Asheville Adopts Legislative Agenda - TribPapers

Asheville Adopts Legislative Agenda

City Attorney Brad Branham goes over city council's legislative agenda.

Asheville – Members of Asheville City Council adopted their legislative agenda last Tuesday. Before legislative long sessions, council typically formalizes what City Attorney Brad Branham referred to as a wish-list for lobbying the state legislature; they prepare one for short sessions occasionally. This was going to be the last chance council had to approve their agenda, as the legislature has firmly stated it will meet only 20 days this session.

While past councils have wanted to present a united front, there was going to be dissent on one item. So, it was removed from the “slate” for a separate vote.

Reform the Local Occupancy Tax Utilization

Since it was authorized by the General Assembly in 1983, Buncombe County’s occupancy tax has been amended multiple times. The last amendment left the county with a 6% room tax, 75% of which was going towards promoting local tourism; the remainder would support capital projects that supported the tourism economy. Of course, the city would like more funds to balance its expanding budget, but the request speaks more about equity. The talking points cover reasons previously given for why the Tourism Development Authority wouldn’t fund planned improvements to Memorial Stadium. These include wanting funds to be applicable to community amenities, infrastructure, and “equity concerns.” The city will also lobby for more equitable representation in the Tourism Development Authority, to include artists, tourism industry workers, and persons operating short-term rentals.

Mayor Esther Manheimer said the TDA was expected to collect $400,000 this year, and she did not think they needed that much for promotions. Therefore, she said, the city was suggesting that at least 50% be made available for other purposes. A bill already filed only suggests up to 33%.

Oppose Legislation that Would Limit Reasonable Regulation of Short-Term Vacation Rentals

A while back, members of city council expressed grave concerns that if they didn’t “regulate” Airbnb’s, enterprising individuals would buy up entire neighborhood blocks to run a business. They did not complain that Airbnb’s were taking business away from hotels. Rather, they argued the conversion of residential units to businesses decreased housing stock, thus driving up prices and harming persons in need of affordable housing. They would also bring down the tone of neighborhoods. Council therefore restricted who could run how many, required responsible parties to register, and imposed fines for noncompliance. The General Assembly responded to cities like Asheville by filing a lot of bills that would essentially ban local governments from regulating Airbnb’s. Therefore, the city will lobby against the pending bills.

Support for State and Local Reparations Efforts

The City of Asheville made national headlines when, in 2020, it announced that council had approved paying reparations to the local Black community. While city council remains in the planning and visioning stages, the state and federal government, as called upon by the resolution, appears to be dropping the ball. Council will, therefore, be lobbying for legislation that would, “remove barriers” and provide funding for reparations.

Support New Legislation and State Funding to Encourage Development of Affordable Housing.

Citing a 25% increase in Asheville rents over the last year, the legislative agenda argues failure to pass “additional legislation to incentivize and/or subsidize” new affordable housing would likely exacerbate the homelessness crisis. Moreover, it would disproportionately harm “historically marginalized communities.” The proposed solution was for the state to commit the remainder of its American Rescue Plan Act funding toward the creation of affordable housing. Presumably, the one-time cash infusion would trickle-down economic growth so fast that tenants would be flush by the time the subsidies run out.

Authority to Conduct a Referendum on a ¼-Cent Sales Tax for Transit

Former Asheville city councilwoman and current state senator Julie Mayfield introduced legislation last year to impose a new quarter-cent sales-and-use tax strictly in the City of Asheville. Proceeds would provide a more or less steady stream of revenue for transit. One problem is that counties are the only local governments authorized in North Carolina to levy sales taxes. Because the measure must be approved via referendum, the agenda states, “It is the belief of the Asheville City Council that there is strong community support for such a tax within the City of Asheville, and perhaps in other locations as well…”

Councilwoman Sandra Turner cast the lone vote against the measure. She said she wanted a countywide tax because people in the county should help pay for city transit, when actually, holding the requisite referendum countywide would likely tank the issue. Councilwoman Kim Roney tried to sway Kilgore, saying whereas property taxes would be funded entirely by Asheville property owners and their tenants; sales-and-use taxes would be paid by visitors as well, food, gas, and medicine would be exempt. Kilgore countered the sales-and-use taxes would hurt local, small businesses.

Support State Funding to Provide a Cost of Living Increase for Members of the Local Governmental Employees’ Retirement System

Members of council argued city pensioners have received “few if any” cost-of-living adjustments. This is particularly concerning in the current economic environment. City retirees receive their benefits from the Local Governmental Employees’ Retirement System, a fund administered by the state, but funded by the city of their employ. Council wants the state, not the city, to cover the increase.

Authority for Electronic Meetings

During the pandemic shutdown, the state authorized local governments to conduct their public business via Zoom telecommunications. The authorizing legislation, however, applied only during state-declared states of emergency. Leaders in Asheville and other local governments would prefer to retain the option, with the discretion to do so in the hands of each county or municipality.

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