We received some good news this month on our continuing public safety efforts, while we continued to prepare this upcoming year's budget, and took final action on an ordinance dealing with soliciting.
Crime rates down: Statistics aren't everything, but they can help us to gauge whether our efforts are producing the desired results. In this case, it's encouraging to learn this month that the rates of most serious crimes are down in Winston-Salem this year compared to the same first quarter data from 2007, and substantially down compared to the first quarter of 2008. Part one violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) are down 14.7% compared to 2008; and part one property crimes (burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft) are down 15.4% in the same comparison. WSPD Chief Cunningham preliminarily attributes the drop to a combination of new patrol deployment and shift modifications, continuity of officers in areas, enhanced relationship with citizens and crime prevention efforts.
Law Enforcement Memorial Week: Speaking of crime and prevention, the month of May always contains Law Enforcement Memorial Week, when we honor the memory of those law enforcement officers who have given their lives to protect our families and community. The next time you get the chance, please remember to thank a police officer for his or her work for us.
Budget update: City Manager Lee Garrity formally released his proposed 2009-2010 budget late in May, and the outlines follow what we've expected since early this year. The revenue picture is tough, especially estimated sales tax revenue, and as a result city government budgets have to be tightened across the board. There will be no city employee pay raises this year, even the merit increases that good employees ought to be able to expect in normal economic times. The hiring freeze continues, with exceptions for public safety and sanitation employees as necessary, and limited grant-funded posts. A number of vacant positions will be eliminated.
At this point, the good news continues to be that our proactive efforts starting last fall to prepare for this year's tight budget still appear to be paying off. The city manager's proposed budget does not anticipate major service cuts or layoffs, and the city property tax rate can still go down in response to the county tax revaluation.
The city council will hold further review sessions and a public hearing on the proposed budget before adopting a budget in June. We're still watching two major wild cards: statewide sales tax revenue projections, and any harmful actions that the state legislature may take to affect city revenues. The council's public hearing and budget action date is presently set for Monday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.
New panhandling ("begging or soliciting alms") restrictions: Ever since I have been on the city's governing board, I have periodically heard concerns from constituents regarding aggressive panhandling, and soliciting taking place in unsafe locations on city streets. Earlier this month, a person selling newspapers near the Five Points intersection was seriously injured when he accidentally stepped into the path of a pickup truck. On May 18, the city council adopted new code provisions that should help to limit the dangers associated with soliciting activities. All of these new provisions took effect at the time of adoption.
New restrictions include the following:
The full details are in Winston-Salem Municipal Code Chapter 38, sections 38-31 and 38-32.
A related problem has been that of individuals going door-to-door in neighborhoods, or gathering streetside, to allegedly solicit charitable contributions. The city council also adopted new provisions to address that situation. Persons or groups who wish to solicit for charitable purposes must file an advance notice of intent to solicit, specifying the dates, time, locations, and related information. Solicitors will receive an identification card which they must retain and display while soliciting. The notices and cards are good for 14 days from issuance. These provisions are contained in Code Section 38-61.
Ex-offender re-entry program: One of the most difficult challenges in reducing crime and helping people trapped in a cycle of poverty comes from the problems in finding work for ex-offenders returning to the community after completing a sentence in prison or jail. When they are not able to find work, they are unable to help themselves or their families, and they are far more likely to fall back into criminal activities.
To help address that problem, Winston-Salem is partnering with the Northwest Piedmont Workforce Development Board (NPWDB) and other community organizations to establish the Offender Connection Network (OCN). OCN is a network of services and resources to help ex-offenders safely reintegrate into the community. Services will include career counseling and ongoing case management. Funding for OCN is coming through NPWDB and the community charitable and social services organizations. As a participant in the NPWDB's Work Experience Program, the city will identify ten job positions currently vacant due to the budget-related hiring freeze. Those positions will be made available to properly qualified and supervised individuals referred through NPWDB, which will employ the individuals and pay their salary during a period of up to three to six months. Successful participants who complete the program will be eligible for hiring by the city. The city will be one of a number of employers participating in this effort.
Tree ordinance update: Here's a quick update on progress of the tree save ordinance. I'm still in the process of mediating discussions among community stakeholder groups on some of the important details of our draft ordinance. I hope that the city council will be ready at our June 1 meeting to send drafts forward to a formal public hearing in July. I'll include notice of the date and time in my June report.