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Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Monday, March 20, 2017
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The AU guide to who’s playing what part on City Council this election year
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts … “
-- Shakespeare, As You Like It
A governing body is like the cast of characters in a play. Well, actually it’s more like a repertory company where the same group of people takes on different roles as new scenarios are presented.
Nowhere is that more evident than right here in Asheville. Just when you think you’ve got the cast straight in your mind, along comes election year with a whole new script, and all the parts get shuffled, or new ones get invented.
So as a public service AU presents herewith a rundown of who’s playing what role on city council as we approach this year's elections:
Mayor Esther Manheimer (Head of State, now Nanny-in-Chief) is seeking her second term in November. By day Manheimer is a mild-mannered land use attorney for a great metropolitan law firm (Van Winkle, which acts as both a receiver and a supplier of city personnel), but by evening, at least on alternate Tuesdays, she presides over Asheville City Council.
In an oddly snippy editorial cartoon, Asheville’s frothingly liberal Mountain Xpress depicted Manheimer as a ship’s figurehead. But in recent months the mayor has showcased her leadership capabilities. Why, the week following the national election she issued a resounding anti-hate speech statement. And just last week, she slapped the wrist of City Councilman Cecil Bothwell when he disparaged, in colorful language, one of the city’s myriad civilian commissions. So there.
The mayor energetically stumped for Asheville’s $74 million bond package, but had to backpedal at one point when challenged about the amount of per capita debt Asheville citizens would carry if the bonds were passed. Her Honor said she was fed some stale information, which led some to wonder just how tightly run the Good Ship Asheville is.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell (Loose Cannon, now Elder Statesman).
Speaking of tight, City Council’s gadfly-in-residence, who is seeking a third term, weathered a DWI/no license tag rap in 2014. In fact, the grace with which he accepted his penalties was seen in some quarters as the most mature performance that Bothwell, at 66 the council’s senior member, has so far given in office.
Wikipedia says Bothwell is “an American politician, writer, artist, musician and builder.” He was elected to Council in 2009, having quashed objections based on the North Carolina Constitution’s prohibition from allowing atheists to hold elected office. Since then his dedication to his own progressive agenda, rather than to Council’s official party line, has endeared him to a hard core of ageing liberals and professed free thinkers who see his contrarianism as a breath of fresh air.
Fresh is right. He told former fellow council member Marc Hunt, “You make me want to puke … I am so totally embarrassed that I endorsed you.” And in the same vein, just last week he lambasted the chairman of the Haywood Street Task Force. A longtime proponent of turning the Haywood Street “Pit of Despair”into a park, Bothwell called the commission’s work “a pile of crap” and used other colorful terms that led to the Mayor’s disapproval (see above) and even a prim rebuke from the Asheville Citizen-Times.
On the other hand Bothwell recently delivered himself of a sonorous, (non-profane) indictment of his fellow councilors for handing too much authority off to commissions in general. Positioning himself as the only grownup in the room, Bothwell said, “when elected officials hand off the hard decisions to task forces and other unelected bodies, we need to be very, very aware and alert as to how those bodies are conducted.”
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler (Uber-committeewoman, now Mayoral Handmaiden):
Wisler, a retired corporate heavyweight (she was formerly the president of First Alert, Powermate and Eastpak companies and retired as CEO of Coleman, the iconic outdoor equipment maker) came to Asheville in 2006 and got herself elected to council in 2013. She was nominated by progressive kingpin Gordon Smith.
Last year Mountain Xpress, with polite candor, said: “As a financially secure retiree, Wisler is not only willing to put a lot of time into meetings, community functions and research — she is able. Her colleagues on Council, on the other hand, all balance their official responsibilities with earning a living.” Though she’s self-employed as a not-for-profit business consultant, Wisler’s days are her own and she spends them serving on five of the city’s six standing committees, two of which she chairs.
The mayor, it’s said, has come to rely increasingly on Wisler’s initiative and financial experience; she has in fact delegated to Wisler certain routine mayoral duties, sometimes with interesting results. When Wisler stood in for Manheimer at a Council of Independent Business Owners’ meeting last December, she told her audience the city had no definite plans for rejuvenating South Charlotte Street – although $15 million of the city’s $25 million housing bond was publicly earmarked for exactly that.
Ah, well, it’s a learning curve.
Councilman Gordon Smith: Been here and gone.
Smith’s announcement that he won’t be seeking a third term took some voters aback but left others saying it’s all part of a master plan Well, it’s one theory that helps answer the question most asked about the oh-so-clever Smith’s departure, namely: “What’s he up to?”
Smith has consistently leaned the furthest left on a left-leaning city council and has been regarded as its craftiest and most powerful member. True, he’s slipped up once or twice – as when it was discovered he’d voted to make his brother-in-law the project director of the trouble-plagued Eagle Market Street project. Even in that case, though, he was covered. He asked if he should recuse himself but acting city attorney Martha McGlohon told him oh no, that was fine. (It later came out that McGlohon herself had a vested interest in the matter; the estate of her late husband, Howard McGlohon, was listed as a partner in Eagle Market Development Corporation, but nothing ever came of that revelation.)
However, on the way out, Gordon is kicking Councilman Cecil Bothwell as hard as he can. It appears there has been a contentious relationship between the two of them for quite awhile. Gordon shared the profanity-laced email on a public Facebook group which led to Mayor Manheimer reprimanding him at last week's Council meeting. Looks like Gordon wants Cecil out of there, too.
Anyway, to keep the far-left end of the council bench balanced, some say the plan is shoo in a malleable but highly progressive replacement – the precocious Rich Lee is often mentioned – by appointment, without having to go through a tacky old election.
* * * * *
Those are the players involved in this year’s election. These others are still in their supporting roles, pending the next act of the play, in 2019:
Councilwoman Julie Mayfield (Green Energy Cheerleader): Mayfield is an attorney by training and an environmentalist by inclination. She came to Asheville from Atlanta where she practiced environmental law and served as Vice President and General Counsel for the environmental group The Georgia Conservancy. Before running for city council she served on the Multi-Modal Transportation Commission.
Mayfield’s day job is Co-director of Mountain True (formerly the WNC Alliance), a nonprofit environmental group that receives much of its funding from the hard-left Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Understandably, she has rapidly become the public face of city council’s selectively green agenda – what one wag referred to as “spend a million to save a megawatt.”
Councilman Brian Haynes (Who's that?)
Councilman Keith Young (Minorities Advocate/Time and Space Traveler): Young, a member of an old and prominent Black Asheville family, spent the least money but garnered the most votes of any candidate in the 2015 elections. His win was seen by many as a shot in the arm for under-represented minority citizens and also as a possible crack in the foundation of the city’s progressive establishment.
Apparently, however, Young inhabits a sort of twilight zone between a home on Martin Luther King Drive (where he told the Board of Elections he lives) and one in Arden (where he told the bank that holds his mortgage he lives.) If he lives in Asheville he’s been less than truthful with his bank. If he lives in Arden he can’t be on city council. Now the BOE is going to convene a hearing to determine which is the case. Calling Dr. Who.
* * * * *
There you have it: who’s who, at least for the moment.
Print this out, stick it on your refrigerator, and do try to keep up.
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Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Decrease the Property Tax Rate?
Yesterday Asheville City held one of three budget work sessions to prepare for the Fiscal Year 2017/18 operating and capital improvements budget. The big question was whether or not the City would be increasing the property tax rate due to the significant city-wide property revaluation increases of 25% or more that property owners recently received.
As you know, the City approved a $74 million bond last November which the City said would require a property tax increase to pay the debt and principal.
Barbara Whitehorn, the City's Financial Director ($157,000 in salary & benefits), said the City could actually lower the property tax rate to .395 (3.95 cents), meaning at that rate, the city would be "revenue-neutral." Revenue neutral means the City could receive the same amount of money without having to increase taxes and could cover it's annual budget.
The Bond needs 3.5 cents
However, in order to implement the $74 million bond and pay for its debt service, it would require a little over 3.5 cents to be added so then we're back at around 4.25 cent property tax rate. The City's current tax rate is 4.75 cents (or as most of are used to seeing it, .475) which means the City could still slightly lower the property tax rate... something that has not been done in years.
Don't go celebrating yet. There are new projects that various constituents and council members wish to implement which could both eat up the extra funds and/or require additional tax rate increases either leaving us at our current rate or increasing the tax rate.
- Transit Master Plan
- Energy Innovation Task Force recommendations
- Downtown Safety Plan
- Facilities Master Plan
- Downtown Sanitation Improvement Plan
Councilwoman Julie Mayfield made a lengthy presentation about the Energy Innovation Task Force and their recommendations to spend roughly 1.1 million of which $50,000 would go toward marketing and the rest toward weatherization for low income households. This met with support from Councilman Cecil Bothwell and Councilman Keith Young.
While all of this will go forward to round 2 of the budget work session meetings (next one March 28th and then April 11th) wherein they will discuss specifics of the operating and capital improvement budget respectively, it's not yet decided what the Council will do. Given their propensity to spend, we're betting these initiatives will go forward.
Oddly, Councilman Gordon Smith and Mayor Manheimer cautioned against increasing property tax rates and wanted close scrutiny of these new projects. Gordon Smith (who is not running again this year) was concerned about the potential loss of federal funds (2 million and more) and Mayor Manheimer (who is running for re-election) was concerned about public outcry because taxpayers will still see an increase in their tax bill even if the tax rate is lowered because the property revaluations came in so high. While Gordon Smith is now fiscally concerned, we should all be concerned and ask our Council to be cautious and lower the tax rate.
City gets into the development game: RADTIP
Asheville Unreported attended the first of three city budget work session meetings held yesterday, March 15th and also attended the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission ("AARRC") monthly meeting held last Thursday, March 9th.
If you're not aware, the AARRC is in charge of all riverfront development within the City (Swannanoa River as well as French Broad River) including the massive $50 million project known as RADTIP (River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project).
A recurring theme in both meetings was concern over rising construction costs. The RADTIP project, approved in early 2013, was originally supposed to cost $50 million, of which $14.6 would be funded by a Federal “TIGER VI” grant. The plan was that City and its taxpayers would then be responsible for $22 to $25 million and the remaining would costs would be covered by various grants.
Now the RADTIP project includes four greenways, a roundabout and road realignment on Riverside Drive, and actual lowering on Riverside Drive at the Norfolk Southern Bridge (aka Festus Bridge). It also called for substantial right of way takings from more than 30 private property owners, several of which are contesting these through lawsuits. Counting the rights of way needed for the Greenways, this is the largest right of way taking in the history of Asheville and one of the largest construction projects the City has undertaken in years.
The 14.6 million TIGER VI funds, awarded 3 years ago, are a flat amount and are not adjusted for rising costs or inflation. The City has yet to receive a final contract from the Feds, although City Manager Gary Jackson ($192,000 annual salary and benefits) said at yesterday's meeting, he was as "positive as he could be" that the contract would be received this May.
Meanwhile the City has hired almost every construction, engineering, architect and environmental group in town to do preparation work for these projects which have only just begun. The bids for the major portion of the construction projects are set to go out this month or next. The City is hoping that final bids will be awarded in May, with actual construction to start in June or July.
That's three years after the 2014 awarding of the Federal grant money and the original estimation of this project. Three years’ worth of inflation and rising construction costs.
Rising construction costs a concern by the City Finance Director and City Tiger VI Grant Manager
The City Finance Director, Barbara Whitehorn, ($152,000 annual salary and benefits) voiced this concern at yesterday's budget meeting during discussion of RADTIP and reported that her department is seeing annual increases of 10% and quarterly increases of 20% in construction costs. At that rate, by the time the project actually begins, actual costs will have doubled and inflation will have inflated the price tag by half again the original estimate.
In short, the City's original estimation of this project at $50 million is beginning to look like a bargain. It could eventually rise to more than $70 million and that's assuming no construction surprises or issues.
And, at last week's AARRC meeting, Dustin Clemens, the new TIGER VI Project Manager (recently hired by the city just to handle the Federal Tiger VI grant projects), warned that it was important to get these construction bids and do final awarding to lock in the prices precisely because of rising construction costs.
At the May 17, 2016 City Council meeting last year, Chris Peterson, one of the French Broad River property owners whose property was seized for RADTIP, warned the Council of these rising construction costs. In fact he specifically stated that construction costs rise at least 10% annually (Click here to watch the video and go specifically to 54:00 minutes). If you watch this video and listen to Ms. Whitehorn's budget discussion, they say almost the same thing, verbatim.
Why was Mr. Peterson so concerned? As he stated to City Council, because it will be the City taxpayers who will foot the bill for those increases. Given the City's history of development, it is likely that this RADTIP project could be the breaking point for the City's fiscal balance sheet.