Letters, website fire first volleys against proposed new debt
By Roger McCredie
With slightly more than a month to go before it’s voted on, the city’s proposal to issue $74 million worth of general obligation bonds is finally running into organized opposition.
Mountain Area Citizens’ Political Action Committee (MACPAC) has erected a webpage titled “Protect Our Future,” which contains an e-letter that can be signed and sent, petition-like, to Asheville City Council.
The letter itself, which can be found at http://imacpac.org/ reads:
“Letter to the City of Asheville
Please change your mind about your proposed bond.
Dear Mayor and Council-members of Asheville,
As a concerned taxpayer and citizen of the City of Asheville, I respectfully request that you withdraw your current bond proposal. Our city already has a substantial amount of debt and is not in good financial standing. Adding such an overwhelming amount of debt to this current total is not only worrisome but irresponsible to our future generations.
I ask that you not indenture the children, the future of our great city, into further debt at this time. If these projects are of ultimate importance, we must first put our financial house in order by reducing the amount of debt presently on the books.
Thank you for doing the right thing not just for today, but for our tomorrow.
With deepest respect,
A Concerned Taxpayer.”
It all began last Spring …
The MACPAC letter drive is the first organized public effort against the issue of the three-bond package, which will carry a combined debt service of $36 million for a total indebtedness of $110 million. But grassroots opposition to the bond issue sprang up as soon as it was announced that city council was contemplating it, and has intensified since council approved a referendum on it in August.
In May an angry confrontation between Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson during a city council meeting led to Manheimer’s having Peterson escorted from council chambers by police. Peterson had referred to the bond issue as “a Ponzi scheme” during public comment time.
A $74 million slush fund?
And in August, as council prepared to put the referendum to a vote, Asheville resident and attorney Sidney Bach said, “There can be no doubt that for the unelected staff at City Hall [the bond money] will become a $74 million slush fund to use as they please.”
Bach was voicing the anti-bond forces’ other major concern, in addition to the debt burden the bonds will create: the fact that ultimately, outside of the broad general categories for which the bonds would be issued – transportation, parks and recreation, and affordable housing -- the purposing of the bond money is open-ended. In other words, although the city has listed projects in each category that it says it would fund with bond proceeds, here is nothing to prevent it from using bond money for something else, as long the something else can be made to fall within that category.
“Take for example, the $32 million designated for Transportation,” said Mari Peterson on the news and commentary website Asheville Unreported. “The City has said they will spend at least $16 million on streets and bike lane repaving but the City could move these funds to more Greenway construction instead because ‘Greenways’ also falls under ‘Transportation.’ See how easy that was?”
City Finance Manager Barbara Whitehorn confirmed the nonspecific nature of the bond questions when she told city council in July, “The question is written in such a way that it leaves the option open for Council to add or remove particular projects.”
For its part, the city has mounted a major public relations campaign to sell the bond issue to Asheville voters. When Manheimer gave her annual State of the City address on Tuesday, brochures urging passage of the bond issue were placed on tables. In the speech itself, Manheimer called the bonds “a catalyst for equity” and couched her pro-bond pitch in terms of “diversity and opportunity,” implying that bond money could help achieve those intangibles.
The mayor will also stump for the bonds in a series of four “bond expos” to be held at various locations around the city beginning October 10.
The Asheville Chamber of Commerce endorsed the bond issue early on, and has been helping lead cheers for the pro-bond side. The Asheville Downtown Association promptly followed suit along with the United Way. Asheville’s Adult Soccer Association and Ultimate Frisbee League have also weighed in pro-bond.
What’s an “A” more or less? The devil is in the details and the City fudges
The city’s website, in promoting the bonds, says the city’s general obligation bond rating is AAA; that Asheville’s per capita debt is lower than most North Carolina cites; and that “the City will have seven years to issue the bonds and approximately 20 years to pay off the bonds after the funds are received.”
Opponents, particularly Asheville Unreported, have countered that the city’s applicable bond rating according to Standard and Poor, is in fact AA+; that the bond indebtedness will have the effect of raising the city’s per capita debt by 538% over 2015 levels and give Asheville the fifth-highest per capita debt of all North Carolina cities; and that in reality the city could take as long as 17 years to issue the bonds.
On social media, pro-bonders have reacted to this criticism with combined rage and disdain, dismissing it as “irrelevant” and “nit-picky.” Members of the left-leaning Facebook group “Asheville Politics” demanded an apology for “this absolute s**t and garbage” and intoned, “It’s embarrassing how folks agitate against their own interests and those of their neighbors to serve somebody's political vendetta.”
Other Asheville Politics members tarred bond opponents with different brushes. “Why do you hate progress and the future?” one asked. “To keep people base like animals so they’ll believe you false religion? You people are terrorists.”
Bond critics say the germ of the entire bond idea can be found in an “inadvertent admission” by the city in the midst of its pro-bond talking points. The city says:
“The City's current capital improvement program (CIP) is at capacity; no additional projects can be added under the current model until 2023 or later. The additional revenue that could be realized from a bond referendum would allow Council to prioritize projects that are planned for 10 or more years into the future and address current and long term community needs.”
That, opponents say, is an admission by the city that, in effect, it has simply spent all its money and now wants more.
# # # # #