Mary-Ann Baldwin | Photo by f8 Photo Studios

Governing In Crisis

In Buzz, June 2020 by Jane Porter

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2020 has not been the year Raleigh’s City Council had planned for.

It’s a hell of a year to be in charge of running the City of Raleigh.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s normally bustling streets have been quiet, with festivals, concerts and conventions cancelled, park facilities closed and many beloved small businesses struggling to survive. A planned-for parks bond, Raleigh’s moonshot in mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin’s words, has been postponed and, as if out of nowhere, heavily armed masked visitors are patrolling downtown streets and Subway sandwich shops. In recent weeks, our once-vibrant Southern capital city has felt borderline dystopian. 

This month, as the council prepares the city’s budget for the next fiscal year, Raleigh could be looking at a $25 to $30 million shortfall, Baldwin says. While the city has committed to retaining workers, it has frozen new hiring and will be looking to save money by deferring non-essential contracts and cancelling conventions, travel and gatherings like the the Fourth of July celebration. Each city department will look at where it can make cuts, and we can expect fee increases for some services such as recycling. There is also likely to be a controversial proposal to raise the city’s property tax rate to pay for more police officers and firefighters.

“This is not the year we envisioned, dreamed about or planned for,” Baldwin says. “Who could have imagined this?”

Since COVID-19 emerged in March and Gov. Roy Cooper issued a stay at home order that closed restaurants, retailers and other commercial businesses, city leaders have scrambled to address a burgeoning crisis, quickly shifting gears from their earlier work to push forward with ambitious policy goals. 

The council allocated $100,000 to nonprofits to assist homeless families and established a $1 million fund for small businesses to apply for economic relief; it is working to match that investment with corporate donations. The city also suspended water service disconnections for nonpayment and relaxed fees for increased use. And council members are looking at innovative ways to capitalize on reduced traffic, such as opening city streets and shopping centers to bikers and pedestrians and restauranteurs who can use the extra space to comply with social distancing. Baldwin is working with the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce to assemble a group of community leaders “who can look at our future and help guide us on where we want to go and how we can get there with big ideas and big thinking,” she says. 

“There is a great sense of wanting to emerge from COVID stronger and better,” says Jonathan Melton, an at-large council member serving in his first term. “This has brought some attention to some areas we can tweak and improve. COVID has changed the way we are looking at how the city is structured, how our services are provided and how we engage with each other.”

Jonathan Melton | Photo by Jennifer Robertson

On the topic of engagement, the council recently voted to hire consultant Mickey Fearn who, over the next 10 months, will explore new ways to get the public interested in city initiatives and get a new structure in place for public outreach. The move comes following a controversial council vote to disband the city’s Citizen Advisory Councils.

“The prior system of community engagement had been in place for 50 years and it’s a good idea to retool and refresh systems periodically, as times have certainly changed,” Melton says. “The way we send, receive and share information has changed from 50 years ago and our system of government should respond accordingly.”

Proponents of CACs say the community meetings were a good outlet for residents to engage with city staff from various departments, as well as with developers proposing new projects. Residents could vote on controversial rezoning proposals for their neighborhoods and the CAC votes would go to the council for potential consideration before council members voted on the project. 

But, rather than ceding control of input from residents to developers as CAC fans have argued, Baldwin says the council has actually broadened opportunities for input from residents. Neighbors within an expanded geographical area are now notified of proposed projects. They now have two meetings with developers and city staff that they have opportunities to attend and the city’s outreach about such meetings now extends to renters, not just homeowners.

Additionally, the council has established a new advisory board for Hispanic and immigrant affairs and is working to create a police advisory board to inform the council on potential policy changes it could make to improve relationships between residents and the police.

“It’s opening the doors of communication, trying to figure out ways we can build trust with the community,” Baldwin says of the police board, which is still seeking applications.

In the months and perhaps years to come, transit will be another challenge the council will need to address. With the first phase of the design for Raleigh’s piece in the Wake County transit plan—the New Bern Avenue corridor—complete, city and county leaders will still have to find ways to convert car dependent residents into choice users of the new Bus Rapid Transit system, a challenge in the best of times, much more so during a global pandemic. Work on micro-mobility issues—think scooters—has been temporarily stalled, but Melton says it should resume soon. He believes the city can lead on the issue, including expanding micro-mobility options in Raleigh.

So what about that mini militia that keeps turning up in and around the State Capitol? 

Well, it’s complicated. North Carolina is an open carry state, First and Second Amendment rights are in play and Baldwin says city officials are working with the district attorney to get some guidance about how to address it.

“Because of state law, we are pretty powerless to do anything about it and that is frustrating,” she says. “When I talk to small business owners and explain what we’re up against, their mouths are hanging open. No one has ever seen anything like this.”

All told, Baldwin and Melton say they feel the council has accomplished much of what it set out to address this year. A majority of members worked quickly to allow short-term rentals and accessory dwelling units by right, and there is more to come on missing middle housing in the affordable housing bond referendum that will appear on ballots this fall.

Expected to be valued at around $80 million, the council will likely vote to approve the bond referendum early this month. The bond, which will cost the average homeowner around $20-$25 a year, could cover gap funding for purchasing affordable housing units, buying land on transit corridors to be used for affordable housing, money for public-private partnerships, for first-time home buyers and for people who want to stay in their homes but need to do repairs.

“The consensus seems to be that this is exactly what we need to be doing right now, helping those most in need,” Baldwin says. 

As for opening city streets to bikers, pedestrians and restaurants, it’s something Raleigh is very likely to see in the next 30 days.

“As we start to slowly reopen, more people are going to be leaving their homes but it’s still important to be mindful of social distancing requirements,” Melton says. “Whatever we can do to allow people to frequent small businesses, restaurants, to get out and exercise, to give them space to do that in a safe way, I’m in favor of.”

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