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Legislature Passes Bill to Repeal Culture & Recreation Authority

H531 is a bill designed to remove extraterritorial jurisdiction powers from Weaverville and Asheville to allow Buncombe County to zone “donut holes” between the two municipalities. Moffitt added Section 4, which read, “S.L. 2013-262 is repealed.” That was the law that created the CRA.

The CRA was a confusing creature. In the beginning, it was billed as a means of consolidating city and county government to eliminate wasteful duplication of administrative effort. It would put municipal and county Parks and Recreation departments and the library system under one supervisory authority. Legislation to launch the authority was promulgated by Representative Nathan Ramsey and warmly received by all but a few who feared what it might mean for their government jobs.

That much made sense, but the legislation provided for it to be run by an unelected board that would have the authority to levy up to a 7-cent county tax. In its first year, the board chose to only impose a 3.5-cent tax. According to the most recent narrative, no new tax was imposed. Instead, tax bills just started showing itemizations. Shell games aside, the county raised the tax rate for FY2014 from 52.50 cents to 56.90 cents, and then slapped an additional 3.5-cent tax on top of the increases.

Then, last summer, Commissioner David King took the blame for lobbying Representative Tim Moffitt to prohibit municipalities from participating in the CRA for two years. King cited many reasons, but said the tipping point was learning that the city was going to use its savings from the creation of the CRA to give the Asheville Art Museum $2 million. The city expected to save $5 million a year from the consolidation. The city also had intentions to repurpose parks and recreation funding for subsidies and/or incentives for affordable housing.

Following that, there was a brouhaha alleging Moffitt had changed the legislation because Asheville leadership did not capitulate to legislation forcing them to give up the water system. They instead sued. Allegations flew that other municipalities were also punished, their participation in the CRA having been dependent upon their successful application of pressure to get the city to relinquish the water system.

Moffitt and others insisted at first that the two issues were not related, but then, at a meeting of the Asheville Board of Realtors, he told Asheville City Councilman Chris Pelly, perhaps in exasperated sarcasm, “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 this, because it’s going to cost people outside the city some of their hard-earned money.”

The CRA was first organized in an odd fashion. A board and officers were needed to process paperwork before deadlines, but the only way the commissioner could figure out how to do it was to appoint themselves to the board, and then resign once a board could properly be appointed. The real board was appointed on October 1, 2013, with County Chair David Gantt and Commissioners Ellen Frost and Joe Belcher allowed to remain.

During its short life, the most notable act of the board was its decision of how to disburse $1.17 million collected from the new tax. $409,076 would go to Pack Place, which is the umbrella organization for three other recipients; namely, the Asheville Art Museum, which received $500,000; the YMI Cultural Center, which received $21,000; and the Colburn Earth Science Museum, which received $16,657. The Diana Wortham Theatre, which also operates under Pack Place, received nothing. Other big-dollar recipients included Asheville GreenWorks, the Asheville-Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, and RiverLink.

Pack Place and the Art Museum have been in the headlines in recent months, after Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson demanded that Pack Place pay the city $419,800 within sixty days to make repairs deemed delinquent, and then pay a similar amount a year from now. The city owns the land that Pack Place leases for $10 a year and sublets to the other parties.

Then, John Miall ran a campaign for mayor almost entirely on the single issue of defunding the art museum. Insiders have alleged wrongdoing, largely pertaining to misrepresentations about the museum’s financial position.

The May 20 meeting of the CRA opened with a warning from Gantt that it could be the last. He added that County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene had been aware of Moffitt’s intentions to put an end to the board well before that. A missive from Moffitt provided his rationale. “The concern in the county is, ultimately, the city of Asheville would dominate the activities of the CRA, and it would cause the county parks and facilities to lose out in the decision-making process.”

Frost indicated Moffitt was being disingenuous and “driving a wedge” between city and county governing boards. She said Asheville never dominated the business of the CRA, and nobody to her knowledge was expressing the concerns Moffitt claimed were out there. Moffitt did not respond to a request for elaboration.

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