Talk of the state-budget crisis and errant pets dominated Asheville City Council's Feb. 19 work session. And for added flavor, Council members let slip that they could be on shaky legal ground if they made American citizenship a prerequisite for serving on boards and commissions.
Too many festivals, too little money
Council members generally rubber-stamp the current year's list of festivals staged within the city limits, most of which involve co-sponsorships with local nonprofits. But with Asheville having lost $1.7 million in tax reimbursements due to the state-budget crisis, everything, it seems, is getting increased scrutiny.
The festivals list, said Council member Carl Mumpower, "deserves a little attention," because the state has given Asheville and other local governments "a real knock on the head, budgetwise." This year's list includes 65 events -- compared to 37 last year. As a co-sponsor, the city typically provides such services as a staff liaison, police patrols and cleanup crews. The estimated cost to the city for this year's co-sponsorships is $95,000, Brinson reported.
Mumpower suggested co-sponsoring fewer events and cutting the festivals budget. Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson pointed out that some of that money constitutes normal city expenses, such as staff salaries, which would not be saved by declining to co-sponsor the events.
The list of approved festivals, Brinson explained, is based on a policy City Council adopted in 1995. "Who do we decide not to co-sponsor?" he asked. Events on the list range from RiverLink's Concert on the River to "The Human Race," a United Way fund-raiser.
"It's a very difficult call," said Brinson. The city, he suggested, could hold a lottery to determine which events get co-sponsored, or (as is the case this year) simply not accept any new events.
Council member Jim Ellis countered Mumpower's position, asserting that the estimated $22 million impact of festivalgoers who visit local restaurants, hotels and stores far outweighs the city's indirect costs. "It's not just the little portion of sales-tax [revenue] we get. It's job creation," argued Ellis.
Council member Joe Dunn, however, followed Mumpower's line, saying, "I fail to see how some of these [festivals] are as important as ... the ones that help people out." After questioning such events as the RiverLink concert while lauding an American Lung Association event, Dunn qualified his remark, saying he wasn't knocking RiverLink and would "hate to be making decisions on which [events] to cut."
"I feel like Scrooge even bringing this up," Mumpower confessed, but he stuck to his guns, saying, "It's just a tough, tight year."
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy interjected that many co-sponsors rely on such events for needed revenues. And with the county already slashing funding for nonprofits, curtailing city support for festivals could "cripple" some organizations, she suggested.
Council member Holly Jones (who, like Bellamy, works for a local nonprofit) proposed a compromise: Before taking applications next year for events requiring city co-sponsorship, the city should review its criteria and set some limits that would help save money.
That suggestion drew unanimous agreement -- although Mumpower noted, for the record, his continued "difference of opinion." Brinson promised to draft some new guidelines and present them to Council by late summer or early fall.
A dog's day in court
After that, it was back to the dogs as Council reconsidered a tweaked proposal to revise animal-control-violation procedures and fines. Two weeks earlier, Council members had suggested capping the fines for animal-control violations (everything from licensed pets to animals that run loose or bite people) and offering to reduce fines for owners who agree to spay/neuter their recalcitrant pets.
City staff proposed a $500 cap. They also suggested offering a discount on licenses for pets that have been "clipped," as one Council member put it.
But Council member Jones wanted to offer a stronger incentive for spaying/neutering. Mumpower supported the push, asking if the city could legally waive the proposed $50 fine for first-time violators who agreed to spay/neuter the offending pets.
City Attorney Bob Oast said the city might be able to include that as an option but could not require owners to spay/neuter their pets. Then he joked that the proposal "sounds like the 'alternative' sentencing you hear about."
Police Chief Will Annarino said staff would work that option into the proposed changes, noting that owners of spayed/neutered pets now pay just $5 for licensing (instead of $15), and the fine for not licensing a pet is a mere $10. Upping the fines -- especially the $50 penalty for first offenses -- gives the city's animal-control ordinance some much-needed teeth, Annarino remarked. Far too many pets, he said, are not licensed, and the low fines make it difficult to enforce other animal-control violations.
Joe Dunn spoke up for strengthening the ordinance. Some years ago, he explained, his daughter was bitten several times by a German shepherd in the neighborhood, and, "The owners never did anything."
Council members indicated that they will pass the revised ordinance, including the changes discussed.
So much for a memo from the city attorney marked "confidential." At their Feb. 19 work session, Asheville City Council members mentioned Oast's concern that a plan to require board-and-commission appointees to be American citizens could leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits.
But Council members backed off after Oast tried to steer them away from discussing his memo in open session, saying they'll hold off on a scheduled Feb. 26 vote. Instead, the matter will go to Council's Boards and Commissions Committee for review.
What to do about long meetings
How can Council balance the need for open government with the need to be alert, sharp and discerning policy-makers? That's what Holly Jones asked her fellow Council members, mentioning the marathon Feb. 12 formal session (which didn't end till 1 a.m.). There's got to be a better way, she said, adding, "I don't know if that means more coffee or what!"
Jones asked Council members to discuss the issue and perhaps come up with a way to avoid such long meetings.
Several years ago, Council members bandied about the idea of ending especially lengthy sessions at a set time and continuing them to the next day, noted Mayor Charles Worley.
Bellamy remarked that it might help the public to know that Council meetings would end by 11 p.m. or some other set time, as long as they knew they'd get to speak at the continuance.
Council member Brian Peterson said he liked the idea of a cutoff time, provided that Council set up something like a sign-up sheet for folks who wanted to speak. Otherwise, 100 new people might show up at the continuance and create another marathon session.
Fortunately, 1 a.m. finishes don't happen very often, Worley assured Jones and other first-year Council members.
At their Feb. 19 work session, Asheville City Council members indicated that they will approve the following items:
• A budget amendment accepting a $17,100 donation from the Asheville Professional Firefighters Association (Local 865). The money will pay for a thermal-imaging camera to be used by the city's Fire and Rescue Division for seeing in dark and smoky conditions.
• A resolution authorizing an agreement with Precision Contracting Co. to build sidewalk amenities -- such as ramps to improve access for the handicapped -- along the Urban Trail in downtown Asheville. An N.C. Department of Transportation grant program will reimburse the city for 80 percent of the $133,410 contract.
• A resolution authorizing a five-year contract with Green Light Electric for preventive maintenance of traffic-control devices, at a cost of $79,775 per year.
• A $33,000 contract with Glazer Architecture for renovations and additions at Fire Station #8 on Tunnel Road. The renovations include a women's locker area, more storage, and an enlarged day room and kitchen; the expansion will provide a new public entry, a bay for a quick-response vehicle, and an office. Glazer also has been awarded an $18,600 contract for similar renovations and minor additions at Fire Station #3 on Oregon Avenue.
• A resolution establishing a minimum price of $3,200 for a city-owned lot in the East End/Valley Street community, and authorization for the city clerk to advertise Damon Rouse's offer to buy the lot for that price.
• A March 12 public hearing to consider the Asheville Area Arts Council's offer to buy the city-owned buildings at 9-12 Biltmore Ave. for $462,500.
• Authorizing the city manager to approve purchase and service contracts worth up to $50,000 and construction contracts worth up to $100,000 without having to go through a formal bidding process or get City Council approval. The N.C. General Assembly recently amended the state statute regarding such matters, raising these limits slightly.
• A March 12 public hearing to consider an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance. The proposed change would identify artists' studios/workshops as a permitted use in residential districts and set several standards, such as prohibiting retail sales (currently, studios/workshops are not specifically noted, though they are allowed).
• A resolution awarding five loans from the city's Housing Trust Fund to create affordable-housing units in the city: $100,000 to WNC Housing Inc. to build five one-bedroom cottages (to be located on Clemmons and Spinet streets) for rental to very low-income individuals with severe and persistent mental illness; $80,000 to Mountain Housing Opportunities to build a four-bedroom home on Jefferson Street and renovate two houses (one on Clingman Avenue and one on Rector Street); $40,000 to Tim and Wendy Vorst to build a duplex on Brookshire Street; $180,00 to Carolina Custom Exteriors to build a three-bedroom house, two duplexes and a four-plex on Galax Street; and $120,000 to Tim and Wendy Vorst to build a six-plex of one-bedroom apartments on Hendersonville Road.
• A franchise agreement with Trolley Leasing, a Florida-based company that proposes running narrated historic tours of downtown and nearby areas such as Montford. The agreement limits operating hours for the diesel-powered trolley, sets safety and traffic standards, and establishes a $1 per day franchise fee.