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Local government in review

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By Leslee Kulba –

2012 was the eighth year into the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. Heather Dillashaw, who leads the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative, reported, contrary to appearances, that homelessness was down in the city. Whereas point-in-time counts had found as many as 187 homeless in the past, only 75 were found the last time. Since the program’s inception, 461 homeless have been housed, with an average of 119 each year transitioning to traditional housing or falling through the cracks.

In the third year of the Great Recovery, which officially began in June or July of 2009, locals continued to lose their jobs and suffer pay cuts, causing Mayor Terry Bellamy to repeat the words of devastated persons who had been forced to do things they never thought they would; i.e., accept government assistance. Mere subsistence, meaning food and shelter, moved out of reach for many. In the Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area, where many college grads accept service-industry jobs paying only $10,000 a year, the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment was $717 per month.

A record one in five American adults began accepting food stamps in June, and feeding children was no longer viewed as a parental responsibility. 50 percent of Asheville City Schools students and 55 percent of Buncombe County Schools students were in the Free and Reduced lunch program. Both school systems, like many in Western North Carolina, began accepting federal assistance to provide universal free breakfast. Local charities accepted donations to provide healthy snacks in daycare and after-school programs, send backpacks of nutriments home with kids for the weekend, and provide free lunches over summer break. Meanwhile, the obesity crisis raged, fueling concerns that the city and county ought to spend more tax dollars on multimodal transit and greenways.

Government also had a lot of money for beer. Governor Beverly Perdue made two unprecedented trips to Beer City, USA to pose for the cameras, glass in hand, to announce seven-digit contributions that had successfully wooed craft brewers Sierra Nevada and New Belgium to set up facilities in the area. Federal, county, and municipal incentives were added on top. It was done in the name of creating jobs.

The city and county also picked winners and losers in supporting Linamar with corporate welfare. After receiving $2.7 million from the state, $2.2 million from the City of Asheville, and $6.8 million from the county, and even having the county purchase the old Volvo plant to hold until the Canadian-based company was ready to move in – Linamar returned with a request for more seven-digit tax assistance for a second expansion. While little guys were losing the struggle to pay taxes and stay in business, this was praised as a most-excellent business model.

In the name of advocating for those marginalized by sweetheart deals swung between big business and government, but more oftenappearing as a fun excuse for neo-hippies to hang out, the 99 Percent were herded by city government from place to place. As the local occupy movement kept finding loopholes for legitimate campsites, the city kept making rules to clarify the intention that public and private space was never intended for unsolicited camping, composting, and accumulation of human excrement. The Occupy movement received its final eviction notice from the city on Valentine’s Day.

During its short life, the local Occupy movement was but one of many voices crying outrage over the Downtown Master Plan’s pursuit committee’s intention to establish a Business Improvement District. Allegedly in exchange for free cigarettes offered by activist Michael Muller, homeless people showed up to a public meeting with torn linen sashes with the word “Ambassador” written on them to mock the BID’s disdain for local hardships in the name of recruiting big tourist dollars.

Also at the meeting were big-time investors, small business owners, downtown residents, and even anarchists. The diverse group had coalesced to oppose a new layer of unelected government with an as-yet unspecified supplementary tax. What the public had been led to believe was a chance for Q&A turned out to be a my-way-or-the-highway bulldozing. Activists rebelled by answering questions like, “Do you want the BID this way or that?” with “No.”

Anti-BID interests also dominated a fifth-Tuesday community meeting held by city council. They organized their own protest group which former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson claimed never received a promised seat a the table. The progressive organization PARC conducted an informal survey in which 57 percent of 1500 respondents opposed the BID and only 19 percent supported it. Despite the kicking and screaming, including a loud protest that could be heard inside the council chambers and a crashing of city computers with anti-emails the night of the vote, council approved the BID. Whereas its board of directors has been appointed, its mission, other than to make Asheville a beautiful tourist mecca, and its cost, which is expected to require a 5-7 percent tax increase for property holders downtown for starters, remain nebulous.

42 percent of land downtown is tax-exempt, and the city enhanced its reputation for being bent on demanding paying parties to make bricks without straw. Paul Szurek, representing Biltmore Farms, accused council of playing Yertle the Turtle in denying businesses the ability to hang signs on their buildings. In Asheville, anything promoting commerce is the enemy of activists with time to show up at public meetings.

Lastly, a summary of the year would not be complete without a mention of Representative Tim Moffitt’s legislation to strip Asheville of its top-dog slot in regional enterprises. HB 552 successfully removed Asheville from the airport business, and HB 925 and followup legislation seem certain to force a merger of the water system with the Metropolitan Sewerage District. Whereas in a free market, the assets would go to the highest bidder, who would be outcompeted if services were inadequate – subjecting ownership of the water system to legislation requires the concoction of moral causes to excite public opinion. More next year . . .

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