manheimer’s familiar nemesis, former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson.
“I’m gonna tell you stuff you may not like,” said Peterson, who in May was ordered out of a city council meeting by Manheimer. “Take your transportation. Your transit system is losing four to five million a year. I don’t care if they do pass this [the transportation bond], it’s not going to change under this present council. They’re blowing money. They think every day is Christmas.
“They’re going to revalue your property,” Peterson told attendees. “You’re going to pay more no matter what. And look at your city water bill. It looks like a mortgage payment now. I called [City Manager] Gary Jackson up and told him – wait, let me just finish,” he said as Manheimer made to leave.
“Is there any security here?” the mayor asked a staffer, looking around.
“Just let me finish,” Peterson repeated. “I said, ‘Gary, you’re $7 million in the hole right now. What are you gonna do?’ He said, ‘We’re not gonna raise taxes.’ And he didn’t. He raised fees and charges. That’s what they call them. Not taxes. They’re very good,” Peterson said. He left of his own volition.
The mayor’s other bond presentations are as follows:
•Central Asheville – 7 p.m. Oct 12 at the City of Asheville Public Works Building, 161 S. Charlotte St.
•West Asheville – 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at Hall Fletcher Elementary School, 60 Ridgelawn Ave.
•South Asheville – 7 p.m. October 19 at the Skyland Volunteer Fire Department, 9 Miller Road.# # # # #