Voters in North Carolina have a good deal on their plate with a prominent race for U.S. Senate this year, but voters in Winston-Salem will need to do just a little extra homework before heading to the polls on November 4.
Citizens will vote on a five-part bond referendum totaling $139.2 million. The bond includes $30.85 million for Parks & Recreation, $10 million for housing, $25 million for economic development, $31 million for public safety and $42.35 million for streets and sidewalks. The items will each be voted on separately. If approved, property taxes could rise as much as 2.5 cents according to the city’s website. The current property tax rate inside the city is 54 cents per $100 dollars of value.
Council members voted to put the bond on the ballot at their August 4 meeting, citing more than $700 million in capital needs. The city has not passed a bond referendum since 2000 and since then capital spending projects have been financed in four other North Carolina cities, including $551 million for transportation funding in Charlotte that was passed between 2006 and 2010.
Councilman Robert Clark said bonds are typically looked at as an option every 10 years. He said normally property taxes account for two-thirds of the city’s revenue and sales tax composes the other third, but in the wake of the recession bonds are necessary.
He said the road and sidewalk improvements have been the most hotly discussed issue so far.
“There’s no doubt that the roads and the sidewalks is the most visible of the five items,” he said.
Clark said the council is prohibited from taking a position on the impact of the bonds but is doing everything to educate voters during a year when other races are receiving more attention. To help with this mission, the city has organized a private campaign that has been informing the public of which specific projects the bond money will fund.
Steve Strawsburg is a retired RJ Reynolds employee who now serves as the co-chairman of the campaign, which was commissioned by Mayor Allen Joines over the summer. He said the process of determining which capital improvement projects should be prioritized began in 2011 with a citizens group.
“That committee developed a priority list and brought it forward to city staff,” Strawsburg said. “It’s gone through a very open public comment period in the process driven by city council.”
Strawsburg thinks one of the most important things for people to know is the list of bond categories.
“This bond referendum could go a long way toward addressing the priority needs within that list,” he said.
Strawsburg has lived in Winston-Salem since 1978 and noted that cities like Raleigh and Charlotte typically pass bonds every four or five years. He hopes the council will consider this strategy.
“We’re trying to run a nonpartisan, fact-based campaign,” he said. “I think it’s pretty clear that the bond package is made up of very tangible objective items that we can look at and see exactly what our money is going toward.”
Strawsburg said he would personally benefit from a couple of the street resurfacing projects that are where he walks his dogs. He said he is most excited about the economic development aspect because he thinks it is crucial when it comes to bringing businesses to the area and getting them to stay.
“I look at the economic development piece and say that we really need to pass this economic development piece to give us the ability as a city to build,” he said.
Strawsburg said he is happy to give back to the community by participating in the campaign, and hopes their message will be heard.
“Folks who are going to turn out will turn out,” he said. “I try not to come up with any predictions of what that’s going to look like. Our view and our approach is to try to educate all those voters.”
As a recent example in Clemmons shows, bond referenda can be either supported or attacked with a campaign. In 2011, the Clemmons Village Council supported a $6 million bond referendum that would have made improvements to Lewisville-Clemmons Road, including the installation of a median.
Former councilman Larry McClellan said there had been a large amount of support for creating an alternative route initially, but one group changed public opinion. The measure was defeated, due in large part to an antibond campaign, McClellan said. He said some of the people went to the polls on Election Day with signs and encouraged people to vote council members out of office.
“They went to the poll sites and threw the baby out with the wash,” he said.
McClellan lost his seat, as did three other council members and longtime Mayor John Bost. He said he thinks the high amount of opposition came out of fear that passing a bond would increase taxes.
“It’s all a matter of education,” he said. “In our case we were trying to respond to public opinion with regard to the traffic problems. And typically in a small community where you’re going to increase taxes, everybody’s for it until they have to pay for it.”
McClellan noted that 2011 was an off year election, when there is typically less of a turnout.
“Typically of this community you don’t get that much of a public response to anything in an election because we’re talking 12,000 to 15,000 registered voters and less than 2,000 people vote, so that speaks volumes,” he said.
Clemmons Mayor Nick Nelson was a councilman at the time and said he opposed the referendum because he thought there were underlying motives to build other roads parallel to Lewisville-Clemmons Road.
“Lewisville-Clemmons Road was what they used to spearhead the referendum, and unfortunately I think the council at the time had come up with a half-hearted solution, and the citizens clearly saw it was not a viable solution,” he said.
Nelson said he felt the wording of the referendum was confusing, and there was poor communication with the public prior to the election. He said this was what inspired him to get into the mayoral race.
“I felt like you had one side of the story being told and I felt like someone had to share the other side of the coin and stand up for the best interest of not only Clemmons citizens, but businesses of Clemmons, as well,” he said.
Nelson pointed out that Clemmons’ 2011 referendum is an unfair comparison to Winston-Salem’s, but said the common denominator with any measure is educating citizens in order to build trust.
“The beauty of a referendum like this is you’re putting it to the voters. I felt like I tried to do my research in regard to our bonds, and I feel like a lot of our citizens did their research as well,” he said.
While there has been no organized campaign against Winston-Salem’s bond referendum, some have spoken out against it. Joanne Allen has done so at a few city council meetings, as she did at the August 4 meeting.
“The process itself is ridiculous,” she told council members. “You’re going to start something in November, review it for two months, and then tell us that this is what the city of Winston-Salem needs for now. What’s going to happen is that you’re going to come back in three more years and tell us again with a new set of repairs that is needed in Winston-Salem.”
Allen has frequently criticized council members for being politicians and not working for the city’s residents.
“Maybe you all have forgotten when you were elected legally or illegally, that you are representing the people of Winston-Salem, not yourselves,” she told council. “You do not have a long-term plan for Winston-Salem, and until I see that, I’m going to tell everyone that I possibly can to not vote for this in November if you all go ahead and proceed with it.”
The process of putting the referendum on the ballot has taken place throughout the year. Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe said council held nine community capital needs meetings throughout April and May where city staff presented information on potential bond items. He said 359 people attended and 122 wrote comments on cards that were provided, most of which were positive.
“We took that feedback and tried to identify things that kind of came out of those comments,” he said.
At that meeting, council members discussed the need to prioritize projects and acknowledged that the bond referendum would only cover a portion of the $700 million in estimated needs.
“We’re taking care of those things just like you would take care of in your own home to make sure that our house is still standing,” councilman Derwin Montgomery said.
Councilwoman Molly Leight said $42 million for streets and sidewalks would only take care of the roads in most dire need of repair.
“It would take over 50 years to repave streets in Winston-Salem,” she said.
Streets and sidewalks: Council and community members seem to universally agree that this is one of the more prominent pieces of the bond referendum. At $42 million, this makes up about 30 percent of the total bond money. The largest chunks of this would be the $15.3 million being used for street resurfacing and the $10 million for sidewalk repairs. In addition, $5.6 million would be used to widen Meadowlark Drive between Robinhood Road and Country Club Road.
Smaller projects include improvements to the Business 40 corridor and the rehabilitation of concrete-based streets. An expansion of the greenway system and improvements to Old Salem’s infrastructure would allow it to meet guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Economic Development: The majority of the money approved for economic development would fund the land acquisition of potential sites for office parks, and cover the cost of ensuring that their infrastructure is up-to-date. These sites include Union Cross, Brookwood and Whitaker parks. Another $3 million would be used to fund the development of Merschel Plaza between Third and Fourth Streets. Leaders hope to use this space either as a garden or as a performing arts space. The third component of this bond would be funding business owners in economically depressed areas of the city by providing them with grants and low-cost loans.
Housing: This is one of the smaller parts of the bond referendum, coming in at only $10 million. About $6 million would go toward housing rehabilitation, construction and financial assistance. The other $4 million would be targeted for specific areas with singlefamily housing or owner-occupied properties.
Public Safety: At $10 million, the largest portion of this bond would go toward repairing the city’s public safety center, which was originally built in 1983. The electrical and air conditioning units would be replaced, as well as the building’s security system. Another $7 million would go toward renovating the Alexander Beaty Public Safety Training and Support Center, including the forensic services division crime lab located on the second floor. Other projects include the renovation of three fire stations and two police facilities.
Parks & Recreation: This bond contains perhaps the longest list of individual projects. At the top of the list is Happy Hill Park at $5 million, which would receive a major overhaul involving the renovation or relocation of the pool and spray ground along with new picnic shelters and landscaping. Not far behind is the development of an old abandoned quarry for $4 million. Leaders plan to develop it into a multiuse park that will feature an amphitheater, disc golf course, additions to the greenway system, and several picnic shelters. Other projects in the bond include the addition of a full-scale marina center at Salem Lake and the construction of an aquatics center at Winston Lake. Each of these projects would cost $4 million. !