Much discussion of homicides, loan for newspaper approved without comment
Two committees of the Winston-Salem City Council variously heard an analysis of homicides from the previous year and recommended a gun buy-back program, supported a loan to The Chronicle newspaper and got an early look at the next budget, among other matters.
DRUG-RELATED HOMICIDES STAND OUT
Police Chief Barry Rountree gave members of the public safety committee a report on the 15 homicides that took place in 2013, including a violent encounter at a drink house, two murder-suicides involving family members and flare-ups when arguments erupt between feuding groups at nightclubs.
“We can prove that they’ve had past disputes,” Rountree said of a number of homicides involving ongoing disputes between groups. “They may meet up at a nightclub. They’re often fighting over drugs or they’ve been involved in crime together.”
The police department has classified a third of last year’s homicides as “drug related.” Larry Hatcher, 40, was shot outside a nightclub on Northwest Boulevard on Aug. 16 in an incident that police say stems from “ongoing arguments between two drug-dealing groups. No one has been charged, but police say they have a “strong subject of interest.”
Rountree said the homicide of 21-yearold Dontae Renard Ross at an apartment at LaDeara Crest Estates on Sept. 12 was likely in retaliation for a drug burglary.
The police also believe that the Oct. 10 homicide of 43-year-old Sheila Pace Gooden stemmed from a drug-related robbery. “In this case, the victim’s son had been involved in a dispute with three individuals,” Rountree said. “They actually went to his home to retaliate against him and had shot the victim.”
Anthony Vinh Nguyen, Steven George Assimos and Daniel Aaron Benson, all 22, have been charged in the crime.
Rountree also described the Dec. 18 homicide of 26-year-old Zachary M. Fett as a “drug-related robbery.”
“In this case, two individuals planned to meet at this location,” Rountree said. “One was going to deliver the drugs. Once they reached Ziglar Road, the one who wound up being the victim pulled a weapon out at the person who actually wound up being the shooter. He just shot him first and was killed at that point.”
Rountree’s presentation indicated that the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office is currently reviewing the case, and it’s possible that the homicide might be ruled as self-defense.
The public safety committee, chaired by Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor, unanimously approved a request by the police department to pursue grant funding from the US Justice Department and the Governor’s Crime Commission to fund two sworn domestic violence officer positions. The police have deemed three of the homicides as domestic related, including two murder-suicides. Rountree told the committee members that department leaders believe they can increase their arrest and conviction rate with two additional positions.
The homicide of 46-year-old Thomas Leroy Speaks occurred on Nov. 22 at an illegal drink house on East 21 st Street. Rountree said witnesses reported that a dispute had occurred earlier in the night, and two suspects left only to return and shoot Speaks.
“Based on witness accounts an earlier dispute had occurred at the drink house,” Rountree said. “The suspects left, came back later and shot the victim.”
“Normally, these drink houses don’t open up until 2, 3 o’clock in the morning after the nightclubs close,” Rountree said. “As soon as something happens, we’ll find out that it is a drink house.”
The chief said the police department works with Alcohol Law Enforcement to shut down drink houses when they come to the authority’s attention. He added that when one drink house is closed, the operator will often move to a different location and resume business.
Taylor said the committee has considered using the local nuisance abatement ordinance, under the direction of City Attorney Angela Carmon, to try to shut down drink houses.
The number of homicides dropped from 15 in 2011 to eight in 2012, before rising again to 15 in 2013.
“Just be aware that murder being up 87 percent is statistically probably not significant,” South Ward Councilwoman Molly Leight said. Council members expressed satisfaction that Winston-Salem’s 2013 homicide rate compares favorably to Greensboro, with 28; Durham, with 32; and Charlotte, with 52. When adjusted for population, Winston-Salem’s 2013 homicide rate is just under Charlotte’s and half of the rate for Durham, with Greensboro falling somewhere in between.
Fourteen out of the 15 homicides that occurred in Winston-Salem in 2013 involved a firearm. In the one exception, a 51-year-old woman is suspected of beating 76-year-old Beatrice Caldwell Rorie to death with a shovel after Rorie refused to lend the suspect money.
“That kind of explodes the myth that the street availability of guns is not a serious part of the problem,” Southwest Ward Councilman Dan Besse said.
The public safety committee unanimously recommended proceeding with a gun buy-back program.
City Manager Lee Garrity said the city has $10,000 set aside for the buy-back, and Chief Rountree said two churches, Alpha & Omega and First Waughtown Baptist Church have volunteered to serve as staging sites. Rountree said that the amounts offered for the firearms would be significantly below market, making it unlikely that people would sell weapons only to turn around and buy new ones.
The program had initially been contemplated as occurring before the holidays with the thought that people would be incentivized to participate because of the need for extra cash to pay for gifts.
“Maybe we could look at Valentine’s Day,” Taylor said, “and promote love, not war.”
NEWSPAPER SEEKS LOW-IN- TEREST LOAN FROM CITY
The council’s finance committee, which is chaired by West Ward Councilman Robert Clark, unanimously supported an economic development loan of $100,000 to The Chronicle. The item passed as part of the consent agenda without discussion. The vote allows the request to advance to the full council for consideration.
Publisher Ernie Pitt indicated in a Dec. 31, 2013 letter to Assistant City Manager Derwick Paige that the funds would be used to hire a sales team with three new positions with an average salary of $30,000.
“We have been on an austerity program for the last five years,” Pitt said. “However, with the improving economy and need for new positions it is necessary for us to have this infusion of new funds to keep up with and be an enhancement to a growing population.”
The Chronicle serves readers in the African-American community in Winston- Salem. Documentation submitted by Paige to the finance committee indicated that the loan would come out of the city’s Economic Development Loan Fund/ Technology Fund, which currently holds a balance of $310,000. After reviewing The Chronicle’s business plan, which includes conversion of its “For Seniors Only!” tabloid into a glossy magazine, city staff deemed the newspaper’s growth strategy to be sound.
The terms of the loan allows the newspaper to pay back the money in 10 years at 2-percent interest. The city would secure the loan through “a subordinated lien position on all assets of the business including the account receivables. The agreement also stipulates that if the business relocated outside of Winston-Salem, the borrowers would have to repay the city funds within 90 days with a 10-percent penalty on the unpaid balance.
TAX BREAK FOR COMPUTER SOFTWARE HITS BUDGET
Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe told members of the finance committee that the city is looking at a $3.3 million gap in the projected 2014-2015 budget. The forecast projects expenditures at $176.3 million, compared to revenues of $173 million, which includes a $2 million fund balance appropriation from the reserves.
The most significant drivers of the gap are a $2 million increase in employee compensation, based on a tiered merit raise approved by council last year and a $1.6 million hit to revenues as a result of legislation passed by the NC General Assembly last year to exclude proprietary computer software from the tax base. Following his presentation, Rowe cited major corporate and banking entities such as Lowe’s, Wells Fargo and BB&T as examples of the types of taxpayers that will benefit from the state tax break.
Rowe said city staff will closely monitor pending legislation that could potentially take away municipalities’ authority to levy fees on business privilege licenses. !