March 2006 Highlights

 

March brought progress on several important clean environment and public safety issues:

Cleaner car purchases studied: As I’ve discussed in previous reports, Winston-Salem and the Piedmont Triad make up one of several North Carolina regions which are experiencing long-term air quality problems. These problems include higher numbers of asthma attacks and other heart and lung problems, made worse by ground-level ozone (urban smog) and fine particulates (soot). We have begun to make good progress in reducing these pollutants through tighter controls on point source smokestacks (especially coal-fired power plants). However, to keep pollution levels dropping (instead of rising again) over the next 20 years, we must do a better job of controlling pollution from vehicle emissions. That’s a more complicated task, which will require solutions including better public transit alternatives, smarter land development planning to reduce the average length of every-day car trips, and lower average pollutant emissions per vehicle.

An important part of lowering average pollution per vehicle is to replace cars and trucks that burn a lot of gas with more efficient vehicles. The local governments cooperating in the Piedmont Triad Early Action Compact for cleaner air, including Winston-Salem, have committed to pursuing that strategy. Besides the cleaner air benefits, more efficient vehicles also save the city tax money, especially during these times of rising gas prices—which seem very likely to continue for the forseeable future.

In early March, city staff proposed a significant fleet vehicle replacement purchase of 25 pickup trucks (Chevrolet Colorados) and 15 sedans (Ford Taurus). These would represent replacement of about ten percent of the city’s pickup and general use sedan fleets, respectively. I reviewed comparative gas efficiency and air emissions data for alternative vehicles available in North Carolina. Information from Charlotte and Mecklenburg County regarding their "greener" vehicle purchase efforts was also helpful. In sum, comparisons showed that the Colorado was highly ranked for fuel efficiency and emissions control among pickup trucks, but the Taurus was lower-efficiency and higher-emission than available alternatives. Preliminary cost comparisons also suggested that the city would save money over the long run by buying more fuel-efficient sedans. Available alternatives include a smaller Ford Focus, and a gas-electric hybrid vehicle, the Honda Civic Hybrid.

At my suggestion (and after a good substantive discussion among council members and city staff), the City Council approved the Colorados purchase, but sent the sedan purchase back to our Finance Committee for further consideration of the alternatives. I look for the committee to discuss this issue further during April.

Public safety facilities authorized: At its March 6 meeting, the City Council approved bond financing for a number of important public improvement projects, notably including two critical public safety facilities: a firearms training facility, and a police evidence storage and training facility. When these new facilities are ready, they will reduce travel requirements for police and sheriff firearms training, and consolidate evidence storage in a safe and climate-controlled facility. DNA testing and other law enforcement evidentiary needs have greatly boosted the amount of evidence storage needed and the duration of its storage.

Pawnshop regulation discussions progress: On the topic of evidence, I reported last month that I have proposed strengthening the rules concerning pawnshop records. The proposed new rules would require pawnshops to check and record photo ID information, and to provide pawn ticket information to the police department in electronic form. North Carolina state law already requires this information to be made available to police for inspection. Police officials indicate that electronic reporting would substantially speed up their ability to match records with stolen property reports and investigate property crimes. (About half the pawn shops in Winston-Salem voluntarily provide the information in this form already.) The City Council’s Public Safety Committee discussed my proposal at its March meeting, and agreed to consider it in detail. I will report again later on this proposal as it develops.

Auto vandalism suspects caught: Last month I also reported on a string of auto vandalisms ("watch for cruising vandals") affecting some Southwest Ward neighborhoods and several other parts of the city and county. In early March, Kernersville police arrested and charged seven teens (six adults and a juvenile) with multiple counts of malicious injury to property. Follow-up investigation affirmatively linked those charged to the more than 100 Winston-Salem auto vandalism cases as well. It’s hoped that this will put an end to that particular set of cases. Discussions continue regarding how to best address the larger, apparently related, problem of growing youth gang activity.