At one-year mark, Salisbury City Council says there’s still more work to do
By Amanda Raymond and Josh Bergeron
SALISBURY — Halfway through a two-year term, Salisbury City Council members have mixed emotions about the pace of progress in the city.
From a record field of 16 candidates, voters in 2015 plucked three incumbents and two challengers. Mayor Paul Woodson and Councilman Pete Kennedy decided not to run for reelection. Attorney David Post and consultant Kenny Hardin filled the two spots. Incumbents Brian Miller and Maggie Blackwell scored another term. Architect Karen Alexander became the city’s mayor after receiving the most votes.
Tuesday marks one year since incumbents were sworn into another term and newcomers were sworn into their first.
In interviews with the Salisbury Post, the five members expressed varying opinions about accomplishments so far. Alexander was the most upbeat of the bunch. Blackwell says she’s not running again for city council and, as a result, has limited time to accomplish goals she set during the campaign. Miller said there’s been some significant progress and there’s still more work to do. Post and Hardin expressed frustration about the past year. Hardin said he’s unsure about whether he’d want to run for a second term in 2017.
In Alexander’s second full term on the council and her first term as mayor, she expressed positivity about council’s accomplishments in the last year.
One of the things Alexander focused on during her campaign was leveraging infrastructure improvements throughout the city as a way of expanding commerce and adding jobs.
In the past year, Alexander said the council was able to see the completion of the Newsome Road project, which included repaving and repairing the road and adding sidewalks. The city secured a grant from the North Carolina Department of Transportation that totaled about $3 million, while the city only had to come up with $300,000.
“That’s a really good example of leveraging,” Alexander said.
The council was also able to see the completion of medians from Interstate 85 to Long Street, along with stamped crosswalks, repairs on the Rebecca fountain at the Gateway Park and improvement of parking at Depot and Innes streets.
Another thing Alexander was proud of was the work the council has done to prepare for the future. The city recently applied for two electric car charging stations at Gateway Park in preparation of the rail line extension and is currently installing digital water meters for residents.
She mentioned a grant the city received from the Carolina Thread Trail to extend the greenway to Kelsey Scott Park, which will allow West End community members to enjoy the greenway.
Alexander said all of the new projects that have started and businesses that have opened, many with grant or other funds from the city, have added jobs to the city.
She pointed to the awards the city has won over the last year as a testament of the city’s progress, including being a finalist in the All-America City competition and winning a Livability Award back in June.
“I think we’re doing good. We’re making progress,” Alexander said. “And it’s thanks to council and all of their efforts.”
Blackwell, mayor pro tem, said when the time came to file her candidacy for City Council, she originally said she was not going to run. A certain group of citizens changed her mind, but she said her mind is already set for the next election cycle: she will not run again.
“So, I have exactly one year left to make a difference in this city,” she said.
She said progress been made on the goals she stated during her campaign, and she has been able to stay true to the promises she made since the beginning of her time on the council: being an advocate for neighborhoods and not being afraid to vote against items that contradict with that goal.
When the proposal to convert the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church property on North Fulton Street into a wedding venue went before the council, Blackwell was one of the council members who voted against the item because many of the surrounding neighbors did not want the venue in their neighborhood.
As the council liaison for the Housing Advocacy Commission, Blackwell is helping to craft an ordinance that would hold landlords accountable for the criminal behavior of their tenants, an idea from a few of the citizens on the commission.
Recently, Blackwell met with the city manager and assistant city manager to discuss better enforcement of the city’s ordinance that requires property owners to register properties that are boarded up and submit a repair plan after six months.
During the campaign, Blackwell also floated the idea of selling the more than 500 city-owned properties to gain funds that the city can use elsewhere. Blackwell said she has run into some issues with getting that done, but she was able to convince the council and city manager to work on creating an inventory list of city-owned properties with indications of how vital the properties are to the city.
Blackwell said that she is proud that she has continued to be an advocate for citizens and she wants to finish the initiatives that she’s started before her time on the council is up.
From the first day of the 2015 campaign, Hardin promised to be candid. Hardin hasn’t changed. Not much has changed on the Salisbury City Council either, Hardin says.
“I don’t think there’s an understanding and a healthy dose of realism on our council when it comes to problems that are impacting our challenged communities and specifically our communities of color,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a good understanding of poverty or what people deal with in terms of crime. So, I don’t think there’s a general concern about all of our communities and that’s frustrating for me.”
During the past year, Hardin hasn’t been shy about demonstrating his distaste for the actions of some city officials. He voted against a resolution honoring former Police Chief Rory Collins, opposed the city’s bid for the “All-American City” designation and, recently, asked for more professional courtesy after Blackwell called $40,000 from county commissioners for a dog park an offer with “strings attached.”
Hardin said the city council gets “too wrapped up” in aesthetics when there are real problems.
During the 2015 campaign, he said he’d work to include more minority voices in the city’s decision-making process. That hasn’t occurred to the extent he’d like, Hardin said.
“I don’t think we’re close because I don’t think the efforts have been there to engage every demographic, whether it’s age or cultural,” Hardin said. “You can’t sit uptown, and behind your computer, say this is what the problem is over there, here’s how we fix it and now let’s go over there and tell them.”
The city of Salisbury won’t be able to achieve the progress it desires unless people of all ages and races can be significant parts of decision making, he said.
After expressing frustration about the past year, Hardin said he’s not sure whether he wants to run for a second term.
Miller said one of the most frustrating things about working in government is the amount of time it takes to get things done.
In some ways that is a good thing, Miller said, because it keeps the council from making decisions too quickly. But on the other hand, the slow processes can make it look like nothing is being done.
Miller said he believes progress has been made on some of the goals he mentioned during the campaign, it just may be hard to see it.
Miller said he wanted to push for improvements in the downtown area during his campaign, and with the incentive grants the city offers to encourage development, he said he believes progress has been made.
“We made progress, it may be hard to see because things are still in development,” he said.
He encouraged the council to set aside funds in the budget and capital planning process for a downtown streetscape project sometime in the future.
Miller also said the recent purchase of the Empire Hotel is sure to spur further improvements in the area.
“That will be a catalyst in more ways than one,” he said.
He also said he realizes that economic development is needed throughout Salisbury, not just downtown, and grants from the city can help with that as well.
Another item Miller mentioned during his campaign was a need for transparency and accountability, and at different points during the year Miller has mentioned the need for clarity in the city’s financial statements.
Though the progress has been slow going and more needs to be done, Miller said he was satisfied with the progress the city has made in the last year.
When he ran for office one year ago, councilman David Post said the city’s internet, phone and TV service — Fibrant — ranked among the best things Salisbury officials have ever done. Post says he still feels that way, but financial realities temper his enthusiasm.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the future,” Post said. “The city is driven by Fibrant, and we can fix a lot of things in Salisbury if we can fix Fibrant. If we can’t fix Fibrant, then it constrains our options so much that there’s not a lot we can do in terms of providing better pay to our policemen, firemen and the other things our city would like to do.”
In an interview, Post praised leadership of city staff and talked about positive things that have occurred in the prior year, but he overwhelmingly focused on Fibrant. Since being elected, Post, an attorney, has taken a deep dive into Fibrant’s financials.
“I think the city council over the past six years has largely ignored Fibrant, and I say that for couple of reasons,” he said. “One is that it’s an embarrassment we’re losing as much money as we are. Nobody bothered to read the budget or the audit. There are enormous red flags in the city’s budget and the audit, which just blew by the previous city councils.”
Post says he still believes Fibrant ranks as one of the smartest things the city of Salisbury could have done, but it was implemented poorly. Salisbury should have sold it one mile at a time, he said.
Working to fix Fibrant is the most important thing the city council can do in the next year, he said. Another important item, Post said, is developing a five-year plan instead of continuously crafting long-term plans for development.
Contact reporter Amanda Raymond at 704-797-4222 and reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.
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