Massive Tree Cutting on French Broad River Begins

Back in February we wrote about the planned massive tree cutting for the French Broad River in the River Arts District of Asheville. The planned cutting is to make way for people to enjoy new greenways and bike paths and those darn trees are obstructing the view.  Here's the Tree Report that was published at that time.

We also wrote about the Asheville Tree Commission, whom we learned has no say in City projects such as greenway projects. We learned that the City doesn't even use its own Tree Commission and on board arborists to review the projects.  We wrote about it in this article, "Asheville Tree Commission can't see the forest for the trees"

Asheville Unreported's Roger McCredie, recently wrote about the City's own lack of a Tree Ordinance.  Click here to read that article.

Well, the time has come and the City has now begun its massive tree cutting.  Here's a video taken today, September 9, 2016 showing the trees being chopped:



And, here's the earlier video from February 2016 showing the trees that no longer exist:

Asheville Unreported: If they won't cover it, we will.

So. We've extended the scope of our research and investigation from the River to the rest of the City and County and launched www.AshevilleUnreported.com.  If they won't cover it, we will. Check it out and sign up.

Why?

We learned a lot when we dug into the facts about the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project, aka RADTIP and also known as Asheville River Boondoggle..

We witnessed the cronyism, conflicts of interest, and misrepresentation of information both by our City and by our local media all in the name of tourism and Big Corporate Beer pandering...

We saw how only property owners that agreed with the City were invited to be interviewed or considered "stakeholders" and how other opposing property owners were not heard...

We witnessed the City's own staff attorney trying to get a job with New Belgium while also working on their agreements with the City and also being involved in the property takings... (article)

But we really learned that this extends far beyond the French Broad River.  This project is costing $25 Million to City Taxpayers - 4 years worth of what our Capital Improvement Budget used to be before this crew came in.  

But now, because they've over run their budget, they need more. 

The City lied and said it would not increase property taxes this year but a week after passing the budget introduced a $75 Million Bond Referendum that will result in additional $36 MILLION in interest payments alone to taxpayers.  These interest payments must be paid for by increasing property taxes.  You will see a huge increase in your property taxes AT MINIMUM.  If you rent... get ready for a rent increase because landlords will pass these increases on to you. This is on top of other City service rates that were increased - trash, water, stormwater, etc. 

Bond Analysis: South Asheville Taxpayers get left out again

1.1% of $74 Million Bond will benefit South Asheville

Bond Analysis
According to the City of Asheville's projected plans for the $74 million bond it wants taxpayers to approve in November, only $825,000 will directly benefit South Asheville taxpayers and voters and it will all go toward a park, the Jake Rush Park.
None of the $32 million transportation portion is allocated for improvements in South Asheville. 
None of the $25 million affordable housing portion will go to South Asheville. Actually, half of that goes to private developers ($12 million) and the other half goes to the City to buy land or houses with the intention of keeping them affordable but the developers nor the properties have been identified.
Only $825,000 of the $17 million parks and rec portion will directly benefit South Asheville residents.
To see a detailed list of proposed projects for each area of the bond, see the article in the Citizen-Times dates July 11, 2016, "What would $74M buy for Asheville?"

South Asheville left out again
In recent months South Asheville has come up in the news when a districting bill was introduced that would have given voice to South Asheville residents who feel they have none.  Now, it looks like they're left out again but they're expected to help pay for it.

The Bond's financial burden: $36.2 Million in Interest
The $74 million bond will cost $36.2 million in interest payments.  Those interest payments will be paid for by taxpayers through a property tax increase.  So, South Asheville residents and businesses will be looking at an increase of 5 to 10% more in property taxes in order to pay for the bond.  Plus, South Asheville residents will see an additional increase when Buncombe County does their reassessment.

PS. South Asheville residents should voice their concern at the City Council meeting August 9th where residents can make public comments.

Where does it go?
More analysis coming but most of it goes to Central Downtown, parts of Biltmore Village, a little to West Asheville and North Asheville.  A portion goes to East Asheville, mostly to connect the City to Warren Wilson College students, the alma mater of several of our City Council members (past and present).




How many city attorneys does it take to change a light bulb?


Probably one.  For everything else, a staff of seven.  And a $1M budget.

By Roger McCredie

In 2005, Asheville had a population of just over 73,000. In 2016 the population is reckoned at just under 83,400, representing an increase of 14.2 per cent.

And over the same 11 years the city attorney’s office has grown from five employees to a full-time staff of seven, an increase of 35.7 per cent.

The total 2005 budget for the city’s legal department, including its five-employee payroll, was $569,567. Its projected 2016-2017 budget, including its seven-person staff’s compensation, is $982,182, a 47 per cent increase over 2005.

In the not-all-that-distant past, the City Attorney was a lawyer in private practice who was simply paid a retainer by the city to offer legal opinions, and handle or supervise such matters requiring an attorney’s services, as might from time to time be necessary.

These days the city’s in-house legal team occupies spacious digs on the second floor of City Hall. Five of its seven employees are attorneys who work for the city full-time and two of those five – four if you include the city’s comprehensive benefit packages – are paid more than $100,000 dollars a year. In fact, head City Attorney Robin Currin’s annual compensation, including benefits, comes to more than twice that.

Asheville River Gate obtained comparison figures for city attorneys in several cities of comparable size to Asheville statewide and found that Currin is the highest paid city attorney among those municipalities examined. Currin’s annual base salary of $177,700 outstrips those of Fayetteville ($165,185.20), Wilmington ($158,331), Gastonia ($139,502) and Hickory ($102,192).

The actual breakdown of the city’s legal staff’s compensation is shown below. The left hand column shows base salaries; the figures at right are estimated total compensation values obtained by taking the total department fringe benefits amount budgeted ($176,213), dividing it by seven ($25,173) and adding it to each base salary figure to obtain an estimated package amount:
Attorney
Base Salary
Estimated w/ Benefits
Robin Currin, City Attorney
$177,700
$202,873
Jannice Ashley
$  83,648
$108,821
Kelly Whitlock, Deputy CA
$102,489
$127,662*
John Maddux
$  78,575
$103,748
Catherine Hoffman
$  67,611
$  92,874
Charlotte Hutchison (Researcher)
$  60,189
$  85,362  
Sarah Terwilliger (Exec. Asst.)
$  34,164
$  59,340



*According to the city budget, “The Deputy City Attorney position is not covered by the Civil Service Law. The vacancy [since filled] was created by the retirement of the incumbent in the position.

In addition to staff compensation, the legal department’s budget has allocated $176,213 for “operating expenses.” In the budget document, that figure is accompanied by a footnote that reads:

“Contracted funding with an outside legal firm for representation at the North Carolina General Assembly was moved from the non-departmental section of the budget to the City Attorney budget after adoption of the FY 2015-2016 and is reflected in the 2016-2017 budget under operating cost.”
There is no further breakdown of the department’s “operating costs” category, nor any elaboration as to what “representation at the North Carolina General Assembly” by an outside law firm includes. There is also no allusion to fees for outside legal preparation and appearance on the city’s behalf in the upcoming State Supreme Court appeal hearing on the city’s lawsuit against the General Assembly over the Asheville Water System. Presumably those monies are included in the city’s $46.3 million “operating costs” category.

The city’s taxpayer-funded litigation in that case has already cost about $700,000 and the Supreme Court hearing is expected to push that figure well past a million dollars. (Some observers say that taking the water case to the high court level is a costly exercise in futility. Others think Asheville has no choice but to give a Supreme Court appeal its best shot, if only for the sake of being able to say it has exhausted all its possibilities. The court heard oral arguments in May and is expected to rule in November.)

The present city attorney is Robin Currin, who assumed the position in May of 2014. She was recruited from the Raleigh firm of Currin & Currin, which she co-founded with her husband. Prior to forming that partnership, she was a partner at Poyner & Spruill, where, according to her bio, she was “recognized as one of the state’s top zoning/land use attorneys.” Her legal background is remarkably similar to that of Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, an attorney with the Van Winkle Law Firm. Manheimer’s areas of concentration is commercial litigation, especially with regard to creditors’ rights, land disputes and foreclosures.

An early eyebrow-raiser in Currin’s tenure was her ruling about a possible conflict of interest in the city’s Eagle/Market Street Project which touched both a sitting member of City Council and Currin’s predecessor, Martha Walker-McGlohon, who served as interim city attorney from July of 2013 until Currin’s appointment.

In October, 2013, work on the 90,000-square-foot, multi-use Eagle/Market Street building ceased abruptly when massive cracks appeared in a second-story concrete floor slab only days after the concrete had been poured. The damage was laid at the feet of the project supervisor, Chris Bauer, who is the brother-in-law of Councilman Gordon Smith. When the family connection between Bauer and Smith – who had voted for Bauer’s appointment – became public knowledge, McGlohon was asked for her opinion. She replied that there had been no conflict of interest in Smith’s promoting Bauer.

It later developed that the estate of McGlohon’s late husband, Howard, was a partner in Eagle Market Street Development Company, the owner of the property.

So, given that state-level representation and super-important stuff are contracted out to commercial law firms, what do the denizens of the second floor at city hall do all day?

According to the city’s website, the city attorney’s staff members, perform the following functions:
  • Implement city goals and objectives through appropriate legal processes. 
  • Assist in the development and presentation of legislative programs. 
  • Initiate or defend legal action as necessary in support of city goals and objectives. 
  • Provide research and advice to City Council in support of Council initiatives. 
  • Provide continued high quality legal service to internal as well as external customers. 
  • Provide or arrange for effective legal representation for all lawsuits. 
And how does that translate into a million-dollar operating budget?

“It’s the managerial style,” said one former city employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. “For one thing, the city manager’s office refers every little thing over to the city attorney’s office. I’m sure there’s enough paper shuffling to keep them occupied.”

As for light bulb changing, it is not mentioned among staffers’ job descriptions.

_______________________________________________________________

ROGER McCREDIE is a well-known Asheville-based journalist. His investigative reporting for the Asheville Tribune on such topics as New Belgium Beer, the "Bruingate" bear hunting sting and the city's takeover of Pack Place earned national attention.  His feature writing appears regularly in Capital at Play magazine and he contributes to several blogs including the recently launched "Tavern Voices."

Attention: Property Owners in River Arts District - Deadlines Looming for RADTIP Asheville

ATTENTION PROPERTY OWNERS

IN THE RADTIP (River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project) AREA
also known as River Arts District, Asheville, NC

Property owners in the RADTIP area have been receiving their low ball appraisals from the City of Asheville. Artists in buildings have been put on notice to vacate (click here to read more).

Deadlines Looming:
According to a memo from Gary Jackson, the City Manager of Asheville, the city was awarded a Tiger VI grant in September 2014 that provides $11 million of the construction funding for the 2.2 mile RADTIP project occuring in the River Arts District of Asheville. In order for the City to actually receive these funds, two milestone dates must be reached:

June 30, 2016 - The City must provide evidence that they can obligate funds and expend such funds by September 30, 2021.  Pay attention to this year's budget as this will help provide the proof that they need.
September 30, 2016 - According to the memo, this is the most important milestone - the City must have all pre-construction activities completed which includes planning (environmental documentation), design and right-of-way. All right-of-way must be purchased and recorded by this date.

Asheville City Attorneys Office faces scrutiny and criticism

"Asheville’s City Attorney has consistently taken stances against basic government transparency. It’s time for Council, and the people, to demand better of a major public servant" 
AshevilleBlade.com

and more...

"In Currin’s case, she answers directly to Council, people we elect not just to work with city staff but also to monitor, question and, yes, overrule and censure them when it’s merited. Checks and balances, after all, only work if there are leaders willing to check and balance. The buck stops with them, and any local elected official anywhere should always remember that.
The city of Asheville is not simply another corporate client, it has power and funds on the condition that it uses them on behalf of the city’s populace and that obligation extends to everyone that works for it. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Right now the people of Asheville are poorly served by one of their major public servants’ repeated dismissal of basic open government. It’s time for that to change."


Couldn't have said it better.

Let us remind you of the conflicts of interest at the City Attorney's Office from our previous article, New Belgium & City of Asheville: Conflicts of Interest Do Not Apply