January 2014 Highlights

Cell tower regulations, public safety data, and economic revitalization efforts are among the topics in this month's report.

Cell tower zoning changes public hearing Feb. 3: The City Council will hold its formal public hearing on proposed changes to city development ordinances regarding the location of cell towers at our meeting starting at 7 p.m. this Monday, Feb. 3. There are two differing versions of the proposal to be discussed. One is the version recommended by the Planning Board last fall, based on the original request from the petitioning companies. That version would both considerably reduce the restrictions on locating cell towers in many residential areas, and provide for approval of requests by a zoning board from which decisions are not appealable to the city council. The other version up for comment and discussion is the one recommended by the council's Community Development, Housing, and General Government (CDHGG) Committee at our January 14 meeting. That version is based on negotiation discussions among proponents of the changes and neighborhood groups, moderated by the CDHGG Chair Molly Leight. It would permit some types of cell transmitters to be located in some residential zones, but would require city council approval for new towers located in any residential area.

I prefer the version recommended by the CDHGG committee. It takes several positive steps. It recognizes the increasing demand for strong cellular service throughout the community, and provides opportunities to expand service into existing 'dead spots' and poor reception areas. However, it also recognizes the need to protect residential areas from unnecessary appearance problems. To reduce those, it sets up incentives for co-location of transmitters on existing structures as a preferred alternative, and for concealed tower designs where new towers are needed. It also provides a way for the elected representative body to say 'no' to proposed new tower locations that are unacceptable to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Both versions are online now and can be accessed here: http://www.cityofws.org/departments/planning/news/id/14491/public-hearing-transmission-tower-standards-232014

Public comments on the proposed changes and alternative approaches are timely now, direct to me, or in person at the hearing February 3.

Revitalizing Urban Commercial Area (RUCA) investments: The city council held extended public discussion in January on the RUCA program in general and its status in one case in particular: the Ogburn Station area, in the Northeast Ward around the intersections of Old Walkertown Road, Old Rural Hall Road, and Liberty Street. Ogburn Station is one of the five older established commercial areas of the city in which RUCA investments are underway. The others are West Salem/Academy Street (at Peters Creek Parkway and Academy Street), King/Parkview Plaza (at Reynolds Park Road and Kernersville Road), Peachtree/Waughtown Street, and Cherry Street/Polo Road. These areas were selected by the city council as starting grounds for the RUCA program from among more than a dozen possibilities. Selection factors included need of the area for economic recovery assistance, estimated potential for success (including interest from potential private investors), and a desire for geographic diversity in the areas selected.

The concept of the RUCA program is to help revitalize these older commercial areas through targeted investments in public infrastructure (such as sidewalk improvements and street trees), together with a loan program to leverage private investments in renovating and improving businesses there (such as shopping center facades and parking areas). The purpose is to spur business activity and boost values in areas of the city that have been in decline, helping make nearby neighborhoods more attractive in the process. A total of $2.79 million in city investment was made available for work in these five areas. The public funding has come from the repaid Dell incentives. Rates of progress in the five originally designated RUCA areas has varied, but some improvements can be seen in all (and significant progress in some).

However, there have been problems in completing authorized projects involving the Ogburn Station Shopping Center. City staff review of the problems there revealed that some of the authorized improvement work had been done improperly by unqualified contractors working for two of the private investors. Of the $750,000 originally allocated to the Ogburn Station area, about $472,000 has been used or obligated on approved work. Of this, about $111,000 was involved in the apparently defective work.

City staff analysis indicated that the costs of correcting and completing the originally authorized work from this point would require about $360,000 (with a contingency amount of $40,000). At the Finance Committee on January 13 and the City Council meeting on January 21, council members discussed whether to approve an allocation of up to $400,000 from economic development (Dell repayment) funds for this purpose.

In preparation for the January 21 discussion, I visited the shopping center and its surrounding business areas; asked for and received additional information from city staff on the parties involved, their security provided for the city loans, the work done thus far, and the causes of the problems; and discussed with city legal staff options for guaranteeing that those problems would be addressed.

I wanted to be able to support completion of the Ogburn Station RUCA work, because it seems clear to me that it would be hard to find a part of our community in greater need of business investments and improvements. At the same time, it was equally clear that the oversight and safeguards for the original mishandled work were inadequate.

At the January 21 council meeting, a motion was made to approve making up to $400,000 in RUCA loan funding available to complete the Ogburn Station work. I suggested an amendment to the motion to add further safeguards to ensure that the work was correctly planned, supervised, and carried out by qualified contractors. My amendment, which was accepted, provided that a qualified city staff person would be designated to oversee the project; that a detailed plan for the work be completed, approved, and followed; that the private investors settle the issues between them of responsibility for the original problems; and that the city be assigned the right to recover damages from the parties responsible for the original workmanship problems. All of these safeguards are to be in place and approved by the city Finance Committee before any further disbursement of city funds for the project can take place. With my amendment, the motion passed by a majority vote.

Using the lessons of this problem case, safeguards for all future RUCA investments are also being put in place. I and most of my council colleagues continue to believe that the RUCA program is an effective way to leverage business investments into areas of our community that most need it. We also understand that this public participation in community revitalization work must be carried out in a financially responsible and accountable manner.

Gun safety efforts: The city council on January 21 approved a gun buyback project by the Winston-Salem Police Department. The project is designed to reduce guns on the street by giving citizens the opportunity to trade them in for a modest cash payment (far below sales cost in most cases). Guns that are found to have been stolen must be returned to their owners; other guns can be disposed of safely. It's a way for citizens to get rid of undesired weapons, reducing the threat of accidents or theft in those cases. As much as anything else, it's an opportunity for public education on the issue of gun violence and community safety. Most gun violence involves suicides, accidental shootings, or domestic violence. This program is intended as one part in a comprehensive approach to improve community safety. A total of $10,000 was approved for the buybacks at this time. Buyback levels were set at $75 for shotguns and rifles, $100 for handguns, and $150 for assault weapons. Time and place details are being worked out now.

Annual crime statistics: As part of their regular city reports, the police department in January provided annual crime statistics for Winston-Salem. Major property crimes (burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft) were all down in 2013 compared to both 2012 and 2011. The category of burglary (which includes house break-ins) was down 13.6% from 2012 and 16.8% from 2011.

Major violent crimes overall were also down, due to an 11.4% drop in aggravated assaults. However, robberies were up slightly from 2012.

A lot of focus has understandably been placed on homicide statistics. These were up to 15 in 2013, compared with 8 in 2012. However, the number of homicides was also 15 in 2011. We all agree that even one murder is one too many, but the total of homicides in Winston-Salem has held fairly steady over the past five years (from 16 in 2009), except for the unusually low year of 2012. The numbers here are much lower than in Charlotte, Durham, or Greensboro.

A case-by-case breakdown of the 2013 homicides was provided. Of the 15 homicides in Winston-Salem in 2013, at least 11 and possibly all 15 were between parties known to each other. Three were domestic violence, and at least five involved drug-related arguments. Fourteen of the 15 were shootings.

In order to help us better understand the causes and trends in robberies and assaults, I've asked the police department for additional information, including longer-term trend data (the past ten years), statistics regarding the use of guns in assaults and robberies, a breakdown of numerical trends in domestic violence and drug-related violence, and a review of efforts in other cities that seem to be producing positive results in reducing community violence.

Medicaid coverage: On January 21, the city council also approved a resolution asking the governor and legislature to reconsider their decision from last year to reject federal funding for Medicaid expansion. I try to resist dealing with policy resolutions on matters outside city government responsibilities, but in this case there is information directly tying the Medicaid expansion decision to our city budget. That's because people without health care coverage of some kind get less preventive care, and have serious illnesses discovered later. That means more illness, more costly treatment, and more illness and damage that can't be cured or treated effectively because it was not prevented or caught in time. Most of those costs end up getting rolled into the overall health care system costs for which we all pay in one way or another--including the costs of repeated emergency room visits by people who can't pay, and which therefore get tacked into the operating costs charged to those who can pay. The American Academy of Actuaries estimated that the costs from refusing Medicaid expansion will increase the costs of private health insurance overall by 2%. That translates into a $400,000 increase in Winston-Salem city annual budget costs for health care coverage.

Even more importantly, when the state rejected the Medicaid expansion funds, it relegated about 500,000 North Carolina residents to continued lack of any regular health care coverage. It's estimated that as many as 2,800 of them will die prematurely this year because of delayed or unreceived health care as a result. In my opinion, that is a shame and an outrage. It's a poor decision by our state government, and should be reversed this year.

New City Council committee meeting times: For those interested in attending City Council committee meetings, please take note that the regular committee meeting times have been changed. The committee meetings normally take place the second week of each month, on these days and times:

--Finance, Monday at 4:30 p.m.

--Public Safety, Monday at 6 p.m.

--Community Development, Housing and General Government, Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.

--Public Works, Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Other upcoming activities/notes:

--Backyard buffers workshop: The Winston-Salem City Stormwater Department and Forsyth Cooperative Extension are sponsoring a free Backyard Buffer Workshop on Saturday, February 1, 10 a.m.-noon, at Forsyth Cooperative Extension, 1450 Fairchild Road, 27105. Call 703-2850 to register.

--Forsyth Creek Week: The organizers of Forsyth Creek Week (Mar. 15-22) are sponsoring a juried photography competition to promote awareness of the event. Submission deadline for preliminary images is February 9. For more information, see www.ForsythCreekWeek.com/photocontest.html.

--South Central Area Plan update: A meeting will be held Tuesday, February 4, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., at Diggs-Latham Elementary on Hutton Street, to kick off public discussion of the South Central Winston-Salem Area Plan. This area includes the Peters Creek Parkway corridor.

--Salem Creek Greenway segment detour: Beginning sometime in early February, work on the Salem Creek Connector road will disrupt through travel on the section of the Salem Creek Greenway between South Main Street and Vargrave Street. A detour with sidewalks/bike lanes is being prepared around that area using Salem Drive, Rams Drive, and Vargrave Street. The detour is expected to be in effect for about 18 months. Details can be found here: http://www.cityofws.org/departments/transportation

That's my report for January. As always, you are welcome to email me at danbesse@danbesse.org with comments or questions. Thanks.