Kenilworth Forum: Questions cut for time

The Kenilworth Residents' Association solicited questions from residents, but most went unasked due to time constraints. Here are all the questions asked, with my answers.

Kenilworth Candidate forum Oct. 16th, 7 pm Kenilworth Center

Questions that did not get asked @ forum:

1. How do we balance the needs of our neighborhoods with the need for more affordable housing?

I favor letting neighborhoods come together and generate their own ideas, which could be adopted into zoning via zoning overlays. One neighborhood might be better suited for basement and backyard apartments, another for small infill, and yet another for high-density multiuse buildings on commercial corridors. Neighborhoods themselves have the best sense of where the best fit is, and I genuinely believe they can be trusted to come up with come up with solutions that address the crisis-level shortage of affordable housing in innovative and individual ways, rather than a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach to zoning that ignores different areas’ infrastructure needs or historic characters.

2. What would council be willing to do to elevate or politicize the room tax issue enabling Avl to have a definite part of the funds to take care of increased expenses due to tourism ie. police, fire, emergency services etc.?

Given the current makeup of the state legislature, that’s a tough haul. I see two approaches: First, we can already access room tax funds for local needs under the state law, as long as it’s for projects that also have tourism benefits. Examples are downtown sidewalks, affordable art studios, or small-business incubators. This can be helped by appointing friendlier board members to the TDA, or leaving seats vacant if applicants won’t commit to using the grant process as much for local goals as is currently legal. The second, thermonuclear option is to pressure the county commission to reduce or eliminate the room tax unless the state commits to a more favorable cut for the city. I don’t think we have to go there yet, and I’m not sure a majority of commissioners would go along. But that should be the sword hanging over all discussions with the board.

3. Two part question: (1) On a scale of 1-5 with 5 representing most desirable value, how would you rate the quality and effectiveness of the working relationship between city council and city hall/staff? (2) Is city council providing sufficient oversight and involvement in decisions/actions City Hall takes? ie. spending.

To part (1), it varies between council members. And the public should be aware that county management puts firewalls between council and regular staff, forcing information to go through the manager’s office itself. As someone who works constantly with city staff on various issues, I would chafe at that kind of information control. To part (2), the answer again varies, but frequently, no, council seems to skim budgets for each member’s pet priorities and leave the rest to the manager and budget office. An example of low scrutiny is the number of highly compensated interim positions created over the last few years and highly-compensated assistant managers and department heads filling multiple roles in city hall.

4. COA City Manager has been on the job a long time, assess his job performance, and even if he’s doing a good job, is it time to consider a change?

I am 100% for a performance assessment/one-year audit of the county manager’s office. We need to come at this from the perspective the county commission should have taken years ago vis a vis their manager: a longtime manager accumulates a lot of entrenchment and political power. My experience with Gary Jackson doesn’t point to corruption, but he is professionally cautious, especially as city problems seem to call for more and more daring approaches. Is he facilitating or standing as a roadblock to public priorities? I’d give it a year and a formal process to find out.

5. Does a resilient community mean the same thing as a resilient economy? How are they the same or different and how is success measured?

Good question. A good way to look at this is through something like economic development and job creation: If the city spends incentive dollars and other resources to bring in, say, a big tech employer, are the resulting jobs for engineers and programmers going to the local job base, or are they simply going to high-skilled workers who move in from out-of-area? From the perspective of a resilient economy, the out-of-area hires don’t matter: you can show wages rising, new homes selling, and all these great indicators. But from the perspective of a resilient community, you haven’t done anything unless you’re connecting local residents with those jobs (or the training to get the jobs.) If everyone near the poverty line moves out of town, the economy looks great, but we haven’t served the community. That’s an important distinction that, unfortunately, there’s too little incentive for city leaders to acknowledge.

6. In light of the recent ongoing FBI investigation in Buncombe County, 1) has the city taken action to initiate a comprehensive review of City personnel and project spending? 2) If not, should it?

(1) Not that I’m aware. (2) Yes.

7. Provide a big, out of the box, idea that would help with affordable housing, jobs, and low wages.

My constant refrain with housing creation and jobs incentives is that, in both cases, city incentives are entirely focused on large companies that don’t need the money. Housing dollars go to pay big, profitable developers to add a few units at below-market rates. Jobs dollars go to pay big, profitable corporations to move here instead of another city. There is no – zero – city program to offer housing incentives to small landlords renting, say, a basement apartment, even though those type of “nontraditional rentals” are 25% of the city’s housing stock, and those landlords are under pressure from rising taxes and stagnant incomes to convert to short-term rental or raise rents. There’s little to no city effort to incentivize the growth of small businesses, even though, in jobs terms, growing 10 local employers by 10 people each produces the same effect or better, with fewer tax dollars, than recruiting a 100-employee outof-area business to the city. The resistance to put incentive dollars in local hands is, frankly, baffling to me. Of everything I ran on in 2015, it’s the only piece that’s seen no action whatsoever.

8. Explain your position on the district elections being imposed on COA. What is the plan to improve the relationship between the city and NC General Assembly?

I’m against the district elections being imposed. If we defeat them in court, though, I think the city should seriously approach the idea of launching a district system that suits us – maybe a mix of district and at-large seats, or a system like the county school board, where there are districts, but everyone votes for each seat. I’m not clear what we can do at this point to make things better with the legislature. Overturning their decrees in court only seems to make them angrier at us.

9. What important issue does the city face that hasn’t been a topic of discussion during the campaign?

Several. How to incorporate our nearly-invisible immigrant population into civic life, for starters.

10. What characteristics make your neighborhood feel special? 

The engagement and activism of our Haw Creek neighborhood leaders.

11. What is the driving philosophy behind the improvement of RAD? Is it money well spent?

To be blunt, the philosophy is economic development through transportation infrastructure – taking low-value property and increasing its tax value by building the roads and sidewalks and parks that will entice property investors and businesses to the area. Yes, I think it’s ultimately money well spent and will result in a beautiful and useful riverfront area like Greenville’s or Chatanooga’s, which similarly required big investment. The big question is, if not now – when? Public projects across the state are inflating at 10%+ annual rates, doubling in price every 6-7 years. Honestly, many of Asheville’s works in the pipeline should have been done decades ago, but there was a focus on avoiding spending and keeping taxes artificially low as our infrastructure went to pot and economic development lagged the state. We’re paying the price now.

12. Is it a long term stable situation when a median family income earner cannot support median family home in the COA?

No. The city needs to get real about keeping this a community shared by all incomes.

13. What is your view on how to address community fears about police violence against people of color? What might progressive criminal justice look like in AVL.

I think the city should selectively decline to enforce certain infractions that disproportionately impact people of color – broken taillights, expired registrations, small possession of marijuana, for example. We also need to boost starting salaries and requirements for new recruits to hire better officers from among the community and minority populations, and pay them enough to live in the community they police.

14. What experience do you have reading financial reports or other documents crucial to your oversight role?

I’ve followed six city budget cycles and moved items through them. I’ve had analysis of city capital budgets printed in the newspaper. I created a widely-used app during the revaluation and recent tax increases that showed the impact to individual homeowners. In my professional life, I’m a financial planner managing tens of millions of dollars.

15. What specifically will you do to fix infrastructure problems resulting from runaway development in AVL?

We will have to put a hold on some proposed developments in areas with existing traffic problems until infrastructure catches up, and explore options like use fees (similar to impact fees in other states) to get developers to pay for the infrastructure impacts they cause. I think the bonds are good first steps, but too many local problems are beholden to the state DOT’s improvement schedule, and we’ll need to constantly pressure them to move faster.

16. Renters are often taken advantage of predatory landlords, with little recourse. How would you help our most vulnerable residents and hold bad landlords accountable to the law?

The best way to protect renters is to have more rental options available. Renters are afraid to report problems because, if the landlord ejects them, they may not find another place to live in the city. In a city with more basement and backyard apartments, and more mixed-use housing available, the ball’s in the tenant’s court. I’d follow the advice recently presented at the Pisgah Legal forum as well.

17. My taxes just tripled in the recent revaluation and now short term rentals are largely banned which puts a major crimp in my plans for retirement income. What is the right and just fix considering how our hotel occupancy taxes are among the lowest in the state?

I’m not sure how the two are connected. Our hotel tax is now actually the state norm, and only one or two cities, grandfathered in before hotel taxes were standardized across NC, have higher. In fact, the rate was raised two years ago exactly for the purpose of preventing the city from asking for another increase for local needs. As for STRs, I think the city should be more flexible about basement and backyard apartments rented short term by locals, keeping in mind 
the balance between income from participating in the tourism economy and other considerations like the housing shortage. There’s a better balance to be struck than the current status quo, for sure.

18. What do you see as solutions to lowering our minority achievement gap in Asheville City Schools currently with the largest achievement gap in NC?

I’d like to see the city start by breaking up clusters of poverty in affordable housing, creating more mixed-income housing options spread throughout the city, as a way of addressing the achievement gap where it begins, in the community. As for schools specifically, I’m more and more interested in the idea of electing a school board rather than having it appointed by council.

19. What is your thought process in determining who to side with in differences between public members and city staff?

Most of my experience is on the public’s side of the table, and I want to keep that in mind if elected. Many of our city staff are devoted and geniuses at their jobs, but too often the public’s experience with the city is stonewalling and scorn. The attitude change we need starts on council.

20. Asheville City Schools are doing a great job for our students. What can we do to erase the negative reports that are being reported to the public?

It’s not true that ACS is doing well for everybody. The best way to highlight the positive work being done is to be honest about the negative: a stubborn, persistent achievement gap that’s the highest in the state. It doesn’t help the cause of ACS boosters to disparage valid criticisms.

21. Kenilworth is fortunate to have multiple city parks. Kenilworth Park on Wyoming was recently updated beautifully – thank you; Lakewood Park – a very nice pocket park & 7 Springs Park on Caledonia Rd which is badly overgrown and neglected, yet bond money has been approved to purchase more park land. What can be done to find a way to address the needs of 7 Springs Park? 

I’ve come to think that the way we’re going to get ahead on parks deferred maintenance (a long, depressing list, due to years of underfunding and neglect) is to get volunteer efforts and community partnerships involved. Grove Park has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to handle maintenance of its park. The city is entering into MOUs with Green Opportunities and Friends of Connect Buncombe over maintenance and improvements for Livingston Street parks and greenways, with the added bonus that those provide jobs training. Another potential avenue: Participatory budgeting, like Greensboro and many other American cities practice, where individual neighborhoods are given decision-making power over a portion of the capital budget to decide what to do with. I’ve worked with the Greensboro team in the past, and have been in touch with them recently about piloting a similar program in next year’s budget.

22. Given the public outcry over former County Manager Wanda Greene’s bonuses to senior county staff, as a future elected official, what lessons do you take away from this affair?

Obviously the first lesson is that power consolidated in an entrenched government official is ripe for corruption and theft. The county lacked some controls that the city currently has in place (e.g., the whistleblower hotline at the county rang to the manager’s office, and management held seats on the audit commission.) We need to go farther, though, especially in protecting city whistleblowers from retaliation and giving staff an avenue to come forward with concerns.

23. What have you done for AVL and what will you do?

I helped form the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association and led successful campaigns over traffic problems and sidewalks. I led a campaign to reinstate traffic calming citywide. I was on the commission that approved the sidewalks and street projects in the bonds. I led the community push for the land owned by Duke Energy along the river to become a greenway. I was part of the group that renegotiated the city’s transit management contract, putting in requirements that the management company pay if it doesn’t hit on-time targets. I have advised dozens of neighborhoods on development issues facing them. I founded the Asheville Politics Facebook page, which is over 6,500 members, to bring attention to city and county issues. I am a past vice president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods and past chair of Bountiful Cities Projects, a nonprofit that helps build and maintain community gardens in underserved areas. As a city council member, I will bring my experience and neighborhood focus to help more quality-of-life issues and other city decisions.

24. Describe with specificity how you will hold the City Manager accountable.

I answered this higher up in the questionnaire. I’m for a one-year audit to see if and how the city manager is facilitating or blocking public priorities. My impression as an outside observer is that Mr. Jackson is professionally cautious and expects a level of control over the flow of information between council and staff, and between the city and public, that doesn’t line up with public expectations at this point. I’m for changing that or changing managers. 

25. There is nothing more comforting than have police and fire personnel as neighbors, but most can’t afford to live here. Would you support higher salaries and retention bonuses?

Yes, unequivocally.