By Leslee Kulba- An accounting of what was done with Asheville’s Strategic Operating Plan during the first three quarters of the fiscal year was posted with council’s agenda, but it was not discussed at the meeting. The likely reason is the presentation has traditionally been the responsibility of the assistant city manager, and the new hire, Paul Fetherston, had only been on the job six very busy days.
The update begins with an emphasis on economic development incentives. Investments with returns worth bragging about included Fiesta Latina and Blue Ridge Pride. Another thing really getting the economy started was the film industry. The plan boasts three commercial filming permits issued by the Office of Economic Development: an episode of Chuck’s Eat the Street aired on the Cooking Channel, an episode of Grilled filmed in Pack Square, and a photo shoot for Haynes. Partnering with the Moog Institute is another way the city expects to “leverage [its] investments in the areas of job creation, job growth, and business development.”
Typically, economies flourish when creativity and industriousness are set free. Numerous studies, as well as reason, have indicated governments help economies most by getting out of the way. But the fad these days is to grow economies by getting important people to sit around a table and plan where this and that entrepreneur should do what with which restraints. The city held one such meeting new management at the Omni Grove Park Inn to vision plans for making Asheville more of a tourist destination.
That’s fine, except most citizens want something more than a tourist-industry job. Asheville continues to have a reputation for being a place one can either live or work, so the plan advocates continuing support for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund “until the housing crisis is resolved.” For that reason, city leadership has integrated transportation with housing in its definitions of affordability. The city will soon provide Sunday bus service as a strategy to help the poor work Sunday jobs. When gas prices skyrocketed, the city encouraged employees to work four-ten-hour shifts instead of five-eights, and the city saved a lot of money. Somebody had the idea long ago that benefits could accrue if everybody just took the same day off every week, but His wisdom is neither cool nor PC.
To further help the poor, the city wants to “identify underperforming [strategic investment] zones.” They also gave the county 2.8 acres to give to GE Aviation – to create jobs, of course. The city is also considering establishing municipal service districts. Property owners in these mini-downtown business districts would be subject to a special tax – for enhanced services, of course. Evidencing redistribution at its finest, the plan actually suggests using revenues from the MSD’s to finance affordable housing projects. According to the plan, “These proposed districts all are locationally efficient, and affordable housing is criteria being considered for future City financing participation.” Don’t ask.
Then, there are those who don’t even have a house. Between the lines, there appears to be a problem with vagrant populations. Not only is aggressive panhandling bad for tourism, the city is concerned about the safety of people camping outdoors. Four homeless camps were “investigated” during the last fiscal quarter. There also appear to be sanitation issues. The report states, “The Downtown Cleanliness and Solid Waste crews assist with homeless camp cleanups.”
The city also has a Food Action Plan. Sure, everybody is obese, but leadership feels good about feeding the children. To date, Asheville’s feeding program has not expanded beyond relaxing zoning and permitting requirements for third-world style markets. The initiative has also gotten the city to add fruit and nut trees to its list of species recommended in landscaping requirements. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment, though, is, “The US Cellular Center added locally-made and sourced hard apple cider from Urban Orchard Cider Company. USCC also added organic lemonade products provided by The Hop Ice Cream Shoppe.”
It is not unusual to associate crime with low-income neighborhoods. Asheville Police Chief William Anderson provided a report much more balanced than the cherry-picked statistics typically presented. Unlike some New Jersey jurisdictions, Asheville has low enough crime rates that each incident counts. Even so, the city is getting tough on repeat offenders, letting them know they are under close observation. It is also trying to help at-risk people get jobs. Competing with drug dealers, the APD hauled children from public housing to the SoCon games.
Overreaching, “Code Enforcement staff [those guys who check to see if your light bulbs are far enough away from your shelving] regularly interface with APD on an as-needed basis to identify and eliminate illegal activity that may be indirectly related to more serious criminal activity.” To cover the once taboo notion of neighbors spying on neighbors, the city has set up nextdoor.com “to enhance neighborhood abilities to communicate suspicious activities.”
On the bright side, the city is working to restructure and right-size, and it has charged its employees with finding ways to make it happen. During the last fiscal quarter, the city’s IT Department “performed extensive quality control on the city’s sanitation database eliminating approximately 2500 mismatched addresses, [a discovery that] will allow for more accurate billing and improved revenue collection.”
Then, over in the Public Works Department, “The Sanitation Division successfully cross-referenced databases and discovered numerous civic addresses were not paying a solid waste fee.” It is expected the city will collect almost $70,000 a year from the corrections. The water department, continues to look for sources of nonrevenue water. It is well-established that the city has leaky pipes due to changes in altitude, changes in temperature, and aging. While repairing the pipes, the city is also trying to identify those responsible for stealing city water.
In general, the city is making an effort to “eliminate programs with low returns (financial or social) or limited usage;” and it is rewarding employees who find ways to make government more efficient. While some divisions save the city from global warming, others strive to protect the innocents.