By Leslee Kulba- During public comment at the last Asheville City Council meeting, Steve Foster, representing the Council of Independent Business Owners (CIBO), raised concerns about the city’s recently-adopted budget. Foster self-described as having worked over 30 years as a CPA in Asheville.
CIBO first opposed the city’s resistance to increasing the size of the police force. Council had put hot-button, politically-charged issues ahead of public safety. While statistics about downtown crime are all over the board, Foster cited some that indicated year-over-year violent crime was up 90%. CIBO wanted the city to increase the police force by 10 officers. Anybody who didn’t see the point could go on a ride-along with an officer and witness firsthand how they handle routine calls, like domestic disputes.
A second issue was stormwater mitigation, a function formerly handled by the city’s Department of Public Works. When the city first announced it would be charging citizens a stormwater fee, it was marketed as only funding an educational effort. Now that the program has grown to employ 42 with a budget over $6.5 million, representing several cents on the property tax rate, Foster asked why flooding is just as bad as it had been before.
Members of CIBO also wanted the city to pay more attention to roads. The average time to lapse before a street is resurfaced in Asheville is 80 years, but the lifespan of asphalt is only 55 years. Streets need repair so badly, the city is using bond revenue to address some of the backlog; but basic budgeting teaches recurring issues should be funded with recurring revenue streams. Streets are a basic city service, and as such, they should be one of the city’s highest priorities for general-fund expenditures. Foster noted the city was going to subsidize transit with $5 million, but thought it ironic the city would pay so much to run fancy buses on dilapidated roads.
Following Foster’s remarks, Mayor Esther Manheimer noticed Patty Beaver of CIBO was handing out hard copies of his comments and said, “I would offer that some of the information was incorrect in that statement, but that’s on us to do a better job regarding our capital management program and talking to folks about the stormwater funds.”
Another speaker, Mac Swicegood, read into the record a resolution from CIBO thanking each and every officer in the Asheville Police Department for their daily commitment and sacrifice. Swicegood described law enforcement officers as, “guardians of peace and order [who] protect the weak and oppressed.” In return for their service, CIBO thought the city should give them adequate support and training.
Elizabeth Schell disagreed. She and others criticized the police force, repeating recent allegations that officers had been following members of Asheville Black Lives Matter around, reading their Facebook pages and attending their meetings in plain clothes. They said no members of their organization had communicated threats, and the officers’ stalking was a violation of their civil rights.
Rondell Lance, president of Asheville’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), noted nobody was correcting the record for false statements now being made. For one thing, police were only collecting information in the public domain. For another, there were people in the room who had threatened him personally, even as he walked to the podium. They had wished him harm and told him to watch his back. But that was “just talk,” and he wasn’t going to let it bother him.
More concerningly, the group had created chaos and a public safety hazard when they blocked traffic without a demonstration permit, and they had to be forcefully evicted when they held a sit-in at the police station. In another incident, members cut the wires to surveillance cameras, spray-painted the FOP lodge, and smashed the windows of a state-owned vehicle. Lance said the police department would be irresponsible not to monitor a group with a record like that.
Lance closed speaking in defense of Police Chief Tammy Hooper. He called attention to an effort afoot to destroy her and said people felt threatened because she was a strong female who ran a tight ship.
Taking a constructive tack, Libby Kyles asked members of council to consider renting the Stephens-Lee Center to her program, Youth Transformed for Life. Stephens-Lee was one of many community schools acquired by the city and turned into a recreation center in the desegregation era.
Speaking as a mom, a teacher, and a former child, Kyles said there is too much trauma in schools for teachers to handle alone. Kids would benefit by having a place to play and work together, a place to see role models, a place where they knew their moms would be hanging out with their teachers.
Gene Bell sweetened the deal saying 22 men had pledged to secure the building for any programs Kyles would offer.