February 2006 Highlights

February saw important council actions on noise control and funding for public safety and transportation improvements. Other items of significant interest are coming up in March. Here are my summaries:

Noise ordinance amendment approved: Changes strengthening the city noise ordinance as it applies to certain night-time activities received final approval by the City Council on February 6. The final vote to approve the changes was 6-1. (As before, I voted in favor.) As I discussed in my report last month, the approved changes add several specific items that are deemed to be unreasonably loud (and therefore prohibited). In particular, these include the operation of a front-end loader for refuse collection between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. in any residentially zoned area or within 300 feet of any residence in the city. The changes were adopted in response to recurring complaints from some citizens about middle-of-the-night "dumpster alarms" from such garbage collection near their homes. The basic ordinance continues to include a general prohibition against "the creation of any unreasonably loud and disturbing noise" with references to specific examples such as car horns, music, and animals. Other noises now specifically controlled during the late-night hours are construction machinery, garage machinery, and the outdoor operation of gasoline-powered domestic power tools. (So, please avoid that midnight leaf-blowing underneath your neighbor’s window…)

Car fee hike will increase funding for public safety: The Council on February 20 took final action on a finance issue which has been under discussion for at least two years. By a 6-2 vote, we approved a $5 increase in the annual city motor vehicle tax. I voted for the increase. I dislike approving tax increases, and you are entitled to an explanation of why I supported this one.

Winston-Salem has serious unmet needs in our transportation system, especially safety-related needs. During 2005 alone, too many people were killed or seriously injured in preventable accidents on our streets—drivers, bikers, and pedestrians alike. For several years, I have pressed for directing more resources to improving the safety and efficiency of our transportation system: "traffic calming" projects to reduce speeding and reckless driving through neighborhoods; intersection and signal improvements to increase efficiency (and thereby reduce the number of drivers who cut through side streets); and more sidewalks, bike lanes, and multi-use paths for the safety of families and individuals on foot and on bikes. In fact, my top issue pledge during the 2005 campaign was to continue to work for safer streets and sidewalks. Unfortunately, budgets have been tight and the resources to meet these needs have been scarce.

In past years, the city had unsuccessfully sought state legislative approval for a general-revenue increase in the car tax. In 2004, I persuaded my council colleagues to support a limitation on the use of any such increase to strictly transportation-related purposes. In 2005, the state legislature authorized an increase under those conditions. Money from the extra $5 must be used only for transportation purposes as defined in the statute. By law, one-third of the extra revenue will go for traffic management (including "traffic calming" projects); one-third will go for public transit purposes; and one-third will go for non-motorized transportation purposes (including sidewalks and multi-use paths). In approving the increase, the Council directed city staff to return to us this spring with more specific options for highest-priority projects within each category. In the meantime, I will work to refine my own recommendations of how we’ll get the most bang for the buck in public safety improvements.

Watch for cruising vandals: As you probably already know, Forsyth County has experienced a rash of car vandalism incidents over the past month, including on several streets within the Southwest Ward. The vandalism involves breaking windows and windshields in cars parked on the street, during late evening or post-midnight hours. The pattern appears to represent a car or cars cruising through neighborhoods and breaking windows as they move. Different neighborhoods around the city, and out into other parts of the county, have been hit. Police believe that the vandals are using slingshots and ball bearings. The relatively limited noise has hindered discovery of the crimes in progress. Based on limited reports, however, police now believe two vehicles may be involved, possibly driving together: a white or silver boxy SUV (such as a Jeep Cherokee or Isuzu Trooper), and a small sedan (possibly a Neon or Honda). Please keep an eye out for cars matching those descriptions out cruising late at night. If you spot them, call the information into the police as quickly as possible (773-7700). Of course, if you actually see or hear a vandalism in progress, call 911 with a description right away.

New pawnshop reporting rule could aid property crime investigations: Particularly last fall, and to a lesser extent this winter, Winston-Salem has seen a fairly large number of home break-ins. Thieves have concentrated on carrying away cash and small valuable items like jewelry that can be readily pawned for cash. In the process of conferring with police about the patterns of break-ins affecting the Southwest Ward, I learned some important information about pawnshops and police procedure. Under North Carolina state law, pawnshops must make available to local police detailed information on their transactions. This is intended to help police detect and track stolen property. However, the state law does not specify in what format the information is to be made available. Some local pawnshops voluntarily provide the data to police in electronic format (via disk or email). Others only make it available for police inspection in paper copies.

Thousands of pawn transactions take place every week in a city the size of Winston-Salem. When police clerks must hand-enter the data from paper slips to their electronic files for cross-checking with stolen property reports, it significantly slows the ability of the Police Department to track stolen goods. WSPD leaders at one time proposed that all local pawnshops be required to provide this data in electronic form, but that request was never approved.

At my request, the city attorney’s office reviewed the question of whether Winston-Salem has the legal authority to pass an ordinance requiring that pawnshops provide this information in electronic form. Our attorneys reported that in their opinion, we do have that authority. Therefore, I have asked for a draft ordinance change that would implement that requirement. When the draft is prepared (in March, I expect), I will submit it to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee and ask for its consideration.

Bulky item pickup: The first week of curbside bulky item pickup for 2006 begins February 27. As usual, the pickup schedule is by geographic sections. Each residential block of Winston-Salem is on the schedule for pickup during a designated week, and only that week. All of the sections within the Southwest Ward are on the schedule for March, April, or May. The sanitation department can’t predict with certainty which day it will collect which street during the designated week, so leave your items for pickup out the Sunday evening before your area’s week starts. Every home should receive a mailed notice from the city noting its week for pickup, and explaining in detail what will be collected. You can also get all that information now by going to www.cityofws.org or calling 727-2638.

Sign regulations meetings: Tired of the ugly jungle of signs along many of our commercial thoroughfares? (Peters Creek Parkway and Stratford Road come immediately to my mind.) In March, the public will have its first formal opportunity to comment on draft Unified Development Ordinance regulations governing on-premises commercial signs. Two review and comment meetings will be held on Tuesday, March 7, at 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., in the public meeting room, 5th floor, City Hall South. The draft rules can be reviewed at www.cityofws.org/planning. Questions about the proposal may also be called in to 747-7045.