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Council Grapples with Basic City Services

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By Leslee Kulba- The City of Asheville had serious problems with transit during the month of July. The city’s Transit Planning Manager Elias Mathes and Joe Brooks, general manager for the transit system, made an accounting before city council, assuring the problems were under control and wouldn’t recur.

The city contracts for transit management, due to state restrictions on local governments participating in collective bargaining. Mathes explained the city recently switched the management model for which it was contracting. The “turnkey” model now used, for a fixed price, puts full responsibility and liability on the contractor for running the system. It is therefore the contractor’s responsibility to cover vehicle accidents, budget overruns, and other mishaps. Mathes described the first year as, “transitional.”

Mathes explained that, in spite of Brooks’ liability, the city had put him in an impossible situation. The transit fleet was aging, with many buses reaching the end of their useful lives at the same time several buses were down for major engine overhauls. In not so many words, the city was asking him to make bricks without straw. Aspersions were also cast that the city had handed the management company unreasonably breakneck bus routes as well. The city was going to work out the existing bugs in the system before declaring a breach of contract and demanding liquidated damages.

Mathes said the way to fix the problem was to buy new buses. Staff was recommending purchasing five each year for the next five years. Staggered purchases would reduce the likelihood of having so many buses go offline at once again. Unfortunately, the new, electric buses now on order will likely not go online until next year sometime. Mathes closed thanking the city for recently adopting a new, ambitious transit plan that called for the purchase of new buses, upgrades to the transit facility, and the construction of a new maintenance facility.

Brooks got into the mechanics of the damage control He said he had had to outsource for repairs and start a third shift. The city also had a 12-passenger ADA van to deploy should all the city’s spare buses be out of service. To mollify those who suggested communications with the labor union were insufficient, he gave an accounting of meeting schedules and visits and added he and the other leaders had an open-door policy that applied to all staff.
An outstanding problem was staffing. When his contract began, Brooks was short three maintenance staff and 18 drivers. Today, he remains six employees short. He’s been advertising and hosting job fairs.

Collective bargaining rules prevent the contractor from advertising on the city’s online help-wanted page, but Mathes said he would see if there was some legal way to work around the restrictions. Members of council asked if the contractor had a ban-the-box policy, and Brooks said his policy was to require a background check on persons passing an initial interview. If they had any issues within the last seven years, or if they failed a drug test, they would not be hired.
Councilor Keith Young expressed his, “personal affinity for union members.” He had a “great deal of respect for members of the union.” It was, after all, the union who brought this issue to his attention.

In Other Multimodal Matters –
Stephen Bellich wanted to set up a tree care business on North Bear Creek Road, but he wanted special permission not to build the $30,000 sidewalk to nowhere the city required. Members of council kept lamenting their inability to charge fees-in-lieu anymore; but they could accomplish the same thing by negotiating fees-in-lieu by another name in the terms of a conditional zoning. After some back-and-forth, council and the developer agreed to allow Bellich to pay the city $18,480, the cost of 280 linear feet of sidewalk at the going rate of $66/LF, without the site’s topographical constraints.

Councilor Julie Mayfield cast the lone vote against the project because shifting the burden onto developers was, “how we get sidewalks built these days.” Mayfield also wanted the developer to narrow his driveway to improve the pedestrian experience.
A second sidewalk issue came up with a couple wanting to relocate their dental practice to McDowell Street. The property has sat vacant many years, primarily because the cost of building a sidewalk in front of it would have cost $235,000, according to a 2014 estimate. Whoever constructs the sidewalk will have to remove a large granite outcrop and build a retaining wall. The developer offered instead to put up a bus shelter, pour an ADA pad for it, and construct a crosswalk.

This was fine with Mayfield, who felt the weight of a $300,000 burden; but Young was “perplexed.” He said the city needed more uniformity in its sidewalk policy. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler cast the lone vote against the applicant’s proposal.

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