Asheville – Asheville City Council approved a legislative agenda this year after taking a hiatus. Mayor Esther Manheimer explained council had foregone the process mainly because it was too much on the defensive to think about being proactive. She added the agenda was being presented with a sense of urgency because the NC General Assembly had no sooner convened than the deadline for submitting bills was looming. City Attorney Brad Branham added the seven items he listed represented priorities. All on council feel passionate about many things, but some items could wait, and others lacked council consensus. Making the cut were:
Restoration of SMAP.
The State Maintenance Assistance Program (SMAP) is used to provide revenue for urban transportation systems, but funding was recently reduced. Municipalities had come to lean on the program for operational and capital projects as well as matching funds for federal grants. Other municipalities are interested in lobbying for the restoration, as are counties wanting full funding of the companion Rural Operating Assistance Program.
A Quarter-Cent Sales Tax for Transit.
Council is looking for dependable, recurring revenue streams for its ambitious transit master plan. Currently, the state only allows counties to hold referenda to authorize quarter-cent local taxes. There is a high expectation other cities will want to sign on to lobby for a bill that would grant all North Carolina municipalities the same powers.
A Civilian Oversight Board for Police.
Interest in citizens’ review boards resurged following the recent rash of high-profile episodes of white-on-black excessive use of force by police officers. Historically, and consistent with the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers, police officers alleged to have perpetrated crimes while in the line of duty have been judged by other police officers, who knows what it is like to be hypervigilant and making split-second, life-and-death decisions.
That said, Asheville is seeking either local or general legislation to grant a group of civilians the right to review the cases of officers facing disciplinary action and make recommendations to the police chief. The move is described as increasing transparency and thus fostering community trust and easing tensions. Securing authority for any group to view protected personnel issues, or details about ongoing investigations or operations will likely be an uphill battle.
Hotel Taxes for Reparations.
At the council’s previous meeting, Manheimer had explained that the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) was created in 1983 to bring tourists to the area. Now that it is popularly held the town is overrun with tourists, the TDA is looking more like an idea whose time has come and gone. Currently, the TDA collects a 6% tax on room accommodations, from which 75% of revenues go toward promoting tourism, and 25% is spent on capital projects that support tourism.
The allocations have changed, by law, through the years; and for the latest iteration, the council is interested in not only changing the ratio to channel less revenue into promotions; it would also like to diversify the categories of allowable expenditures to, perhaps, fund the types of community benefits council will now be asking of hoteliers. Council is also lobbying to expand membership on the TDA board to include artists, service workers, and Airbnb operators.
Discretion on When to Zoom.
During the pandemic shutdown, the NC General Assembly granted approval for public bodies to use Zoom to conduct business required by law to be open to the public. The authority was granted only for the duration of a state-declared emergency, which, too, shall pass. Seeing how Zoom kept government business going during the pandemic and foreseeing other circumstances besides state-declared disasters for convening in this manner, the council will be asking the legislature to grant local authorities the ability to exercise discretion over when this format will be used.
Same-Day Council Votes.
Branham said local governments across the state had interpreted and applied different language, in the authorization for them to hold Zoom meetings, on when votes could now be held. Council is asking that the language be clarified to mean votes may be taken right after public meetings. To date, the most obvious consequence of postponing votes until the next meeting has been unnecessary delays.
Refund the Police.
Cities across the country have been under great pressure to “Defund the Police.” So, as those in North Carolina try to appease rioters by looking at what policing functions they can eliminate, or appear to, and still protect their constituents from violence and other damage to person and property – Senator Chuck Edwards has introduced Senate Bill 100 to help fund the police.
It supports what citizens are demanding and what municipalities are promising, but it is not going over well with local governments like Asheville that are expected to visibly reduce police budgets by farming operations of nonsworn, unarmed law enforcement personnel out to other departments. It is difficult enough for cities to finalize their budgets amid legislative foot-dragging on decisions like how much state funding schools will get each year. The city maintains the bill removes authority from local governments to make their own ears-to-the-ground decisions on appropriations, and that the punishment is way too great for the “crime” of defunding the police.