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City hurries to lay groundwork for fall bond referendum


Councilman Cecil Bothwell, clad for the season in shorts, sandals and a Mountain Xpress t-shirt, listens to City Finance Director Barbara Whitehorn explain the tax increase that would result from a possible $75 million bond referendum. (Tribune photo)

Greenway development called “critical,” affordable housing “a tough sell”

Council members and city administrators gathered in a City Hall conference room to pore over a lengthy wish list of items that could be funded by such a bond issue, from sidewalk repair to affordable housing loans to park renovations to transportation upgrades.

The preliminary price tag for all the projects under consideration is $75 million, broken down as follows: $30 million for infrastructure improvements; $15 million for affordable housing (including possible creation of a pool of low interest builder loans) and a public land trust; $17 million for parks and recreation; and $13 million for “public safety,” a title which actually refers to renovation and improvements to several city structures and parking facilities.

Financing a $75 million bond would result in an increase of 4.1 cents in the city’s present tax rate, which is 47.5 cents for every $100,000 of property valuation. According to the city’s finance department, each penny of tax increase would raise taxes on a $275,000 property – which the city considers the average price of an Asheville house – by $27.50 per year. Times 4.1, that figure would mean an annual tax increase for a $275,000 home of $112.75.

“That’s at 4.1 cents,” Asheville Finance Director Barbara Whitehorn said. “If we were to do a [property] revaluation that rate could be considerably less.”

Whitehorn’s comment seemed to echo the logic of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, which earlier this month voted to begin revaluing county property parcels in January, 2017. Critics have called that move a tax increase in disguise, saying the reassessment, which is expected to increase most property values, has the effect of increasing tax bills without raising the rate itself.

During the ensuing discussion of “candidate projects,” Whitehorn defended allocations for the city’s network of greenways and greenway extensions, saying “Asheville’s philosophy is that greenways are a part of the city’s infrastructure. They actually make up part of the multimodal transportation system.

“We see them as critical to our infrastructure,” Whitehorn repeated.

The ongoing construction of the necklace of greenways, which include paved bike and pedestrian trails, has been criticized in some quarters for taking up city monies that could and should be used for what many consider more pressing matters, such as repairing streets, sidewalks and storm drains, as well as creating viable affordable housing projects.

But Mayor Esther Manheimer said she thinks using money for affordable housing would be “a tough sell” to city voters, who, she said, “think there are other affordable housing providers already doing that job,”

“I don’t see any mention of [public] transit on here,” Councilor Julie Mayfield observed, “and I don’t see anything about stormwater.”

City Manager Gary Jackson replied that “It might be possible to do a stormwater program” that could be included in later discussions of the bond proposal. He did not elaborate. The issue of the city’s public transit system did not resurface, except that Whitehorn indicated her department could have some suggestions ready for the next work session.

Mayfield said a bond issue of the size that is being contemplated “Would be an answer to all the phone calls and e-mails we get from people saying, ‘I need such-and-such.’

“This is aggressive spending, which I love,” Mayfield said, “but is that okay?”

And Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said the bond’s $75 million price tag seemed “a little high” to her. “I was thinking a little lower than that,” she said.

Jackson, for his part, said he doubts the city could accomplish all the proposed projects within the 5- to 7-year time frame that, under state law, is the window for completing them. He termed the list of submitted projects “a rough cut,” but said an infusion of bond money would be “a shot in the arm” for the city.

“I would not recommend anything bigger than this,” Jackson said.

Although the meeting was open to the public, there was no public comment period, as in regular city council meetings. Former vice mayor Chris Peterson, who was escorted out of a recent city council meeting when he called city council “corrupt” during public input, was in attendance. However, he contented himself with displaying the message, “It’s a Ponzi scheme,” which he had written in large block capitals, on his copy of the meeting agenda.

The next bond referendum work session has been set for Tuesday, Jume 28, at 10 a.m. The meeting will be held in the fourth-floor training room of the Municipal Building.

If, as seems likely, the council and administrators hammer out a finished bond proposal for public consideration in November, it will be presented and discussed at regular council meetings on July 5, July 26 and August 9.

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