Who should care for the freezing homeless?

Published on November 17, 2012 in Asheville, City - County Gov., Leslee Kulba

By Leslee Kulba –

The weather is getting cold, and the economy is rotten. John Spitzberg, a board member for the Asheville Homeless Network and an activist with Veterans for Peace took advantage of city council’s public comment opportunity to plead the cause of those he represents. The subject was Code Purple. Code Purple means a number of things, but in this context, it pertained to times when the outdoor temperature gets cold enough for water, that substance that makes up 60-70 percent of a typical human body, freezes.

The City of Asheville adopted Code Purple a few years ago. Any homeless person who carries around a laptop could learn from the city’s website that homeless shelters are supposed to open their doors to anybody and everybody when temperatures reach deadly levels. With a new wave of homelessness, Spitzberg feared a large number of people needing the service did not know about it. Public safety officers are supposed to encourage people they find in the elements to take advantage of the opportunity.

Unfortunately, shelters and leaders of local programs for the homeless either do not know about Code Purple or claim it applies only in more restrictive cases. Spitzberg recounted what he had heard from interviewing leadership. For example, Heather Dillashaw, who coordinates the city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, indicated that the degree to which shelters participate in the program, if at all, is totally up to each charity’s discretion. Brian Alexander, co-chair of the Homeless Coalition, appeared to believe participation was optional as well. Representatives from the Salvation Army told Spitzberg the code only went into effect after three consecutive days of subfreezing temperatures.

Spitzberg listed hazards associated with exposure to the elements, including higher risk of hypothermia and frostbite. Substance abusers, who make up a significant percentage of the homeless population, are more susceptible. In Spitzberg’s opinion, saving people from the imminent hazard of hypothermia is more important than any potential hazard fixed capacities at the shelter are supposed to allay. To drive home his point, Spitzberg invited members of council and the public to participate in any number of services to be held on Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, Wednesday, December 21, to remember those who have died in homelessness in Asheville this year.

City Manager Gary Jackson responded, telling Spitzberg his concerns were “well-placed,” and that city staff was already researching national standards and best practices. Contrary to popular perceptions, city government can’t just dictate its will on the people. Doing some calculating, Public Safety Committee chair Cecil Bothwell determined their next meeting would be held in two weeks, at which time Jackson agreed to have staff reports ready for vetting.

In Other Matters –

Members of council received a report on the city’s FY 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) and annual audit. Representing Dixon Hughes Goodman, LLP, Brian Broom reported the city completed its first audit with no deficiencies since the departure of its talented CFO, Ben Durant, in early 2010. The city not only earned an unqualified opinion, it completed its audit on-time. Turbulence had followed Durant’s departure, since he left the city at about the same time it transitioned to a new computer system and departments were undergoing restructuring to achieve greater efficiencies.

Revenues came in better than expected, and savings measures reduced expenditures below budgeted amounts. With tax collections overbudget by $818,000, and contract expenditures reduced by $771,000, the city netted $2,152,000. This lifted the city’s fund balance over its council-imposed minimum of 15.9 percent.

During this year’s budget work sessions, the mayor struggled with the fact that city employees had not received pay raises in the last three years. Other members of council, however, were uncertain about the economy and hesitant to make a promise to employees they couldn’t keep. In a compromise measure, council decided to wait to see the city’s financial position at the end of the fiscal year. If there was sufficient surplus, employees would receive a one-time bonus. As it turned out, each city employee will be receiving $650.

Citizen Judy Strong, an advocate for limited government, told council the taxpayers, who created the surplus, were also hurting for money. Most could not get a raise because they must produce and trade in a sluggish economy instead of just levying taxes. She asked council why they didn’t consider lowering taxes for everybody or saving the money for next year’s projects, to stave off any urge to raise taxes.

Bellamy responded with confusion over how Strong could assume government revenues were fungible. Cecil Bothwell pointed out that $650 over three years was not a very large wage increase. Furthermore, it was awarded as a bonus that will not be recurring year-to-year. Chris Pelly added that the bonus was equal across-the-board, representing a move in the “right direction.” Council approved the bonuses 6-0.

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