In June, the city council adopted the final city budget for 2014-15. In other news, important decisions are being made this summer on new transportation projects, new rules on door-to-door solicitations are taking effect, and there are many activities available for kids in our city this summer.
City Council adopts 2014-15 budget: On June 18, the city council adopted our new city budget for 2014-15. Overall, the budget is about $507 million, including $305 million for operations, $36 million for debt service, and $166 million for capital spending. It's balanced with a 54 cent property tax rate, up one cent from last year's 53 cent rate. The one-cent rate increase is to compensate for an action by the state legislature to exempt custom software from property taxes. That legislative action, taken last year and effective in the upcoming fiscal year, costs Winston-Salem at least $1.6 million in revenue. It's a legislatively-mandated tax break for a handful of large businesses, passed without any offsetting revenue increases to local government. Local governments have the option of cutting services or shifting the load to other taxpayers--a wholly unsatisfactory set of options created by state legislative action.
On the expenditure side, the budget includes a net reduction of five staff positions, and other savings such as continued automation of curbside trash collection. It also includes funding for merit pay increases for city employees, and a 1.5% market pay rate adjustment for employees whose actual pay is below the average actual market salaries for their positions. This is important not just as a matter of fairness to city employees, but also to maintain and improve service quality for the public. For example, the category of light equipment operator (e.g., brush collection equipment) is one of the positions most underpaid. We've been paying them 37% less than competitive market rates, resulting in a 13% annual voluntary turnover rate. In other words, we've been training operators--and when they're proficient, they've got better salaries available elsewhere, knocking our efficiency back down again. We see similar problems in several other areas, including police officer. Our police officer salaries are14% under competitive market rates, contributing to a 6% annual voluntary turnover rate. We recruit and train great officers, and then loose many to better-paying jobs elsewhere. That has to change, and this year's budget is an effort to start addressing the problem.
This year's budget also includes the addition of $145,000 to finance the purchase of five hoist trucks for brush collection. This will provide enough back-up vehicles to keep collection routes going regularly even while vehicles are down for maintenance. Improving the efficiency of brush collection was one of the city service priorities identified by public comments, including those from Southwest Ward residents.
In sum, this year's city budget reflects a commitment to maintain and improve city service levels while keeping tax rates as low as responsibly possible. Under this budget, Winston-Salem continues to have the lowest combined city tax and fees level of any major city in North Carolina.
Business 40 construction project scores high on regional projects list: The $60 million project of safety improvements to Business 40 through Winston-Salem, including the bridges and the on/off ramps, topped the just-released list of highway construction projects in N.C. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) District 7 for our urban area. That boosts our chance to see this critical project funded for construction on its planned schedule, beginning in 2016. The puzzling failure of the state DOT to include this project on its list of statewide priorities has put in jeopardy years of planning and public input work on a major public safety project. We are working hard to ensure that this project is funded at the DOT regional level and moves forward. As a member of our urban area's Transportation Advisory Committee, which advises District 7 on state transportation projects in our area, I'm pressing for this one as our top priority.
Funding opportunity for important biking/pedestrian projects: Winston-Salem, including the Southwest Ward, also has an opportunity to pick up additional state funding for some of our top priority biking/pedestrian projects. These are typically far less expensive than highway construction projects, so we can push for them as well without jeopardizing our road priorities. On the just-released list of bike/pedestrian project priorities for DOT District 7 for our urban area, the top-scoring two projects are both relevant to the Southwest Ward. One is the proposed sidewalk extension along Silas Creek Parkway from Ebert Street to Lockland Avenue. That would serve Forsyth Tech's main campus as well as the many neighborhoods, apartment complexes, and businesses along this area. There is substantial pedestrian traffic along this section already, at significant safety risk, on the shoulder of this very busy road. The other top-scoring project is the extension of the Salem Creek Greenway from its current western trailhead at Marketplace Mall over to Forsyth Tech's main campus. That would bring this major educational institution (and its students and staff), as well as neighborhoods of the Southwest Ward, into direct connection with the Salem Creek-Salem Lake greenway trail system. This greenway spine runs across our city and around Salem Lake, connecting along with way with multiple neighborhoods, parks, schools including Salem College and Winston-Salem State University, and other destinations.
The NC DOT is taking public comments on all its regional transportation project funding priorities through July 11. I encourage supporters of improved pedestrian safety and bike/pedestrian facilities to write in support of the Silas Creek Parkway sidewalk project and Salem Creek Greenway westward extension. Comments can be sent via email to Fredrick Heath, Winston-Salem DOT, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. Friday, July 11. Those who want to wade through the completed detailed lists of projects, their scores, and the priority-setting process can access that information here: http://www.cityofws.org/departments/transportation/planning/sti-spot-prioritization (But you can comment in support of the projects noted above even without digging though the background details.)
New rules on door-to-door solicitors take effect July 1: New city rules regarding door-to-door solicitations will take effect this Tuesday, July 1. As a refresher, I'm repeating here some of the high points of the new city code provisions:
--Door-to-door soliciting is limited to the hours of 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. or sunset (whichever comes first). This applies to all solicitors (people who are going to a resident's door without a prior invitation), whether commercial, non-profit, religious, or political.
--All solicitors (whether commercial or non-commercial) are barred from soliciting at any single- or multi-family residence which has "no solicitation" or "no trespassing" posted at or near the entrance.
--All solicitors are prohibited from knowingly using false or misleading statements to make a sale, remaining on a person's doorstep after being asked to leave, or soliciting in any manner that is threatening, intimidating, or abusive.
--Commercial solicitors must obtain business licenses, and the information submitted to the city must include names, contact info, and photos for all individuals who will be doing the soliciting. Solicitors are subject to criminal background checks.
--Commercial solicitors must wear their city-issued photo badge while soliciting.
--As of July 1, if you're approached by anyone soliciting in violation of these rules (or who is otherwise acting in a suspicious manner), please call the police and let them know. We're working to boost the safety of our community.
Many activities and services available for kids in Winston-Salem this summer: Here are some of the highlights:
--Fairground Fridays: "Fairground Fridays" at the Winston-Salem fairgrounds started June 27 and will return July 11, 18, 25, and August 1. They will be held rain or shine, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Education Building. They will include an indoor skateboard park, music, dance contests, arcade games, and other teen-oriented entertainment. Admission is free and parking is available in the Fairgrounds Annex parking lot off Deacon Boulevard.
--Indoor skateboard park: The skateboard park at the Fairgrounds Education Building will be open all month (except July 4) through August 1. Hours will be 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 2 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is free and includes the arcade games in the building. Concession stands will be open for these hours. Helmets, knee pads, and elbow pads are required, and a parental release of liability form is required. Rules can be found here: http://www.cityofws.org/departments/recreation-parks/skate-park-rules
--City recreation centers: Polo Park, Fourteenth Street, and Martin Luther King recreation centers will hold Teen Nights with open play, music, and game rooms from 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays, July 11, 18, and 25, and August 1. Hanes Hosiery recreation center will hold Teen Night Basketball from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays during this period.
--City pools are open: City pools are open for the summer, and schedules are available here: http://www.cityofws.org/departments/recreation-parks/pools-aquatics/aquatics-calendar
--Summer meals program: The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools meals program (breakfast and lunch) is open now for the summer at 20 schools and will continue through August 14. Details are available here: http://wsfcs.k12.nc.us/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=1&ModuleInstanceID=12708&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=122077&PageID=1
That's my report for June. As always, you are welcome to email me at email@example.com with comments or questions. Thanks!