Asheville City Council approved spending up to $310,000 for “architectural and engineering construction documents” for the Beaucatcher Greenway. Granted, greenway construction will create jobs, but conventional wisdom indicates government should be tightening its belt until the recession is further in the past. The urgency was due to a grant the city accepted from the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to purchase lands for the greenway. The funds were received in 2009 with the condition that the greenway be completed in five years. The funds are a drawdown from the $1.3 million set aside for the project last fiscal year.
Greenways are supposed to combat the obesity crisis and type 2 diabetes by availing exercise space. They are good for the environment because they provide safe routes for cycists and pedestrians to commute or run errands. The Beaucatcher Greenway, in particular, will connect two parks that have yet to be completed. Aesthetically, the greenway fulfills master plan visions dating back to 1922 of a place for people to look back at the city and reflect. Tourists will have a chance to view both urbanized and natural areas against a scenic, mountainous backdrop.
Marc Hunt recalled a visit council had from a property owner claiming the greenway would go right through their property without their permission. City Attorney Bob Oast said staff had looked into the allegations and determined the property in question had been dedicated to the city. Oast added the property owners harbored a different perspective. Oast then requested a confab with Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer. When it concluded, Manheimer announced lawyers at the Van Winkle law firm, for which she works, were representing the property owners, but her participation in a vote to approve funding the greenway constituted no conflict of interest. Council then approved the measure unanimously.
In Other Matters –
In these days of growing disdain for government dependency, council, by way of the consent agenda, lent its support to a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program with nominal funding, space, and qualified volunteers. Not only would the program help low-income families take advantage of tax loopholes, tax preparers would be trained to suggestively sell government services. The third prong of the program is to “work to strengthen community support programs including housing and other social programs in support of building a strong and sustainable community . . .” By lending its support, council indirectly agreed to advocate for the VITA Act, which will funnel more federal revenues into the program to be used for such purposes as “the creation of a National Center to Promote Quality, Excellence and Evaluation in VITA.”
In not so many words, the City of Asheville retained a lobbyist. They accepted a proposal from former lieutenant governor Dennis Wicker (D) for monitoring and relaying news about pending legislation pertaining to the water-sewer system merger and drafting alternative language for anticipated adversarial bills. The city will enter into a $60,000 contract for the services.
Council received its first-quarter financial report for FY 2012-2013. Property taxes have been slow to reflect three years of economic recovery. Exact numbers will be available after the county publishes its data in January. Sales tax revenues are up 2.9 percent, but staff had anticipated a 5-percent growth rate, so a $200,000 shortfall is anticipated. Utility tax revenues and development fees are also running behind budget, but electronic gaming licensures have generated $491,000, 2.4 times more than expected.
Salaries and wages are running as well as may be expected. Healthcare costs are being contained due to changes in the city’s Blue Cross Blue Shield plan and the city’s self-insurance policies. The cost of biodiesel and E10 fuel is running higher than last year. Fuel and fleet maintenance costs have already consumed 28 percent of their budget, and winter has yet to arrive. No savings are anticipated for electricity and natural gas usage, but the city has saved $10,000 to $15,000 by operating LED streetlights. According to the staff report, “The savings from this program are being used to pay the debt service on the LED retrofits and to fund other sustainability initiatives.” Citywide recycling has spared the municipality $20,000 in landfill tipping fees for the last quarter.
Amendments to the $89,922,437 budget benefitted Linamar ($200,000), provided more police for public housing ($217,000), provided rent assistance at the Grove Arcade for the UNC-based geographic modeling group RENCI ($36,096), supported the NC Arts Council ($50,431), and removed lead from the firing range at AB Tech ($63,000).
The city’s fund balance at the beginning of the fiscal year was 15.9 percent of the budget. Council used everything in excess of the 15 percent recommended in the city’s Financial Management Policy to make good on its wishes to award employees a one-time bonus. Had council promised to award a set percentage of the surplus, the city may have realized greater efficiencies.