Council Seeks Workaround for Living Wage Legislation


By Leslee Kulba- Breaking with a tradition that informally went into effect since the members of Asheville City Council have all been Democrat, the board entered a lengthy discussion of several items listed on the consent agenda. As an aside, Councilman Cecil Bothwell is no longer Democrat, having left the party when Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Hillary Clinton. Bothwell, among other things, insinuated Clinton was corporatist, war-mongering, a “felon,” and a “pathological liar.”

But back to city council, Bothwell wanted more information on two items to open a discussion on living wages. First, Council was to approve a contract for up to $140,000 annually with Guard-One Protective Services for security guards at city hall and at the public works building. Reasons for outsourcing may have included training and insurance. Contracting for security service would at least work around the complaint often lodged against the city’s police department: It invests considerably in training officers, only to have them accept higher-paying jobs in other municipalities.

Regardless, the winning bid went to the company with which the city has contracted for four years. Guard-One had listed $16.95 per hour as what it would charge the city per guard. Bothwell asked how much of that went to wages; he didn’t want the city, “bidding down the cost of labor.” Risk Manager Brad Stein said he didn’t know, but the company had requested a 58-cent raise expressly for health insurance for its employees. Learning the employees were receiving benefits, Bothwell then seemed satisfied.

The other item Bothwell pulled was consideration of a contract for temporary labor services through FIRST at Blue Ridge, Inc. Those hired would handle cleanup projects, like “litter collection, graffiti removal, drainage, traffic control, building maintenance, and other like work,” for the US Cellular Center and the Department of Public Works. The contract was for up to $330,000 a year for the next two years.

FIRST is a nonprofit that treats and seeks to mainstream persons with chronic chemical addictions. The city has been working with them for a number of years. Responding to concerns about living wages, DPW Greg Shuler explained the workers are paid $9/hour on top of receiving housing, transportation, and life and job skills training. Many FIRST temps end up working themselves into permanent positions.

City Manager Gary Jackson said staff, presumably at the instigation of one or more members of council, had been studying the feasibility of beginning a day labor program, like other municipalities are launching. He cautioned the jobs that would be offered in a day labor program were the very ones FIRST employees are filling. Council, he said, would have “decisions to make [with] policy tradeoffs.”

Also due to the living wage question, Councilman Brian Haynes yanked from the consent agenda consideration of a contract with Pinnacle Landscapes, LLC. In a separate vote, he and Bothwell opposed entering into a contract, for $110,849 plus a 20 percent contingency, for maintaining city medians.

There would be no need for this in an old-fashioned, functional city. But in the name of children, the city had to put up a bunch of concrete obstacles in the roads to slow automobiles. Then, the concrete was ugly, not to mention all the accompanying warning signs, and it obstructed the natural flow of rain, directing stormwater in inappropriate directions. So, the city planted flowers.

That didn’t work, either. In the long ago, Mayor Terry Bellamy brought attention to all the tangled straw adorning the obstacles. And so the city hired some maintenance people. The work, on first glance, would be seasonal, since it pertained to vegetation, so contracting for the labor, rather than having the crew sit around twiddling their thumbs on the taxpayer dime half the year, made sense.

The city does not collect wage data with its Requests for Proposals, so Haynes asked if the city manager could do so for future contracts. Mayor Esther Manheimer gave a brief history of the state’s pertinent prohibition, and Gordon Smith expanded. “We passed a living wage requirement for contractors, and then one month later saw the General Assembly make what we had just done illegal.” The ruling came with blanket legislation to prevent municipalities throughout the state from passing ordinances with ill-advised, or, “unintended” economic consequences.

Councilwoman Julie Mayfield repeated Haynes’ request, suggesting the data not be used as an illegal criterion, but purely for informational purposes. Providing a clue as to what that meant, Smith concluded, “So, as we move forward, I appreciate the creative thinking around that.”

Lastly, council was asked to approve renewing a contract with the US Drug Enforcement Administration to employ an officer to operate out of the federal agency’s local post. Haynes, once again, read prepared remarks. He said the War on Drugs was begun by President Nixon to control his political opponents. It empowered the federal government to break up meetings, vilify and arrest leaders, and raid homes. As a result, the casualties in this war are disproportionately black. The takeaway was the Black Lives Matter movement would not be necessary were marijuana to be legalized. Haynes called for healing.

Bothwell concurred, and citizen Timothy Sadler, who frequently gives voice to pot at council meetings, further urged council to “reach out to Obama.” The president, he said, had promised to legalize pot, and doing so could be, “the most important piece of his legacy.” Citizen Jan Kubiniec said the people in her neighborhood, Beaucatcher Mountain, were not just smoking pot, but doing or pushing harder stuff and posing serious concerns.

The mayor called on Police Chief Tammy Hooper to explain why she needed the agreement. Hooper said the city would otherwise be unable to pursue dealers outside the city limits or county lines. Manheimer invited anybody who did not think the city had a problem with drugs to sign up for a police Ride-A-Long. The city had a serious problem with meth, opioids, and other controlled substances, she added. She had been surprised at the number of respondents who listed drugs as their number-one community concern on the recent city survey.

Smith then asked why the Public Safety Committee had advanced to council’s consent agenda a matter with so much conflict amongst its members. Each PSC member had a different recollection; but in the end, council agreed to support the agent 4-3; Bothwell, Haynes, and Keith Young opposed.

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