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Working Harder to Pay for More of What You Don’t Want

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Setting the Stage:

Back in the Cold War era, godless communism was the enemy. Bumper stickers about town reading, “more love, less capitalism” indicate the fears, now come to fruition, have lost not only their sting but their message. A little injustice can always be absorbed and forgiven, but one way of illustrating why ideas are bad is to take them to their logical extremes.

On Love: Christianity is a religion of love and giving, but how does one show love and sacrifice when all one earns goes to the state, and one no longer owns anything to give? Does one second-guess government’s wisdom in giving away scientifically-determined rations? Or, will we feel like the Little Drummer Boy of legend, and when a neighbor is in need have nothing to give but a “pa rum pa pum pum”?

But that’s communism. We’re only socialists, and welfare statists, otherwise known as communists-lite. The question now is, where is the tug on the heart strings, the choice between self and others, when taxes are exacted by the force of law for good and evil purposes and there’s nothing left to give to the charities of one’s choice, let alone an unincorporated, non-tax-exempt individual in need?

Life is a chance to grow character. What is important is stretching oneself to love and serve, and helping others learn the same lessons; not playing the victim and basking in the embrace of sterile government services. A great incentive for healing is to see others caring enough to do without to give from the heart. Why get out of bed when all one’s creature comforts are provided by people too stupid to find loopholes in the tax code? Why direct one’s steps toward the glory of the Creator when that concept is the furthest thing from the PC conscience? (As a funny illustration of value-neutral political correctness caring not for the sensitivities of conservative groups, the staff report presented to council Tuesday mentioned promoting black arts a couple times. Rather than Machiavellian machinations or evil magic, the phrase merely referred to African-American statuary, painting, and song.)

On Capitalism: Capitalism is maligned because it is trade, exchanging value for value. Of course, there is nothing to stop somebody, like local philanthropist John McKibbon, from giving more than is due – but when authority (a.k.a. government) wields its power to disrupt free trade, prosperity suffers. The reason is simple. If people want an item enough to give up something else, its manufacturers are rewarded so they’re able to make more for others to enjoy. Suppose somebody invented a little machine that could do arithmetic and trigonometry, but government, for whatever reason, deemed slide rules more in-line with community values. If people resisted government’s education and still bought calculators, government would have to exercise its iron claw, perhaps by heavily subsidizing manufacturers of slide rules. Consequences could include anything like filling warehouses Soviet-style with unwanted slide rules, emptying the warehouses by lobbying for programs mandating slide rule education in schools and use in industry, or perhaps putting the calculator people out of business and holding technology back until the Chinese start exporting them on the cheap.

Two main themes at Tuesday’s meeting of city council were using the powers of city council to: (1) extract resources from the wealthy to give to those without a voice, and (2) increase the price of high-demand products to stimulate the use of less popular ones. Then again, as a candidate for city council, Julie Mayfield indicated an interest in working around existing law to achieve council prerogatives. This could just have been the way city council is going about imposing a virtual moratorium on hotels and other development.

What Went Down

Perhaps the first reference to redistribution came when Urban Planner Sasha Vrtunski, just the messenger, presented to council a report entitled “Supporting Equitable Development: Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities.” The report, funded by the EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities (a.k.a the Smart Growth Office), assembled comments from locals offered up in a two-day workshop, mingled with ideas from the visiting visioneers. One of four goals coming out of the meetings was, “to strengthen the existing neighborhood through promotion of local investment and community-building commitments by existing and new community institutions and businesses.” Translating that to English, Vrtunski said the city was limited by state statute in what it could do to alleviate poverty, but McKibbon’s recent gifts to the city in exchange for approval of his latest hotel would be an example of that goal in process. Another implementation might be, in the absence of legal authority to compel, working with contractors to make sure jobs go to locals.

Following the presentation, Councilman Gordon Smith said of council creating land trusts to provide affordable housing, “It’s not generally local governments who lead those efforts, but there may be a role in municipal government to help convene those efforts, and we’re going to be examining that next month at [the Housing and Community Development Committee meeting].” He also told about a proposal he would soon present to provide municipal startup loans for minority businesses.

Later in the meeting, council considered approving minor changes to a conditional zoning site plan. Construction on a hotel near the airport had stalled for a couple years due to “issues” with a franchise agreement with Holiday Inn. Following a new franchise agreement with Hyatt, the project was ready to move forward, provided some changes were made to satisfy the Hyatt brand. The changes amounted to adding 10,893 square feet and eight rooms, and moving some of the hardscaping around.

When the floor was open for public comment, regular Timothy Sadler asked, “Is it possible to ask for additional conditions at this point?” After some back and forth, he continued, “We have a brand new city council and different objectives, and I would just like to see some of the carbon emission goals that we have be taken a hard look at with this project, if there’s anything we can do to ask the applicant for building a better building that will reduce CO2 emissions. And also, one thing that hotels often don’t do is look to source their food that they bring into their establishment locally. So, another condition we might ask the applicant to consider is to prioritize procuring local food for the project.”

Smith then ran with that intro. Addressing presenter Shannon Tuch, he began, “I’m having a hard time remembering. Maybe you can refresh my memory. Generally, when we’re offering a height variance or some other gift to the developer over and above our zoning standards, do we generally seek the community benefit in response?” Having received an answer, he invited the applicant, Justin Church, to return to the stand.

“I appreciate you’re being here representing the developer tonight, and the questions that I have, my guess is that you’re not authorized to respond to,” continued Smith. “We recently approved a hotel renovation for downtown, and in so doing created what is now known as the McKibbon Standard, where the developer, working with the city, agreed as part of conditions for the hotel to provide living wages for his fulltime workers, to include local businesses in any sort of retail that’s involved in the facility, to contribute to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund in recognition that hotel wages are too often below median and don’t provide living wage for people, and to advocate for an equitable redistribution of the occupancy tax in the area. And so these are questions that I have tonight about this project as to the openness of the developer in coming together on these things.”

Church said he wasn’t authorized to act unilaterally in agreeing to any terms, but he reminded council of the project’s history, how it had come out of ETJ changes zoned unlike neighboring properties. “Understood,” said Smith. “I ought to have communicated with your group earlier, I think. I do have concerns about the height, and they can certainly be ameliorated by kind of coming together with the community on some of these other things. I’ll have to think about how I’m going to vote on this tonight.”

Councilman Cecil Bothwell said, “I agree it would be nice to exact other conditions from the developer,” but since the bulk of the project had already been approved, he made a motion to approve the changes. The measure passed 6-1, with Smith casting the dissenting vote.

In a meeting that lasted just over an hour, the time for open public comment was fast upon council. Dee Williams, who lost a bid for a council seat, followed a request for upfits for a park and public pool. In her allotted three minutes, she said, “Basically, one of the things that I want to encourage council to do during [their upcoming] retreat is to think about community benefits agreements in a very proactive way, and I commend you for even bringing those up. That is the way we got Mission Hospital to agree to Ban the Box. First of all, all businesses, and I do have a C-corporation as well, operate with the permission of the citizenry, and therefore when they are in a capacity to benefit the community, they should be called upon to do so. That is how we got Mission Hospital to agree to do what they did do. So, every time that a developer comes forward, it’s not unheard of during a rezoning or other process, as I’m sure you are aware, to say, ‘What you’re doing, how is it going to benefit our community, especially a community like Livingston Street, Census Tract 9, that is the only distressed Census Tract in Buncombe County?’”

Having shared her credentials and names of parties with which she is negotiating, she added, “When anybody builds in that area, as I tried to educate Mission Hospital, it is an absolute duty for those of us who are cognizant and community activists to – not ‘exact,’ I don’t want to use that word – but we need to have a pointed conversation. So, in saying that, that is how we’re going to approach Mission Hospital. . . . That’s a half-billion dollar building, so [the project director] has agreed to put us in conversation, and we are meeting with [the construction manager], and we’re meeting with the housing authority and other interested parties. So, we would say that there is room to bring this conversation in the way of community benefits, kind of after the fact. But the fact is that Mission is a good partner, and they’re good corporate citizens. Even with the pool, there are opportunities to get those folks help to fund that.”

After offering her services, she asked council “Please know . . . that there’s always more than one way to skin that cat, and that’s what we’re looking at. We want to do something positive rather than complain all the time. . . . We mean well. We may come across as ascorbic – whatever – but certainly we want to help.”

Then, Sadler returned to the microphone to advocate for the city’s Passport program. Currently, UNC-Asheville, the Grove Park Inn, and city and county government issue bus cards to employees, which they present when boarding. The employers cover costs in a discounted monthly bill. Following a conversation about how, at 85 percent, bus service is heavily subsidized in the city, Bothwell shared, “I have been pushing for, and will continue to push for, an increase in our parking deck fees because we are way too cheap for a tourist town, and that’s a big source of funding for our transit system.” After talking about a parking study currently underway, he said downtown parking fees “could be a big source of money to help expand the transit system.”

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