I hope that everyone has had a safe and happy Thanksgiving holiday. On your way back to work this week, here are a few items of city interest from November.
Clean air update: Progress continues on the Piedmont Triad regional plan to clean up ozone air pollution under the Early Action Compact between local governments, the state, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The City Council on November 17 passed a resolution approving the proposed regional strategies proposed by the Triad "stakeholders committee", which I chair on behalf of the city. That committee, composed of representatives from business and industry, local governments, public health agencies, and citizen groups, finalized the recommended strategies plan at our meeting on November 3. Under the plan, several area industries have committed to specific steps to reduce air pollution, and local governments are asked to commit to taking air-quality factors into account when making policy decisions on transportation, purchasing, and planning matters. Once the proposed plan has been approved by other Triad local governments, we will submit it to the EPA by the end of January for review.
Budget crunch, longevity pay, CATV: The City Council this month continued to wrestle with money questions.
First, a majority of the Council voted to freeze "longevity" payments to city employees at the level they will reach this December. The impact of that decision will be felt by employees beginning next December (2004). Longevity payments are annual year-end bonuses to employees based on their length of employment service to the city. They are intended to encourage the retention of experienced employees. The primary motivation for the vote to freeze the bonuses at their 2003 level came from the extremely tight city budget picture, anticipated to continue and possible worsen into the next fiscal year.
I unsuccessfully sought support for an alternative proposal to cap total longevity payments to any given single city employee at a specific across-the-board ceiling amount. While this alternative would have saved less total money in upcoming city budgets, it would also have reduced the measure’s impact on most city employees, especially those in the lower salary ranges. I agree that longevity bonuses are not the ideal salary tool. However, I also am concerned that the increases in health insurance costs to city employees will put many in a situation where they will see a net reduction in their take-home pay next year. This can cause a hardship to lower-paid employees with families. For public safety (police and fire) employees in particular, Winston-Salem already pays below-market salaries, so such reductions also potentially hinder our efforts to retain experienced public safety employees. For these and related reasons, I opposed the freeze.
Second, a majority of the Council voted to authorize release of up to $100,000 to the local cable public access station, CATV-6, to assist it to continue operations through July 2004. Part of the money will be released in three monthly installments of $12,500, January through March, and the remainder will be available in a $1 match for every $2 raised by CATV-6. The money will come from a one-time fund set up by Time-Warner Cable during cable franchise negotiations with the city last year. That fund may only be used for government, education, and public access cable channel expenses. If the full $100,000 is released, that will exhaust this fund.
In light of the city’s continuing budget problems, I voted against this motion. I unsuccessfully proposed an alternative under which the city would have used $75,000 from the fund to continue defraying the costs of operating the city’s TV-13 channel for another year. Under my proposal, the remaining $25,000 of the Time-Warner special fund would have been available for matching CATV-6 fundraising. If all of the remaining $100,000 is used for CATV, as was authorized by the motion I opposed, then the city’s general budget will have to absorb an additional $75,000 hit from the loss of TV-13 subsidy during the difficult upcoming fiscal year.
Some individuals have used the unfortunate juxtaposition of the longevity pay freeze and the CATV-6 funding release to suggest that the Council has its priorities confused. Even though I voted against both those motions, I should point out an important fact in defense of my colleagues on the Council. The longevity pay question is a multi-million dollar continuing budget item, while the CATV issue dealt with the limited remains of a special one-time fund. Even completely cutting off CATV immediately would not have provided a comparable or lasting alternative to the savings provided by the longevity pay freeze.
Greenways & trails update: On a happier note, the Council this month received an update on the status of additional greenways development in Winston-Salem. Since expanding these great opportunities for healthy family recreation (biking, walking, running) is a particular interest of mine, I want to pass along a summary.
First, there are three projects moving forward now with already programmed funding. There’s the downtown Strollway southern extension from its present terminus near Old Salem, across Salem Creek to the N.C. School of the Arts. That’s a part of the Southeast Gateway project now underway. Most exciting (in my opinion) is the Brushy Fork Creek greenway extension from Old Greensboro Road to the Salem Creek Trail. It’s scheduled for next fiscal year, and once it’s completed we will have a continuous greenway trail connection Winston Lake Park to Salem Lake Park, downtown, and many other neighborhoods. Finally, the Muddy Creek trail between Country Club Road and Robinhood Road is scheduled to begin construction during the current fiscal year. Funding for both the Brushy Fork and Muddy greenways is coming from the state’s transportation improvement funds.
Second, there are several other greenway trail segments under active development, but which are not yet fully funded. These include the Little Creek greenway starting at the Little Creek Recreation Center; the Waughtown Street greenway connector from the Salem Creek Trail to the Waughtown neighborhood; the westward extension of the Salem Creek Trail from the Marketplace Mall to Forsyth Tech and the Ardmore neighborhood; and the eastward extension of the Salem Lake Trail to East Forsyth High School. Since city revenue funds are so tight, we’re making a creative search for other grant and contribution sources to pursue these projects.
Finally, the Bethabara 250th anniversary celebration events on November 15 included the dedication of a new section of hiking trail following the historic Great Wagon Road pathway used by 18th century settlers of our area. The new trail will run from the Historic Bethabara Park along Mill Creek past the Sara Lee soccer fields toward SciWorks. Both history and trail fans should check this one out.
Constituent service notes: I enjoyed the opportunity to be a "celebrity reader" again this year at South Fork Elementary School on November 6. As part of its efforts to promote the love of books and reading, the school each year invites community figures to read to classes. A Miller Street traffic calming discussion on November 13 produced at least one new idea—talking with the school system about the hazard created by the limited time which students at the Career Center have to drive between there and their main school campuses. (That might explain some of the blurs moving down Miller in the afternoons.)
Community events: My commendations go to the students and staff at Winston-Salem State University for their "sleep out" for the homeless event on November 21, which raised contributions for local homeless assistance efforts. I also attended the community interfaith Thanksgiving service at Firstt Christian Church on November 25, which raised contributions for Crisis Control Ministry and AIDS Care Service. Thanks to everyone who participated in these two events reflecting the helping spirit of our community.