Salisbury council candidates gather for informational session about city operations

Published 10:13 am Tuesday, August 24, 2021

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Candidates for the mayoral and City Council race gathered virtually Monday evening to receive presentations from all of the city’s departments in preparation for the upcoming municipal election.

A total of seven candidates are vying for the four open council seats, while Mayor Karen Alexander and Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins will face each other in the first mayoral race. Council candidates include incumbents Tamara Sheffield and David Post, along with challengers Nalini Joseph, Jonathan Barbee, Harry McLaughlin, Jessica Cloward and Anthony Smith.

City Attorney Graham Corriher explained the city’s form of governing, which is a council-manager model where the city council sets goals and a vision for the city and tasks the manager with handling the day-to-day affairs and city employee management. Some common issues the council makes decisions about relate to zoning changes, major contracts and ordinances that govern the behavior of city residents.

Corriher said the state grants each municipality a charter, and Salisbury’s was first adopted in 1770 with the most recent iteration of the charter made in 1987. State lawmakers are in charge of charter changes, but the city has the ability to make changes that include the name of the city, whether the area is deemed a city or town and the number and terms of seats on the council.

Corriher also told candidates all meetings and records are open to the public, with some exceptions in state law that allow for closed session discussions about personnel and economic development contracts.

City Clerk Kelly Baker told candidates the city has 13 formal boards and commissions that contain a total of 120 seats. Council members are able to choose which boards and commissions they serve as liaisons to at the beginning of their terms.

Baker also told candidates about the annual federal action plan, which is created by the City Council in conjunction with Strategic Consulting. The federal action plan lays out the council’s biggest priorities in need of federal funding, and the consulting firm works with federal lobbyists to obtain the funding. Baker said almost $3 million in federal funding has been received to help meet the goals of the most recent plan adopted in January.

Planning Director Hannah Jacobson detailed the city’s code when it comes to campaign signs, which can be found in Chapter 12 of the Land Development Ordinance. The general rule is that residents can have one temporary, free-standing sign that doesn’t exceed 3 square feet on their property throughout the year. But during an election season, the limit on the number of signs on private property is lifted, and signs can measure up to 6 square feet. However, signs cannot be placed in the city’s right-of-way unless special permission is obtained from the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Campaign signs can go up 60 days prior to the election, which is Sept. 3. Candidates have a 10-day grace period after the election to remove signs.

Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes also detailed the operations of his department, which has a philosophy of community policing and community engagement. Stokes said the department has 73 sworn positions filled as of Aug. 10, leaving 10 vacancies. The department has also filled nine of the 11 civilian positions.

Of the current sworn officers, 60% are white men, while 11% are white women, 17% are Black men and 7% are Black women. A total of three officers are Hispanic men. A recent hire is an Asian man. Stokes said the Asian officer is Cambodian, which may be useful for a handful of Cambodian families he knows live in the city.

Stokes said the department still needs more Hispanic officers to more accurately reflect the approximately 12% of Salisbury’s population who are Hispanic or Latino.

Stokes also detailed the rise in violent crime this year, reporting nine homicides so far this year and 36 cases of shooting into occupied dwellings, which is a 157% increase from 2020. Smith asked about the breakdown of patrol officers across the city, and Stokes said anywhere from two to six officers patrol the West End and East End of the city because those are the areas where crime is most active.

Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell told candidates there are 88 full-time firefighters staffed across six stations. Those firefighters work shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, with 26 personnel working per shift. Parnell clarified that some officers may voluntarily work 48-hour shifts to fill vacancies when firefighters are undergoing training, but they receive overtime pay. Following a question from Heggins about the number of firefighters at Fire Station No. 6 on Cedar Springs Road, Parnell said a council-approved grant allows the department to staff nine firefighters there, with three working each shift.

Parnell said since 2015 the number of emergencies the fire departments have responded to has grown each year by at least 200. In 2020, firefighters responded to around 6,000 emergencies, while firefighters this year are on track to respond to more than 7,000 calls. He attributed that increase to the pandemic, opioid overdoses and more reliance on 911.

Parnell also referenced the city’s recent ISO rating improvement from Class No. 2 to Class No. 1, which will go into effect Sept. 1 and could result in lower fire insurance premiums. He also said the city should replace Fire Station No. 3 on Innes Street, which he said was built in the 1950s without the future in mind. Plans are drawn, zoning has been approved and the land for the new station on Mahaley Avenue has been purchased, but Parnell said he’s hoping some federal funds can help assist in the construction.

Additionally, Parnell said the department is looking into partnerships with the local schools and colleges to provide training and career opportunities for graduates.

Interim Finance Director Wade Furches talked about the general budget process, which typically begins at the beginning of each calendar year. Each fiscal year spans from July 1 to June 30. While staff members handle budget items such as personnel salaries and wages, benefits and debts, department heads work on budget items they can control, like training and travel allowances, for example. Following the city manager’s introduction of the budget in the spring, council members can expect at least one budget work session and a public comment session before adoption.

Furches said a good way to view the budgeting process is to think of the city as a “conglomerate corporation” in charge of numerous businesses with their own budgets.

Other presentations briefly detailed the operations of Salisbury-Rowan Utilities, the Community Planning Services Department, Salisbury Transit, the communications department, Downtown Salisbury Inc., the Parks and Recreation Department, the Public Works Department and the city’s engineering department.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.