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Council blames uncertainty around Parks authority

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By Leslee Kulba –

Asheville City Council received public comment on its budget Tuesday. Some citizens in attendance, resembling a handful of candidates for the next city council, not only spoke, they spoke on subjects other than requests for budget expansions for their special projects. Unfortunately, members of council took the opportunity to follow up the suggestions for budget cuts with rebuttals, some of which were better than others.

John Miall, who is running for mayor, said the city was being tricky about its claims of revenue-neutrality. It was going to raise taxes only one cent, but it was going to increase disposal fees by $3.50 per month per household. The mayor and city staff “rebutted” Miall with a claim that 75 percent of the revenues would be used for cost recovery and 25 percent would go toward new initiatives. Miall also asked what the city was going to do with the money it puts into parks and recreation now, should the state legislature force a merger of the city’s and county’s P&R departments. House Bill 418 would allow the county to levy a tax of up to 7 percent to operate and manage the authority with consolidated administration, and the county says it will need all seven cents.

Saul Chase complained about the city not keeping up its sidewalks and streets. He lost the last race for city council on a platform of just that. Chase criticized the city for investing in two parking decks and the Asheville Art Museum instead. Bellamy inquired of staff, and they confirmed the city was only considering construction of only one garage. As for the museum, the mayor explained it was like the Grove Arcade, owned with city interest and therefore an obligation to the taxpayers for upkeep.

Not much was said about the water system, except that the temporary restraining order preventing the state from seizing it would likely be extended until August 6. Members of council instead spent a significant amount of time getting nowhere on how to deal with the legislature’s failure to make a decision one way or another about the regional recreational authority.

Marc Hunt and Cecil Bothwell batted around ideas about adopting two budgets or a single budget with a contingency clause. Then, Bothwell asked if the city could simply tell the legislature it was going to opt out of the authority just so it could comply with state guidelines for completing its budget. As currently written, opting out of the board’s initial creation could cause the city to lose seats at the table. Most in the room were of the opinion the bill was going to sit through this legislative session; but the city has been blindsided more than once with anti-Asheville legislation in recent years.

Members of council were of the opinion that the public did not understand the changes the bill would effect. Bellamy argued once again that the Nature Center and McCormick Field, to name a couple, are facilities enjoyed by people from all over Western North Carolina, and maintained by City of Asheville taxpayers. The regional authority would merge whatever “libraries, parks, greenways, recreation facilities, and cultural organizations” participating governments chose under one administration and one county tax levied by an unelected body. Holdings could also be conveyed to the authority, but it would be by voluntary act.

Should the legislature expedite the bill into law, the changes would not go into effect until 2014. The city will adopt its budget in two weeks, and the mayor invited the public to use the intervening time to offer suggestions to her and council.

In Other Matters –

It looked like a straightforward public hearing. A group of residents appealed to council to close an unopened right-of-way in West Asheville. Everything was fine, except the Greenway Commission conditioned its approval of the closure on the provision of a future greenway connection. Only one of the residents was in the room to represent the neighbors, and she did not come prepared to make the commitment for them. The city’s legal staff said council had the power to require rights of way only for public utilities. Councilmen Hunt and Gordon Smith therefore advocated for continuing the hearing with the hope the residents will agree to accommodating a potential greenway.

In another vote, council unanimously agreed to enter into a $100,000 contract with Code Studio for the development of a form-based code for the Haywood Road corridor. Planning Director Judy Daniel said she was very familiar and impressed with the firm, which is among the best in the country. The funding had been previously set aside.

The mayor and city council proclaimed June 16-22 Autism Pride Week. Members of the public were encouraged to increase their awareness and reach out and engage those afflicted in activities. So, when it was time to fill vacancies on boards and commissions, Alan Ditmore asked why the city didn’t practice what it preached and appoint persons with Asperger disorders.

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