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‘Taxation without representation? Works for us.’

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City of Asheville excluded from new Culture/Rec Authority Board

By Roger McCredie-On October 29, the newly created Buncombe County Culture and Recreation Authority held its first meeting. The seven-member board, the county’s latest administrative creation, wields considerable power: it is tasked with overseeing all county parks, recreational facilities and libraries. The members who gathered around the table a week ago last Tuesday included three county commissioners and four appointed “citizen volunteers.”

Conspicuously absent from the Authority, which was created and financed by a 3.5 cent countywide property tax increase, were any representatives from the City of Asheville or, for that matter, any of the county’s other municipalities – Weaverville, Black Mountain, Montreat, Woodfin or Biltmore Forest.

Also, none of the board’s four citizen members resides in or represents Buncombe County District One, which includes the City of Asheville.

And the lone county commissioner who does reside in District One, Vice Chairman Holly Jones, was maneuvered out of her potential seat on the BRA board; during an intricate game of musical chairs at the October 1 commissioners’ meeting, she was superseded by District 3 member Joe Belcher.

Thus, none of Buncombe County’s towns will be sharing – at least in the near future – in cultural and recreational decisions that may have a direct effect on matters within their corporate limits. One road to municipal representation on the new board, that of making such representation a legal requirement, has been closed by the state legislature. The other route, allocation of seats by geographical district, has been closed by county commission.

When the idea of the new board was first floated, City of Asheville officials were enthusiastic because they calculated that consolidating city and county cultural and recreational programs under a single authority would mean a savings of up to $5 million annually, providing much needed cash flow relief. Two factors, however, prevented that from happening.

The first was Asheville’s initiation of a court fight to prevent its water system from being taken over by the county’s Metropolitan Sewerage District. (The city has sued the State of North Carolina and MSD, saying that the attempted seizure of the water operations by the legislature and the handing over of them to MSD is unconstitutional. The case has received an initial hearing in Superior Court and a ruling is expected in February or March of 2014.)

The pointed exclusion of municipalities from creation of the CRA Board – the torpedoing of the prospect of city-county consolidation and any resultant savings to the city – was immediately seen by many as retaliation for the water system lawsuit. In August, Rep. Tim Moffitt, who had spearheaded the water system takeover, essentially confirmed this in a now-famous exchange with Asheville city councilman Chris Pelly at a town hall meeting.

Pelly had asked Moffitt whether, if it chose to do so, the city could join the CRA.

“No,” Moffitt deadpanned. “We took that away from you …You filed your lawsuit, OK, so we’re not going to let you file the lawsuit on this side and sue the state and charge your taxpayers money but at the same time be the benefactor of [the CRA] because it’s going to cost people outside the city some of their hard-earned money. So until the lawsuit is settled, we took the [CRA] away from the city.”

In the hue and cry that followed, Moffitt insisted that he was joking, and furthermore that Pelly was aware he was doing so. Previously Moffitt had repeatedly insisted that the two matters, CRA and the lawsuit, were entirely unrelated politically.

The other avenue of municipal representation on the CRA, that of allocating some seats geographically, was the focus of some bitter infighting during the October 1 commission meeting.

In August, when commissioners actually created the new board, they filled its positions by the simple expedient of appointing themselves to serve, while considering who else might be encouraged to apply for seats. At the October 1 meeting, Vice Chairman Jones suggested that all county commissioners except chairman David Gantt, who was also serving as chair of the fledgling CRA, should resign from it in toto. Then, wearing their commissioner hats, they could vote to elect any commissioner who might be interested in serving on the CRA. (The board was to be kept at seven members and the idea of seating four members from the general public had already been approved, leaving room for three commissioners, including the chairman.)

Jones’ idea was accepted – more or less — then, from her standpoint, it backfired. All commissioners, including Jones, duly resigned … except for freshman member Ellen Frost, who simply said, “I want to stay on.” This left one commissioner-filled seat up for grabs.

At that point, according to the minutes, commissioner Brownie Newman, the other member from District One, nominated Jones. Commissioner David King promptly nominated fellow District 3 member Joe Belcher. In the ensuing round of voting, Belcher won out over Jones.

With the board configured and in place for now, King later indicated he had been pressing Moffitt for an amendment that would allow representatives from municipalities to be admitted after two years, rather than permanently excluding them. The primary reason he had not been in favor of making room for city of Asheville representatives on the board, King said, was that he had heard the city intended to use part of the savings it would realize from joining CRA to finance its $2 million commitment to the Asheville Art Museum. “That made me livid,” he was quoted as saying.

In the event, the city coped with losing its potential savings by raising property taxes seven per cent, which allowed its art museum funding to remain in place.

King told reporters commissioners had been “nervous” about establishing the CRA in the first place, and seemed to take comfort in the idea that it has the power to “pull the plug” on itself if it fails to meet the needs for all county citizens.

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