By Leslee Kulba
Asheville City Council received a number of reports on hot, and not-so-hot, topics Tuesday. The city’s new police chief, William Anderson, spoke only briefly about progress with re-opening the evidence room. The city is still holding closed-session meetings over a lawsuit several local media outlets launched to gain access to reports of an audit ordered following the discovery of a wealth of missing evidence.
A new Property and Evidence Manager will be installed shortly, and several members of council expressed interest in touring the new evidence room. The chief also said he is pursuing permission to get rid of large amounts of old narcotics that are taking up a lot of space.
Another hot topic was the final report concerning the fire at 445 Biltmore Avenue, which claimed the life of AFD’s Captain Jeff Bowen. Fire Chief Scott Burnette explained factors contributing to the misfortune included the unreasonably hot weather and indoor air-conditioning, which contributed to temperature inversions; the absence of an automatic sprinkler system; and a flat organizational structure, which overburdened a single point of control. Burnette said the department will be restructured to create intermediate point persons.
The most discussion concerned the failure of the standpipe. The building owners and the city had exceeded inspection requirements, but somebody, sometime, managed to partially close a valve, reducing the amount of water flow available from the FDC to fight the fire. As Burnette struggled to answer a question from Councilman Chris Pelly about the cause; Cecil Bothwell piped up. He said he could be more blunt than the chief. The cause of fire was arson, and it isn’t too much a stretch of the imagination to assume that whoever wanted the building to burn would have been the guilty party.
The city’s economic report was good, as it has been for the last several years. By contrast, the crime report showed intentional damage to persons and property was on the rise. Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson said he was proud of the report because the increases were not as marked as they are in other parts of the state. In fourth-quarter comparisons with last year, the city saw robberies and aggravated assaults climb a few percentage points, while the number of rapes went from 6 to 11; and homicides, from 0 to 4. Larcenies increased from 614 to 983. Trends were not that different for the entire fiscal years.
To fight crime, council voted unanimously to partner with the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville to set up a dedicated public housing patrol. Currently, the housing authority contracts with a private security company, hires off-duty officers from the Asheville Police Department and Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, and still relies on on-duty police officers.
The new detail would consist of five new officers funded with a US Department of Justice COPS grant procured a year ago. The grant, like many the city has accepted, is structured so the federal government picks up the salaries and benefits of officers at first, but slowly transfers the cost to the hiring jurisdiction. For the first three years, the city will only cover the cost of uniforms and equipment, which is expected to run around $27,600. In addition to the five officers, the housing authority would give the city $217,000 to hire another four officers. Leadership would be pulled from talent already on the police force.
A few members of the public expressed dissatisfaction that the city was nurturing uncivil behavior. If people could not honor and obey the law and respect their neighbors, why was government rewarding them with free housing and other perks? Deputy Director David Nash explained that when tenants are convicted of crimes, the housing authority issues them a three-day notice to quit the premises. Councilmen Gordon Smith and Cecil Bothwell contributed that those profiting off the drug trade exploit the dejection and underground economies in concentrations of poverty; and wealthy people get their fixes through the free trade in the public housing markets.
Among other accomplishments, the city boasted giving economic development incentives to New Belgium Brewery ($2.1 million) and Linamar ($1 million), and its intention to add Plasticard Loctech to the list of recipients. Meanwhile, the city received a Tiger II Planning Grant and HUD funds for affordable housing projects, including work with the Reid Center. The city now owns one of only two electric police vehicles in operation in the country. It is charged at the new station in the parking lot of the city’s DPW building on South Charlotte Street.
The unsung hero Tuesday was the city’s IT Department. The staff report applauded the department’s efficiency, noting “In fiscal year 2012, spending per employee averaged $3,850 in North Carolina, compared to Asheville’s $2,136. Savings and cost avoidance [exceeded] $200,000 in fiscal year 2012.” The city saved an additional amount when staff members wrote the interface for the new BTIP system.