General Questions – Candidate Rich Lee
1. What city departments would you consider reducing or cutting, and which ones do you think are doing a great job?
I’m not aware of any city department that is overstaffed. There is, of course, inefficient allocation of human resources throughout city government. The number of top-paid assistant city managers and interim department head positions are a good place to start for that. My vote would be for the same number of people, but used more efficiently. Council has also been sold on the idea that outsourcing work to contractors is a more efficient use of funds than doing it in-house, but I’m skeptical. Especially since much of the resulting work is error-prone “master plans” that are quickly abandoned or obsolete, and consumes a lot of staff time anyway.
2. Are you committed to transparency in government and if so, what specific ideas do you have to make the city more transparent?
Yes. I started the Asheville Politics Facebook group, now over 6,200 local members, to shine a light on local politics in a way that wasn’t happening before. With Code for Asheville and others, I helped push for a city Open Data policy that puts all city databases online for public access (with a few exceptions for privacy.) The city has the tools to be a model of transparency. What needs to change is more attitudinal.
3. How do you think Asheville could reduce the current tax burden while maintaining growth?
I don’t think we can. Costs of labor, asphalt, and supplies are inflating around 10% a year. State law prevents innovative strategies, like charging a land-use tax on undeveloped land or most other avenues. 99% of sales taxes generated in the city are reallocated to state government and low-producing rural areas elsewhere in the state, so we don’t see the benefit of our economic activity here. Likewise, $19 million annually in hotel tax (a surcharge on hotel nights) is controlled by an unaccountable private body that is mandated by state law to only spend it on tourism promotion. That means rising costs of infrastructure needs are only borne by property taxpayers, owners and renters. The city has made a smart move by taking out low-interest bonds to catch up on delayed infrastructure work. At 2% annual interest, these will mean millions in savings compared to doing projects piecemeal as their costs rise by millions a year. But we’re late to that game. Previous city governments chose to put off maintenance and keep taxes low. Now we’ve got a 50-70 year backlog of road paving and sidewalks at 2017 prices. The bonds will only go so far. Then we’ll have to make tough decisions about paying more or living in a crumbling city, losing its economic momentum. I do think we should try to avoid another tax increase for a number of years -- my whole first term, I would say.
4. What do you think of the current income vs debt ratio for the city and debt repayment strategy the city currently has in place? Please explain.
Prior to the bond issue, the city’s debt-to-income was among the lowest in the state. That’s changed now and we’ll likely remain on the high end until the bonds are paid off around 2030. Again, rising costs and infrastructure past the end of its usable life gave the city few options. To put it in household terms, if you have a perfect credit score and don’t take out a mortgage, preferring instead to save $100 a month for a house, your savings will never catch up with home prices and your perfect credit is worthless. With proper safeguards, ultra-low-interest debt like the city’s AAA rating gives it access to is the financially sound choice.
5. Are you in favor of municipal efforts to diversify the economic base of the city and if so, how do you plan to encourage this diversification?
I’m not aware of those efforts in Asheville. In general, yes, I think a diversified economy is healthier for the city than one heavily weighted to tourism and craft beer. To get there, I’d more-or-less abandon an economic development strategy of trying to entice large companies here with tax incentives and giveaways. Large employers are passing on Asheville anyway, due to our high cost of living and low housing options. I would work to lower costs of living and, however possible, use city incentive structures to grow small businesses that already have a presence in the area.
6. How do you plan to connect city government, non-profit organizations, and citizen-led movements to address issues the city government can’t handle alone?
One of the biggest lapses I see is minimal coordination between the faith-based homeless ministries and city government. I would try to correct that. The city could also partner better with neighborhood groups and very small grassroots efforts on small issues like park maintenance, trash pickup, etc., but has historically been timid about the legal issues. I would push the city to be more flexible and light on its feet about accepting the help of volunteers.
7. As ardent supporters of individual freedoms and liberties, it is important to the Libertarian Party that grassroot movements such as social and racial justice movements be allowed to freely express and act upon their opinions. How will you make sure to protect their freedoms while not infringing on the individual rights of other individuals and movements?
I don’t believe there’s an individual right to discriminate or deny public accommodation due to religious belief or any other reason that supersedes other considerations. My priority on civil rights is helping historically discriminated-against groups and minorities counter the creeping, often-invisible effects of institutional prejudice, not helping majority groups resist changing with the times.
8. With rising housing costs and significant recent tourism industry development pushing affordable housing and entertainment space further from downtown, how do you think Asheville can maintain an active and growing arts community in the downtown area?
I think the best chance we have is for a large public or private college to invest in a satellite campus downtown, ideally in the west side of downtown behind the federal building. Such a campus could house students (i.e., young and low-income, and retirees) for cheap, provide art and performance space, and protect open space from overdevelopment at the same time. A partnership like this has been floated for years with several colleges expressing interest, but has always fallen through for one reason or another. I would look at the problems preventing it and fix them. There’s also dozens of acres between Patton and Hillcrest currently controlled by the state Department of Transportation and covered with exit ramps and grassy median. The I-26 Connector design, set to begin work in a few years, frees up many of them. It’s vital that they come back into private ownership and are zoned to produce apartments and commercial space.
9. Like Kansas City, Dallas, St Louis, Pittsburgh, and Nashville, Atlanta recently eliminated jail time and reduced penalties on possession for small amounts of marijuana. Why or why not would you be in support of Asheville passing similar legislation?
I am in support of such moves, as criminal penalties for small possession fall hardest on the poor and people of color, funneling them into a prison complex that marks them for life.
10. What process should the city government use to tackle issues of deep division in our own community such as the debate over the Confederate monuments, and how will you work to put this process in place? If you would answer the current process is sufficient, please explain why you think that is.
I don’t think the current process is sufficient. I think the monuments will eventually be removed or renamed, as the result of a community discussion or not. It’s inappropriate to treat the views of white people who see the monuments as innocent, nostalgic landmarks; white supremacists who see them as rallying points for a violent racial agenda; and black residents who see them as reminders of deep cultural inequality, installed during Jim Crow to intimidate and assert supremacy, as all equally valid. If my mailbox became a rallying point for the KKK and Neo-Nazis, I’d take it down. If something I was sentimental about caused pain to my black neighbors, I would remove it. I would add that removing the monuments won’t “solve” racism in this community. To do that, the city will need to change its approach to housing, jobs, policing, education, and more.
11. As the third largest party in North Carolina, the Libertarian Party recognizes that the majority rule voting system currently in place largely prevents us from being a viable option in elections at all levels. Similarly, the Green Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and the Constitutional party are often ignored and treated as “splitting the vote” between “real” candidates. We believe one of the best ways to encourage a plurality of parties beyond the typical Democrat/Republican divide would be to switch the voting system to some other method. As these changes are radical and must stem from a grassroots effort, would you be in favor of altering city elections to follow the example of cities like Oakland, CA or the State of Maine in establishing ranked-choice or instant runoff voting for municipal offices?
Yes. I support several local efforts to change the state law in that regard.
12. How do you plan to build bridges to the county and state government to further Asheville’s interests at these levels?
I have good working relationships with county officials and the endorsement of half our local state delegation. On issues like completing I-26 and other places where state and local interests align, I’ll work with anybody.
1. What individuals and/or organizations have endorsed you?
State Representatives Susan Fisher and John Ager. The WNC Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. Former mayor Ken Michalove (2015 race.) Several dozen local business owners and grassroots activists.
2. Who are your political role models and why?
Since we’re discussing local politics, I’ll say I’ve always admired former council member Jan Davis for being a quiet, humble, nonpartisan force for change in the community. I’ve always admired his demeanor and his long-term dedication to the health of the community.