Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino was a popular guy at City Council's March 5 work session. Three photographers and one WLOS TV cameraman fixed their lenses on the tall, imposing lawman as he made his pitch for cracking down on people soliciting money, jobs or rides from motorists on city streets.
Annarino had Council members' rapt attention, too, as he showed pictures of solicitors working busy Asheville intersections. "We've had reports of [some of them] jumping in front of cars to stop [motorists]. It's a public-safety issue," said Annarino. The chief also mentioned another angle: Several members of a Tampa-based group dubbed "House of David" have been caught "soliciting money for a cause that doesn't exist," and some of the homeless people seeking jobs or money set up camps near intersections, sometimes even forming gangs that enforce begging "rights," Annarino reported.
"Last year, we had a murder in one of those camps," he said.
Meanwhile, some of the folks soliciting motorists along commercial arteries such as Tunnel Road have been linked to breaking-and-entering and purse-snatching cases, noted Officer Randy Bowman. "As soon as the weather's better, they'll be back," he predicted.
Under current city ordinances, only roadside solicitors along major thoroughfares such as Tunnel Road and Patton Avenue can be charged with trespassing, Annarino pointed out. Making this activity a misdemeanor and fining violators up to $500 will "give us more latititude in enforcing the law," he said.
Council members welcomed the proposal but questioned some details. Holly Jones asked about churches, nonprofits, fraternities and other valid groups that solicit contributions on city streets. Would they be fined immediately or first warned about the new ordinance?
"Those folks are not going to be an issue," said Annarino, assuring Jones that they would be warned about the new ordinance. And, backed by City Attorney Bob Oast, Annarino also emphasized that the ordinance would apply to everyone; the city can't allow certain groups to solicit along public streets while prohibiting others.
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy argued that even though many local nonprofits provide a variety of services for the homeless, the safety of city residents can't be ignored. Bellamy also noted that "just arresting [violators] and asking the court system to step in" will not address the underlying problems. Recalling a Merrimon Avenue boarding house that had to be closed last year "because it was a firetrap," Bellamy added, "some of those residents are now on the streets."
Council member Joe Dunn acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with the homeless, remarking, "We can't just go out there and sweep the streets clean." Even in a tight budget year, Council must consider adequately funding the nonprofits that serve the homeless, he said.
And Jones emphasized that it's only a small minority of the homeless who cause problems.
After a bit more discussion, Council members indicated they will approve the new ordinance banning roadside solicitation.
Money, process and irony
Asheville City Council members drew back from appointing a citizens' committee to consider campaign-finance reform and retooling the local election process. Instead, at Council member Carl Mumpower's suggestion,they agreed to create a subcommittee of three Council members who'll set parameters for what, exactly, such a citizens' group might be asked to do.
Council member Brian Peterson, who had previously proposed such a group, noted, "We're all concerned about the amount of money it takes to run" for office. Among the options a citizens' group could consider, said Peterson, are offering expanded access to the city's government channel on cable TV, setting voluntary spending limits for city election campaigns, and providing some public funding for campaigns.
There's also the question of how to fill vacant Council seats, as happened last year after Chuck Cloninger, who'd chosen to run for mayor rather than seek re-election to Council, lost in the primary. (Lacking any clear policy, Council members appointed Jim Ellis, the next-highest vote-getter in the Council race, to fill the vacancy.) Both Peterson and Jones pushed for tackling campaign-finance reform and election procedures separately.
Peterson also emphasized that reform recommendations "should come from the public" and not from city staff or current Council members.
Noting that the mayor's race is the most expensive local political contest "and will likely continue that way," Ellis suggested a different solution: letting Council members appoint one of their number to serve as mayor (as was done until 1985, when Lou Bissette became Asheville's first directly elected mayor). Ellis also argued that campaign-finance reform and the election process are linked and should not be tackled separately.
And as Peterson was asking Council members to recommend citizens to serve on the study committee, Mumpower remarked, "I'm concerned [with us] jumping into this too quickly." He suggested appointing a Council subcommittee "to [first] lay the groundwork" for Peterson's proposed citizens' group.
Joe Dunn agreed. And so did Mayor Charles Worley.
All three were among the top fund-raisers and spenders in last year's elections, and each received $8,000 (plus additional support in the form of mass mailings) from the political action committee Citizens for New Leadership.
Ellis and Peterson stuck with the notion of appointing a citizens' committee to study the options and make recommendations to Council. "It's always hard for elected officials to discuss changes to their own [positions]," argued Peterson.
And Jones reiterated that the money and process issues should be separated, because the citizens' committee's job "could get unwieldy pretty quickly."
Despite the very mixed opinions being voiced, Worley remarked that he "sort of heard a consensus" for appointing a Council subcommittee before setting up a citizens' group. He announced no appointments, however, and the discussion ended.
Civic Center realities
The Asheville Civic Center has never turned a profit.
That point was clearly shown on a series of graphs and charts city Finance Director Bill Schaefer presented to Council and members of the Civic Center Commission on March 5.
But since the venue's opening in the late 1970s, revenues have grown steadily, and the yearly losses have constituted an ever-smaller percentage of those revenues, Schaefer pointed out. He also added this perspective: In 1979, the Civic Center's deficit (figured in 2001 dollars) was $2.5 million. Last year's deficit -- paid out of the city's general coffers -- amounted to less than $1 million.
Most Civic Center events are profitable, reported Schaefer: Concerts, for example, generally bring in more than three times the amount of money it takes to present them. On the other hand, the new basketball team "is just about break-even," and ice hockey "has not been profitable," said Schaefer. But what really hurts the facility's bottom line are those long spells in summer when nothing is happening at the Civic Center, the banquet hall or the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Schaefer explained.
Those non-use periods are called "dark days," interjected City Manager Jim Westbrook.
Eyeing Schaefer's money charts, Mayor Worley joked, "You didn't come from Enron, did you?"
"No, sir!" Schaefer replied.
Money aside, Civic Center Director David Pisha reported that annual attendance figures have held steady over the years at about 300,000. But attendance patterns have changed: Family shows such as Disney on Ice and the circus have migrated to the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville (which opened in 1999); ice-rink-related events (such as public skating) have made up the lost attendance; and the last three concerts have sold out, Pisha mentioned.
The worst month for "dark days" is August, followed by September, July and May, he continued. Pisha suggested making better use of the banquet hall for weddings, small conferences and meetings as a way to trim the number of dark days ... and the Civic Center's deficit.
After that, Council members made a few points (particularly Mumpower, who used to chair the Civic Center Commission). "Y'all are severely underutilized," he told commission members. Mumpower also urged Council and city staff to make more effort to include the advisory board "when making major decisions" and "at least solicit their opinions," implying that this hadn't been done in recent years.
And as a caveat for those who support building a new civic center with corporate sponsorship dollars, Ellis pointed out that the amount the Bi-Lo grocery chain paid for the right to attach its name to Greenville's facility was only a fraction of the $60-70 million it took to build it.
For their part, Civic Center Commission members urged better communication between them, Council and city staff; better public relations, overall, for the facility; more aggressively searching for events to could fill up the dark days; and a better effort to keep such things as the arena scoreboard in working order.
Council members took no action on the reports.
In other business, Council waived the regular rules to take a second vote on issuing a franchise to Trolley Leasing, unanimously approving the agreement. The Florida-based company plans to run narrated historic tours in Asheville. (Council must generally take two votes in formal sessions on franchise agreements).
Council members also heard a report from city staff on new Web-based programs that officially go on-line April 1. At the city's upgraded Web site, residents will be able to perform such diverse tasks as registering for Parks and Recreation Department activities and reviewing their water-usage history. They'll also be able to pay their water bills and recreation fees on-line, staff reported. Contractors and developers will also be able to track and schedule building permits and inspections.
In addition, Council members indicated that they'll approve a grant application seeking $500,000 from state's Land, Water and Conservation Fund -- although Mumpower argued that the city's matching "funds" (in-kind labor, equipment and project management) do come from the city budget. Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson emphasized, "We're not asking for any new money, [staff] or equipment."
Council members also informally consented to leasing 45 Wall St. (located below the Wall Street parking deck) to the Asheville Performing Arts Alliance. Council member Dunn questioned the low rent ($1,050 for six years). Staff replied that federal regulations limit what the city can charge, because of the type of low-interest, tax-free bonds used to build the deck. Six years from now, those bonds will be paid off and the city can increase the rent, Finance Director Schaefer explained. The space, he noted, has only rarely been used since the parking deck was built and has remained vacant for several years, drawing no rent at all. The Performing Arts Alliance, reported Schaefer, will upgrade the heating-and-cooling system at its own expense.
At their March 5 work session, Asheville City Council members indicated they will approve the following actions:
• Authorize an agreement with the N.C. Department of Transportation concerning bus service to Black Mountain. The Asheville Transit System will operate the service; DOT will contribute up to $92,708 for the 14-month period ending May 1, 2003; the town of Black Mountain will pitch in $13,360; Mountain Mobility will add $5,000; and fare revenue is estimated at $3,882. The new Black Mountain-Asheville route will run four times a day, six days a week (except for certain holidays), according to staff reports.
• Advertise a $25,800 bid by Michael A. Pressley to buy a 0.94-acre city-owned lot on Galax Avenue in West Asheville. Pressley, who owns adjacent property, wants to build nine affordable-housing units on the lot.
• Accept the name "Myra Place" for a new street that begins at East Starnes Cove Road and ends in a cul-de-sac in the new Maple Grove subdivision.