Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Will the City of Asheville learn from the lessons of Buncombe County?

It was only this past June that the City Council were “shocked” and “surprised” by the City staff’s notification of a $26 million budgeting miscalculation.

Oversight issues don't just plague Buncombe County government but also the City of Asheville.

The RADTIP, a $50 million project covering 2.2 miles along the French Broad River in the River Arts District was now going to cost $76 million.  This budget miscalculation forced the City to cut back on the original plans - $20 million worth.  Having just passed the new City budget for FY17-18 only weeks earlier, the City Council were instructed by staff that had to approve $6 million of debt, bringing the total cost to $56 million in order to save the $14 million grant from the Federal Government.  

The RADTIP is the largest city funded municipal development project Asheville has seen in decades. With millions involved, there is opportunity for people (contractors, staff, consultants, etc.) to take advantage of all that money swirling around.  It requires strong leadership and oversight to ensure that the $31 million to be paid by taxpayer dollars is not misused or misappropriated. With the announcement of this massive budget miscalculation one would think City staff would have been more than merely reprimanded but that was not the case.

As with Buncombe County, people tried to alert the City of the impending financial disaster, but as in the case with Buncombe County, these warnings were dismissed, and actually even put down by other leaders and our local media.

Parallel Stories

Payroll Issues
Wanda Greene
Buncombe County Manager
$26 Million RADTIP Budget Over Run
Gary Jackson
City of Asheville
The Questioning Begins

In 2012 Mike Fryar was elected to the Buncombe County Commission. He immediately began doing what he had always been doing, asking questions especially about the budget and salaries.“From his early days in office, he acted differently from other commissioners, coming into staff offices and talking for hours, Greene said” (Citizen-Times, October 9, 2016 article, “Grievances, political discord simmer in Buncombe County”).
The Questioning Begins

In 2015, Chris Peterson (also well known for questioning the City’s budget and salaries). As a property owner losing his property through eminent domain to the City, he started to do some digging into the City’s riverfront project responsible for the property taking.

“In February 2012, Gary Jackson stated that the construction funds needed for the RADTIP section of the RiverWay could cost $50 million dollars, whereas all of the City’s capital improvement fund availability for the next 5 years is about $40 million dollars.” AshevilleRivergate.com*

*He startedwww.AshevilleRivergate.comquestioning the then budgeted $50 million project now known as RADTIP.
A Year Ago

Citizen-Times writes negative article about commission, Mike Fryar

In October 2016, just before the Buncombe County Commission Election (Nov 2016), The Citizen Times ran a story that ran negatively against then incumbent, MIke Fryar.

They described an alleged encounter where Ms. Greene accused Mr. Fryar of almost hitting her in the head with a phone. The incident was supposedly submitted as an HR complaint. Mr. Fryar was not aware of the complaint until asked about it by the paper.

The phone story came out as part of an article written by the paper about Ms. Greene giving herself a compensation boost of $34,000 in that year’s budget. Ms. Greene explained that this was due to all the overtime hours she spent answering Mike Fryar’s questions.

Needless to say, the phone complaint never went anywhere as it was unfounded but the article, written just before election time, painted Mr. Fryar in a very negative light.
A Year Ago

Mayor Manheimer ejects citizen Chris Peterson from City Council Meeting following his warnings about construction costs

In May 2016, during the public comment meeting to discuss the City’s proposed budget, local citizen and former Councilman, Mr. Chris Peterson, warned the City Council and Mr. Gary Jackson of the impending construction costs.

“You also, Gary, in your CIP, you say 60 million that you’re gonna spend on the River. I might add a river that floods. Makes no sense. But you have got to be a genius as far as construction. Now I’m in the construction business. If you think your number 60 million is going to hold up in a construction business that annually goes up 10%”...

Instead of saying they would look into it, the Mayor, Esther Manheimer, threw him out of the meeting. The first and only time a person has been ejected from a public city council meeting by Ms. Manheimer.
A Year Later...

A year later and Ms. Greene, having suddenly retired as Buncombe County Manager is now under FBI investigation. Her sister demoted herself and her son also resigned.

Ms. Wanda Greene’s pay, acts of nepotism, bonuses, retention incentives paid paid out in lump sums to herself, a family member and other top county leaders have dominated headlines in recent weeks.

The latest article by the Citizen-Times, having made an about-face, released an article just this week questioning the oversight of the Buncombe County commissioners. They have yet to retract or apologize to Mr. Fryar.
A Year Later….

The City of Asheville passed its coming year budget this past summer - June 16, 2017. Not before or during the budget discussions was any mention made of budget problems concerning RADTIP.

Within days, however and just a little over a year after Mr. Peterson’s ejection from City Council meeting, top City staff announced that the construction bids for the RADTIP project were $26 million over estimated. The new cost would be $76 million. The City was forced to cut back many of the project’s plans infuriating cycling and greenway groups. On top of that, the City would need $6 million from debt in order to save the $14 million Federal Grant.

Buncombe County and the City of Asheville both have the same kind of management - the County Manager and the City Manager are only accountable to their elected leadership The County Commissioners and City Council are the only ones that can fire the County Manager or City Manager. Yet, in both cases, the Council and Commissioners are a part-time elected body. It is therefore incumbent upon the leadership to ask questions, dive into issues and hold their managers accountable.  Longevity in a position does not imbue trust and it should not be assumed by leadership.

In both of these examples, when hard questions were being asked, there was pushback instead of praise which were both backed up by local media. Ms. Greene is gone and Buncombe County is making dramatic, sweeping changes in its organizational structure, compensation and oversight. Will the City follow their example or allow its City staff to continue going unchecked?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Bond Lawsuit Update: Lawsuit moves forward, a portion dismissed

Partial Dismissal

The request that the Court set aside the referendum results because the City used the term "may" instead of "shall" on the ballot as to whether property tax increases would be required to pay for the $76 million bond issue was denied.

Other Legal Challenges Move Forward

However, the Court held that the plaintiffs, Chris Peterson and Sidney Bach have the legal right to challenge the proposed $76 million bond indebtedness and the means by which the bonds are to be financed (i.e. the new property taxes imposed in June by the City Council). There remains at issue before the Court a very important financial issue that impacts the City's ability to issue and pay for the proposed bonds:

A required public notice was given by the City prior to the November 2016 referendum to the effect that a new property tax would be levied only IF the November 2016 referendum bonds are issued. Although none of the referendum bonds have been issued, the City Council nevertheless went ahead and imposed a new property tax to pay for the principal and interest on the yet-to-be issued referendum bonds. The new tax levied is also being challenged in the pending lawsuit and the Court has been asked to declare that the new tax levied is illegal based upon the City's public notice to the contrary as to whether and when new property taxes would be levied to pay for the bonds.

The financial underwriters and potential investors in municipal bonds require that the City and its legal counsel sign off on a "Certificate of Non-Litigation" which states that there is no litigation pending that could affect the bonds' validity or any tax levied for the annual interest and principle payments due on the bonds. Without such a certification, the bonds cannot be issued and marketed and as long as there are pending unresolved legal challenges to the bonds or the taxes imposed to finance them.

So, any crowing at this time by City Hall would at best be rather premature for as Yogi Berra
once famously said: "It ain't over 'til its over!"

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Walk right in. Sit right down. Mayor, let your term roll on.

“Manheimer Steamroller” is working just fine.
By Roger McCredie
It’s been a noisy election season in Asheville this year, what with a dozen people running to fill three seats on city council and promising to do everything from tearing down the Vance monument to pushing for driverless buses to maybe doing something to create affordable housing and help disenfranchised people.
Oh, and there’s also been a mayoral election campaign going on. But it’s been a remarkably quiet one because the outcome has been a foregone conclusion for months or at least based on the silence of the Mayor and the lack of any community debates: On November 7, Esther Elizabeth Manheimer will become mayor of Asheville for another four years.

True, she will have first faced two opponents in a primary and the surviving one in the general election, but those are formalities.  The mayor will gain her second term with hardly a hair out of place, having had to exert very little effort.  Not even to defend the blotchy record she’s running – or coasting – on.
About that record …
First, a disclaimer.  Asheville employs the “weak mayor” form of city government.  Under that arrangement the business of the city is actually run by City Manager Gary Jackson and his staff.  The manager’s office – usually with little, if any, prior discussion – presents to city council any business that is deemed to require council’s approval, which is usually forthcoming.  The mayor in these cases is only one voting member out of seven.  She can speak for or against, choose issues to champion or denounce, but her record as mayor is essentially the record of what has occurred on her watch.
She took pride last year in selling city taxpayers on $74 million worth of general obligation bonds. She has positioned herself as the defender of city sovereignty against continuing “Raleigh overreach” and has called for and gotten a municipal referendum which she hopes will show Raleigh that Ashevillians are opposed to dividing the city into voting districts as a basis for choosing council members, so there.
The flip side
But dodgy ballot language has tied the much-touted GO bonds up in court for at least two years.  And the General Assembly has already passed a law creating the city voter districts, thus making the referendum an expensive moot point that will also probably have to be resolved in court to the tune of still more lawyer fees.  Now, the mayor is a land developer and eminent domain lawyer herself, and on her watch the City’s legal department in staff has doubled, at a cost to taxpayers of $1 million a year to operate. And yet the City also relies heavily on outside counsel (at least 11 other law firms recently).
Gaming the system

With her land use/foreclosure experience, the mayor has also from time to time displayed a lawyerly talent for bending the rules.  When Jackson and former councilman Marc Hunt engineered the city’s questionable takeover of the Pack Place building, Manheimer helped see to it that they had ex post facto authority to do so.  And when the Asheville Art Museum tried to sell State Employees’ Credit Union “naming rights” to the forecourt of the Pack Place property – in direct violation of the original Pack bequest – Manheimer acquiesced in giving the Art Museum authority to do that as well, two weeks after the fact.  (SECU backed off from that deal when it heard about the museum’s shenanigans.)
The devil is in the details
There have also been times when the mayor has seemed less than duly informed in money matters.  Stumping for the GO bonds last year, she claimed the city was carrying a per capita debt of only $274, which would result in a highly favorable bond rating and cause little taxpayer impact by way of debt service when the bonds were adopted.  When Asheville Unreported  pointed out that the $274 figure was a year old and the 2016 per capita debt had soared to $947, more than triple the 2015 figure, the mayor first said she hadn’t been furnished with the later figure, then said $947 was “still very low.”
“What’s a boondoggle?”
And of course, this past June, Manheimer was saddled with fielding the fallout after council was blindsided by the news that the planned development of RADTIP – the city’s sacred-cow River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project – was going to cost $76 million instead of the projected $50 million,  and also that, oh-by-the-way, the city needed to come up with $6 million in cash then and there in order to save a $14.6 million federal TIGER VI grant for the same project.  Within hours the situation was being called the biggest financial boondoggle in recent Asheville history.
“I was shocked to hear what these bids came in at,” Manheimer said.  Then, since the overrun had produced a massive scaling back of RADTIP, she added gamely,“These projects [the eliminated ones] have not dropped off the list, they are now further down the list – but they’re without specific funding designations and that’s not always a good thing.”

Mayor by process of elimination

On paper Asheville’s mayoral race, like its council elections, is nonpartisan.  Nevertheless it usually follows that at least both major parties will present candidates; or, put another way, that some political entity will undertake to make a showing against the progressive Democrat machine that has dominated city politics for nearly two decades.  This has certainly been true in the individual councilor races, where, despite the election’s nominal nonpartisanship, several candidates declared themselves Socialists and sought the endorsement of the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America; and one candidate was officially endorsed by the Green Party.  But the local GOP has been AWOL across the electoral board this year and no Republican-backed candidates have emerged.

So it was thought for awhile that Manheimer might actually run unopposed.  In June  Jonathon Glover, a civic heavyweight who seemed he might offer a serious challenge, entered the race but dropped out shortly afterwards citing a lack of financial support.  This has left the mayor facing unsuccessful former council candidate Jonathan Wainscott, who had announced earlier, and Martin Ramsey, who forced the holding of a primary with his eleventh-hour entry, just as he did in 2013.

Wainscott ran for city council in 2013 as a sort of anti-New Belgium populist and became a neighborhood spokesperson for those adversely affected by the brewery’s construction, but he dropped off the political radar until this season.  The same went for Ramsey, a passionate self-declared Socialist who has repeatedly called for candidates to debate city issues publicly and in depth.

There has been, in fact, virtually no public exchange of views by the mayoral candidates.  Hatch, the Asheville business startup organization, held a city candidates’ forum in September and Manheimer attended, but observers said candidates were given a minute to state their cases, plus three minutes to take questions.  There was a meet-and-greet event at Deerfield Retirement Community where the three-minute limit was also imposed.  The Asheville-Buncombe League of Women Voters had scheduled a candidates’ forum, but abruptly cancelled it.  So much for debate.

Such a situation, of course, favors the incumbent.  The conventional wisdom is, keep your head down, say as little as possible as positively as possible, and let nature take its course.  Mayor Manheimer has stuck to the playbook, which is obviously working for her.  To date she has reported just under $8,600 in campaign contributions – a third of what she raised as a challenger – and has money in the bank with a month to go.  Ramsey shows no contributions at all in Board of Elections reports; only his filing paperwork.  Nothing at all shows for Wainscott.  
So walk right in …
This piece is being written on Primary Day, which will see one of Manheimer’s on-paper opponents eliminated, leaving her to face the other in November.  But the stark fact is that, barring an asteroid strike and no matter who voters choose to fill the other council seats that are up for grabs, the chair in the middle – where the mayor sits – is spoken for.
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Saturday, October 7, 2017

How to win friends and influence [Asheville] people: City of Asheville edition

The Unofficial Guide to Power and Influence in Asheville
Manual to Boards and Commissions
or the Taxpayer's Guide to Nepotism and Cronyism

Some data first..

6 out of the 7 members of City Council are Democrats (Haynes is Unaffiliated)
 ZERO Members of Council reside in East or South Asheville
Of the known members of the City's boards and commissions, we found:
  • 61% are Democrats
  • 9% registered Republicans and
  • 30% Unaffiliated** (note: of the registered Unaffiliated members, 71% voted Democrat)
Book Note - "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is a popular self-help book written by Dale Carnegie and first published in 1936.  It's a timeless classic. The below steps follow this timeless 1936 book's section titles with a bit of our take based on the Asheville political environment.

So, how did we get this way? How did we shift to a far left Council? After closely observing our City, how it functions and the boards and commissions, we've seen this strategy develop over time.

Step 1: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People
Control the Rules

If you're at the top of the Influence Game and in control, you need to stay in control and that means control the rules so you stay there.

Our City Council is unbalanced in its representation.  All City Council members are either from North Asheville, downtown or West Asheville.  There is NO representation from East or South Asheville. Politically, six out of seven council members are democrats (and one of them identifies as Democrat Socialist). It appears our Council leadership leans to the far left.

State legislatures have attempted to rebalance representation with the passing in June of Senate Bill 285, Equal Representation in Asheville, that will be in effect for the 2019 city elections. Of course, city council is against S.B.285 and for that reason is putting the question before the voters in the form of a voter referendum that appears on this year's ballot.  This local referendum is NON-BINDING and will have NO LEGAL FORCE. No matter the election results, the matter of district elections in Asheville is law and will still be in effect.

So, instead of following the law, city council will once again hire an army of lawyers to challenge state law in court, hoping to only use the anticipated negative results of the referendum as evidence of local opposition to the law. The referendum is meant to serve as a general survey of public sentiment and not the approval or disapproval of a legitimate city action. 

But make no mistake, this is City Council's attempt to maintain control in spite of overwhelming evidence.

Step 2: How to Make People Like You
The role of the Boards and Commissions 

The top "influencers" in the City are, of course, City Council. But to get to City Council, where do you start?  The real influence begins BELOW the Council leadership - on the 32 boards and commissions (give or take a few) that meet monthly on a variety of topics and make recommendations to the City Council.  There are a few heavily influential boards - Planning & Zoning, Multi-modal Transportation, Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission (AARRC), Downtown Commission, and the Tourism Development Authority.

Is it any wonder that these same groups produced many of this year's election candidates?

Step 3: Winning People to Your Way of Thinking
The power of Subcommittees

Another detail you may not know is that each board or commission can also create as many sub committees as it wishes. These subcommittees are not "official" members of the main committee and this is where the influence vetting begins.  This is where the main groups identify potential people to put into the greater-influence pipeline. Call it "influence boot camp."

Why the subcommittees? Because they can add whoever they want and there is no public vetting except that which is done by the main committee.  They do not require public announcement, public approval or even public listing of the subcommittees and who is on them.  Example - last year we attended a Tree Commission meeting where SEVEN new subcommittees were created.  See how easy that was to add people and spread the bureaucracy?

Ensuring Your Way of Thinking

The subcommittees function as a way for the main board members to unofficially locate, test, review and vet potential new main board members, all without anyone noticing.

Often, members of the ad hoc committee eventually become permanent members of the main committee, having proven their agreeable position and merit of what they can offer. We witnessed this on the Asheville Area Riverfront Commission.

Step 4: Be a Leader 
The Neighborhood Advisory Committee

In Carnegie's original 1936 book, Section IV is entitled, "Be a Leader: How to Change People without Giving Offense or Raising Resentement."  This is precisely your role on the Neighborhood Advisory Committee.

If you truly want to get started with the City of Asheville government, you need to become an avid, active member of your neighborhood's advisory committee.  However, if you're a Republican, you may want to hide that fact because you will not make it far.

Step 5: Network with Important People
Become a cyclist

If neighborhood meetings aren't your thang, then become a cyclist.  The golf course used to be where deals were made with private conversations and unseen handshakes between executives and deal makers on manicured soft greens.  In Asheville, golf is out and cycling is in, especially if you add craft beer.  So, invest in a $10,000 professional bike, cycling tights and a helmet and join Asheville on Bikes or other cycling group in town. Within these small cycling groups you can pedal along with top city officials (like City Manager, Gary Jackson), council and even local journalists as members.  If you're really serious, join a professional cycling team.  At the end of the day, instead of eating fancy meals at the Country Club, you can finish off your ride or take a break at a craft brewery like New Belgium, which donates their Asheville summer concert monies to Asheville on Bikes.

Final Result
Keep Your People in Power

If you wondered how we got this way... now you know. The top influencers are working hard to keep "their" people in the pipeline and control the rules.  Elect different people and when those people get on the boards and commissions, they can begin to change who becomes else becomes a member.

Reward your friends, family, coworkers

Congratulations! Once you are a member of the boards and commissions and/or are lucky enough to make it to Council chamber, you can also then reap the benefits.
  • You get an additional salary hike (if you're Council)
  • You can hire your friends and family and coworkers - Councilwoman, Julie Mayfield, Councilman Gordon Smith, Vice-Mayor Gwen Wisler, Mayor Manheimer (NOTE: she recuses herself from her law firms handling of eminent domain cases involving city takings)
  • You can stay on council even if you have DWI charges like the Chair of Public Safety and Councilman, Cecil Bothwell or get discrepancies in residence overlooked (Councilman Keith Young) 
If you're a member of an important board, you can reap the benefits for your organization - get insider knowledge about activities and protect your business interests. One great example of this is how many of the members of the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission (AARRC) have benefited from the RADTIP project (that $76 million project on the French Broad River):  Click here to read that story

*Data for the Boards and Commissions political affiliation was gathered from all available data from the City's website and from emails to boards and commissions groups.  This is a snapshot in time as the membership of these boards and commissions change.

Percentages based on:
286 estimated board members
174 known party affiliation
106 Ds (61%)
15 Rs (9%)
53 UN (30%)** Note that out of the 53 Unaffiliated, 38 voted Democrat straight tickets. None voted Republican. If you include the 38 Unaffiliated voting Democrat, then the real percentage of Democrats on boards is 82%

Monday, October 2, 2017

Four of 12 Council Candidates Say They Identify as Socialists

Williams emerges with DSA endorsement

By Roger McCredie

"... I have consistenly acted as a socialist in my personal life and as an elected official" Councilman, Cecil Bothwell
Election quote from candidate and current City Council member, Cecil Bothwell. Consider this the parting shot as Mr. Bothwell loses the Democratic Socialists of America endorsement and attempts to discredit another candidate.  

What's this all about? Who are the Democratic Socialists of America?

There is no organized Socialist Party in Asheville or Buncombe County, but there is a growing “small-s” socialist presence. That became clear last month, when a full third of the candidate field heading into the October 10 city council primary self-identified as socialists.

Those revelations took place at a meeting sponsored by the Asheville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America ("DSA"). The four candidates who witnessed were Cecil Bothwell, Rich Lee, Sheneika Smith, and Dee Williams. And according to political analysts, the emergence of that many self-proclaimed socialists in a nonpartisan municipal election in a small Southern city reflects a spreading national trend.

How the Fire Started

DSA, which is careful to point out that it is a political organization and no respect a political party, was founded in 1982. Early on election night 2016 its membership stood at about 8,000. Within 24 hours, as the nation absorbed the news that it had elected Donald Trump its President, membership in the DSA had rocketed to 25,000. Current estimates put membership at about 28,200.

The new recruits were overwhelmingly young, deeply shaken by the mere fact of Trump’s election and enraged at a Democratic Party establishment whose machinations, they felt, had robbed them of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the avowed democratic socialist who had become their standard bearer.

On August 17, the recalibrated DSA – it had severed ties earlier in the year with Socialist International over philosophical differences -- held its first national convention, in Chicago. It took less than a month for its Asheville chapter to enter the local political lists by holding a candidates’ forum, on September 14 at the West Asheville branch library, to which all 12 candidates for city council were invited.

Who showed up …

Of those 12, six candidates attended: Bothwell (an incumbent), Lee, Smith, Williams, and fellow candidates Kim Roney and Jan Kubiniec. Roney and Kubiniec stopped short of calling themselves socialists, though each said there were certain aspects of socialism that dovetail with their own political views.

… and who didn’t.

Absent was the other council incumbent, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who is running for a second term. Also not appearing were candidates Pratik Bhatka, Andrew Fletcher, Jeremy Goldstein, Vijay Kapoor, and Adrian Vassallo. (The mayoral candidates, incumbent Esther Manheimer and challengers Martin Ramsey and Jonathan Wainscott, weren’t invited.)

Hold that thought. We’ll revisit who was and wasn’t there below.

Exactly What IS Socialism?

Asking a question that basic in an article like this one usually invites condescending comments from both left and right wings of the political spectrum along the lines of, “If you don’t know, why are you writing about it?” But the fact is that many Americans, even the condescenders, have a less-than-secure grasp of socialism’s meaning. And like most “isms” its interpretation usually depends on the political stance of who is being asked.

 The website Vocabulary.com puts it this way:
… socialism is now often used to mean everything from "fascism" to "progressivism." But in its purest form, socialism was a political, social, and economic system meant to empower the working class. In the U.S. today, though, it's often used as shorthand for "the services that government provides and which are paid for by taxes."
Marx saw socialism as an imperfect transitional stage between capitalism, where goods and services are privately owned and circulated for profit in a free market, and a Utopian communism where everything produced by the workers is taken by the state and distributed to the people according to their needs. That idea, of course, is directly repugnant to capitalism, which involves private ownership of goods and services and participation in a free market for profit.

So socialists denounce capitalism as being self-serving to the point of evil, creating vast social and economic inequality, and government by the rich, powerful, and corrupt. Capitalists are quick to point out numerous failed experiments in socialism that have ultimately resulted in revolution, the rise of dictatorships … and government by the rich, powerful, and corrupt.

In this country, capitalists, especially those who can remember the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, see socialism as striking at the heart of America’s founding principles, and socialists see those principles as broken and outmoded, if indeed they ever worked at all. The resulting tension has produced a full-scale cultural and class war – a populist crusade that resonates with the young, hip, and extremely vocal segment of the Asheville electorate who renounce the mainstream Democratic Party that has owned liberal politics for generations.

“As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow,” its website says, “ DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people … We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.’

So how do this month’s socialists measure up?

In that light, it’s interesting to consider the attendees and the non-attendees at the Asheville DSA forum, according to background.

  • Bothwell, the perennial council gadfly, law unto himself, and, at age 61, the oldest candidate, describes himself as a lifelong socialist. (He successfully overcame the legacy of his father, who was a prominent Florida Republican.) He has in his time been a builder, an author, and an editor of Asheville’s Mountain Xpress.
  • Lee, as a socialist, would seem to be an anomaly. He is a financial advisor for Edward Jones Investments, a field which is concerned entirely with protecting and enhancing income derived from capitalist activity. Nevertheless, according to Xpress, he told the audience, “To me [socialism] means government providing a robust network of social services and social goods.”
  • Smith, one of two black candidates, is the present Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at Asheville’s Green Opportunities and a board member of the Center for Participatory Change. The child of a minister and a missionary, she’s a fourth-generation Ashevillian who says she would work to remedy the city’s “disgusting wealth gap.”
  • Williams, the other black candidate, is a successful businesswoman (construction and real estate) who nevertheless embraces the socialist label. She is a longtime city political activist who has denounced the 1980’s urban renewal that destroyed Black Asheville’s core and says she’s dedicated to rooting out the “paternalism” with which she says city government treats its black community.

At the end of the day it was Williams who came away with the DSA of Asheville endorsement.

And what about the no-shows?

It’s interesting to view them through the same socio-economic lens.

  • Bhatka is a hotelier (Days Inn) and is on the City Board of Adjustments.
  • Fletcher is by profession a jazz pianist. He has worked with the city in drafting rules governing street musicians and one of his major concerns is “getting a handle on short term rentals.”
  • Goldstein is a commercial real estate broker, a principal of G/M Property Group. A member and past chairman of the city’s powerful Planning and Zoning Commission, he has so far raised more campaign funds than any other candidate.
  • Kapoor owns a financial consulting firm. He has a law degree and gained notoriety in helping resolve a potential South Asheville neighborhood problem with a proposed apartment complex.
  • Vassallo is a business development executive with Asheville CPA firm Dixon Hughes Goodman. He has served on the Asheville Downtown Association and the Downtown Commission.
  • Wisler is past CEO of Coleman Company, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of camping and outdoor equipment. Wisler serves or has served on 13 city governmental boards and currently chairs the Finance Committee and Planning and Economic Development Committee.

So … not a lot of political philosophizing but a great deal of moving and shaking going on among those who skipped the DSA forum.

Is socialism becoming a viable force in local politics?

Analysts emphasize that not all Asheville-dwelling socialists-at-heart are members of DSA, which, for that matter, represents only a single set of positions within a broad political spectrum. 

Nevertheless, they say, there are many more socialists of one stripe or another on the political radar than there used to be.  In 2011, then State Senator James Forrester ( sponsor of a proposed state constitution amendment to ban gay marriage) coined the now famous phrase to describe Asheville as the "Cesspool of Sin." Many will tell you Asheville is the liberal enclave surrounded by a conservative beltway. The City Council has supported every non-conservative state legislative action - it flew a gay pride flag from City Hall when the courts struck down the ban on same sex marriage last October. Over the last few years it has called itself a "sanctuary city" although in name only (not having formalized this legally).  Any local will tell you, Asheville has become a very progressive city whose progressive boundaries are now leaking into the surrounding areas.

It remains to be seen, they say, whether organizations such as DSA will be strengthened over the long haul, or whether they will serve for a time as a clubhouse for disaffected traditional liberals and then retreat to the shadows or meld with a more viable movement.

The latest word, as it often does, belongs to Bothwell, who told Asheville Unreported,
“I would call myself a Democratic Socialist in the same sense that Bernie Sanders uses the term. I think capitalism works best when workers have a voice. In Germany labor has a seat on corporate boards, for example, and when unions were strong in the U.S. they forced companies to do better by workers.  
“Socialism, per se, is pretty much irrelevant at the municipal level, particularly in North Carolina. Cities have no power to make taxation more progressive, to change the minimum wage, to permit unionization of workers, etc. and etc. So what a Council member might favor at the state or national level in terms of better treatment of the working class is locally moot,” Bothwell said.  

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Updated City of Asheville Salaries

Finally, we got it.  Here's our annual City of Asheville salary update:

NOTE 1: we are showing the FY2016-17 salary (pre-2017 increase) as well as the FY2017-18 salary.

NOTE 2: This data was provided by the City on Sunshine Request in June 2017. We have been told that not all full-time employees were provided. We can only go by what the City provides but we have requested that the City make ALL employee salary data available on their Open City Data Portal.

Here's the top 20 City of Asheville salaries.

We also were able to analyze the salaries provided by the City to a Sunshine Request filed by the City on June 21st.  To see that list, click here.  Here's what we found:

There were 1133 full-time employees listed with an additional 300+ part-time and/or seasonal employees.  Based on that data, we found:

The #1 Man

City Manager, Gary Jackson’s current salary is $195,214 with additional $65,000 in fringe benefits bringing his total compensation to $260,367.

He is earning $46,577 in salary less than recently retired (and now under FBI investigation), Buncombe County Manager, Wanda Greene ($241,790) who had been with the County for 20 years where she managed a County budget of $431 million and 1,442 employees.  Gary Jackson has been with the City for 10 years and manages a City budget of $176 million and 1,248 full-time employees.

Compare to other cities:
The City of Fayetteville has a population twice that of Asheville and their City Manager earns $185,000.  Mr. Jackson is not far behind Ruffn Hall, Raleigh’s City Manager who earns $239,500.

Living Wage
Most city employees make the “living wage” of $15/hr.  Essentially, that equates to $31,200/year.  Of the full-time employees listed from the City, only 127 do not make 15/hr.

City of Asheville vs. Average Income
Average income for Asheville is $28,106.  According to the data provided by the City, out of the City’s 1133 full-time employees, 94% earn above the average income (1064).  The average income of all full-time employees is $47,248.99 with an average hourly rate of $22.72.

City of Asheville vs. Median Income
Household Median Income for Asheville is $44,077 which means that is the total income of all earners in a household (over 15 years of age).  Going by that, 51% of the City’s full-time employees earn above the household median income.

It’s good to live in the City - More employees to serve fewer people
Buncombe County has approximately 1 county employee meeting the needs of 178 residents.
The City of Asheville population is almost at 90,000. For every city employee, there are 79 residents and that doesn’t count the 300+ part-time or seasonal employees.

However, according to Gary Jackson’s management letter in this year’s budget, the City faces high turnover, especially among professionals. Does Mr. Jackson think that professionals need to earn more? In this year's budget all employees received a 2.5% increase and the Human Resources Department will be conducting benchmark studies.  

Legal Department

SalaryBenefitsTotal Comp
Deputy Attorney$102,489.00$26,886.00$129,375.00
Assistant City Atty Sr$83,648.00$23,106.00$106,754.00
City Attorney, Robin Currin$177,700.00$57,745.00$235,445.00
Assistant City Atty Sr$78,575.00$38,421.00$116,996.00
Assistant City Attorney$67,611.00$20,084.00$87,695.00
Admin Assist$34,125.00$12,954.00$47,079.00

Monday, September 11, 2017

Asheville City Salaries

If City leaders and Candidates really care about transparency, they should request City of Asheville salaries to be put on the City Open Data Portal.  Our City constantly touts being like other big cities, it's time to act like it. Look at the cities and public institutions that publish their salaries:

City of Charlotte does it - click here
City of Fayetteville and Cumberland County
UNC System Workers
NC State Government Employees
Burke County and City of Morganton

On June 12th we submitted a public records request according to the City of Asheville guidelines for salary information.  This was the same information we requested last year and it took them 2 months to respond.  However, this year, the City has yet to respond to our request (now going on 3 months). So, we've decided to publish their information and our previous year information:

2013, 2014, 2015 Salary Data - Department Heads
Here's a link to the information we published LAST year:

Pre-2017 Salary Data - All Full-Time Employee
It turns out another person requested similar information and the City responded with a list of all full-time city employees, listing their name, hourly wage and annual compensation.  It is not sorted.

Here is the list of salary information, prior to the 2017 budgeted increases:


Open Data? Not for salaries

The City of Asheville and its Council and leadership have made a big deal out of being transparent and using the highest and best technology. It even makes the budget available online although, given the way the data is represented, you need to be a database expert to understand it.  Their site is:

If the City truly wants to be transparent, it should make this salary information via it's Open Data portal as many other North Carolina cities do.

Carolina Public Press did an analysis of salaries in WNC and here's what they found:

Breaking down salaries in WNC -
"Of the 10 highest paid municipal employees in the region, eight work in Asheville. City manager Gary Jackson’s salary of $190,452 per year is the highest overall in WNC."

City of Asheville LOBS SOBS

i.e., Shuffling Money


At the City Council meeting tomorrow, September 12th, the City Council will be asked to approve bond loans to be issued to the tune of $20 million in the form of short term obligation bonds (SOBS). These will be issued through the Local Government Commission.

According to the City the....
"SOBS are refunding part of the interim construction debt as well. They are used specifically in the Innovation Districts (Municipal Service Districts)."
From what we gather and various email exchanges, this is NOT new debt but is replacement debt for existing, interim construction debt.  Either way, it's debt. The City has the option to use all of that or just a portion. They have the authorization to go up to $20 million.

City places lien on City property
As collateral for the $20 million, the City will allow a lien to be put on City buildings - City Hall (70 Court Plaza), the City’s Public Works Facility (161 S. Charlotte St) and the City’s Municipal Building (100 Court Plaza).  The issued a public notice to this effect which you can see here - CLICK TO VIEW  and go to page 7 of this pdf.  It also contains the entire explanation of this debt.

Where is it going?
The $20 million is for Capital Improvement Projects and according to the City, some of it has already been spent.  See below.
  • $7.38 million to RADTIP - the riverfront project within the 100 year flood plain on The French Broad River.
  • $5.4 million for Craven Street - this project was promised to New Belgium as part of their agreement to come here
  • $5 million to Radio Infrastructure
  • $3.95 million for Eagle Market Street - the project in downtown that has been delayed due to massive construction problems
  • $2 million to Streets and Sidewalks
  • $1 million to Azalea Road
To see the complete list - click on this image:

In addition, it will be asked to refinance approximately two limited obligation bonds (LOBS), one issued in 2012 with a remaining balance of $18 million and another issued in 2016 with remaining balance of $11.685 million.  The city will save on interest because those loans were short term rates and they will now be fixed rate. The total amount, including costs to refinance will be $31 million.

Where will the money go?
This money that has already been spent. The city is simply refinancing this debt.  The money was used on previous capital improvement projects - see image above. 

$600,000 Cost To Issue and Refinance
The cost of finance professionals and lawyers to complete both transactions will be around $600,000.

NOTE: These bonds do not include the $74 million bonds that will be issued in the next two years.

In short, this means the City will have existing debt of $51 million. Add that to the $74 million bond plus the interest and the City will have over $130 million in debt.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Amended Bond Lawsuit Demands Repeal of City’s Latest Tax

“Bait and Switch” Deprived Ashevillians of Due Process, Complaint Says

By Roger McCredie
Managing Editor

The parties to a suit that seeks to vacate the results of last November’s $74 million bond referendum have now expanded their complaint to include the tax that was approved in June to cover the interest on them.

The addition to the complaint says taxpayers are being forced to pay debt service on bonds that haven’t even been issued.

And the city has responded by saying it can do pretty much what it wants to do with the proceeds from the new tax – after saying repeatedly that the tax would be used solely to pay interest on the bond package.

Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope on August 1 advanced the plaintiffs’ cause by ruling that the anti-tax amendment could be added to their complaint. Now the plaintiffs, retired attorney Sidney Bach and former Asheville vice mayor Chris Peterson, are challenging not only the validity of the bond question itself – which they say was worded misleadingly on the November 2016 ballots – but also the legality of enacting an immediately effective tax on the very bonds that can’t be issued until the suit is resolved.

The new property tax was passed by city council on June 13, the same day it passed the 2017-18 city budget. It amounts to 3.5 cents per $100 of assessed city property value. It will appear on the new Buncombe County tax notices that are scheduled to be mailed about August 10. Payment is due by September 1, although taxpayers have until January 5, 2018, before payments are considered late enough to be assessed penalties and interest.

“It’s an illegal tax, improperly levied,” Bach says, noting that the city has stated it does not even plan to start issuing the bonds for at least two years, probably to allow time for the litigation. Taking taxpayers’ money to service a city debt that may occur at an unspecified future time, the lawsuit says, violates due process of law.

“The Big Bait-and-Switch”

That, Bach says, is bad enough, but now the city is saying that (1) it never said the new tax would be used specifically to service the bond debt; and (2) the tax proceeds are going into the city’s general fund, where they could be used “for many different purposes.”

“That’s not just illegal, it’s outrageous,” Bach told Asheville Unreported. “It’s the big bait-and-switch.”

Three separate bonds make up the package okayed by Asheville voters last fall: a $32 million bond earmarked for road and infrastructure improvements and additions, one for $25 million aimed at affordable housing, and one for $17 million to finance parks and recreation projects.

The $74 million total was the largest bond amount ever set out for Asheville voters’ approval. The idea to issue the bonds emerged from city council’s January 2016 annual retreat; it was instantly turned into a bandwagon cause that was supported by an intense advertising and public relations campaign. The bond question passed with about 70% voter approval.

A Jaundiced Eye

Despite the ballyhoo, though, the idea of the city’s taking on that much debt was viewed askance by a substantial and vocal minority. Some invoked the lessons of history, recalling the city’s financial collapse during the Great Depression. Others were put off by discrepancies between the city’s presentation of how the bonds would affect taxpayers and calculations that showed the city would end up with the largest per capita debt of any city its size in North Carolina. Still others simply speculated that the city had something up its sleeve for which it desperately needed ready money – say, for instance, the increasingly expensive RADTIP project. Peterson was ejected from the May 2016 budget hearing when he called the bonds “a Ponzi scheme,” and Bach said the bond proceeds would create “a gigantic slush fund.”

Both plaintiffs now say the city’s subsequent actions prove their point.

Mr. Jackson’s Affidavit

On July 28, the Friday before the plaintiffs’ amendment hearing on Monday, City Manager Gary Jackson filed an affidavit setting forth the city’s position: that the budget ordinance as adopted on June 13 trumps anything previously said or written about how the new tax moneys can be spent, and “does not state that any amount is for GO bond debt service or any other bond related matter.

“The $0.035 that Plaintiffs reference … is allocated instead to the General Fund’s Capital Reserve Fund, which can be used for many different purposes …” the statement continues.
The affidavit directly contradicts the staff report that was sent to city council along with the final budget draft on June 13. That report, submitted by city Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn via Jackson, says:
“The 2017-18 Proposed Budget includes a property tax rate of $0.4339 … 0.035 (3.5-cents) is dedicated to debt for the 2016 GO Bond program.” (Emphasis added.)
And a budget overview that was also transmitted along with the budget draft sets out a line item that reads, “G.O. Bond 2016 Debt Service: 03.50 cents.”

But Jackson’s affidavit brushes aside those discrepancies in a tone that approaches defiance.
 “While my Memorandum and Budget Message documents have no legally binding force and could never override the Budget Ordinance, I have nonetheless amended these documents and any other relevant City communications, to make clear the plans for expenditures of these additional taxes during 2017-18,” it states.
According to letter dated May 17th from Mr. Jackson to Mr. Bach, he states exactly the opposite:
"The City's debt service fund will include the revenue stream expected from the effectuation of the GO bonds approved in last year's election."

The Devil’s in the Details … or Maybe in the Minutes

During the hearing City Attorney Robin Currin also invoked the budget ordinance saying its language ultimately governs the use of the tax money. Echoing Jackson, she said that although “the intention” is to use the funds for debt service, the budget ordinance contains no language promising such.

But Bach says that’s a specious argument. “Budget ordinances by nature don’t go into that kind of detail,” he told AU. “What counts, ultimately, is the minutes – the record of what was actually discussed, which was used to draft the ordinance.

“There is no question that the 3.5-cent additional tax imposed was to be dedicated to servicing the debt on the bonds. To say otherwise is an outright misrepresentation of fact.

“The word ‘dedicated’ is used here in a very strict legal sense,” Bach said. “It means exactly what it says. And it is used over and over in the documents that preceded that budget vote: the tax is to be dedicated to paying the interest on the bonds.

“This kind of ‘transparency’ city hall prides itself on is a joke,” Bach said, “and this bait-and-switch routine is a hoax.”

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Boondoggle 2.0

Transit Contract Causes 2nd Overrun in a Month; City Dips into Rainy-Day Fund

By Roger McCredie

Managing Editor

“Time flies when you’re having funds.” – Cecil Bothwell to Asheville Unreported, June 27, 2017

At its July 25 meeting, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to dip into the city’s “rainy day” fund to cover a $441,000 overage to the $850,000 transit allocation it had just approved, as part of the new city budget, on June 13.

The budget overrun is being caused by overlapping monthly payments that will occur as the city phases out its existing contract with Transportation Services of America, its present bus service provider, and phases in a new agreement with McDonald Transportation Associates.

The funding request is the second financial “oopsies moment” council has experienced within a month. The first was the revelation, at the June 27 meeting, that bids for work on the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project (RADTIP) had come in at $26 million over budget. That piece of news resulted in the scrapping (the city says “delay”) of most of the RADTIP game plan and is now being referred to as “the RADTIP crash.”

But whereas the RADTIP miscalculation, huge as it was, involved only future numbers on a spreadsheet and the cutting back of huge portions of the RADTIP plans, the additional transit funding is cold cash that must be plugged into a very real budget hole to pay for very real services.

And to do that, council has now voted to dip into the account officially designated as the general fund unassigned balance. That’s the city’s prudent reserve, a.k.a “the rainy-day fund.”

Law requires the city to keep and maintain a percentage of its annual budget as a hedge against emergencies. In Asheville’s case the state-mandated amount would be 8% of total budget, but the city’s own ordinance sets the bar higher, at 15%. That amounts to $18 million at present.

A memo to council from the Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball, dated the day of the meeting, notes that the $441,000 appropriation would bring the reserve figure down to 14.6%, “slightly below the policy target.”

Nevertheless, observers say, “slightly below” is still below and indicates that perhaps, the City has exhausted its other funding capabilities.

But what about the budget excess?

This year’s budget projected a $1,181,000 overage, meaning the City, after accounting for all of its expenses and capital improvement project cash needs this year, would have an EXCESS of approximately $1.1 million. This money could have been put INTO the rainy day fund but instead was immediately allocated in each budget worksession. In other words, the City could have saved these funds and added to their “savings” account but went ahead and spent it. What did they allocate it for? See below
Excess budget gone. Staff answers
Déjà Vu All Over Again
Once again, as on June 27, it fell to Assistant City Manager, Cathy Ball to bear the message and take the heat, even though her boss, City Manager Gary Jackson, who was absent last time around, was sitting in his accustomed seat on the council dais.

Standing at the same lectern where she delivered the news about the $26 million, Ball delivered a power point presentation that outlined the city’s decision to hire McDonald, highlighting the additional and better services the city would be getting through a turnkey plan as opposed to the current fee-based arrangement. She related the turnkey approach was approved by the city’s finance committee last September and mentioned the constraints the city had to work under to insure receipt of Federal Transportation Authority funds.

Ball then handed off to city transit projects coordinator Elias Mathes, who repeated that adhering to FTA regulations “wouldn’t allow any further amendments [to the contract] that would reduce costs.”

Next up was the city’s chief financial officer, Barbara Whitehorn, who said the $850,000 budget figure approved on June 13 was just “an estimate based on where we thought we might land. We knew that wouldn’t be exact … once the [transit] contract was decided we went back and looked at the whole budget.”

“So,” said Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, “It’s July 25. We approved the budget on June 13. Why the big miss? Did we not have any sense of what these numbers were going to come in at?”

(It was almost an instant replay of a June 27 exchange in which Wisler asked Ball, “Why didn’t the staff let the council and the public know about the size of the overrun?” and Ball replied, “That’s a fair question.”)

“We didn’t [know] really,” Whitehorn replied. “Probably Cathy can speak to that a little better than I can.”

So Ball returned to the podium.

It’s the FTA’s Fault.

“Until June 30th we did not know the answer to that [what the size of the overage would be],” Ball told Wisler. “We received best and final offers on June 12 and had to go to committee at that point.”

Wisler: “So knowing that we [already] had a budget in place the committee still was just okay with a $440K overrun?”

Ball: “We were not allowed by FTA to make that a consideration.” She returned to her seat.

But then, from normally quiet councilman Brian Haynes: “I would just like to know why we didn’t see this contract before today.”

Ball trudged back to the lectern.

“We typically would not bring a specific contract to council,” she said. “We generally just present you with a resolution asking the city manager to execute it.” Ball said this case was different because it happened that “We did have a contract [to satisfy FTA] already prepared, so you got to see that.

“So it’s not that we weren’t trying to be transparent,” she said.

Let’s Play Hide-the-Motion

To followers of council procedure, Haynes’ question begged another.

Up until the morning of the council meeting the motion to allocate the $441,000 to pay for the transit overage had been tucked away deep inside the meeting’s consent agenda, a list of routine business items, submitted by the city manager, that are usually dealt with en masse by a single approval vote.

But that item was missing from the agenda that was circulated just before the meeting. Instead, Mayor Esther Manheimer noted that the funding motion had been broken out separately and would be discussed in open session, complete with an opportunity for public discussion.

What prompted council to pluck that piece of business out of the city manager’s laundry list and present it by itself is not known. Asheville Unreported had discovered the previously buried motion and reported on it the day before the council meeting:


Not with a Bang; Not Even with a Whimper

Whatever the case, council member Julie Mayfield moved to approve the budget amendment and was promptly seconded by councilor Cecil Bothwell. The mayor then opened the floor to public discussion.

There was none.

Council then voted unanimously to approve the measure. “I hope this is going to get us to a better place,” said Mayfield.

The question was dealt with in just under 25 minutes.

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