By John North- The balance of power is way out of synch between the state of North Carolina and its local municipalities, three of the four panel participants agreed in a debate early last Saturday evening at Asheville High School, but the panelists disagreed on how the unbalance happened and how to correct the problem.
The lone dissenter was Dr. Carl Mumpower (one of two conservatives on the panel), who said with a stoic smile, “I know it’s a 3-1 deal — and I’m used to it.”
As the other three panelists complained about “overreach” from Raleigh, such as the seizure of the city’s water system,” Mumpower agreed there are some problems in that regard, “but this (debate) is not about water.” He said the power of a state over its local municipalities is spelled out in the Constitution — and that abiding by that document is imperative to preserve freedom and order.
Mumpower also said, “It’s real easy to go after the people who aren’t here — the state. The city does that routinely” and that may explain why it has such a poor relationship with the state and some of the problems over local control that have resulted.
The other proposition debated — the City of Asheville’s bond looming referendum that would allow the city to borrow up to $74 million for various improvements — drew predictably enthusiastic support from the two liberal panelists and dead-set opposition from the two conservative panelists.
The event was part of the community debate series hosted by the Asheville High-SILSA Speech and Debate Team. Members of the team acted as moderators and timekeepers and handled every other aspect of the debate — and they emphasized that they wanted the debate to remain civil.
About 100 people attended, including state Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Asheville, who serves as the Democratic whip in the state General Assembly. The debate lasted about two hours, not including several 10-minute breaks.
Esther Manheimer, Mayor of Asheville
The participants for the liberal side included Esther Manheimer, Asheville’s mayor; and Marc Hunt, a former Asheville vice mayor and councilman. Both are Democrats.
Representing the conservative side were Mumpower, a former Asheville vice mayor and city councilman, and Chad Nesbitt, a former chairman of the Buncombe County Republican Party. Both are Republicans.
The two propositions debated were as follows:
• “State government should not attempt to govern local municipalities.”
• “The City of Asheville should pass the bond referendum.”
As for the issue of state power versus local municipalities’ power, it was noted at the beginning of the debate that North Carolina is among the states which are termed “general law municipalities,” because they have the power to tell municipalities what to do, while some other states are “home-rule municipalities,” in which municipalities have more balanced power relative to the state.
“State government has overreached,” Manheimer said, in opening the debate. The mayor argued that “state influence and control should be limited.” As an example of the state’s overreach, the mayor cited Asheville’s passage of a requirement for all local contractors working for the city to pay a living wage, but, shortly thereafter, the state legislature said such a mandate cannot be made, thereby killing the ordinance. “Another example is (the state’s) stealing the city water system,” Manheimer said. “The North Carolina legislature voted to take away our water system,” even though the majority of local citizens favored the city retaining ownership of it.
The mayor also said a reason local municipalities need more power, relative to that of the state, is to protect “the rights of our citizens… Need I say HB2? HB2 serves no public purpose except for discrimination.” (Manheimer’s reference to HB2, known as “the bathroom bill,” requiring people to use only the bathroom of the gender to which they were born.) [See editor’s note]
Conversely, Mumpower argued that, “in the Constitution our Founding Fathers crafted …. federalism.” He then lamented that “we long ago began the process of betraying” that concept. “Today, we live in a top-down model. Washington has assumed control over almost every aspect of our lives. States have taken over the rest.” He advocated a return to federalism.
Some panelists and audience members appeared amused — as they smiled or rolled their eyes — when Mumpower added, “On every level, government is run …. like the Black Hand,” referring to a Serbian secret society that used terrorist methods to promote the liberation of Serbia from Austro-Hungary. Mumpower concluded that both Washington and Raleigh should cease their intrusions on matters that should be decided on a local level.
However, Mumpower then asserted that “Asheville drew first blood” — through its words and actions — in the current friction between Asheville City Council and the General Assembly, and that it might have achieved a different outcome if it had practiced a modicum of diplomacy.
Hunt said, “Cities derive their authority from state laws. Municipal independence from state control is thus impossible.” However, he asserted, “The level of control from Raleigh is too much. Unlike home-rule localities in other states, municipalities (in North Carolina) have no power without authorization from Raleigh.”
As examples, Hunt noted that the state recently “reconfigured from afar the local political balance” in two North Carolina localities, “but that effort (to have council members elected by district) failed in Asheville.”
Hunt added that he favors proposed amendments that would establish North Carolina as a home-rule state. “In becoming a home-rule state, our communities would become stronger,” he said.
The fourth panelist and a Leicester resident, Nesbitt, prompted laughter when he quipped that he felt he was in rather prestigious company in the debate, as “we have a psychologist (Mumpower), an attorney (Manhaimer), a former banker (Hunt) — and a redneck from Leicester!”
Turning more serious, Nesbitt added that, while state legislators were correct in saying that “Asheville was doing a poor job of controlling the water system,” they seem to have forgotten that “the taxpayers of Asheville own those water lines … Stealing is stealing.”
In cross-questioning, Mumpower asked Hunt if he could think of examples in which city “has done to the state, as he complains state has done to the city.”
“The city doesn’t have any power over the state,” Hunt replied. “It’s the obvious.” What’s more, Hunt said he “didn’t disagree (with Mumpower) that the city maybe has gone overboard.”
To the mayor, Mumpower then asked, “Does the city exist at the discretion of the state?”
“Technically, yes,” Manheimer replied.
“I rest my case,” Mumpower said.
At that point, Manheimer asserted, “However, even though the Constitution sets up a framework to set up cities and counties as creatures of the state… it could” also provide municipalities a bit of discretion, such as allowing “cities to ban firearms from public parks.”
Further, Asheville’s mayor said, “Carl, when you did your opening statement … What have cities done to receive the punishment from the legislature?”
“Playing politics both ways,” Mumpower answered. “For instance, the legislation against HB2. … Your reaching into their pockets.”
Hunt then asked Mumpower, “Carl, are there examples where too much control may be granted to the state?”
“If it is (the case), then the Democrats did it for about 75 years, when they controlled the legislature. My answer is ‘No,’ it’s not appropriate, as I don’t think it’s fair for them (the state) to steal our water system. I feel the system has corroded and we have governmental chaos. What we just witnessed in Charlotte (with a recent fatal police shooting that resulted in rioting) is a perfect example of that.
Hunt asked Nesbitt, “What do you think?”
“It’s up to us to handle that,” Nesbitt said.
Nesbitt then asked Manheimer, “Since you’re a Democrat, can you think of any times they (the Democrats) have used their power (in Raleigh) to stop Republicans from doing anything?”
“I can’t think of an example in the North Carolina legislature where the Republicans were stopped from doing anything,” the mayor replied.
When Nesbitt asked Mumpower the same question, Mumpower said, “I served on our League of Cities (as Asheville’s representative) in 2005 — and they constantly lamented how the Democratically controlled legislature constantly” thwarted Republican efforts… “It hasn’t changed” since Republicans gained control of the legislature in 2010.
After a break, Manheimer said, “Dr. Mumpower mentioned the concept of federalism in his remarks. I just wanted to note that my understanding of federalism is a decentralized form of government, versus the Republicans’” overreach.
“We have seen a greater erosion of city control under the Republicans” than under the Democrats, the mayor contended.
Taking issue with an assertion voiced several times during the debate by Nesbitt, she added, “I can’t say that the water system of Asheville ‘is in terrible shape.’ It’s not in terrible shape. It’s in very good shape. And, finally, I would add that there was a mention about the city being dependent on state dollars. Actually, as Mr. Hunt pointed out, more than half of the (Asheville’s) revenue comes from property taxes paid by our citizens to support our city.”
Mumpower said, “One of my favorite concepts is the closer you are to anything, the better you’ll do in managing things… I agree with the theory that my colleagues are expressing. Unfortunately, we’ve killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Our balance of powers is gone. This (Asheville High) school is an example. It was paid for in this community (when it opened in 1929). Now, look at what we have. We don’t run this school. Washington runs this school. Raleigh runs this school. Now we complain that local government” lacks power. “Unfortunately, that reality is gone. I’d argue that it hasn’t gotten worse under Republicans. I’d argue this trend started under Democrats.”
Hunt said, “I’d like to raise the issue of fiscal equity of taxpayers… I would say I’m a little surprised that there is as much agreement on this topic as I see here on this panel… Carl, how do we reshape things so there’s greater cooperation? Strong-arming each other clearly isn’t working, as you’ve suggested.”
Nesbitt interjected, “I’m a contractor and, if there’s a problem, they call me. Ninety-five percent of the time, in my experience as one who deals with this, it’s always on the city side. So what does everything boil down to? Everything boils down to money. The city doesn’t know how to stick to a budget.These leaders all work for us — and have to be held accountable.”
Mumpower said, “I would like to echo what the mayor said — that it’s a myth that the city water system is any worse than any other water system across the state. We’ve been beaten up for it, but it’s tough with the (steep) terrain” around Asheville.
He then added, “In one of the most egregious things that ever happened here — a group decided to hang a gay pride flag on the side of City Hall (in autumn 2014). We’re all free to believe what we believe. But that was a terrible thing to do in this community, which (despite depictions to the contrary) is a community of traditional values…. You can’t thumb your noses in such an egregious manner and expect us to be your friend. Do you not see that?”
Manheimer replied evenly, “I think the example you used is not one we’ll ever agree on. But I do think we’d agree that diplomacy is essential in politics.”
She then said, “I guess I would ask Carl… You talk about the state that we’re in — that sort of everything’s a mess in all levels of government — that we’ve sort of dug our own hole. What does your vision of a better government look like?”
“The closer the government is to the people,” the better, Mumpower said of his vision of a better government — instead of concentrating on “city services, social services, give-aways….
Further, he added, “I will say, and I think the (presidential) election we’re in right now shows it — that the system is broken. And I don’t see where you guys (in Asheville city government) are doing anything to fix that.”
Mumpower added, “When I first came here, we had 20 active civic clubs, now we have maybe three — because government has taken over that role.”
Hunt asked, “Can you, mayor, talk about where you think we are in our challenge to try to get on the same page so we can work together? Could you talk about balancing the control between state and localities?”
“I do think we have a power imbalance” between the state and the city, Manheimer reiterated. “I think we also have a trust issue. There’s a view that all politicians” are not trustworthy. “I think more discussions around a table would be helpful,” she said.
Nesbitt asserted, “I can’t believe we’re debating this. Here we are — we’re talking about City Council using the power they have to push their own personal agenda. Whether they’re Republican or Democrat…. Why are we allowing gay flags to be hung on City Hall? Why are topless women wandering around?”
Unruffled, Manheimer replied, “First of all, we do have to follow state law. State law doesn’t allow us to ban topless women from downtown Asheville….”
At that point, when some in the crowd cheered Manheimer’s remarks, the debate judges asked them to be respectful — and to remain silent.
Manheimer then said, “To highlight why local control is more important than state control…. Recently, the state legislature moved to cap a sales tax on itself, even when those citizens wanted it.” She reiterated that the residents of North Carolina “are better served when they have local control… to protect against discrimination. And a better opportunity to reflect who we are.”
Mumpower said, “One of the greatest thefts, involved a bipartisan effort — including Democrats and Republicans — to steal our municipal water system. What Raleigh can do and should do are two different things. An example of the reverse is when the City of Charlotte tried social engineering, forcing the General Assembly to pass HB2. Witness Asheville’s challenge to HB2,” which he termed “social engineering with liberal icing.”
Hunt said, “Again, I’m intrigued by this challenge we have. How do we get to a better place on the balance of power between the state and localities? I know Mayor Manheimer’s function as the mayor — and I appreciate her approach for collaborative efforts. I back a constitutional amendment” to grant home rule. “However, I think it’s as futile as to get rid of gerrymandering in this state.”
Nesbitt said, “You’ve got to know that North Carolina Democrats used their power for 75 years to undercut my party (the GOP)… My party should not do the same — and stealing is stealing.”
Regarding the city’s upcoming $74 million bond referendum, it was noted that the funds would be spent in three areas — for affordable housing, public transportation and transportation. Early voting begins Oct. 20 and the general election will be held on Nov. 8.
Manheimer said, “The City of Asheville and its voters should pass the bond referendum,” of which there are three. “Why should Asheville use general obligation bonds to finance improvements? One, because it’s the people’s choice. You, the voters, decide. Two, the city’s financial house is in order. We have structured the city’s finances to handle multi-year investments. (roads, sidewalks, greenways, affordable housing and other initiatives).
“The time is now,” Manheimer said. “The city recently achieved a triple A-bond rating. So the city can borrow at 2 percent” — the lowest possible. Moreover, the mayor said that polls show the support level from the public for the three projects ranges from 60 to 62 percent.
Conversely, Mumpower said, “This resolution is particularly important because it involves such a large sum of dollars–$74 million plus interest. It involves excessive debt. It’s more of a credit card than a debt. On the first point, it will go from $250 in debt per person in 2015 to $1,700 per person, making us the highest in the state (among comparable cities). Asheville has a long track record of ignoring potholes — wasting millions of dollars on amenities. We can’t trust this kind of government. If I were a student in the audience, I’d be very angry. We (the baby boomers who are in power) have robbed you. It took 50 years (roughly 1927-1997) for Asheville to recover from the economic debacle of borrowing too much money at the wrong time. I reject this resolution with enthusiasm.”
With a smile, Hunt then said, “I enthusiastically support this referendum. We have to ask ourselves — do I want to live in a community that” invests in itself, including in the arts, or one that is low-tax and low service.
“I choose the former because quality of life is important. Given our aging physical assets, Asheville is past-due in updating its infrastructure. Committing to the bond issue will help us catch up. Affordability of housing is important to our city. Of the 26 largest cities in North Carolina, our per-capita bonded debt is fourth lowest (in the state). We’d rank middle of the pack if we borrowed allowed in this referendum everything tomorrow. Bond financing is a smart way for a healthy city like Asheville.” The city’s plan is safe, Hunt noted.
Nesbitt said, “There are two reasons” I’m against the $74 million bond referendum. First, he said that “these bonds are long-term” and he contested the $74 million figure. Indeed, Nesbitt said the “total debt would be $110 million — not $74 million. The taxpayers are going to have to pay nearly $200 million… My second point is trust.” He said Asheville’s city leaders have proven they are “fiscally irresponsible” and he said it is “because they’re Democrats.”
In a crossfire segment, Mumpower noted, “I’d like to ask our former vice mayor and mayor … how much money did the city lose on the parking garage that didn’t go to fruition… It was at least $3.5 million, if not $6 million.”
He also asked, “How much money have we lost on the Eagle Street Market (development) over the last number of years?”
When neither Manheimer nor Hunt answered, Mumpower said, “We lost millions and millions of dollars” on the Eagle Street development.
Mumpower then asked, “You’ve suggested that the city is on firm footing. What is our rainy day fund?”
Later, Mumpower lamented, “We’re creating an elite city. It’s continuing on your-all’s (liberal) watch. The rainy day fund has doubled. You are down to the minimum. The No. 1 job of the city is public safety.” However, he said there is too much spending on “nice over necessary.”
Manheimer noted that the proposed $74 million bond referendums are for bonds, which would result in an increase of 4.15 cents (per $100 valuation) in property taxes, averaging $110 more in annual taxes on the average-size Asheville house. “Just for a frame of reference,” the mayor added, “We have been extremely conservative” in spending the taxpayers’ money — “some would argue too conservative.”
Manheimer also said, “Our rainy day fund exceeds 15 percent of our general fund. I would disagree with Dr. Mumpower — it’s not double what it was when he was in office… and it’s as healthy as it was” when he served on council.
Mumpower countered, “We need fact-checkers on that. I do disagree with the mayor. We’ve got a unilateral City Council” that is ultra-liberal. “It’d be my suggestion that when your rainy day fund is down to the bare minimum, your ship is not in order.
He added, “It would further my position, when you look at the salaries of your city manager” and others, that overspending is happening. “It’d be my suggestion that a council willing to offer $2 million for an art museum is careless with our money and can’t be trusted with money from bond referendum.”
Hunt said, “I’ve known Carl for years and I’d like to suggest that each of these gentlemen who oppose me are adverse to any tax. The suggestions of distrust of City Council, political motivations — probably flow from that backdrop.”
He added, “I think this strategy of investing in ourselves is a good way” to go for the city. “If we were to go the other way and cut taxes and cut infrastructure, those companies (that have been recruited to the city and area in recent years) wouldn’t be interested in coming here.”
Nesbitt said, “Regardless of the $74 million bond, property tax increases will continue, leaving only wealthier people to live here. Thus, this bond referendum would hurt the very people the city claims it wants to help.”
He added, “Blaming time on infrastructure problems is just wrong,” as in the case of the Eagle Street project. Nesbitt noted that “Biltmore Park was built in seven months, under budget, and one year ahead of schedule. They did it because they did things right… We have to make sure we hold our city council accountable.”
Mumpower said, ” Marc, I agree with you that there are many nifty spots in Asheville. But when one looks at our downtown, one worries about what’s happening to the normal person. Do you have concerns about the elitist status?”
Hunt admitted, “It represents a real challenge.” However, he noted, “If we put the brakes on improving,” companies will decide not to expand here and others will choose not to relocate in Asheville and growth likely would “just fade away. I think we’ll be in worse shape. I think this current council is very serious about addressing the issue of gentrification.”
Manheimer said to Mumpower, “You have mentioned the issue of the rainy day fund being inadequate. At what point would you say it’d be appropriate for a city to use bond funding?”
Mumpower said, “I think you’ve got to look at the horizon. I don’t think the picture lends itself to high risk at this time.” He noted that the current economic climate looks “wobbly.”
To Mumpower, Hunt said, “Your point about dark clouds, global problems coming… The points you’re making tonight are similar to those you made 12 years ago on council. Is there something going on now that makes this a particularly dangerous time?”
In response, Mumpower asked, “Are you aware of who is running for president this year? That speaks volumes…. We’re in greater debt now than we were then (when he served on council). Asheville cannot survive the demise” of key entities in the economy. “And they’re wobbly as we all know.”
Hunt acknowledged that much of Asheville’s current “very difficult” problems on the need for major spending for infrastructure improvements stretches back to its huge indebtedness that began in the 1920s — “and it wasn’t till the 1990s that the city was in a position to begin to recover. During that (50-year) span the city’s infrastructure was running down.”
In closing, Manheimer said, “General obligation bonds are a smart way to invest in our community. It’s the lowest cost way to invest. I would tell you that to make major infrastructure improvements require borrowing. Street repaving, sidewalks, traffic calming, greenways, improvements to recreation centers, new recreation centers. I know this is a debate, but I hope you support the bonds.”
Mumpower said, “Asheville has been blessed with a massive influx of new residents who have filled our tax coffers. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. This bond will … support the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The latest ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ giveaway… will come from people (natives and long-time residents) who can ill-afford to have the city reach into their pockets. They’re creating a champagne city that appeals to the rich and famous. Most of it is going to downtown and north Asheville — east, west and south are getting less” — as usual — under the city plan.”
Hunt, who emphasized that “I’m not here to advance some political future for myself,” said, “I appreciate and honor and respect the viewpoint that anyone has for low-tax, low-service. It’s a valuable viewpoint. The good news is these questions will be submitted for a referendum. I will say I do have concerns on who’s going to pay for this affordable housing. The property-owners in Asheville only will be paying for these regional assets…. Some of these projects were thrown together in a hurry.”
Nesbitt said, “If you have a family member whose a ‘crack head,’ do you continuously give him money? At some point in time, adults have to start acting like adults. We as taxpayers need to stop giving our money to those who are not responsible with their money.”
The program ended with questions from audience, including the following:
To the mayor, a man asked, “There’s a lot of tension going on this election time…. A lot of things happened that never happened,” such as attendees at the rally for GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump in Asheville recently having to walk through a gauntlet of protesters before and after the event. “You spoke of trust.. Why should we trust you if you don’t even have a plan to keep people safe in the civic center?”
Manheimer replied, “I think the general question of trust and accountability is an important one. Asheville is a city that tries to be as transparent as possible. I know (of) the recent issue with Donald Trump visiting Asheville. Honestly, the council is involved at a policy level. I do empathiize with citizens who feel” that the situation “was not handled well. As for the Trump experience, I think we need to do better. If allowing the renter of the civic center (U.S. Cellular Center) to decide where to put barricades (rather than the entity renting it), maybe we need to change that.”
A man asked Mumpower and Nesbitt: “You rail against local power, but are you OK with the state legislature? I think your criticism of Asheville City Council for not representing social views” only reflects their concerns and not that of the majority. “I think it’s no accident that no representives of your party (the Republicans) are on council” because most citizens are liberals. Would you feel the same if there was a problem” between a conservative council and an overreaching liberal state legislature?
Mumpower said, “I don’t support central government. I support a constitutional form of government. I do believe that — and I walk that walk.”
A man asked Nesbitt, “The concept of a counter plan is very important. What is your solution? How do you fix these problems?”
Nesbitt answered by saying, “You stay on budget. You handle those problems with property taxes.”
A man asked Mumpower and Nesbitt, “You say we shouldn’t pass this referendum because we can’t trust our council…. But (what) if more than 60 percent of people support it?”
Nesbitt said, “It’s not only that we don’t trust them. When we start raising taxes on these people who are our poor (citizens) — that goes against everything this liberal garbage” champions.
Mumpower said, “I believe the survey sample was way too small. Also, the phrasing of the surveys are not reliable — and they also occurred before the facts were put out on the table.”
A woman asked Nesbitt, “You keep saying you don’t want to raise taxes. How are you going to put stormwater infrastructure” in the budget?
Nesbitt replied, “Well, fire/police, garbage and planning and zoning — and a fifth thing, our teachers — are what council should be council’s focus on spending.” As for the Republicans in Raleigh, he said, “We’re the only ones to give the teachers a raise in years.”
An audience member asked the mayor, “Have you been involved in any meetings regarding the 1,200 Syrian refugees coming to Asheville and Buncombe County?”
“No. I haven’t been personally involved,” Manheimer replied. “I think citizens of Asheville are very interested in hosting refugees. Nonprofit groups have reached out to me and all of the county commissioners — and I’m aware that they’ve hosted some meetings.”
The mayor then was asked, “Am I correct in saying 1,200 Syrian refugees are coming to Asheville-Buncombe County?”
“No I’m not aware of any number,” the mayor said.
Editor’s Note: The mayor is not at all correct in her statement. HB2 has the specific purpose of keeping young girls and women safe when they are in the ladies room or ladies locker room. Would the mayor feel perfectly comfortable standing by the door of a ladies room after her young eight-year-old daughter has just gone inside, and then watch passively as an older man enters just a few minutes later? I would hope not.
HB2 was specifically designed so as to protect young girls and women and not to throw them under the bus in the face of potential male predators, whether those male assailants be transgender or not. The only possible discrimination in the bill is to discriminate against male predators.