Asheville – Discussion of reparations dominated Asheville City Council’s annual retreat. Sensing members of the public did not think the city was doing enough, City Manager Debra Campbell wanted to emphasize that council had not dropped the ball. She spoke about how 2020 had been unprecedented for city management. Noting she knew of no other city that delayed approval of its budget in order to respond to demands to Defund the Police, she, for the umpteenth time, said reparations will take a long time.
Later in the meeting, members of the council were quick to jump on Mayor Esther Manheimer for suggesting the council could consider laying the groundwork for reparations to be completed. The message was there was not enough time, money, or grace in the world to pay the debt in full.
During their untelevised teambuilding exercises, the council had discussed how “reparations” have different meanings. Councilwoman Sheneika Smith said some people see it as making persons whole from the blight of urban renewal; others want compensation for 400 years of racism, servitude, and oppression and the multigenerational reverberations therefrom. Council did not decide which way it was going to go during the retreat but left the decision for ongoing discussions as the city continues to develop its response to racial oppression.
Councilwoman Antanette Mosley said she would rather not build a building than build one that does not benefit the city’s most vulnerable, with emphasis on those earning less than 60% area median income. “Understood!” replied Councilwoman Kim Roney. But when Mosley said equity should not only be a value but a requirement, Manheimer asked what that meant in terms of governance. Would the city have equity audits? Council, after all, was elected to represent and serve all people.
Manheimer mentioned the Charlotte Street road diet as an example of a city project that benefitted a neighborhood of mostly white people. At that point, the livestream cut to a big truck commercial, and the narrator, in a turbo voice, said, “Power isn’t born, it’s built over time.” Continuing, Mosley said a more basic question was why there weren’t any black people on Charlotte Street.
In addition to constructing housing for the city’s most vulnerable, Mosley said she wanted a pipeline for an abundance of “people who look like me” to bid on city contracts. She and Roney then talked about, as the city repurposes properties seized during urban development, having the policy to trade the unbuildable lots for parcels of greater value. The city is already committed to building rental residences on publicly-owned lands.
One of the items considered for the council’s top priorities was to secure additional revenue streams to pay for reparations. Suggested sources were additional hotel taxes, a prepared food and beverage tax, and a quarter-cent sales tax for transit. Other suggestions, including a referendum, were suggested and quickly withdrawn when City Attorney Brad Branham reminded newer members on council that the majority of the city’s income comes from property taxes. Sales tax revenues pale by comparison, and the General Assembly has explicitly limited what categories of trade can have local levies. The city could, however, allocate revenues as it pleased.
Recalling how the city now demands community benefits, weighted heavily toward reparations, for new hotel construction; Roney said she wanted to see the same policy applied to all development in the city. Other items Roney wanted to prioritize included completing the first two phases of the city’s transit master plan, responding to the declared climate emergency, and fortifying the city’s tree canopy ordinance. She also wanted to develop resilient and equitable food systems through revised city land-use policies, community garden infrastructure, co-op support, citywide composting, and elimination of food deserts. Implementing participatory budgeting and recruiting engagement ambassadors to help communities disconnected from the city government’s main lines of communication were also up there.
Councilwoman Sage Turner also had a lot of priorities, many of which dealt with land use and housing. These included defining shelter as a basic right. Tactically, that would include increasing the amount of affordable housing, with an emphasis on homeownership. Besides simply putting people in houses, she said the city needed to provide wraparound services for the homeless. At this, Manheimer said social services are a function of the county, not city government; and housing the homeless was more likely to fall under the purview of MAHEC.
Manheimer did, however, want the city to address its homelessness problems separately from its housing programs. She said homelessness, since COVID, was at a crisis level, here and elsewhere. The same was true of trash in the city. Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore had broached the subject, saying she had been elected on a promise to do something about the trash, and she was being bombarded with emails before COVID. She asked where her peers were traveling in the city that they did not see the trash.
Campbell concurred this was a problem. The TDA and other leaders in Buncombe County were aware of it, but cleanup would require special equipment; especially, for the encampments. Turner also said something needs to be done about the spike in violent crime. The city will continue to work on “investing/divesting,” but Smith asked that the efforts be expanded to apply to all city departments, not just the police. In the end, seven on the council voted to prioritize both reparations and COVID relief; six, reimagining the police; five, an employee compensation adjustment; and three, housing.