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?

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