September 2002 Highlights

September saw good news and bad news in the city. Let me deal with the bad news first.

Budget: The Board of Aldermen on September 12 approved the city budget and property tax rate for fiscal year 2002-03. A majority of the board felt that we could not wait any longer for adoption of the state budget, since to do so would have delayed sending out the annual property tax bills. The board voted to approve a budget which anticipated that more millions of dollars in formerly local revenues would be taken by the state to help balance the state budget. In order to make up for that expected loss, the board approved a city budget which made substantial additional cuts in expenditures, and raised the property tax rate by 3.5 cents.

I voted against the final budget and tax rate increase. I suggested that final state budget action by the state legislature was likely soon. We should not vote to raise the local tax rate, I argued, when it was still possible that the legislature would provide an alternative source for at least some of the local revenues seized. In fact, the legislature did act within two weeks to do that. However, I should note that my colleagues who supported the tax rate increase did so in good faith, believing that it was unlikely that the legislature would act as it did, and that there was no utility to delaying the process of providing timely notices to taxpayers. The board’s Finance Committee and the city’s finance staff worked hard for months, identifying millions of dollars in spending cuts and efficiencies, which were also part of the budget.

Over the next few months, the board will have the chance to look at options for the extra revenue (which is expected from an increase in local sales tax revenues to the city). One option, which makes sense to me, is to escrow those extra revenues, not spend them but instead begin to rebuild the city’s fiscal reserves. We would then be prepared for further fiscal emergencies and, I would hope, in a position to reduce the tax rate next year.

4th Street & downtown: Some good news came later in the month with the big success of the 4th Street reopening downtown. Organizers hoped for a crowd of 4,000 or so for the festivities—instead, 20,000 people came. Except for running low on refreshments, the celebration absorbed the extra turnout well and favorably impressed nearly everyone. It’s an excellent sign of the real potential for economic growth from a revitalized downtown. The crowd was remarkably diverse, and I think helped prove that people will use our city center again if the attractions are planned and executed well. As a follow-up act, the downtown-based ArtsIgnite Festival started this past weekend to good reviews.

I believe that a revived city center is important to the entire city, both economically and environmentally. It builds the city’s economic and jobs base, and by promoting redevelopment of our urban center helps to work against harmful urban sprawl. It also makes for a healthier social base, reversing the urban decline that brings all nature of social problems.

Peters Creek spill update: State environmental tests earlier this month confirmed that water chemical contamination levels in Peters Creek are below danger levels all the way down to its intersection with Salem Creek. I had been concerned because after the July fire and chemical spill into the creek in the West End area, there originally was no testing of the creek after it crossed under Business 40 and flowed past neighborhoods in our ward. That gap has been corrected. However, tests along the creek have also shown that there is some continuing source of low-level chemical contamination, probably close in to the city center. Environmental officials suspect groundwater contamination from some source like an old dry cleaner. Efforts to identify those sources will continue, but the levels are so low that it is not an emergency effort.

Transit news: PART, the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, today initiated its intercity express bus service between Winston-Salem, the PTI airport, Greensboro, and High Point. Service will run at hourly (at peak times, half-hourly) intervals and cost only $2 one way (much cheaper than cab or limousine fare to the airport). Also, for those following the regional passenger rail planning process, there will be a public meeting to discuss the plans, on October 30, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Benton Convention Center.

Greenways update: The Forsyth County Commissioners voted this month to approve the county greenway plan, which the city Board of Aldermen had approved earlier this year. The plan lays out a design for a system of greenways (linear parks with paths for walking, running, and biking, usually alongside streams). It also describes priority greenway links, some of which are already in the process of acquisition or development. The plan itself does not commit any local funds. However, now that it has been approved by both the city and county, it can be used to help draw in grants and matching funds from other sources. One such potential source is the state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, which is being revised to allow the value of donated land to be counted as part of the local match for a project. That could be very important to our local plan’s progress.

On a related note, alert Winston-Salem citizen Greg McGrath recently made the connection between the replacement of Business 40’s bridges over the arms of Salem Lake, and the plans for greenway trails along those arms of the lake. Greg asked the logical question of whether the bridge piers would be set back far enough to allow trail passage under the bridges. Greg contacted me; I contacted the city transportation department; they contacted the state DOT—which said, yeah, we can do that. Thanks Greg!