By Leslee Kulba
NCIS is a television program that, more than most, uses dialogue to develop character sketches as well as the plot. Asheville City Council’s last meeting was like an episode of NCIS. The character sketches, of course, defined where candidates wanted constituents to see them on the issues, as a subtle way of saying, “Vote for me.” The plot, which Julie Mayfield revealed in the final moments of the meeting, was that there will probably be a property tax increase in the next budget cycle.
The faux-focus of discussion was transit. Members of the public were told the city manager, Debra Campbell, wanted to give them an update on what the city is doing about stretching transit schedules, in both time and space. Campbell only said what was already known: people want extended schedules, and the city doesn’t have enough funding to make it happen. Assistant Transportation Director Jessica Morris said the city was performing an analysis of existing transit routes and looking for cost savings, both within her department and in the general fund, that could be reassigned to support route expansion.
Morris said the city increased its transit budget by $1,200,000 this year. $200,000 is supporting a maintenance facilities study; the rest is going toward improving customer service and doing a better job of running the buses on-time. In estimating how much more would be needed as service expands, staff has to consider that more maintenance will be needed, possibly necessitating a third shift. In addition to hiring more drivers, more dispatchers, mechanics, and customer service agents will be needed. If the transit station stays open later, more security officers will have to be hired, too.
There is also the question of whether or not the city will have to buy more buses to meet demand. Buying buses is usually a slow and costly process. The going rate for an electric bus is around $750,000, and turnaround times could be on the order of a year.
Councilor Vijay Kapoor said he did not see the city funding the level of transit demanded without an additional, dedicated revenue stream. He reminded listeners that the city did not need to apply for competitive federal grants each year, but could, using a tool provided by the General Assembly, lean on the county to hold a countywide referendum to approve a quarter-cent sales tax. Kapoor appealed to the citizen activists who had lobbied him to also lobby the county commissioners.
Councilor Julie Mayfield contributed that while Kapoor’s recommendation was legal, it was not practical; in her history of advocating for transit, the county commissioners and state legislators have been inclined to work against city interests. She added, in straight language one would not hear in the commissioners’ chambers, that the county, “didn’t do what it was supposed to do with the last quarter-cent sales tax,” which had been advertised as raising funds for new buildings at AB Tech and then sunsetting.
Mayfield instead proposed lobbying the General Assembly to pass a bill that would allow the city to hold a referendum to approve its own quarter-cent sales tax for transit. The referendum would pass more easily if only city dwellers were to vote on it.
To this, Mayor Esther Manheimer, who has spent a lot of time among legislators in Raleigh, opined that, given legislators’ historical contempt for municipalities, Kapoor’s suggestion was more likely to play out than Mayfield’s. While the counties that have been able to pass a quarter-cent transit tax are those whose urban populations account for a tremendous share of voters, Asheville was large enough not to be dismissive of favorable odds. What’s more, she said the Department of Revenue was balking over Mayfield’s idea due to complexities that would be introduced in establishing a municipal tax collection system. Manheimer estimated the countywide tax would bring in $13,000,000 a year for transit.
At the end of the meeting, after general public comment, Mayfield said if the city couldn’t get another dedicated revenue stream for expanding transit, council would have to increase property taxes. She indicated she would be happy to broach the subject when budget sessions resumed.
In Other Matters
Somewhat on the subject of transit, Quinn Powers complained about all the heroin in his West Asheville neighborhood. He said nobody used the bus stop to catch a bus; they use it to “catch a buzz.” The problem went beyond the orange syringes that litter the roadsides – he presented a photograph, taken that day, of nine needle caps on the ground by the bus stop – and it was more than having to make nonemergency phone calls every day. Recently, a friend got stabbed four times while waiting for a ride outside a gas station on Haywood Road. Powers supposed the assault had something to do with a “gang initiation quest.”