The state of the city and the county was the theme in the opening session of Leadership Asheville Forums 2018/2019 critical issues luncheons. Invited to speak were Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Brownie Newman.
Manheimer outlined Asheville City Council’s vision.
“The council really tries to reflect what it believes the community wants us to be focused on,” she said.
The fiscal year began July 1 with an approved general fund budget of $124.25 million. Manheimer said the tax rate has gone down because our values have gone up. One of the primary focus points for the city council is building on the office of equity and inclusion.
“We’re not the first to do it, but there are not many that have done it. This is sort of a novel idea to create an office like this.” The budget provides for more staffing in the office.
In the 2016 election, voters overwhelmingly supported the passage of three general obligation bonds, $17 million for parks and recreation, $25 million for affordable housing, and $32 million for transportation infrastructure, totaling $74 million. Examples of these funded projects include renovation of the Montford Community Center, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, which has recently been enhanced and resurfaced.
The city is presently conducting an examination of three city owned properties to propose redevelopment for deed restricted affordable housing, the former Matthews Ford site, the old ice house site in the River Arts District, and the city garage (commonly referred to as the Taj Ma Garage) on South Charlotte Street.
The general obligation funds enable the city to pursue matching grants to leverage those funds to a greater extent.
“For example, the city just received $18 million from the state in matching grant funds to finish three greenway projects and two sidewalk projects one on New Haw Creek Road and the other on Johnston Boulevard in West Asheville. Those are major projects that cost a lot of money,” Manheimer said.
A new Community EMT Pilot Program deploys firefighters equipped with medical kits on bicycles downtown to evaluate the effectiveness of increasing public safety resources. This effort is also intended to address the growing conflict between business owners and panhandling “travelers” without involving police. The Tourism Development Authority is funding the capital needs for funding this project.
In the wake of the incident where an Asheville police officer was accused of beating alleged jaywalker Johhnnie Rush, the mayor and city council have agreed to have an outside consultant (Twenty-First Century Policing) conduct a review of police departmental procedures.
City council has completed its Transit Master Plan, and its Comprehensive Plan through a community based input process. City council is advertising for a new city manager, with over 60 applications already received.
A community committee has been assembled to vet the candidates as part of a process anticipated to be complete by the year’s end. Asheville is also looking for a new city attorney. Robin Currin, our current city attorney has accepted a job as city attorney in Raleigh, analogous to a promotion.
The N.C. State Legislature passed a bill last summer that requires city council seats to be elected from five districts, with one seat elected at large, as is the mayor’s seat. The city council election cycle has also been moved from odd years to even years. The mayor said she supports the move because voter turnout is historically greater in even years.
“As a consequence however it added one year to everyone’s term, so I’ll be the mayor forever,” Manheimer quipped.
Newman approached the lectern next and said he appreciates the opportunity to talk about some if the issues and goals Buncombe County is focused on achieving. In the first six months after being sworn in as chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in December 2016, the commission took action on several new initiatives.
Early this year Buncombe County commissioners voted to establish six key priorities: affordable housing, growing a stronger local economy with a diverse workforce, expanding early childhood education, supporting local criminal justice reform, addressing the opioid epidemic, and providing leadership for clean and renewable energy. The county is working to make a positive difference now, but each will require a long-term commitment.
The commission approved additional funding in the operating budget to provide pay raises for public school teachers, and non-certified staff in city and county schools. A new office of sustainability was created to accelerate implementation for the use of clean, renewable energy for public buildings and within the wider community.
Working in tandem with the district attorney, local judges and the Sherriff’s Department, a new initiative was launched to divert first time, non-violent offenders away from the criminal justice process, where convictions often have devastating impacts on people’s future economic prospects.
“The good work being done on these and other initiatives was overshadowed shortly thereafter when an internal audit just over a year ago flagged several purchases on county credit cards that did not appear to be for justifiable public purposes. As the internal audit went deeper, other purchases were identified that indicated the county manager who had recently announced her retirement was using taxpayer funds to purchase property for her personal benefit,” Newman said.
After being briefed on this by the county’s internal audit staff, he and the county attorney referred the matter to the local district attorney and the state bureau of investigations.
“Due to the nature of some of the potential crimes involved, the FBI was soon thereafter involved as well.”
That investigation has led to federal indictments against former county manager Wanda Greene, her son, former county employee Michael Green, former director of the county’s department of social services Mandy Stone, and former director of the county’s department of planning and development Jon Creighton.
Newman said elected officials and public staff usually operate with the underlying assumption that people who work for the local government are professionals that work with integrity, which is usually true.
“Unfortunately in this case with these most important local officials it was not.”
The commission is cooperating in the investigation process and changing internal policies to strengthen audit procedures and oversight of financial transactions.
“We are also very focused on recouping taxpayer dollars misused by Wanda Greene and others. One piece of very good news is that the civil lawsuit brought by Buncombe County against Wanda and Michael Greene for their unapproved and illegal purchase of special life insurance policies has already resulted in the repayment of more than $2 million to Buncombe County by the life insurance company that was involved,” Newman said. “We expect Buncombe County taxpayers to be made fully whole.”
Leadership Asheville Forum board member Jack Anderson presented John Ellis with the Circle of Excellence Award for his outstanding contribution to the community.
In his 20 years as the past managing director of the Diana Wortham Theatre, Ellis is credited with turning a virtually unused space into a thriving entertainment venue, Anderson said.
“The success of the theatre played a huge roll in attracting people to downtown Asheville, and contributed vitally to the economic and cultural growth that Asheville experienced.”
Ellis said, “In this time of great divisiveness, the theatre is the one place where people of all ages from different economic backgrounds, from different faiths, different ethnicities, and yes, divergent political views, can come together and share the interactive experience and be one community.”
LAF holds monthly luncheon events at the Country Club of Asheville and membership is open to all interested individuals. The luncheons cost $25 for members, $30 for others, and are held on the fourth Wednesday of each month. For more information, visit www.LeadershipAsheville.com.