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Council Disses Redistribution, Wants Economic Improvement for All


By Leslee Kulba- Asheville City Council took its community meeting road show to the Charles T. Koontz Intermediate School for a fifth-Tuesday meeting. Rather than hosting a traditional gripe-session, council tried a little structure this time.

But there was a communication breakdown somewhere. Asheville City Council had been scheduled to adopt its strategic operating plan last week, but the item was removed from the agenda. Then, it was announced that council would “unveil” the plan at a public meeting in south Asheville. That didn’t happen, either.

Instead, about fourteen members of the public turned out for a meeting with twice as many members of city staff and a few reporters. Mayor Esther Manheimer announced that participants would break into three groups to discuss “Focus Areas” of the plan. Since members of the public were so sparse, department heads were invited to don their citizen hats and contribute ideas for the brainstorms.

Ideas would be incorporated into the SOP and published on the city’s web site by May 9. The plan should be finalized and adopted May 13. This is a good 3 or 4 months later than council used to have its goals together.

The Focus Area huddle with the most interest was visited by six members of the public. Focus Area 2: Affordability and Economic Mobility sported two bullet points: (1) Affordable Housing and (2) Upward Mobility. To council’s extreme credit, the second bullet point represents a paradigm shift for the better. Manheimer explained council wanted everybody to do better. Rather than soaking the rich in a grand redistributive scheme, council wanted the rich to get richer and the poor to get richer. They even want the middle class to get richer. The devil, of course, is in the details; but finally council seems to at least have its focus right-on.

David Nash, COO of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, shared some of the challenges faced. He said as long as public housing in Asheville is dependent on the federal government, it is not, by definition, sustainable. Leadership at HACA is looking into integrating energy-efficiency into public housing to make it more affordable in the long-term.

The greatest problem HACA faces, however, is beyond the limits of power on city council. Nash explained perverse incentives keeping people in a poverty well. When somebody gets a job, their rent goes up. But when they get a job, they have to have transportation, child care, and possibly uniforms. (If we were still at Moogfest, we would say we need to configure a wet/dry knob so the standard of living is not diminished as earned income fades in and welfare fades out.)

One attendee shared the common perception that Asheville was not a land of opportunity. “The greatest goal of graduates is to get out of Asheville,” he said.

Counciman Cecil Bothwell advocated moving away from autocentric communities. He said New York and Detroit have a large number of persons who do not own cars, and fewer and fewer teenagers are getting driver’s licenses. A social worker had opened the conversation complaining about the inadequacy of Asheville’s public transportation for the needs of its low-income residents. Not only is service too infrequent, the bus stops are pretty shoddy in many key areas.

City Manager Gary Jackson led the discussion over at Focus Area 1: Economic Growth and Sustainability. Bullet points for this area were: (1) Sustainable Revenue Sources, (2) Community Infrastructure, and (3) Better Public/Private Partnerships. Thomas Rightmyer dominated the discussions, complaining that conditional use permits were so commonplace as to obliterate any sense of zoning that might exist. Although technology is in the works to make information more accessible, proliferation of CU properties leave developers clueless about what is, and what might be on properties.

Rightmyer also suggested revisiting the UDO. Vice Mayor Marc Hunt and Councilman Jan Davis assured him efforts were underway. But Davis explained that any UDO would be a work in progress, as people are prone to adapt. He cited the example of people now constructing buildings flatter than would otherwise make sense, so they can duck under the radar of review boards.

Comments were sparse, so this reporter shared the opinion that the city should invest in economic development projects with a public purpose and let the market pick its own winners and losers in the business sector. If the city were to continue granting corporate welfare, it should at least include opportunity costs in its presentations of economic development analyses.

Hunt said he was sympathetic, but everybody was doing it. Davis said the city is reviewing and refining its policies for rewards, being more conscientious about expenditures of taxpayer dollars. Jackson spoke as if the stakes had been too high for the city to reject GE’s request for tax breaks, which the large multinational is sure to pay back multifold.

Focus Area 1: Economic Growth and Sustainability sported three bullet points: (1) Sustainable Revenue Sources, (2) Community Infrastructure, and (3) Better Public/Private Partnerships.

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