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Council Offers Good Intentions

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By Leslee Kulba –

The greatest draw on Asheville City Council’s agenda Tuesday was an update to the city’s Living Wage Policy. Members of council unanimously agreed to adjust the living wage up to $11.85/hr without health insurance and $10.35 with. Living wages had been $11.35 and $9.85 per hour. Council also removed the $200,000 contract cap that had limited the city’s control over living wages. Administrative Services Director Brenda Mills explained the city could only impose its living wage policy on general service contracts, because General Statutes impose other requirements for construction and procurement contracts.

Mills explained staff, assisted by Just Economics, arrived at its numbers using the Universal Living Wage Formula. It equates the 40th percentile fair market value rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Metropolitan Statistical Area of interest to 30 percent of wages. It further assumes the wages will be earned working forty hours a week, which will be difficult to achieve with a single job under Obamacare; and 52 weeks a year, which means no unpaid leave.

Councilman Gordon Smith heralded council’s progressive vision, and compared it to his peers’ passage of same-sex-partner benefits for city employees. In so doing, members of council courageously became a model for private businesses. He hoped the private sector would follow suit with the living wage program as well.

Various executive members of Just Economics applauded council for what they considered a landmark decision. Executive Director Vicki Meath said 325 local employers now participate in their program. As a result, employees have more money to grow the local economy. She did not explain by what power the redistribution generated a net increase. Mark Hebbard, who serves as Living Wage Certification Coordinator, hand-wavily dismissed allegations that living wages compound unemployment by making it unprofitable for businesses to offer low-wage jobs as secondary household incomes or opportunities for the ADA population to contribute.

Alan Ditmore, who neither lives, votes, nor pays property taxes in the city but avidly participates in public comment opportunities nonetheless, said the city was taking the wrong approach. The problem was not wages. It was the cost of housing. Ditmore said if people are given more money, they might blow it on gasoline and pollute the air, as if they couldn’t do the same with their savings from rent. Regardless, Ditmore gave council a badly-needed lesson in basic economics: He said scarcity is driving up the price of housing. He advocated relaxing codes and regulations so people could afford to live simply and affordably if they so choose.

Earlier in the meeting, council received a report from Lindsey Simerly, chair of the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. Among other things, Simerly said the committee was pushing for inclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning is another name for rent controls, the same tool by which the rich and famous live on the cheap amidst their rent-gouged neighbors in New York City. Advocates claim the poor will be served if 10 to 30 percent of housing can be kept below market levels. Old-school economists, however, tend to interpret the practice as an indirect tax on developers. As human activity tends to drift toward regions of lower taxation, developers are thereby discouraged from building in inclusionary zones.

Simerly said another priority of the committee was to advocate for LGBT community rights. The state allows landlords to evict tenants purely on the basis of their gender preference, orientation, identification, or whatever the going noun is. Simerly said the committee had proposed a local ordinance, which had been approved by the city’s Housing and Community Development Committee, and would be coming before council. Mayor Terry Bellamy said HUD has already defined those Simerly mentioned as protected classes for beneficiaries of all its programs, and federal law trumps state legislation. Bellamy then recommended organizations with which the advisory committee might like to partner.

In another attempt to address poverty in the region, council considered discounting what the city charges for its summer camps. Enrollment was reportedly down, but this year’s initial count was being compared to last year’s full count. The matter came before council because kids had been given discounts, but Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Arts Director Roderick Simmons said there was no official authorization in any ordinances or fee schedules.

Currently, summer camp, which is provided for the poorest of the poor, costs $105 per week for the first child. Council eventually decided to follow staff’s suggestion to offer discounts based on the public schools’ free and reduced lunch program records. That would control administrative costs for processing income tests. Scholarships may be offered next year, but this year, kids that qualify for free lunch will pay only $10 a week for summer camp; those qualifying for reduced lunch rates will pay $20. Councilman Marc Hunt suggested those numbers. Mayor Bellamy wanted staff to pull together income data for households whose children qualify for the discounts because she said council wouldn’t believe how incredibly poor the families are. Almost half of city school children qualify for one program or the other.

In Other Matters – Council bid farewell to Bob Oast, who has served as city attorney since 1996. Oast accepted an invitation to teach in the Planning Section of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University. The mayor thanked him for working long hours, defending the city with commitment, and going the extra mile to make things work.

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