Worsening economic problems, and the development of effective responses to them, were the top concern in January.
Economic problems and responses: City staff and elected officials spent much of our time in January tracking the worsening global economic crisis, national efforts to address it, and ways for Winston-Salem to effectively plug into those efforts. Among other approaches, we're developing city infrastructure needs into proposals that will be ready to submit for funding grants as soon as a final national stimulus package is passed and its terms finalized. These would be projects that we already know are needed locally, for energy efficiency, transportation, economic development, and the like, which would create jobs and stimulate our economy, and which could be ready to go in short order if funding were made available. Examples would include making city facilities more energy efficient, implementing efficient new traffic signal system controls, and building already-approved transportation projects.
The city is also maintaining operational spending controls implemented last fall, and intended to prevent major budget shortfalls from occurring before the end of the fiscal year in June. Because of the big drop in sales tax revenues resulting from the deepening recession, we know that we will face an extremely tight budget situation for the next fiscal year starting in July. City budget staff have already started working on ideas for additional spending controls. The formal public budget review process will begin in March.
Hybrid buses and fuel economy: One step which the city is taking to address long-term operating costs is the purchase of more fuel-efficient buses for our city public transit fleet. On January 5, the city council approved the purchase of 10 gas-electric hybrid buses for the Winston-Salem Transit Authority (WSTA). Due to a federal grant for 90% of the purchase costs, the city will pay only $289,000 for the buses, and $58,000 for inspections, mechanics training, and other incidental costs. WSTA needed to purchase replacement equipment for aging buses in any case, so doing so with buses far more fuel-efficient than those we use now is a real bargain. The city's share of the costs comes from local revenues that are restricted by law to public transit uses.
Parking requirements revised: It's always convenient when a regulation change is simultaneously business-friendly and good for the environment. That's the case with a reduction in off-street parking requirements for most new commercial development and redevelopment, approved by the city council on January 26. The approximate 15% reduction in average off-street parking requirements for new retail and office projects will lower the cost of those developments. It will also reduce the amount of new impervious land surface (pavement) required, and therefore reduce new stormwater runoff. That's helpful to both stream water quality and downstream flood control. An additional item in the approved changes will give these new retail/office projects the chance to get a further 5% reduction in minimum parking requirements by incorporating appropriately sited bicycle racks and accommodations. The changes were all reviewed and approved by planning staff, the Planning Board, and at public hearings. For those wishing to inspect the details, they can be found in development ordinance amendment UDO-194, and incorporated in UDO Chapter B, Article III, sections 3-3, 3-3.3, and 3-3.5.
Public information meetings on the new police patrol districts: Last month, I reported on the revised police patrol deployment plan. The number of patrol "beats" has been increased from 18 to 24, and the average size reduced to two square miles. Patrol officers are being switched to permanent beat and shift assignments instead of rotating assignments. The intent is to improve patrol officers' familiarity with their beat and shift, increase citizen contact, and improve the effectiveness of crime prevention and policing. These changes are being carried out with existing personnel and resources.
As part of efforts to inform and involve citizens in these important public safety moves, WSPD Chief Cunningham has set up a series of public meetings to review the changes and introduce neighbors to the officers who will be in charge of their local beats. The two meetings for District 3, which includes the Southwest Ward, are scheduled as follows:
--Zone 1 (which includes Ardmore and most of the South Ward): Tuesday, Feb. 10, 6-7:30 p.m., First Alliance Church, 1601 Pope Rd.
--Zone 2 (including the rest of the Southwest and West wards): Thursday, Feb. 12, 6-7:30 p.m., South Fork Rec. Center, 4403 Country Club Rd.
I encourage interested citizens who can do so to attend one of those information sessions. Neighborhood associations which would like a direct presentation on the new plan to their annual meetings should let me know, and I will try to arrange it.
Safe Routes to School: This is an N.C. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) program designed to help local governments improve safe opportunities for school children to walk or bike to nearby schools. In January, the city council approved our local participation in seeking state DOT grants to build sidewalks, set up crosswalks, and undertake educational programs to promote this effort. For more information on the Safe Routes to School program, see http://ncdot.org/transit/bicycle/saferoutes/SafeRoutes.html.
Parks equipment replacement: Users of Miller and Little Creek parks will have noted the removal late last year of aged playground equipment which no longer met public safety standards. In addition to working on the general conditions problems at our parks citywide, I've also been working on getting new equipment placed at those two parks as soon as reasonably possible. The Recreation and Parks Department is now working to purchase and install new playground equipment in both parks.
Good quality parks and play areas are a necessary public health and fitness amenity for our city's families. These needs have been neglected in budgeting for many years, and even in these tough budget times, they are overdue to be addressed.
Rooming houses registration: December 31 was the last day for owners of boarding or rooming houses located in single-family zoned areas to register their property use with the Winston-Salem Dept. of Neighborhood Services. Properties registered by that date have until 1/1/12 to change to single-family use. Rooming houses located in single-family zones, but not registered, are now in violation of city code and subject to daily penalties and immediate closing orders. Problems can be reported to the Dept. of Neighborhood Services through the CityLink line, 727-8000.
A final funding note: I often hear very reasonable suggestions that we switch spending from one project or program to another. Sometimes, that's a possibility. Often, however, funding that the city receives for one use cannot legally be used for other kinds of programs. For example, the federal grant money for the bus purchase I mentioned here is only available for that use. Funds spent to build sidewalks (like in the Safe Routes to School program) usually come from revenues (state grants and bond sales) restricted to roads and sidewalk projects. So, the city can't (for example) say we'll buy one less bus or drop a sidewalk project and instead use that money to buy park equipment or hire and train police officers. That's not intended to cut off your suggestions—just to provide food for thought as you help me reflect on our budget challenges and public needs.