Six voices, speaking in unison, can make quite a noise. But when Asheville City Council member Brian Peterson attempted to convince his colleagues to exercise their collective voice on the issue of the DOT's eight-lane proposal for I-240 through West Asheville, he found not harmony, but discord.
Council's June 18 work session convened less than 48 hours before the Transportation Advisory Committee's scheduled meeting to consider supporting the DOT proposal for widening I-240 through the city.
The issue has been a lightening rod for controversy, as witnessed during a public forum held by the TAC on June 12 at UNCA. More than 350 people packed into Laurel Auditorium to comment on whether the TAC should support the eight-lane proposal or ask DOT to consider proposals based on fewer lanes. While influential business groups (such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Council of Independent Business Owners) supported the DOT's calls for eight lanes, the majority of the citizens who spoke pleaded with the TAC to ask DOT to consider six or fewer lanes.
Peterson -- with the support of Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council member Holly Jones -- launched into a last-minute lobbying effort at Council's June 18 work session, when he introduced a resolution clearly stating that it is the preference of Council that the widening of I-240 through West Asheville be limited to six lanes. The resolution, if adopted, would have been an opportunity for Council members to follow up on campaign promises made during the last election. During that race, six of the seven current Council members stated publicly that they did not support the eight-lane option.
But procedure took precedence over promises. Peterson's resolution wasn't even considered. It was blocked when Mumpower, Dunn and Ellis refused to suspend the rules -- a step required when Council wants to vote on a resolution outside of a formal meeting. City Attorney Bob Oast informed Council that five votes are required in order to suspend the rules. The effort failed with a deadlocked vote of 3-3. (Mayor Charles Worley did not vote; he was absent due to a trip to Washington, D.C. with members of the Chamber to Commerce, to accept an award on behalf of the city.)
Interestingly enough, Mumpower, Dunn and Ellis stated during the discussion on the resolution that they "personally" don't support the eight-lane DOT proposal. But the three expressed concern about violating Council's normal procedures on voting during work sessions, and cited their concern as justification for rejecting the call to suspend the rules. Instead, Mumpower and Ellis proposed that Council members individually contact TAC members on the issue. Mumpower further called for Council to lobby the DOT directly, including a possible trip to Raleigh to do so.
Peterson introduced his resolution with a lengthy explanation about how, in his opinion, the DOT's rationale for eight lanes was based on flawed data. He noted that, according to the Florida Highway Capacity Manual (widely regarded as the definitive source on highway traffic-volume data), "a six-lane freeway with interchanges less than two miles apart would have the capacity for traffic volume at 120,200 daily. The DOT recommendation [for eight lanes] is based upon a traffic volume of 103,500." Peterson explained that the discrepancy might be attributed to the DOT's use of a 1999 manual, versus the most current version, which updates the prior manual.
Traffic volume figures largely in this debate, as the DOT has stated that it is proposing an eight-lane configuration to accommodate what it estimates will be a projected 4.1 percent annual increase in traffic. Peterson challenged the projection with DOT's own numbers by noting, "Over the last four years, DOT traffic counts for I-240 through West Asheville shows an annual growth rate of 2.2 percent."
Peterson also appealed to his colleagues to consider the message that an eight-lane highway would send to people: "If we have an eight-lane configuration, we might as well forget about mass transit and bike lanes. Everybody's gonna drive on the interstate -- and that's not my vision for Asheville."
Mumpower immediately went on the offensive, commenting, "I have procedural concerns. For us to have a serious conversation about this without a representative from DOT here -- I would have some concerns about that."
Peterson replied that he had contacted DOT and that they chose not to come, adding, "If we refuse to act because they don't show up, all we're doing is showing them that if they don't show up, we won't act. I've run all of this by them. If they had challenges, they'd be here."
Mumpower then switched gears, saying, "My concerns are procedural. We have an established procedure. I have a little trouble superseding that process."
He then explained how, typically, concerns about DOT projects must flow through an alphabet soup of local transportation advisory committees -- including the Community Coordinating Committee, the Technical Coordinating Committee and, finally, the Transportation Advisory Committee (a 10-member committee consisting of two members of City Council and representatives from the County and area municipalities; the body is an advisory group that provides comment on local DOT initiatives, but DOT is not bound by the TAC's recommendations). Mumpower opined, "We don't have a clear responsibility in this area. It's out of our purview."
Peterson countered that Council has stepped in and issued similar resolutions in the past, one of which led to the convening of a citizen's advisory committee on the highway project, and a resultant series of public forums that were widely praised by local citizens and members of the DOT.
Ellis supported Mumpower's decision. Reading from a prepared statement, he noted that he personally opposed the eight-lane configuration but felt it was inappropriate for Council to issue a resolution stating a position collectively. Instead, he suggested that each member of Council individually express their opinions to the TAC.
Vice-mayor Bellamy challenged Mumpower to explain how Peterson's resolution was any different from an action Mumpower himself had taken at a work session a few weeks prior. At the May 21 work session, Mumpower called for the body to devise ways to express the city government's frustration over Gov. Mike Easley's handling of the state budget crisis. Mumpower made the move at a work session because he wanted something significant to bring along when Council members traveled to Raleigh to meet with legislators.
To Bellamy's inquiry, Mumpower replied, "That's different. They're taking our money."
Without missing a beat, Bellamy shot back, "Yeah. And [the DOT is] taking our streets and our houses."
Council member Holly Jones suggested, "Sometimes we must be compelled to challenge traditional procedures; and if you've ever been on the other side of tradition and procedure -- such as the case with women or minorities -- you'd know that tradition doesn't always mean the best results. ... Sometimes, you have to be brave and courageous rather than just following the steps."
Dunn then commented exasperatedly, "Why don't we just discuss the Wal-Mart next?"
After Peterson and Jones made arguments supporting six-lanes as a way of combating the area's air pollution, Dunn commented, "Air is not the issue here. We're talking about procedure and precedent here."
After the vote on suspending the rules failed, a frustrated Peterson told Xpress, "I don't understand why they weren't willing to stand up to DOT."
Witnessing the veneration of procedure, Ron Ainspan -- a member of the I-26 Connector Awareness Group and one of the leaders in the fight against the eight-lane proposal -- commented, "They were afraid to take a stand. Council's support [for the resolution] would have given the TAC guidance to get the information we need. Today you saw Council hide behind procedure. It's so easy to fall back on, 'It's not the proper way.'"
Additional retirement funds for firefighters?
Once those who came to hear about the future of I-240 -- most of the audience that is -- stood and left the room, the majority of those left were members of the Asheville Fire Department. They were there with hopes of convincing Council to improve the department's retirement benefits.
In light of the city's current budget crisis, it quickly became clear that the proposal has no chance ... at least at this point in time.
"The firefighters and I have discussed this in the past," City Manager Jim Westbrook said, adding that the budget did not allow a consideration of the money then, either.
He cited $250,000 as the total annual cost of the improved benefits, and reminded Council that budget problems are projected to continue through 2007.
Pleading his case, Fire Captain Michael Knisely reminded Council that, despite the $40,000 he says it takes to train and prepare an individual firefighter, many leave Asheville for cities with better benefits.
"We're protecting our investment here," Knisely declared, adding that in the past 18 months, 11 Asheville firefighters have left for better deals.
After running through some math (which he admitted was done about an hour before the meeting, which used the police department as a model), Westbrook estimated that firefighters retiring right now will receive an average of 62 percent of their annual gross salary. "They do have a good retirement plan," he said, adding, "No doubt what they're asking for would make it better." Westbrook reminded Council that firefighters are the only city employees not receiving Social Security benefits, having voted several times to not participate in the program.
(A brief history: In 1953, employees on a pension system, as the fire department had been since 1940, had the option of voting out of the Social Security program. The Asheville department did so, but their pension fund was gone by 1978. Since then, the department has continued to abstain from the program, saying that younger recruits cannot afford the extra chunk taken out of their salary. In 1981, the city opted to pay both Social Security benefits and a similar separation allowance -- a fund that supplies extra retirement pay -- for the police department.)
With current fiscal woes tying their hands, Council turned toward discussion of a study of the separation allowance.
Vice Mayor Bellamy suggested taking a look at the possibilities at the Council retreat, coming up in Janurary.
"The numbers aren't going to be any better then than they are now," Westbrook countered, adding that such conjecture could raise a "false hope" -- a phrase that would surface again in discussion of even studying the issue.
Dunn, while asking if there were any other creative ways to supplement firefighters, also suggested looking into the problem later.
Granting that the department request is already a compromise, Mumpower nonetheless aired misgivings about a study. "Is it poor procedure to discuss this when there is no funding?, " he asked, mentioning again the specter of "false hope."
"I think these gentlemen are fair. They know we are in a budget crisis," Dunn avowed, later adding, "I hate to put these folks off for another year."
Ellis reported he would like to see the fire department rethink its stance on Social Security, going on to give a glowing endorsement to the program. "I can't imagine it's not going to be there. It's wonderful," he enthused. It's so nice to see that coming in."
Without making any promises, Ellis agreed that Council will try to find the money for the study in August.