AshevilleGovernmentLocal Opinion

Is Asheville’s racism brouhaha a smokescreen for a 25% budget increase?

By Leslee Kulba – Tuesday, May 15, was the date Asheville City Council was scheduled to receive its formal budget presentation. The public hearing is scheduled for May 22, well before another issue of the Tribune will hit the streets.

CFO Barbara Whitehorn gave council a four-minute rundown, mostly addressing process and scheduling. The total budget was $124.2 million, representing a 2.9 percent increase over last year. At 42.89 cents, the property tax rate would stay the same; and $471,000, an amount equal to 16.81 percent of operating expenses, would remain in the city’s unassigned fund balance. New programs included the creation of a Human Relations Commission (HRC), the establishment of an Office of Equity and Inclusion, the hiring of a transit planner, and the purchase of replacement buses.

Other than that, Whitehorn introduced last-minute revisions to the city’s parking fees. People would still be able to park free for one hour, provided they parked no longer than an hour. If they didn’t, they would be charged for the full time parked. Maximum daily rates would increase from $10 to $12, and monthly rates would go up $10.

Council moved along, as there was nothing to see. The main issue of the evening was the same one of the last several meetings: Everything about Asheville government is steeped in systemic racism, and council and staff are kowtowing to Patrick Conant, who has attained some form of de facto leadership position since the bodycam footage of the beating of Johnnie Rush brought national disgrace upon the city.

Conant, an advocate for transparency in government, started as a member of Code for Asheville. In one of his many presentations for the evening, city staffers Jaime Matthews and Scott Barnwell presented a list of items Conant had requested from the police department, including data sets, policies, and actions. (Incidentally, the city’s proposed budget includes $25,000 to fund a part-time assistant city clerk to help process the upsurge in public records requests the city has been receiving.)

Invited to speak, Conant expressed frustration with city staff. He knew the way forward, but staff was obfuscating. He said the process shifted at every meeting because, “Our police department is not ready to move forward with data transparency.” When Mayor Esther Manheimer indicated council was onboard with his ideas, and he wasn’t saying anything to advance the dialogue, Conant told the mayor he was halfway through his remarks and continued.

Councilor Brian Haynes asked what the hang-up was in fulfilling Conant’s request; and Councilor Keith Young said the can could not get kicked down the road any further. He was not going to sit through another meeting listening to people say stuff will get done. He did not care how, and he did not want to hear excuses. Councilor Gwen Wisler explained personnel and privacy laws offer valid protections that ought not be cavalierly steamrolled; and Interim City Manager Cathy Ball defended staff, saying they had neither the ability nor resources to move at the speed of light.

A few reasons for delays could be a desire to protect the whereabouts of people with stalkers, people fleeing domestic violence, or people trying to leave a gang. Law enforcement officers are those to whom citizens delegate authority to use force, and dealing with potential threats, making split-second decisions and interventions can get ugly. Things are not as clear-cut and choreographed as they are on the silver screen. In addition, the police don’t want to open their playbook over to criminals or disclose how they are building a case against a hardened criminal. The latter would not win traction with the anti-police crowd.

Mike Napelitano, proprietor of Manicomio Pizza downtown, complained about the homeless addicts who repeatedly defecate in his alcove, panhandle customers on his dining deck, bathe in his restroom sinks, and smoke pot outside his air vents. One evening, at 7:30 p.m., he was called outside to deal with somebody urinating on the front of his restaurant. He hired a security officer to help with the panhandling, but he thought the city needed to show him some love. He said other business owners similarly afflicted will likely address council at the next meeting.

Manheimer said the city was already exploring means of helping the community in question without police interaction. Napelitano said he was not heartless; he had already hired some of them, two of whom quit without notice, one in the middle of his shift. He believed in the old adage of helping those who help themselves; the substance abusers who were disrespecting his customers were not helping themselves but looking for free handouts. Citizen Amy Cantrell replied that she loves these people and calls them family.

Conant also spoke during public comment and during council’s consideration of dissolving the Citizens Police Advisory Committee (CPAC). CPAC now only has five of nine seats filled, and the HRC was going to render it redundant. It appeared the city was throwing Conant’s people a bone by threatening to dissolve something they treasured and then appearing to be swayed not to by public opinion. Citizens complained the city was going to shut down CPAC after the Rush incident, just as things were getting hot and heavy.

Then, Manheimer announced she was adding something to the agenda. It directed the city’s lobbyist to pursue legislation that would give the newly-forming HRC powers to act in more than an advisory capacity. It was based on House Bill 165, which had died in the last legislative session. H165 would have granted citizen review boards investigating police misconduct the powers and duties to, “receive and investigate complaints by members of the general public against law enforcement officers that allege misconduct; review an internal investigation and discipline of a law enforcement officer who is alleged to have committed misconduct, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and compel the production of evidence; make findings and decisions on disciplinary action of a law enforcement officer alleged to have committed misconduct; recommend changes in policy to the board of county commissioners and the head of the law enforcement agency within the county that established the citizen review board; [and] exercise any other power deemed necessary by the governing body of the county to the discharge of its duties.”

Manheimer was requesting the introduction of a local bill that would apply only to Asheville, override existing personnel privacy laws, and disband the city’s Civil Service Board. It was bold, it was radical, and Councilor Vijay Kapoor politely asked the mayor to put on the skids.

“This isn’t even on the agenda,” he noted. The mayor hadn’t even asked for a vote to add it to the agenda. While council had discussed the matters conceptually, this was the first time council was seeing the proposal. Kapoor said something so significant required careful vetting, perhaps by staff or council’s Governance Committee. His request was heeded; but, the members of the vetting committee, Manheimer, Young, and Sheneika Smith, had all enthusiastically voiced their support.

Too much precaution cannot be taken to avoid a strong police state, but something else was in play. Conant, who was neither elected nor appointed, was clearly giving council and staff their marching orders. So, why shouldn’t council let him be de facto police chief, too, and own any incidents he says won’t result from overriding privacy protections? Debating him, of course, would be racist and the end of one’s political career.

Back to the pesky budget, the main takeaway is it has increased from $99,759,233 in FY2015-16 to $124,225,346 in FY2018-19, or 25 percent in four years. Over the same period, salaries increased 16%; benefits, 25%, operational costs, 21 percent, and capital and debt, 61 percent. While the property tax rate is not changing this year, water rates increased to give the city a projected additional $880,000; stormwater fees increased 5 percent for an additional $280,000 ; and development-related fee changes would give the city another $138,000. Then, there’s the $74 million in bonds the voters just approved for capital investment in parks and recreation, affordable housing, and transit.

As was mentioned above, the city is spending a lot on personnel and programs to eradicate systemic racism. The Parks & Recreation Department is using bond revenues to implement its Racial Equity Action Plan. It is also working toward gender inclusion. In addition to doubling its outside agency/strategic partner budget, the city has created a $50,000 Neighborhood Opportunity program to address accusations of discrimination against people of color. The Asheville Art Museum will receive $75,000.

While the city is still hemming and hawing over who will be the recipients of the $25 million Affordable Housing bonds; it plans to move forward with a form of vassalage, supporting the construction of new rent-controlled residential units on city-owned land. Additional funding will go toward supporting the culturally-significant Red Panda exhibit at the WNC Nature Center and at least twelve wellness programs for city staff.

Capital investments include continuing to spiff up city hall and creating complete streets in the RADTIP and on north Charlotte Street. Over the last four years, the city’s Transportation budget has increased 18 percent, not unlike other department budgets; except it includes the transfer of funds into the department and projects out, and $111,000 in annual savings from converting traffic lights to LEDs. The increases in parking revenues mentioned above will be transferred to the Transportation Department.

The city is giving employees a 2.5 percent pay increase and offering more for positions exhibiting exorbitant market disparity. As always, the police department is struggling with attrition. To help, the city is providing incentives for officers who speak foreign languages and a shift differential.

Move along, nothing to see here …

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