I’ve never been a fan of how the city charges exorbitant fines, fees, and deposits on electric utilities customers who are least able to afford it.
Then I sat in on a PowerPoint presentation by JR Sabatelli, the city’s finance director, and I was nearly persuaded.
I think several aldermen planned to come out of Wednesday’s special meeting of the Board of Aldermen with the deposit policy cancelled. But that didn’t happen. Sabatelli did that good a job making his points. Rather than trashing the policy, aldermen directed city staff to find ways to be more customer friendly.
But being a CPA, Sabatelli was perhaps a little tone deaf about a few certain things.
He said that prior to changing its utilities billing policies in 2013, the city had a “culture of finding ways to say yes.”
That meant that folks who found themselves stumbling to pay their light bills could walk out of the utilities office on Neuse Boulevard with a payment plan and very little in the way of penalties.
“This is a culture we do not want to return to,” Sabatelli said.
The financial impact of whether the city goes back to its old way of doing things, or continues with its new, non-customer friendly way of doing things, is about a wash. You heard me right: It is revenue neutral (with one caveat that I’ll get into later).
But Sabatelli’s presentation started on one note and ended with another. The city received a three-star rating from an organization that grades cities on such things before it implemented the new plan. Once it implement more punitive measures on people late paying their bills, the city got a four-star rating.
I’m so glad to hear that the city got one extra star, and all it took was putting low-income families at grave financial risk.
That’s not all.
Earlier this year, during a weeks-long cold snap when the daily high temperatures were in the single digits, aldermen were being made aware of the high electric bills their constituents were seeing.
Aldermen specifically asked Sabatelli if there would be some consideration for customers given the unusual nature of this weather event. He said there would be.
Turns out, not so much.
One resident told her story to aldermen during their Wednesday workshop.
By the time the weather started warming up, she, a therapist, and her husband, a carpenter, with two kids including one in college, faced a utility bill of $1,300.
He went to the city utilities office to see if he could work out a payment plan, and was told that to do so would trigger a deposit … of around $1,300.
Instead, he withdrew money from his 401(k) (taxed and assessed a penalty for early withdrawal) to pay the bill.
The next bill he received reflected his payment, but included an extra $1,300 — the charge for a deposit.
That’s not the only customer service nugget (or shall I say, turd) that came out of Wednesday’s meeting.
We also learned that the utilities office officially closes at 5 p.m., but locks its doors at 4:45 p.m. There is a doorbell and an intercom, utility staff offered, helpfully.
At an earlier meeting, we learned that the utilities office no longer has public restrooms, and staff directs members of the public to the restroom at Fort Totten Park, about 100 yards away, across a ball field.
OK, I got that all off my chest.
Now mind you, these are all good people, Sabatelli and the folks who work at the utilities office. They’ve even won two customer service awards, one last year and one this year, and participate in parades and festivals.
The city’s policies regarding utilities payments, fees and fines has saved the city money in other ways. City staff saved hundreds of hours because they aren’t working on payment plans nearly so often, and because the number of electricity cutoffs and restarts has been dramatically reduced.
But I would put forth that there are some things it might do that would be more customer friendly and still earn the city its coveted fourth star.
Instead of demanding a deposit equal to the sum of the two highest utilities bills in the past 12 months, make it an average two months, or better yet, make it a flat fee of, say, $500, and spread that out over a couple of months.
If folks are struggling to pay unusually high light bills because of zero-degree temperatures or hundred-degree temperatures, waive the policy of implementing a deposit whenever a payment plan is required.
New Bern aldermen and the mayor will hold a special meeting on Wednesday, one day after the Board of Aldermen’s regular meeting, to discuss a proposed redevelopment agency and controversial utility deposits.
The special meeting will start at noon Wednesday in the City Hall Courtroom.
This meeting was scheduled separately from the board’s regular meeting due to the complexities of the two issues.
Aldermen and the mayor have been looking at forming a redevelopment agency to solve problems of urban decay in the Five Points area.
The utility deposit program, initiated by the previous Board of Aldermen shortly after it was seated, imposes deposits on utility customers who have struggled to keep current with their bills.
CITY OF NEW BERN BOARD OF ALDERMEN MEETING APRIL 10, 2018 – 6:00 P.M. CITY HALL COURTROOM 300 POLLOCK STREET
(Note: Links expire when the next agenda is posted)
1. Meeting opened by Mayor Dana E. Outlaw. Prayer Coordinated by Alderman Kinsey. Pledge of Allegiance. 2. Roll Call.
3. Request and Petition of Citizens. This section of the Agenda is titled Requests and Petitions of Citizens. This is an opportunity for public comment, and we thank you for coming to the Board of Aldermen meeting tonight to share your views. We value all citizen input.
Speaker comments are limited to a maximum of 4 minutes during the public comment period. At the conclusion of 4 minutes, each speaker shall leave the podium. Comments will be directed to the full board, not to an individual board member or staff member. Although the board is interested in hearing your comments, speakers should not expect any comments, action or deliberation from the board on any issue raised during the public comment period.
In the board’s discretion, it may refer issues to the appropriate city officials or staff for further investigation. If an organized group is present to speak on a common issue, please designate one person to present the group’s comment, which shall be limited to a maximum of 4 minutes.
Consent Agenda 4. Consider Approving a Proclamation for National Day of Prayer 2018. Tharesa Lee has requested a proclamation for National Day of Prayer, which will be observed on May 3, 2018 in Union Point Park. (See Backup) 5. Consider Approving a Proclamation for National Minority Health Month. Alderman Harris has requested a proclamation acknowledging April as National Minority Health Month. Several events are planned throughout the month of April. (See Backup) 6. Consider Approving a Proclamation for Boys & Girls Club Week 2018. Representatives from the local Boys & Girls Club organization requested a proclamation recognizing April 9-13, 2018 as Boys & Girls Club Week in New Bern. (See Backup) 7. Submission of Annual Written Report from Appearance Commission. Pursuant to City ordinance, the Appearance Commission is required to provide a report of activities to the Board of Aldermen no later than April 15th of each year as mandated by NCGS §160A-454. The attached report satisfies this requirement. This is informational only, and no action is needed from the Board. (See Backup) 8. Approve Minutes. Minutes from the March 27, 2018 regular meeting are provided for review and approval.
******************** 9. Presentation on Little Free Library Expansion Project. Judy Hills, Friends of the New Bern-Craven County Public Library Board Member, will share a PowerPoint presentation on the Little Free Library expansion project, which is a free book exchange. (See Backup)
10. Conduct a Public Hearing, Consider Adopting a Statement of Zoning Consistency, and Consider Adopting an Ordinance to Rezone 107 and 109 Beech Street from R-6S Residential and I-1 Industrial Districts to C-3 Commercial District. (Ward 5) This public hearing was called after receiving a request from Michael Stephens, the owner of 107 and 109 Beech Street, to have the property rezoned from R-6S Residential and I-1 Industrial to C-3 Commercial District. The property is located near the corner of Beech Street and Oaks Road and consists of approximately 1.14 acres. The Planning and Zoning Board unanimously approved the request at its March 6, 2018 meeting. State statute and local ordinance require the Governing Board to hold a public hearing to receive comments on the requested rezoning. A memo from Morgan Potts, City Planner, is attached along with a map of the subject property. (See Backup)
11. Conduct a Public Hearing, Consider Adopting a Statement of Zoning Consistency, and Consider Adopting an Ordinance to Rezone 1225 S. Glenburnie Road from R-6 Residential and C-4 Neighborhood Business District to C-3 Commercial District. (Ward 4) The City of New Bern owns the property located at 1225 S. Glenburnie Road. This public hearing was called after the City’s request to have the property rezoned from R-6 Residential and C-4 Neighborhood Business Districts to C-3 Commercial District. The property is located near the corner of Neuse Boulevard and S. Glenburnie Road and consists of approximately 4.77 acres. This is the subject property for the proposed relocation of the City Garage. The Planning and Zoning Board unanimously approved the request at its March 6, 2018 meeting. State statute and local ordinance require the Governing Board to hold a public hearing to receive comments on the requested rezoning. A memo from Mrs. Potts is attached along with a map of the subject property. (See Backup)
12. Conduct a Public Hearing and Consider Adopting an Amendment to Article XXI, Section 15-463 “Design Guidelines and Performance Standards – Trent Road Corridor” of the Land Use Ordinance. On March 6, 2018, staff presented to the Planning and Zoning (“P&Z”) Board proposed changes to the Land Use Ordinance with respect to the design guidelines and performance standards for the Trent Road corridor. At that time, P&Z voted unanimously to approve the changes. The next step is for the Board of Aldermen to conduct a public hearing and consider approval of the changes. A memo from Mrs. Potts is attached along with copies of the proposed ordinance changes and a redlined version to easily identify those changes. (See Backup)
13. Conduct a Public Hearing on the System Development Fee Analysis and Consider Adopting a Resolution Approving the Analysis. In July 2017, the NC General Assembly passed House Bill 436 amending Chapter 162A of the General Statutes by adding “Article 8, System Development Fees”. This new article intends to provide for uniform authority with respect to implementing system development fees for public water and sewer systems, as well as clarify the applicable statute of limitations. The amendment requires a written analysis be performed to calculate the system development fee based upon prescriptive criteria. In response to this requirement, the City employed Rivers & Associates, Inc. to perform a professional analysis. Prior to considering adoption of the analysis, House Bill 436 requires the local government post the analysis on its webpage for public review and comment for a minimum of 45 days. This period has been completed and no written comments were received. The City is now required to hold a public hearing prior to consideration of adopting the analysis. A memo from Jordan Hughes, City Engineer, is attached. (See Backup)
14. Consider Adopting a Resolution Approving the Conceptual Master Plan for Martin Marietta Park. (Ward 5) At the March 19, 2018 work session, McGill Associates presented a master plan for the Martin Marietta Park. Prior to considering adoption, the conceptual plan will again be reviewed in some detail. A memo from Foster Hughes, Director of Parks and Recreation, is attached along with a copy of the presentation. (See Backup 1)(See Backup 2)
15. Consider Adopting a Resolution Authorizing the City Manager to Execute a Contract with Morton Trucking, Inc. for the 2018 Street Resurfacing Project and Any Changes Within the Budgeted Amount. (Wards 1-5) Certified bids have been received for the 2018 street resurfacing project. Morton Trucking, Inc. submitted the lowest bid at $976,130, and the Board is asked to consider adopting a resolution authorizing the City to enter into a contract with the bidder. The project is slated to begin within 30 days and has a contract period of 180 days. A memo from Matt Montanye, Director of Public Works, is provided and includes a list of the streets to be resurfaced. (See Backup)
16. Consider Adopting an Ordinance for the Demolition of the Dwelling Located at 1607-1609 Dillahunt Street. (Ward 5) This matter was before the Board of Aldermen at its February 27, 2018 meeting. After hearing from the owner during that meeting, the Board tabled this matter to allow the City Attorney an opportunity to contact the Bankruptcy Trustee to ascertain the Trustee’s intentions regarding the property. Mr. Davis will be available to provide a verbal report of the status, if desired.
As a reminder, the property at 1607 Dillahunt Street (also known as 1607-1609 Dillahunt Street) has been vacant since 1999 and a concern for the Police Department since 2001. Staff has worked with the owners from January 2005 to late 2016 to both secure the building and bring it into compliance. A formal letter of violation was sent to the owners on August 31, 2015, and a hearing was conducted with the Chief Building Inspector on November 19, 2015, at which time the owners were granted six months to comply with the code. On May 10, 2016, this order was extended until August 19, 2016 to provide the owners an additional three months’ time. However, to date no permits have been applied for and work has not been initiated. Attached are a memo from Mr. Ruggieri, a chronological list of events, and pictures of the property. (See Backup)
17. Consider Adopting an Ordinance Amending the 2017 Water Improvements Project Fund. The 2017 Water Improvements Project Fund was established by ordinance on January 24, 2017 with a budget of $1,570,000 for repair and replacement of water infrastructure at various locations. Additional funds in the amount of $617,737 have been deemed necessary to complete the final phase. This budget ordinance will appropriate those funds from the Water Capital Reserve Fund. Memos from Jordan Hughes, City Engineer, and J.R. Sabatelli, Director of Finance, are attached. (See Backup)
18. Consider Adopting an Ordinance Amending the 2017 Sewer Improvements Project Fund. The 2017 Sewer Improvements Project Fund was also established by ordinance on January 24, 2017 with a budget of $1,400,000 for the repair and replacement of sewer infrastructure at various locations. Additional funds in the amount of $611,059 have been deemed necessary to complete the final phase. This budget ordinance will appropriate those funds from the Sewer Capital Reserve Fund. Again, memos from Mr. Hughes and Mr. Sabatelli are attached. (See Backup)
19. Consider Adopting a Budget Ordinance Amendment for the FY2017-18 Operating Budget. This budget ordinance amendment provides for the transfers from the Water and Sewer Capital Reserve Funds to the 2017 Water and Sewer Improvements Project Funds as described in the previous two items. It also acknowledges a $14,000 grant received by the Fire Department from the NC Department of Public Safety. The grant requires no match, and the funds will be used to provide training opportunities in water rescue and urban search and rescue. Lastly, the amendment appropriates $450,000 to Stormwater Maintenance for the purchase of a new Vactor Truck. The current truck is in need of major repairs, and it is felt best to replace the truck. Delivery of a new truck will take 8-10 months, and the purchase will be paid for by transferring $200,000 from fund balance and obtaining $240,000 from 2019 debt service proceeds. A memo from Mr. Sabatelli is attached. (See Backup)
20. Appointment(s). Nancy Gray has resigned from the Historic Preservation Commission as a result of relocating to a different city. Alderman Kinsey is asked to make an appointment to fill this vacancy. 21. Attorney’s Report. 22. City Manager’s Report. 23. New Business. 24. Closed Session. 25. Adjourn.
Now that the Craven Terrace low-income housing project has been outsourced, downsized, and renovated, the New Bern Housing Authority is turning its sights on what to do about Trent Court.
In a memo to the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners (members listed here), Housing Authority Executive Director Martin Blaney said the agency is going to apply for a 9 percent low-income housing tax credit from the N.C, Housing Finance Agency, but first must “secure site control of an eligible and competitive location.”
The “competitive location” would be used to build new low-income housing to add to, and in some cases replace, housing stocks in Trent Court.
As of now, that competitive location is a 30.8-acre, city-owned property off Carolina Avenue between the Pembroke Community, Trent Road and U.S. 70 (maps, left and below left).
The parcel is more than twice the 14 acres the Housing Authority owns that includes Trent Court, New Bern Tower, and numerous other residential structures, although, according to Housing Authority Commissioner Bill Frederick, only 9.7 acres are not subject to flooding and would be usable for housing.
Google Maps close-up shows the location of the Carolina Avenue property.
Little has been discussed publicly about the Housing Authority’s plans for Trent Court over the past seven years, while at the same time it was privatizing and renovating Craven Terrace, a larger housing project located north of Broad Street.
Craven Terrace was quickly identified as an area worth preserving for public housing, mainly because of its lack of market potential. Surrounded by small parcels with low property values, Craven Terrace is much larger than Trent Court and presented a bigger problem in terms of relocating residents there.
In the end, the Housing Authority secured historic status for the buildings in Craven Terrace, which in turn allowed for tax credits that helped pay for renovations, razing several buildings subject to flooding, and adding amenities including a playground and laundry facility. The Housing Authority also outsourced management of Craven Terrace.
Trent Court is less than half the size of Craven Terrace in acreage and number of residents. But more importantly, its proximity to Tryon Palace, the Historic Downtown District, and a navigable waterway make it much more commercially attractive for would-be developers.
The 30-acre Carolina Avenue property is wooded and undeveloped. It stretches from the lower left center to the upper right corner of this picture. Google Maps photo
Enter Carolina Avenue. The largest single undeveloped parcel owned by the city at more than 30 acres, it is not included on the city’s surplus properties for sale website. Wooded without any buildings, it is unique in New Bern in that it is both a waterfront property (there’s a small lake formed when N.C. DOT quarried dirt and gravel to build the U.S. 70 bypass) and has access to Trent Road.
Still, due to the wetlands, only a third is developable.
Housing Authority officials have been quietly approaching city officials, the Board of Aldermen, and the Pembroke Community about acquiring the Carolina Avenue property for subsidized and low-income housing.
“The NBHA bid was $200,000,” Commissioner Frederick told the Post.
“Initial discussions with the city were promising,” Blaney said in his memo. “However, more recent discussions have been frustrating with aldermen indicating they would be willing to ‘swap’ the Carolina Avenue site for complete control of the Trent Court property. This was not acceptable. Also, our offer to simply purchase the land was rejected before a bid could be submitted.”
When Blaney refers to promising initial discussions, he’s mainly referring to when E.T. Mitchell, a wealthy appointee to the Board of Aldermen who is now running for county commissioner, was on the board and heard the proposal. (Mitchell was also instrumental in developing and executing plans for Craven Terrace and was a Housing Authority commission member for a time.)
When Blaney refers to more recent frustrating discussions, he’s referring to Ward 2 Alderman Jameesha Harris, who has reservations about the plan and who called it “gentrification” in a Facebook post on Thursday.
Her ward includes the Pembroke community as well as the Carolina Avenue property the Housing Authority is interested in.
The plan has a lot of moving parts but boils down to this: The Housing Authority wants the Carolina Avenue property so it can secure funding to build affordable housing there. It would then move residents of Trent Court and others living on Housing Authority land in that area to the new housing off Carolina Avenue. That would enable the Housing Authority to raze many if not all of Trent Court’s buildings and replace them with a mixed-income residential development that it would still manage, either directly or indirectly.
It would involve moving low-income residents from Trent Court, ostensibly on a temporary basis, and moving them to housing to be constructed on Carolina Avenue adjacent to the Pembroke community. Once a new and improved Trent Court emerges, former residents would be given the opportunity to move back if housing is available.
“The proposal made to Ms. Harris was that the city donate the property to NBHA, freeing up our proposed $200,000 bid to rehabilitate the Taylor Building in Trent Court as a permanent home for the Boys & Girls Club,” Commissioner Frederick told the Post.
As it appears now, what would be built where Trent Court exists now would be a mix of high-, middle- and low-end housing and subsidized housing. The Housing Authority plans to leave a waterfront green space between Walt Bellamy Drive and Lawson Creek, and according to a source, that waterfront property is what the Housing Authority is willing to trade to the city for the Carolina Avenue acreage.
Trent Court and Carolina Avenue Compared
Trent Court area
30.81 undeveloped but mostly wetland
Tax value per acre
One problem with Trent Court is that the next time it floods in that area, affected buildings will have to be vacated and razed. No more money will be spent to bring them back to habitability. That puts a gun to the Housing Authority’s head to find substitute housing quickly.
“This is a complicated matter practically and politically,” Blaney said in his his memo. “Strategies such as improving Trent Court, seeking other land, approaching aldermen, public relations, etc., need to be devised.”
He said in his memo that he has spoken with three Pembroke residents about the proposal. “Two of the three indicated that my explanation was not exactly as an earlier one given by their alderman. They still expressed misgivings, however.
“I expect to be invited to the next Pembroke Residents’ Association meeting in early April. My belief is that if we disagree, at least let us disagree based on honest fact.”
Blaney has scheduled an interview with the Post on Tuesday morning to provide further information about this issue.
Facing opposition from Alderman Harris, proponents of the plan have attempted to sweeten the pot in an effort to gain her support, including promises for a new Boys & Girls Club location and public works improvements in her ward, she told the Post.
Harris, who represents the Pembroke Community as part of her ward, released Blaney’s memo on her alderman Facebook page on Thursday evening and explained her involvement in the plan.
“I was invited to a meeting to talk about the city possibly donating a very big plot of land that is located in my ward in Pembroke,” Harris said on her alderman Facebook page. “They also wanted us to pay the cost of demolition of some Trent Court Buildings and they would in return give the city some waterfront wetlands.
“It was stated that they wanted to relocate Trent Court Residents to the property they would build in Pembroke area but also give them a right to come back to the Trent Court area after they rebuild new homes and condos.”
Harris said she didn’t agree with the plan and said it sounded like a case of gentrification (although she also said she would support the deal if the Housing Authority paid full price for the Carolina Avenue property).
“Then I was asked to a second meeting but this time they added the Boys & Girls Club into to the mix,” Harris said. “Basically what I got out of the meeting is, we would help the Boys & Girls Club if the city once again provides the big plot of land in Pembroke. At this meeting, I personally made it clear that I am not in favor of any deal.
“I have never given misleading information,” she wrote, referring to Blaney’s memo describing his version of the plan as different from hers. “I never stated that the city wants control over the property and I simply stated that I would only vote yes if full price was offered for the land.
“I am doing the job that I was voted into office to do. I refuse to be a ‘Yes Man’! If I don’t like the idea and I ask my constituents about the idea and they don’t like it as well, then leave it alone.”
Commissioner Frederick said he was not aware of any request for the city to pay for any demolition in Trent Court, or any promises to pay for public works projects in her ward.
Preliminary plans have been released for the proposed 850-acre Martin Marietta Park that depict something the size and scope of which would make it one of the most significant municipal parks in the state.
Aldermen, the mayor, staff and advisers will meet upstairs at City Hall at 1 p.m. Monday to discuss the park and a proposed city redevelopment area and commission. (Link to agenda; note that the link has a limited shelf life.)
As depicted in maps, Martin Marietta Park would include a large amphitheater, swimming area, boating area, hiking trails and numerous other features. The plan does not indicate how the city would pay for developing the park.
Fresh from her first National League of Cities conference in Washington D.C., Alderman Jameesha Harris returnedto New Bern on Tuesday eager to spread the conference’s theme, “Rebuild with Us.”
During her return trip from D.C., her head filled with all sorts of dynamic, innovative things that she was eager to see happen here, Harris excitedly texted her fellow aldermen and city staff to look into a program called Opportunity Zones.
And then she got shut down.
(Anyone who has ever attended a professional conference, only to have everything you’ve learned dismissed by the gatekeepers in the home office, raise your hand.)
According to Goman+York, a real estate and economic development firm based in East Hartford, Connecticut, “The Opportunity Zones provision aims to attract longer-term investment to certain eligible areas, focusing on Opportunity Zones — those areas that struggle most with issues such as high poverty rates and sluggish economic growth in the job sector. BisNow noted recently that the bill is structured to be particularly generous towards real estate developers, especially those willing to invest in an area for longer than 10 years.” Full story here
Time is short if the city wants to take advantage of Opportunity Zones benefits, Harris said. Applicant cities have until March 31 to apply or ask for extension from their state governors’ offices.
City Development Services Director Jeff Ruggieri said he looked into it over a couple of days. The program left him underwhelmed, and in essence he shut down Harris’ push to have the program applied in New Bern.
He said similar ideas have been around since 1980s under different names — Enterprise Zone, Freedom Zone, Promise Zone. Those programs had a lot of criteria attached, he said, mainly to create jobs, affordable housing, or both.
He said reviews have been mixed on the Opportunity Zones and that this program has no criteria that he can find. It’s a fund set up based on deferred taxes for people who have capital gains, he said.
“It’s kind an odd program at this point in time. The way I see it, there is nothing that says you need to create jobs. All these other ones say, here, you can go through this program, but you need to do something. You need to create low income housing, you need to create so many jobs. Can’t find any criteria with this program at all.
“It seems kind of counter intuitively as it is applied. Since there’s really no stated goal, … there’s no goal of creating a low income housing or anything like that. The goal really is just to create money. Which can work, we can create projects that would work for something like this, but I don’t think we’re there yet. We really need a specific project and a very specific plan. Need a lot more infrastructure in place, human capital. A lot more capacity to really make this work.
“It’s another incentive, another tool. We have a lot of tools in the tool box incentive wise, especially to apply in our Greater Duffyfield Area.
“But there’s 20 years of data out there that really address incentives and whether they work or if they don’t. Overwhelmingly they really don’t work, they don’t make much of a difference. There’s a couple of projects here and there that work, but over all they really don’t do much.”
Ruggieri said the best way to incentivize development and jobs in a community “is to do some really simple things. Create a safe place for people to live and children to play. Have great schools. Create inclusive transportation system. Sidewalks, safe public transportation. Create a great place to look at. Those things are really what works, and plenty of empirical evidence to support that.
“This (Opportunity Zones) could be another tool, I just don’t see us using it yet,” he said.
There are plenty of examples of “really simple things” that the city is rolling out around the city — just not in the Five Points area, Duffyfield or Dryborough. The only programs the city is actively pursuing in those areas is the demolition of dilapidated buildings and the foreclosing of distressed properties the city in turn has been selling at a loss of thousands of dollars per property.
In short, the city’s efforts in those parts of town are failing. A program like Opportunity Zones, which seek private investment, may succeed where the city has failed. Only problem is that, because it lacks criteria, it would be hard for City Hall to control Opportunity Zones investments.
Harris was a first-time attendee at the National League of Cities conference, learning information and interacting with peers from across the nation. She mentioned another program on Tuesday, Race Equity Leadership Initiative. She said it provides grant money for a consultant to come out and assess whether the community is diverse.
That’s a program that really does seem to serve no purpose. The answer is obvious: New Bern has an ethnically diverse population but an ethnically segregated social structure.
Check out the local country clubs and golf courses and count the number of non-white faces you see there (other than the employees). Stroll through downtown and count the number of non-white faces you encounter. Ask the Chamber of Commerce what percentage of its members are non-white. Go to church on Sundays and look at the congregations. Drive through Trent Woods and River Bend, then Duffyfield, Dryborough and James City. How many African American students attend Epiphany School or many other church-based schools in this community? How many of New Bern’s public elementary schools are ethnically diverse?
Diversity actually does exist somewhat in New Bern’s major retail stores (most notably Wal-Mart) and restaurants (RIP Golden Corral). Many workplaces in New Bern are diverse (again, Wal-Mart).
But overall, New Bern has a long way to go. Opportunity Zones may not fit the mold that City Hall is creating for its vision of New Bern, but maybe that’s exactly what it needs if it is going to fix Duffyfield, Dryborough and Greater Five Points.
The late Steve Jobs is often touted as one of the great innovators of the age, but his real genius was in taking ideas from others, tweaking them, and selling them.
Jobs didn’t invent the computer mouse, smart phone or the MP3 player, for example; others came up with those ideas, but his tweaks changed everything.
Taking cues from Steve Jobs, the City of New Bern has gone into he business of taking others ideas, as well.
For example, take the Farmer’s Market.
For $1 per year, the Farmers Market was leasing city-owned land at South Front and Hancock streets coveted by developers. Everyone was happy, the Farmers Market thrived, and neighboring businesses enjoyed the extra foot traffic Farmer’s Market attracted.
Meanwhile, the city was saddled with a blighted piece of property off First Street zoned for heavy commercial use that it will never be able to sell because of decades of accumulated pollutants from the power plant that once stood there.
On a tear to unload surplus property, here was one property the city could not unload, so it sought alternatives.
City officials thought they could kill two birds with one stone. They approached Farmers Market leaders about moving to the First Street power plant property, a concept called City Market. Moving Farmer’s Market would free up city-owned land it could sell, and put to use city-owned property the city could not sell.
Farmers Market board members didn’t like the idea. They are doing well where they are and the rent they paid to the city for the property was almost nothing. Also, the present location brings in casual visitors who are downtown for other reasons.
Downtown businesses didn’t like the idea, either. They see Farmers Market as an additional attraction that fills restaurants and shops with customers on mornings when the Farmers Market is open.
At the moment, almost nobody goes to the old power plant, and other than Lawson Creek Park across the road, there is nothing else for people to do in that section of town.
It started to get ugly, as things often do when one opposes City Hall. There were veiled threats of eviction countered by a petition that gathered 15,400 signatures from people opposed to the Farmer’s Market moving.
At some point city officials realized that the Farmer’s Market had an ace up its sleeve: Although its lease with the city was about to expire, it had the option to extend it for one more year. That would have put the city in the awkward position of evicting a beloved downtown institution right in time for the 2017 municipal elections.
The city backed off. Rather than let a squabble with Farmers Market and downtown merchants drive the 2017 municipal elections, the city was forced into another lease. This time, however, it increased the rent from $1 a year to $500 per month.
The idea seemed to wither away. There was no further public discussion about outdoor vendor sales at the old power plant property. But meanwhile, city officials worked out a deal for Craven Community College to use the First Street main building for vocational classes, calling it the Volt Center (a nod to the building’s past as an electric plant).
Then on Feb. 13, the City Market plan sprang forth once more. The city is now seeking grant funding to help pay for outdoor vending areas, a market, a commercial kitchen accelerator, and an inventor’s space.
As city director of Development Services Jeff Ruggieri said, the idea never went away. But now, rather than forcing the Farmer’s Market to move, the city now looks poised to go in head-to-head competition with the Farmer’s Market.
It’s an odd thing, the city trying to compete with an existing commercial operation. Alderman Jeffrey Odham has said he wanted to run the city more like a business, but this? Start a business? One that competes with existing businesses?
And it’s not the only one.
In January, a private artists group approached the city seeking approval to rent the old Firemen’s Museum on Hancock Street.
A little background on that: after he became mayor, Dana Outlaw began a push to unload as much surplus city property as possible. The Hancock Street museum property was on the list, and the city gave the bum’s rush to the Firemen’s Museum, forcing it to rush fundraising efforts to pay for renovations of the old Broad Street Fire House so the museum could move there.
Outlaw and city staff envisioned selling the old museum site on Hancock Street, but when bids came in, they didn’t meet minimum requirements. The building is a fairly large commercial space suitable for a restaurant or even a microbrewery, but there’s a problem: it has no parking.
True, there’s a city-owned parking lot right next to it, but the downtown parking plan calls for the city to reduce the number of leased spaces, not increase the number. And the city parking lot at New and Hancock streets is a pretty important component to the city’s master parking plan.
So, like the old power plant on First Street, the city found itself with a substantial piece of real estate that is virtually unsellable.
It makes one wonder whether city officials do any research into these things before jumping in.
Back to the artists’ group. It had lost its existing location and was basically homeless and in a bind. They thought that perhaps they could rent the Hancock Street property from the city for, say, $500 a month — the same thing Farmer’s Market was paying for its piece of prime real estate.
Good idea, Mayor Outlaw said. More research is needed. Could be the city would pay them, rather than the other way around.
But that’s not how it turned out.
Meetings were held and the city came back with a plan: The city Parks and Recreation Department would open up its own art gallery and artist space at the old Firemen’s Museum — and make money doing it.
That private artists group? Still homeless, although they are welcome to apply to use the city-owned, city-run artists gallery along with everyone else.
So, yeah, those are two examples of the city shouldering its way into areas previously the domain of private groups.
A little bit sneaky, a little big underhanded. But unlike Steve Jobs, who bought or stole proven, successful ideas and made them better, the city still has to prove whether it is any good at running an outdoor market and an artists gallery, both of which have existing and entrenched competition in the city.
But, paraphrasing a line from Steve Jobs when he would announce new products, in the sneaky, underhanded department, that’s not all.
City Market is a triangular piece of property, with the Ghent neighborhood on one side, a mixed residential-commercial street on one side, and Country Club Road/First Street on the remaining side.
City Hall is giving that section of the city a lot of love and attention recently. Lawson Creek Park is right there and has benefited from a lot of improvements: a reconfigured and beautified entrance, a ball field, and more.
The city moved its Parks and Recreation offices to a building off Country Club Road, and is seeking funding to improve boat access there.
And it has worked with the state to reconfigure Country Club Road/First Street from four ugly, unsafe, ugly lanes of traffic, to two beautiful, safe, beautiful lanes of traffic with a center turn lane, bike lanes on both sides, and broad sidewalks stretching from Broad Street/Neuse Boulevard all the way to Pembroke Avenue.
Because that stretch of street is actually part of N.C. Highway 55, the state is paying for the improvements with a couple of small conditions: the city has to take care of moving street side utilities, for example. Oh, and the city can’t put the entrance to City Market on First Street.
Seems like a pretty small thing for the state to worry about, but the reasoning is sound: the entrance would be close to a blind curve and too close to the onramps and offramps at U.S. 70.
That means the entrance to City Market will have to be behind it, on Rhem Street (not to be confused with nearby Rhem Avenue).
Shouldn’t be a problem. The city gas station is there, but it is going to move it.
But if state Department of Transportation engineers take a close look at what the city has in mind, they’ll find that it’s a much worse option than a City Market entrance on First Street.
Rhem Street and the entrance to Lawson Creek Park form a four-way intersection with Country Club Road. There’s that same blind curve that DOT was worried about in one direction, and it’s even closer to the U.S. 70 offramps and onramps than a First Street entrance to City Market.
With traffic throttled from four lanes to two lanes after the street is reconfigured, traffic at that intersection is going to get very cosy. Many motorists will opt to reach City Market from the other direction, turning on to Second Street from Trent Boulevard.
Oh, but wait. Second Street is where Ghent Neighborhood residents have been complaining about heavy traffic (an average of 1,500 cars per day on a four-block, two-lane residential street). Full disclosure: I live off Second Street.
Second Street is an example an exasperated City Manager Mark Stephans sidesteps by pointing to all the things the city — no, he himself — has done for the Ghent neighborhood to address speeders on Spencer Avenue. (Ignoring complaints about speeders on Park Avenue.)
Referring to Second Street, Stephans said the city has moved its warehouse and will be moving its filling station, so that should be enough to satisfy the Ghent neighborhood. He says it as if they have gone to so much trouble, but they were doing it anyway.
What he’s not saying, and this is where “sneaky and underhanded” comes in, is that Second Street at Trent Boulevard is going to become a major access point to City Market.
Now let’s put this in perspective. If a private company were to propose putting a high-use business where the city plans to put City Market, say a hotel, the city planning department would be all over the developer to deal with traffic issues.
But the city is not a private company. It is free to ignore any issues its projects cause on surrounding properties.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
I’ve been wondering for some time why City Hall is so resistant to solving the high traffic problem on Second Street. When Alderman Sabrina Bengel suggested that Second Street be blocked at Trent Boulevard, city staff dug in its heels.
Whatever reasons city officials give against closing Second Street or reconfiguring it to reduce traffic, the real reason has been lurking in the dark for well over a year.
City Hall doesn’t want to decrease traffic from 1,500 cars a day. City Hall wants to increase traffic even further.
Photo: The city has a lot of properties for sale: 92 are listed on the city’s website. Of those, more than 70 are located in the Greater Duffyfield area. (City of New Bern map)
It’s an unrelenting list of failed dreams: Greater Duffyfield homes and buildings in disrepair, ordered torn down by the city and later sold off at dimes on the dollar.
It’s a tragedy on a personal scale for the families who are losing their properties, but in the broader picture, it’s costing taxpayers money — a lot of it.
Just this week, buildings facing city-ordered demolition were put to votes by the Board of Aldermen for 1127 H Street, 725-727 West Street, and 1607-09 Dillahunt Street.
At the same meeting, vacant lots where houses were ordered razed by the city were sold at foreclosure auctions in which there was just one bidder: 1111 Williams St. and 1112 Grace St. (adjacent lots sold separately to the same person).
All five properties are located in the Greater Duffyfield section of New Bern, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. In fact, more than three-quarters of the city’s surplus properties are in that part of New Bern, virtually all of which were obtained through foreclosures.
Aldermen breezed through the four of the five in rapid succession on Tuesday, save for no-votes by aldermen Sabrina Bengel and Bobby Aster, who have raised concerns that the city’s process for selling surplus property is costing the city money and misses opportunities for better options.
But the voting process stalled entirely on the fifth and final property. More on that in a bit.
The demolition order is just the midway point. If the city later sells one of these properties, it is the culmination of a years-long process that started when a declining building first came to the city’s attention.
The same process was used on a much larger scale with the former Days Hotel at Five Points, which was razed summer of 2017 under city order.
The city fronts the money for the demolition, placing liens on the properties until the bills are paid, which is often never. In those cases, the city forecloses and then lists the properties for sale.
Then it waits for bids of at least 25 percent of the tax value of the property. If bids come in, the city advertises for upset bids. The high bids are often far less than the tax value of the properties, and fall far short of paying the city’s and county’s expenses.
The process can take years, and the city has a lot of properties for sale: 92 are listed on the city’s website.
The problem is two-fold: One, the minimum bid of 25 percent does not take into account how much local government has spent on the property or back taxes. Two, many of these properties aren’t even worth the tax value.
Take 725-727 West St., for example. The building there came to the city’s attention following a complaint filed in June 2010. A warning letter was sent by certified and regular mail to the owner a month later. A fire further damaged the building in June 2012. A minimum housing hearing was held in April 2013, and the owners were given a year to complete necessary improvements. Six months later a building permit was issued, but work was never completed.
On Tuesday, seven years and eight months after the building at 725-727 West St. got bad enough for the city to get involved, the Board of Aldermen ordered the building to be razed.
A quote to demolish the house, hand-scrawled onto paper “by PW,” came to $6,500 and includes asbestos removal.
The Craven County tax office puts the value of the double-lot property with improvements at $81,530.Tax value of the bare land is $14,440. Zillow, an online service that estimates the real estate values, thinks the property is worth about $102,000.
But judging from recent cases, the city and county won’t come close to getting that kind of money if 725-727 West Street ever comes up for sale.
Take 1111 Williams St., for example. A derelict house was once there, torn down by order of the city. A lien was put on the property and the city eventually foreclosed. At the time of foreclosure, taxes were due amounting to $3,850.42 owed to the county and $3,726.69 owed to the city, a total of $7,577.11.
Back taxes aside, the city paid $3,200 to demolish the house, the city and county paid $2,273.83 in foreclosure costs, and the city paid $205 to advertise for an upset bid.
In short, the county values the property at $4,000. The city and the county put $5,678.83 into it. On Tuesday, the Board of Aldermen agreed to sell the property for $1,000.
Loss after expenses: $4,678.83. Lost property taxes: $7,577.11. Total loss to taxpayers: $12,255.94.
That’s just one property. There are 91 more to go, more than 60 of which are in the Greater Duffyfield area.
How the city sells surplus property has been put on hold by the Board of Aldermen until a better process can be devised. The surplus property sold on Tuesday came in under the wire.
How these properties fall into this situation varies but generally are because of neglect by absentee owners, or neglect by homeowners unable or unwilling to pay for needed repairs.
Often, the cost to bring some of these houses back to minimum standards exceeds the value of the house once the work is done. In short, it doesn’t pencil out.
Then there is Johnnie and Ethel Sampson, among New Bern’s most beloved couples.
Johnnie is a county commissioner (in fact, he is running for reelection unopposed). Ethel is a pastor. Their roots in the Duffyfield neighborhood go back so far a street there is named Sampson Street.
Johnnie is a regular at New Bern Board of Aldermen meetings, often providing the opening prayer.
He was there Tuesday, unaware that a property he owns was on the agenda, with staff recommending the former nursing home at 1607 Dillahunt St. be demolished.
According to tax records, the Sampsons bought the building in 1999 for $35,000, three years after Johnnie Sampson was first elected a county commissioner.
This building, said to be the oldest Black-owned nursing home in North Carolina, could face a demolition order by the city due to deterioration. (Google Street View photo)
The building was once known as Harmony House and is believed to be be the oldest Black-owned rest home in North Carolina. It was scratch-built as a nursing home in 1955, sold in 1960, then sold again in 1999, to the Sampsons.
The old nursing home has been vacant since 1999 and, according to a city staff report, “has been a concern of the New (Bern) Police Department since 2001.”
City Development Services Director Jeff Ruggieri said the roof is torn open, and the city has received complaints from neighbors afraid that their children will be exposed to illegal activity that goes on there.
Ruggieri said in a report that the city has worked with the Sampsons since 2005 until late 2016 trying to get the building secured and the property into compliance with minimum structure codes.
“Ultimately, the owners are unwilling to bring the property into compliance,” Ruggieri said in his report.
But that’s not exactly true. While it is true the city has held numerous meetings with the Sampsons over the years because of concerns about the property, for their part, the Sampsons have taken measures several times in attempts to comply. Still, those attempts were not enough.
Although a letter about Tuesday’s meeting was sent to the Sampsons via certified mail, Johnnie Sampson said he received no notice and was unaware his property was on the Tuesday agenda.
“I just happened to come down tonight,” he said.
Sampson said he has been in bankruptcy for the past two years and wasn’t even sure the Dillahunt property still belongs to him.
Alderman Aster asked Sampson what he would like to do with the property. Sampson said his hands are tied while the bankruptcy is in process.
“I’m just surprised the way the city is trying to take all the property, especially in the Duffyfield area,” he said.
“I tell you, the city is doing some business in our community, they like to take over everything. I’m really disgusted with the city of New Bern doing these things like this. They’ve been slowly taking all the property over there in the Duffyfield area where most of the Blacks live.”
Sampson said city officials were aware he was in bankruptcy and were unhelpful in his effort to determine whether he still owned the property and was responsible for it.
He wasn’t even sure whether he was responsible for cutting the grass there.
Aldermen postponed action on the Sampson property while the city attorney determine who actually owns the property. The last time the city did a title search on the property was in 2015, after all.
For his part, Ruggieri, the city development services director, defended the city’s process.
He said the Dillahunt property has been on the city’s radar since before 1999, but became more formal that year due to vagrant and other illegal activity inside the building.
“The city does not want — ever — to tear down a building in the city. Despite what people say, that’s absolutely not true. We take great lengths, as you can see with this property specifically. Now it started in 1999 and we’re here in 2018. Over and over and over again. Despite other things that have been said tonight, Mr. Sampson was in meetings that we had with the chief building official.
“At the end of the day, everyone is very clear that if those issues aren’t remedied, then the building gets torn down.
“This notion that we are trying to invade Duffyfield is nonsense, and you can see that in this project right here.”
Out (for now): Hotel and parking structure at Craven and Pollock
Policy wonks from the UNC School of Government are urging the City of New Bern to turn its attention from a possible parking structure and hotel across from City Hall, and return its attention to a vacant lot at the corner of Craven and South Front streets.
UNC SoG special projects managers Marcia Perritt and Omar Kashef appeared before the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday to advise on behalf of the pivot.
The Pollock and Craven parking structure/hotel SoG had been advocating has been put on hold while Craven County officials decide whether they want to participate. Participation for the county is no small matter. It includes moving the county tax office, donating the property on which the tax office resides to the project, and pooling its tax revenues from the ensuing project until the city pays off the seven-figure costs to build the parking deck.
Editor note: My notes are incomplete, and the PDF the city originally posted online for the project is offline at the moment. Link
The vacant lot at the corner of Craven and South Front streets was acquired by the city as two separate purchases totaling $209,000 in 2000 and 2001. Tax value of the property is now listed at $567,630.
In the mid-2000s, Talbots looked at the property to build a department store, but opposition to the plan put a stop to that. Since then, the lot has been home to grass and one stately tree, with occasional events being held there.
SoG envisions a hotel being built on the property, assuming that some agreement could be made with the city to lease nearby public parking spaces for hotel guests.
SoG apparently is unaware that nearby municipal parking lots are part of a proposed parking master plan tied in with enforced two-hour parking streetside and a push to get visitors and downtown workers to use the municipal parking lots.
Kashef said the goal of SoG’s efforts is to keep people downtown after 5 p.m. by finding projects that serve the public interest and that are financially feasible.
Other areas needing attention, he said, are undeveloped and under-developed parcels and buildings, insufficient parking, and development of second-story uses such as residential and office space. The
Alderman Sabrina Bengel pointed out that downtown’s second-floor spaces are being developed “one right after another. I don’t see that holding us back as much as development of empty lots, vacant buildings and underutilized buildings.”
Bengel also urged SoG to make sure there is public participation in the process.
Alderman Johnnie Ray Kinsey reminded that the Five Points area continues to lack any attention from the city in terms of economic development.
“It would be good to see the city grow together,” he said.