February 2004 Highlights

Items of substantial local interest this past month include changes in police department leadership, and an excess of winter weather. Here’s an update on some key topics:

New police chief and district officers: Winston-Salem Police Chief Linda Davis retired last week after five years as chief, capping a long professional career as a police officer. In my opinion—and as a widely shared consensus—Davis did an outstanding job. Her tenure featured the reorganization of patrols and work shifts for greater effectiveness in responding to reported crimes and "hot spots", as well as improved efficiency in use of staff. Davis is being succeeded by her former Assistant Chief, Pat Norris. Chief Norris is another deeply experienced career police officer, having served since 1977 and come up through the ranks. She should also bring to the job her particular talent for further strengthening community relations.

At the same time, the department announced a number of additional promotions, and related shifts in key assignments. Captain Ronnie Abernathy has been promoted to Assistant Chief and put in charge of the patrol division (the majority of officers out on regular street beats). Abernathy has previously been in charge of District 3, which includes most of the Southwest Ward. He has been highly responsive to citizen requests in that position. Abernathy was also heavily involved in the overall patrol and shift reorganization under Davis. Lieutenant Billy Riggs has ably assisted Abernathy in District 3, and will be moving with him to the overall patrol division office. Taking their place in District 3 will be newly promoted Captain Patricia Murray, assisted by Lieutenant D.L. Kiger. I look forward to working with all these officers, and as always I am available to help answer your questions about police operations, or see that they are directed to the right people.

Winter weather and road clearance: We seem to be getting slammed by an unusual number of winter storms this season, keeping the street clearance crews hopping. In that context, some overview of street clearance priorities might be of interest. First, the Public Works Department under Assistant City Manager Greg Turner tracks the weather forecasts carefully and tries to anticipate when frozen/freezing precipitation will begin and how heavy it will be. Crews begin to lay down a brine solution on main roads even before icing or snow accumulation begins. Except during the coldest local conditions, that helps to hold down ice accumulation in the first place. Then, after accumulation of snow, sleet, or ice begins, trucks begin to salt and scrape the roads. In that process, there’s a three-stage priority ranking of city streets: first, main travel routes (streets designated as major or minor thoroughfares); second, streets designated as neighborhood "connectors" (streets which collect traffic from side blocks and dead ends and route it onto the thoroughfares); third and finally, other neighborhood streets. The policy is essentially to complete one level of priority and then move on to the next. The result of that approach is to clear main roads as quickly as possible and keep them cleared, for public safety and basic operation of the city as a whole. It also means that many side streets are rarely reached by scrapers before the snow/ice melts on its own. In our climate, maintaining a substantially larger fleet of vehicles and drivers for street clearance would involve a great deal of taxpayer expense for an inefficient return. The working assumption is that drivers on the side streets can and will slow down responsibly for safety. Where this approach is creating special problem situations, I certainly can and do pass on your requests for street attention to Public Works. I have been favorably impressed with Assistant City Manager Turner’s long work hours, responsiveness, and attention to detail in this area.

Zoning case: There was a lot of attention in February to a zoning case on Reynolda Road over in the West Ward. A request to rezone the former Staley’s Restaurant site for dense condominium development was carefully considered, but ultimately rejected by the City Council (on a 3 to 4 vote, with one member absent due to illness). This was an interesting case and a fairly close judgment call. The site in question is located on a heavily traveled road in an area of some mixed residential/institutional uses, immediately adjacent to a predominantly single-family housing neighborhood. There was a split opinion among neighbors, but about a 10 to 1 ratio of opposition to support in a very active community debate. The principal legitimate basis for opposition, in my opinion, was the sheer size and mass of the proposed structure. It would have been far and away the largest structure in the neighborhood’s near vicinity, and arguably out of keeping with the area’s character. Given that legitimate basis, I went with my default position in cases of strong neighborhood opposition, and voted against the proposed rezoning. I favor negotiating out differences when possible. However, when that does not work, and in the absence of a strong public policy reason for overriding the neighborhood objection, I will normally defer to the clearly expressed wishes of the neighborhood.

Budget topics: Sometimes I feel like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day". I seem to keep waking up to a new projection of city budget deficits and various unpleasant alternatives for dealing with them. The City Council’s Finance Committee in February heard the City Manager’s preliminary report on the upcoming budget situation. The bottom line was a projection of a $7.7 million gap between projected expenditures and projected revenues, for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. (That follows two years in a row of projected gaps in the neighborhood of $13 million, so it could have been worse. On the other hand, the bag of stopgap measures and "easy" cuts has been about exhausted.) Using feedback from Council members to date, during March the city manager will present the Finance Committee with what he calls a "trial" balanced budget.

I particularly objected to several of the alternative options included in the first round of review, and expressed those objections to the manager and my colleagues on the Council. I believe that there has been too quick a tendency to look at basic sanitation services (especially trash collection) for cost cuts, and that a more intensive review of other areas for savings potential should take place first. In addition, I will categorically oppose the imposition of a flat "service charge" for residential trash pickup. Such a "service charge" is nothing but than a new tax by a euphemistic title. Further, since it would apply to all households equally without variation, it is a particularly regressive tax (one which falls disproportionately heavily on lower-income families). At this point, my view on the budget is still to continue to look for more cuts in less-critical areas.

Traffic calming and related issues update: Finally this month, we’re continuing to work on "traffic calming" strategies in areas where residents have requested review. There will be another discussion of options for the Elizabeth Avenue—Irving Street—Academy Street area this coming Wednesday evening, March 3, at 7 p.m. at Miller Park Rec Center. I have a previous meeting commitment that may keep me from getting to that meeting between neighbors and Transportation staff, but I am monitoring the deliberations in any event. Southwest Ward residents interested in traffic issues that are not being addressed yet should please feel welcome to contact me.

For example, I recently received complaints about inefficiency of the traffic signal operations at Knollwood Street and Business 40. At my subsequent request, Transportation Department staff looked at the signal timing there. They now believe that they can adjust the signal timing to make it more efficient, but that will require rewiring the controller cabinet. They look to have that completed by the end of April. (Thanks to Transportation staff for the review—and to drivers using that intersection, thanks for the notice and please have patience for a little longer.)