Living Beyond Means, City Expands into New Frontiers

Asheville city hallRS

by Leslee Kulba- Members of city council received an update on the “comp plan.” Rather than reinventing the wheel, the multiple parties steering the process, led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, analyzed more than fifty plans the city has already commissioned. One reason the plan is being updated is to deploy, “new branches of planning that nary existed a decade ago [like] resiliency, regeneration, and planning’s specific influence on public health.” Another is the city has new problems and different legal constraints; for example, it is no longer able to engage in involuntary annexations. A third reason would be that old plans create problems for the next plan to solve. For example, older plans proposed strategies to grow the local tourism economy.

“While the reports highlight many key issues, three of the most significant takeaways include (1) that the large reliance on municipal property owners to sustain services that benefit an entire region is not a sustainable path forward, (2) that the city’s recent reliance on declining municipal budgets as the only path for achieving fiscal health is also unsustainable, and (3) that the city’s current budget struggles are incompatible with the city’s grand aspirations as illustrated through recent planning efforts.” One gets the impression planning processes are merely to encourage the public to think big and for city fathers to take the visions as a mandate and raise taxes.

The city’s vision statement on fiscal responsibility is halfway decent. “Asheville has an AAA bond rating. We use our debt capacity and revenue wisely in order to maintain and improve the city’s infrastructure and invest in our public employees. We strive to control our costs and still provide the highest possible level of service. We have a diverse revenue base that enables us to plan far into the future and to benefit from our growth. Our individual and corporate citizens generously invest in our community through partnerships and public/private projects that enrich the quality of life in the city.” But every call for partnerships is evidence the city is living beyond its means.

Although the city fathers are inclined to reach out for partners in order to fund city services, government continues to expand its scope. For example, one of a handful of key challenges the city faces is “combatting climate change.” City staff continue to honor the goal of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions 2 percent a year until levels are 20 percent – a sentence oft repeated with neither baseline nor specification of whether a geometric or arithmetic series is prescribed. Regardless, “UNC Asheville’s National Environmental and Modeling Center (NEMAC) is engaged in a multifaceted effort alongside city leaders to develop options for how Asheville can best prepare for climate-related hazards.”

Candidly, the comp plan tells, “The state passed the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002 … to give North Carolina standing to bring lawsuits to force other states to reduce emissions affecting North Carolina.” The state then sued Tennessee in 2011, forcing that state to clean up its coal-fired electrical plants and pay North Carolina $11.2 million to support energy-efficient programs. In another partnership for getting other peoples’ money when tax rates are high enough already, the city “created a stormwater utility in order to collect fees to implement the stormwater management requirements of the permit.”

The plans make no secret about leadership’s desire to move people out of automobiles. They speak of “promoting mode shift” with alternatives to streets and possibly creating auto-free zones. The planners observed that demand was highest for mass transit to serve neighborhoods, employment centers and institutions being less important destinations. Yet Councilman Gordon Smith told how city leaders had envisioned greenways as a future network of transportation corridors, connecting neighborhoods to schools, jobs, and groceries. They were not so much to be, as the plan suggested, parks or recreational amenities.

Housing was a very large part of the plan. Pulling from the Bowen Report, it stated, “45 percent of renters cannot afford rent and 32 percent of homeowners cannot afford their mortgage payments. … Asheville has over 100,000 residents who cannot afford an efficiency apartment, as well as 509 homeless residents.” As for its track record, “The city has funded 433 affordable housing units since 2014 through the Housing Trust Fund and HOME, through a total of over $1.7 million in funding. These sources have also funded approximately 165 affordable units outside the city limits since 2014. The city has conditionally zoned 109 affordable housing units since 2014. … Only nine affordable housing units have been completed since 2014.”

So, the city will become more involved in providing affordable housing. Suggested strategies include community organizing, reviewing and eliminating unnecessary regulations, offering tax credits, encouraging employers to assist employees with housing, undertaking projects with tax increment financing, partnering, and “using the housing trust fund in more creative ways.”

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