Budget blues dominated the news this month, while zoning disputes came in second. I’ll note those, but also point to some long-range planning efforts that may be just as important over the long run. Beginning with--
Traffic calming: Traffic safety concerns were probably the one topic mentioned to me by the most voters during last year’s campaign. I started the year thinking that traffic congestion on thoroughfares would be the hot topic. By the end of the year, it was clear that a secondary effect of congestion, neighborhood safety issues created by cut-throughs on side streets, was of even greater concern. While we need to address congestion on thoroughfares and at intersections as a cause of the problem, it’s also plain that we need to institute measures that will slow down the drivers on back streets at the same time.
Transportation planners refer to these measures as "traffic calming". They can include signals, four-way stops, lane adjustments, and other approaches. The city Dept. of Transportation (DOT) is developing a comprehensive strategy for using these in an effective manner, and in March held two seminars to describe the ideas and gather public comments. (I sent you a notice of these seminars about two weeks ago, and there was a lot of interest.) Comments on the strategies are still welcome at the city DOT (call 747-6967 for information), and the overall recommendations should be ready later this year.
Budget problems: I knew that this year’s budget would be tight. I didn’t know until this month that the city would be facing a budget deficit of up to $13 million plus. The prospective deficit is a result of the economic downturn, past tax cuts, and the state’s withholding of tax revenues historically (and legally) dedicated to local governments. City staff have started preparing alternatives for the board of aldermen to consider, and you may have seen newspaper reports of the pre-budget briefing week before last. Alternatives presented include some fairly major service cuts, service fee increases, or property tax rate increases. There are budget efficiencies to be found, but frankly they don’t add up to $13 million worth.
I will be looking for ways to avoid major service cuts or tax increases, but it will not be easy. I do not expect that there is a painless way to balance the city’s budget this year, especially if the state does not restore the draconian revenue cuts it imposed without warning earlier this year.
Your suggestions are welcome and will be considered. Please keep in mind that it takes five votes to pass anything on the board, so anything I propose will be subject to a difficult negotiation process. Priorities among the board members differ substantially in terms of spending items, and the final budget will be a product of many compromises. In addition, the city will not be able to adopt a final budget and tax rate until we know what the legislature will do on local revenues—and that will probably not be finalized until late summer at best, well after the beginning of the fiscal year in July. The city will probably be forced to adopt one or more temporary, one-month budget resolutions in order to keep things running until the state budget is passed and we can adopt a final budget for the coming fiscal year. That is not ideal by any means, but will probably be the most responsible course we can take. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me with questions or suggestions.
High-speed rail: In better news this month, the North Carolina and Virginia Departments of Transportation (DOTs) jointly announced that the Southeast high-speed rail corridor will include a connection to Winston-Salem. The connection was referred to as a "spur", though, and it was not part of the preferred primary route. That’s progress, but it’s not good enough yet.
According to published reports, Winston-Salem citizens submitted 449 comments on the high-speed rail route, out of a total of 650 received from 18 communities in North Carolina and Virginia. Strong support from a broad range of community voices, including local government and business representatives, no doubt has already influenced state planners. This active support needs to continue to ensure that Winston-Salem is not left off the economically- and environmentally-important intercity passenger rail lines. I will forward to you the contact information for that input as soon as the next stage of public comment begins.
Greenways: Speaking of public input, the city-county greenway plan is scheduled for its public hearing before the board of aldermen on April 15 (the usual board meeting time at 7:30 p.m. on the fifth floor of City Hall South downtown). If you’re interested in this topic, you’re invited to be present for an initial presentation on the substance of the draft plan, followed by a public comment opportunity.
I’ve discussed the value of greenways in this monthly email report before. They’re important family-friendly outdoor recreation amenities for a city. They provide a chance for adults, kids, and families to walk, run and bike safely outdoors inside the city, especially along streams. They’re also great opportunities to introduce children to natural settings and wildlife that exist even within the city. I believe strongly that introducing children to the outdoors near where we live is enormously important to helping them make the connection between how we live in human society and what happens to the world around us.
While Winston-Salem is a beautiful city, we lag behind other similarly-situated North Carolina cities in our number and extent of urban trails and greenways. We have only 16 miles of greenways/trails now, compared to 25 in Charlotte/Mecklenburg, 41 in Raleigh, and 60 in Greensboro. Our city/county greenway plan is a chance to start correcting that imbalance and adding a boost to our local quality of life.
Zoning cases: There have been several zoning cases of likely interest decided during March. Here are some highlights:
--Bolton School: The proposal to sell and rezone land containing Bolton Elementary School playground equipment and walking track was withdrawn. Thanks go to the alert parents who protected this resource for our children and community. Related proposals continue to be considered by the city/county school board, and need to be watched for their relevant details.
--Westminster development: This large planned residential development will be located near Salem Lake, one of our drinking water sources, and so needed close scrutiny. As approved by the board, the development will have substantial open space, broad stream buffers, and well-planned stormwater runoff controls, plus a two-mile greenway connecting to the Salem Lake Trail. During the board discussion, I sought and received additional controls on sedimentation during the construction process. As approved, the development will actually have lower total traffic impacts than would have been allowed under the previously existing RS-9 zoning, and will contain a range of housing price levels to increase affordability.
--Tribek development: This mid-sized mixed-use development near the Peace Haven and Country Club roads intersection was the subject of intense controversy and neighborhood opposition. It was approved by a 5-4 vote. I voted no, partly in deference to the strong neighborhood opposition, and in the belief that a better development plan could be designed and proposed for the area in question. This was honestly a difficult case, however. The previous zoning included a strip of "highway business" zone along Country Club which could have created even more traffic problems than the new zoning, and it was on the basis of this concern that a majority of the board was swayed to vote yes. We can anticipate that traffic pressures in this area will continue to increase, and will need to be dealt with as well as possible through transportation infrastructure improvements.
Landfill debate: The long-standing debate over expansion of the Hanes Mill Road landfill cycled back to the board of aldermen for another vote this month. The board had voted in December to require construction of berms along the southern border of the landfill expansion, to help address adverse effects on the adjacent neighborhood. However, analyses of the probable value of the berms in reducing noise impact on the neighborhood came back with disappointing results. The board had been closely divided in December over the question of whether to require the berms. The additional information received since that time (on value and cost of the berms) had swayed a key vote on the board to change her position on the berms, and she was now prepared to vote against them. Rather than do nothing for the adjacent neighborhood, I voted with a majority of the board to offer buyouts of the homes on the street nearest the landfill expansion and therefore most likely to be adversely affected. The city-county utilities commission voted the next day to accept that alternative. It is hoped that this will be fair to the neighbors most likely to be affected by the landfill expansion, at a substantially lower cost to the city than would have been required by construction of the berms.
Stratford tree-planting: Keep Winston-Salem Beautiful will sponsor its 10th annual "Community Roots Day" tree-planting event this Saturday, April 6, from 9 a.m. to noon. This year’s event will plant 400 trees along South Stratford Road between Oakwood Drive and Hanes Mall Boulevard. I plan to be there and you’re invited to participate. Volunteers will meet at the old Best Products parking lot at 551 S. Stratford Road (across the street from Pig Pickin’s). Lunch will be provided. More info is available by calling 727-8013.
Sidewalk repairs: A number of folks have noticed sidewalk repairs moving through their neighborhood recently, and called to ask how they could get problems in front of their homes fixed. I checked, and the city Engineering Department has a schedule of areas slated for repair work each year, using "Powell Bill" federal funds. In areas not on that schedule in the near future, it’s still possible to get city repairs made now, but residents may need to pay a part of the cost to do so. For more information about sidewalk repairs near you, you can contact the Sidewalk/Curb/Gutter Repairs office within the Public Works Department, at 727-2776.
It’s my opinion that sidewalk repairs are a part of maintaining the public transportation system, and should be treated like street repairs. However, given the budget situation this year, that’s probably a long-term goal, not something that can be addressed immediately.