April 2006 Highlights

In April, the city adopted important new plans for parks and city vehicle efficiency, and new rules on pawnshops. In this month’s update, I report on those actions and discuss the controversial topic of economic development incentives.

Parks and Open Space Plan approved: The City Council at our April 17 meeting approved the Parks and Open Space Plan for Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. This plan concentrates on proposed expansion of public park land in the city and county, including new parks at the regional, district, and neighborhood level. Following extensive public comments during the public hearing process, the plan also was modified to include more emphasis on continued development of greenways (linear parks with bike/pedestrian trails); better bike and pedestrian connections between parks, neighborhoods, and schools; and the need to identify more expansion parkland in areas (like southwestern Winston-Salem) which have not yet had recent updates of their small area plans. In response to public comments, this plan also calls for an added follow-up plan to concentrate on maintenance needs at existing parks. Thanks to everyone who attended one of the public planning meetings, or otherwise submitted your comments.

Pawnshop regulations approved: Also at our April 17 meeting, we gave final approval to new pawnshop regulations that should help us better track and investigate stolen property. The new rules will require that pawnshop records be provided every business day to the Police Department in electronic format (either by email or CD). Previously, those records only had to be available in some form, and five of the 12 pawnshops in Winston-Salem were providing them only in written form (pawn tickets). That required police clerks to hand-enter thousands of records into their computer system in order to match up pawn records with stolen property reports, slowing down investigations. The new rules will also require those pawning property to submit photo identification, which must be recorded as well. That will deter pawning of stolen property, make theft of property less easily profitable in our area, and speed investigations of thefts as well.

Fuel and vehicle efficiency policy established: In my March report, I discussed the city council’s decision not to buy an order of fuel-inefficient cars. Instead, we returned the item to staff for investigation of more fuel-efficient alternatives. At the April city council committee meetings, city staff reported back on their conclusions, and it was a good report. First, the city will purchase three ultra-efficient Honda Civic hybrids, and use them to gauge maintenance experience and overall cost-efficiency of this low-pollution vehicle. Second, staff will compare other smaller sedans (like the Ford Focus) before making a recommendation to the council on what to purchase for the remaining 12 sedans needed this year. Finally, staff developed a comprehensive Vehicle Fuel Management and Vehicle Acquisition Program, designed to ensure that fuel efficiency and pollution control become systematic priorities for city vehicle use. It includes policies like these: an annual fuel conservation plan, with performance tracked monthly; managing vehicle acquisition to assure that the city actively pursues the most fuel-efficient, lowest-emission vehicles that meet service delivery needs; an emphasis on preventive maintenance; and managing vehicle use so that the right-sized vehicles are actively used. All these policies should both help save tax dollars and keep our air cleaner.

Economic development incentives: In April, the city council approved an economic incentives package offer to a company that is considering relocation of one of its centers to Winston-Salem. The company is named Clearing House Payments Company, and it processes approximately 20 million payments per day for over 1,600 U.S. financial institutions. If Clearing House relocates one of its two processing centers to Winston-Salem, it will produce an initial local capital investment of about $22 million, and create about 80 jobs with average annual wages in excess of $80,000. The incentives package would be worth a potential $356 thousand to the company over a seven-year period.

Here is the key point that news coverage of these stories regularly misses: That $356 thousand is just 61% of the estimated $583 thousand in net new property taxes that the company would pay to Winston-Salem over that same seven-year period. In other words, Winston-Salem taxpayers would gain net taxes from the company, not lose them.

Critics and columnists will often pose such hypotheticals as, what ought we do with that money instead of using it for incentives? They ignore the basic reality that none of that money will come to Winston-Salem unless the company relocates here. In an economic environment in which other comparable locations are offering their own incentives deals, such companies will go where they have the best overall financial bottom line. Incentives packages are not the only factor, but they are an inescapable part of the competition.

I personally am a critic of the use of cash economic development incentives. I believe that Congress should regulate or ban them. That is the only way to even the playing field for all states and cities, including ours. Until Congress acts, state legislation or lawsuits can do nothing but put our cities here in North Carolina at a crippling economic disadvantage. In the meantime, for Winston-Salem to unilaterally refuse to consider incentives packages would throw away a tool that we must have available in order to keep new investments and jobs coming in to our city for our citizens.

Sign ordinance public meeting: During March, the general public had its first opportunity to comment on proposed new on-premises sign regulations. City/county planners received a lot of input from businesses and neighborhoods, and they’re ready now for round two of the public review process. If you’re concerned about that ugly jungle of signs along many of our commercial thoroughfares (such as Peters Creek Parkway and Stratford Road), put this date on your calendar: Wednesday, May 24, at 5:30 p.m., room 530, City Hall South. Planning staff will discuss comments received thus far, and revisions planned.