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Council Clears Last Hurdle to Get Bonds on Ballot

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Mayor Esther Manheimer took the opportunity to straighten the record on some claims. For example, the city had considered a bond package to fund public safety improvements, but council decided against it. Almost half the city’s budget already goes toward public safety. It is a council priority and so it should be supported structurally by the general fund budget instead of with here-today-gone-tomorrow bond revenues. Furthermore, the state does not allow the city to use bonds to fund capital projects or operations, like teacher pay, for schools.

Manheimer further wanted to clarify that paying the $74 million in bonds would amount to a 4.1-cent increase in the property tax rate. To illustrate, she said that would equate to $110 a year for somebody who owns a $275,000 home. She then said 4.1 cents would be the maximum rate increase, it being possible to offset the amount should new development boom. No mention was made of any possibility that the tax base could actually contract in the next decade as the debt is paid off.

Doing a wee bit of math for the folks, Councilman Cecil Bothwell said the increase for somebody who rented said hypothetical house would only be about $10/month. “It’s not a big hit,” said he. “And it will do a lot of good.”

Following three public hearings, council unanimously approved putting the following three measures on the November ballot: (1) Transportation Networks: At a maximum of $32 million, proposed projects would significantly improve the transportation network to include streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, greenways and bus shelters; (2) Parks and Recreation facility improvements: At a maximum of $17 million, proposed projects would make major improvements to passive and active recreational facilities across the city; and (3) Affordable Housing: At a maximum of $25 million, proposed programs would support affordable housing within the city limits.

Citizen Sidney Bach had complained that, with interest, taxpayers would be on the hook for closer to $110 million. He found it ironic that the city would be taking out debt, translating to a property tax increase, in the name of an Affordable Housing bond. Belaboring what’s obvious to all but Keynesians, he said paying off the bond would increase housing costs for all but the subsidized while the real benefactors, who he referred to as “private equity interests,” would be “laughing all the way to the bank.”

Bach saw the bond referenda as creating a “$74 million slush fund” for the “pie in the sky” agendas of unelected city staff members. Unfortunately, like many, he thought anything said at the “so-called public hearing” would “fall on deaf ears,” as it was put on only as “window dressing” for foregone conclusions.

Citizen Chris Peterson also faulted council for not being fiscally responsible. He agreed with Bach that interest on the bond issues would be around $30 million. The proposed bond issue, he said, was the logical conclusion of all the mistakes the board had made over the last eight years. Council had “taxed and taxed and fee-ed us to death,” so with those options exhausted, the bonds represented a fresh source of revenue. Meanwhile, he lodged council had spent down their reserves while paying some staffers as much as $200,000 a year. He compared that to $28,000, the average income of Asheville citizens. “That’s very wrong,” said he, before urging council to get “business people” involved in the budget process.

Bothwell replied that for a very large part of his life, he has been an independent business owner in the area. Even though he now makes less than $29,000, he contended, “our taxes are an amazing bargain.”

During the conversations, Bothwell threw a wet towel on aspirations of anybody hoping to prevent council from moving ahead with the referendum. He clarified the public hearings that night were not so much an opportunity for the public speak in favor of or against the bond issues; but rather to decide whether a referendum should be put before the public to allow debate.

Three citizens spoke in favor of the bond proposals. They only asked the city to distribute proceeds more equitably among minorities. Betty Council said since 13 percent of Asheville’s population is African-American, at least 13-20 percent of revenues from each of the three bonds should go toward African-American communities.

Greg Borom, representing Children First/Communities in Schools of Buncombe County, spoke on behalf of children and families in poverty, whom his agency serves. He was particularly “encouraged and pleased” by council’s emphasis on affordable housing. Citing “racial equity” and “economic diversity,” he thanked council for subsidizing “Deeply and Extremely Affordable Housing;” but asked the board to consider digging deeper to reach out to persons earning 30 percent of AMI or less. He then encouraged council to, in the interest of “closing the racial wealth gap,” and in spite of second-guessing that followed the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, renew efforts to promote low-income homeownership.

In response, Manheimer said the data the city had collected through a contract with a polling firm indicated 80 percent of African-Americans supported the proposed Parks and Recreation referendum. Among its “great African-American components” is the completion of the final phase of the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center.

Regular commenter Timothy Sadler agreed with Borom that the city needed to pursue “creative ways to encourage home ownership” and address “racial inequality.” Council had a “wonderful opportunity to get outside of the box.” During council’s regular public comment segment, Sadler plugged HempX Asheville. He repeatedly encouraged members of council to attend the event, which will take place August 19-20 at the Highland Brewing Company. Sadler reiterated his slogan, “Hemp is the love child of economic development and environmental protection.”

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