By Leslee Kulba – It is doubtful enough he-said-she-said could be extracted from the three hours of Asheville City Council meetings Tuesday to inspire advertisers to continue working with this newspaper. The evening began with the second of five budget worksessions the city will hold this cycle. One takeaway was a sense that some on council know less about the history of city government decisions than members of the public at-large. The other was that there are a whole lot of interim people holding down department leadership positions.
Interim Fire Chief Chris Budzinski led off, rehashing the data broadcast in former City Manager Gary Jackson’s white paper, that the city’s emergency service departments respond to a number of calls for service on a par with cities at least twice Asheville’s size. The department invests in certain practices that on the surface appear strange, but they are needed for it to retain its ISO certification which, in turn, reduces property insurance costs for residents. The fire department also owns a lot of expensive equipment, for incidents like swiftwater rescue and hazmat containment, that serve all of Western North Carolina, albeit rarely.
It is either (1) required by the state, OSHA, or the National Fire Protection Association; or (2) makes more sense to own it than to assemble apparatus or bring it in from Charlotte when lives are in the balance. The department stayed within its budget, for the first time in years, by managing overtime.
PR director Dawa Hitch told how the city needed to build relationships with the community. Adversely affecting those relationships were all the public forums the city has been holding without taking action on the input. Councilor Julie Mayfield suggested the city work with an organization called Democracy Is Boring. At the formal meeting, Hitch would talk about the need to respond swiftly and appropriately to crises.
Following the Johnnie Rush incident, the city has added rigidity to internal chains of communication. It is also considering contracting with a firm for crisis response, since it is generally believed the incident was seized as an opportunity to let false narratives get out of control. Councilor Vijay Kapoor asked, rhetorically, if the new guidelines included training on what is and is not appropriate for members of city council to share.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler asked questions during a presentation by Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons to make sure the city wasn’t being complacent in accepting expenditures as the way things have always been done.
A brief history was recounted of how the city got left holding the bag for maintaining the ambitious vision of the Pack Square Conservancy. It was suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the city fence off or stop mowing the portion of the park owned by the county. That led Mayfield to say the county could retaliate and fence off the section between first and second base the city owns in one of their parks. Mayor Esther Manheimer said there were several strange cutouts in parks owned by the city, county, and schools and once again took the opportunity to take a swat at the state legislature for not cooperating with municipal interests in establishing a Regional Parks and Recreation Authority.
While Parks & Recreation is the city’s third largest department, Manheimer said it has suffered underfunding because “basic things like childcare, afterschool, and summer camp” are viewed as less essential than public safety and infrastructure. Simmons cautioned maintenance for the RADTIP was going to introduce a major blow to his department’s budget.
During the presentation by Interim Human Resources Director Jaime Joyner, city leadership briefly discussed the benefits, in health and savings, the city is realizing through the Asheville Project. The initiative, launched in 1997 by then Risk Manager John Miall, the program caught national attention for encouraging employees to meet regularly with pharmacists to make sure they were upholding their prescribed regimens, which would be fine-tuned frequently. The ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. For a commendable drilldown on how line items in the 2019-20 budget are shaping up, members of the public are invited to check out the hyperlinks at http://www.ashevillenc.gov/departments/finance/budget/budget_worksessions.htm.
During their formal meeting, council heard an update on how the police department was responding to the study the city commissioned to, as Chief Tammy Hooper explained it, identify and correct departmental blind spots following the Rush incident. Changes are being made to employee training and monitoring and the handling of incidents. Council also received updates on the development of plans for Tunnel Road and Burton Street. Citizens who commented hoped the latter wouldn’t be another instance of plowing a highway through an African-American community. Dewayne Barton, the author of the poem, “Dust Won’t Catch Our Dreams,” which was inspired by all the plans the city has sitting on the shelf, reiterated his thesis.