Six months after it made landfall, Hurricane Florence’s impacts on New Bern’s economy are still being felt throughout the city, but a new development may delay full recovery for some time.
Hurricane-damaged DoubleTree Riverfront hotel is closed indefinitely over insurance coverage issues related to the hurricane. Downtown New Bern will continue to face its worst economic crisis since 2008-10, when access to downtown was crippled by a bridge replacement and road construction projects.
“Business is definitely down,” said Lynne Harakal, director of Swiss Bear Downtown Development Corporation, said about Hurricane Florence recovery. “The best information I can provide is revenues are down about 15-20 percent since the hurricane. In retail, that’s a very large hit. Most small retailers have a profit margin of about 10 percent at the end of the year, so if these percentages continue many of our retailers could be in jeopardy.
“Not having the DoubleTree makes this situation even more ominous. Our downtown businesses need the DoubleTree operational. Furthermore, they need the Conventional Center up and running and a thriving Farmers Market to draw customers to our shops and restaurants.”
New Bern Riverfront Convention Center, a top venue for activities ranging from Marine Corps Birthday balls to corporate shareholder meetings, occupies about 3 acres of the downtown frontage on the banks of the Trent River.
The Convention Center was badly damaged during the hurricane, but is aiming to reopen in the fall. A big piece of its marketing plan has been the presence of a full-service hotel right next door—the DoubleTree Riverfront by Hilton.
Sources said there have already been two cancelled bookings at the Convention Center because of the DoubleTree being closed.
The Convention Center and DoubleTree Riverfront occupy a space previously known as Bicentennial Park and, before that, New Bern’s busy waterfront dating to the 1700s. More
Why does the DoubleTree matter? After all, there are two other hotels downtown, and several others elsewhere in the city.
DoubleTree Riverfront, with 171 rooms, is by far the city’s largest hotel. More importantly, it is New Bern’s only full-service hotel. A full-service hotel offers full service accommodations, an on-site restaurant, and personalized service, such as a concierge, room service, and clothes pressing staff.
The DoubleTree was the hotel Alpha in New Bern, occupying the premiere location along the Trent River between the Convention Center and the N.C. History Center.
Once a full-fledged Hilton and, before that, a Sheraton, the $12 million property in New Bern has been operating under Hilton’s DoubleTree flag for several years.
Singh Investment Group owns one other hotel property in North Carolina (all others are in Georgia), the DoubleTree Oceanfront by Hilton in Atlantic Beach. It, too, was severely damaged by Hurricane Florence and remains closed.
Singh Investment has not answered a request to be interviewed by New Bern Post, and local officials say they have not answered their inquiries since January.
In mid-February, the hotel’s general manager attended a Tourism Development Agency meeting and said that due to litigation with the hotel’s insurance carrier over whether it covered damage from wind-driven rain, the hotel might remain closed.
The hotel owners transferred the general manager and two weeks later laid off the entire staff except the sales manager and a couple of maintenance workers. The sales manager worked to cancel remaining bookings.
This puts downtown New Bern in a bad spot. Take the New Bern Grand Marina, for example. It is under separate ownership, but it partnered with DoubleTree to provide amenities to the marina including showers and laundry.
Then, of course, its impacts on Convention Center bookings, and a large hotel staff that has been laid off.
Then there are other effects. A vast, empty parking lot beside a large hotel is not a good indicator of a thriving downtown.
In short, it puts downtown growth and prosperity at serious risk.
Moreover, the longer DoubleTree remains closed, the harder it will be to bring it back into operation. The DoubleTree may very well go from being one of Downtown New Bern’s crown jewels, to a major liability.
It’s sort of like what the Days Hotel did in Five Points. The Days Hotel went from being in business to derelict to being razed over an eight-year span.
Alderman Sabrina Bengel, when asked what the city could do about the hotel, said, “Nothing. It’s private property.”
She equates DoubleTree with the beleaguered SkySail condominiums right next door to the DoubleTrees and the long-vacant Elks Building smack dab in the middle of Downtown New Bern. They, too, are major properties in the downtown that seek solutions and remain vacant or underutilized.
She said DoubleTree’s owners said they are not interested in selling the hotel, and continue to seek a resolution from the insurance carrier.
Meanwhile, the hotel has not reached the level of nuisance abatement, and is current on its taxes, which total just over $120,000 per year.
While it is true that the hotel is private property, current on taxes, and may not have reached a point where it is a public safety hazard, it is demonstrably true that a vacant and empty hotel has an adverse economic impact on the city.
Cities have used that argument to justify employing eminent domain, the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.
Whether the city has the stomach for that kind of nuclear option depends on how severe impacts become as the DoubleTree Riverfront remains closed.
District 2 Craven County Commissioner Jason Jones announced Thursday he is leaving the Democratic Party and becoming a Republican.
“Please allow me to share a decision I have made,” he announced Thursday evening on his Facebook wall.
“I was raised in a Christian, Democratic home in rural Craven County where faith, family and personal responsibility came first, period. My Grandfather served in several elected capacities as a Democrat, but I witnessed his struggle in later years with some decisions being made on the national level.
The year Granddaddy ended his political service I was elected to serve the citizens of Craven County at the age of 28 and also as a Democrat. Over the years I have been blessed to receive the support of Democratic Friends, Republican Friends and Friends who have chosen not to affiliate themselves with either party.
“In the last few months particularly, I have watched the Democratic Party distance itself from the values with which I was raised. While no party is perfect in any circumstance, I honestly believe faith, family and personal responsibility are STILL the foundation for success in today’s society.
“With that being said, after much prayer and consideration, I have changed my party affiliation to the Republican Party. I felt it was time to align myself with those who support the beliefs that have been ingrained in me. Staying true to our convictions no matter the cost, is what our country was built upon. My only hope is that I serve it and its people to the best of my ability.”
Commissioner Jones, a native and lifelong resident of Craven County, was first elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2006, and served one term. He was elected again in 2014.
He represents western Craven County on the board.
He is the owner of S & J Farm located in the Asbury community, which produces soybeans, cattle, cotton and corn. Commissioner Jones is active in his church, where he serves as a Deacon, Chairman of the Administrative Board and member of the choir. He also serves on the Rescue 30 Board of Directors and the Craven County Farm Bureau Board.
Commissioner Jones is married to Jennifer Jones, a counselor at James W. Smith Elementary School in western Craven County. They have one daughter, Emily Jones, who is a student at James W. Smith Elementary School.
Commissioner Jones is also a member of the following boards:
The city will fund six school resource officers, some costs of which will be covered by a state grant, although aldermen and the mayor grumbled that the county ought to be putting up some of the money to fund the positions.
The resource officers are posted at New Bern High School, H.J. McDonald Middle School, and Grover C. Fields Middle School. New this year will be resource officers posted at Oaks Road Elementary School and J.T. Barbour Elementary School.
No one argues against posting school resource officers at the schools. The sticking point is that three of the schools — New Bern High and the two middle schools — have students who don’t live inside city limits. Some aldermen think the county should chip in to cover its share of the enrollment.
The resource officers cost about $81,000 per year for salary, benefits, and equipment. They are available for regular police duties during two summer months when school is out of session, said New Bern Police Chief Toussaint Summers.
State grant money covers $39,000 per resource officer for the high school and middle schools, with the city paying the balance.
New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw said the county, the school district, and cities in Craven County need to get together to find an equitable way to cover the cost of school resource officers.
Meanwhile, he said, he’ll “old my nose and vote for this.”
“In today’s society, you can’t not have a resource officers in these schools,” Outlaw said.
Alderman Sabrina Bengel said she feels bullied into a decision. “I don’t like the political nature of this,” she said.
Alderwoman Jameesha Harris said “This is a tax burden I would like to have in order to have my children be safe.”
Chief Summers said the benefits of the city providing resource officers to the schools outweighs the costs. The officers spend the school year getting to know teenagers in the community, and during the summertime, a “very busy time” for the Police Department, the officers are available for patrol duty and to hold youth summer camps.
In addition, should an incident occur on campus, resource officers there could facilitate the arrival of other law enforcement as they arrive.
At present, the New Bern Police Department has 86 personnel, plus two trainees and one vacancy. He said on average NBPD has a 10 percent turnover rate.
To the question of whether to fund resource officers for New Bern High School and the two middle schools, aldermen voted 6-1, with Alderman Barbara Best voting against it. To the question of whether to add one resource officer each to J.T. Barbour and Oaks Road elementary schools, the vote was 5-2, with Best and Bengal voting against it.
In a memo to aldermen, Chief Summers provided information supporting the addition of resource officers to the two elementary schools. Three other elementary schools inside city limits would not have resource officers.
Craven County has budgeted $99,000 for these two positions, leaving the city of New Bern with $10,000 in costs.
“(The two) elementary schools have been identified as having students with limited positive interaction with police officers. Assigning School Resource Officers would facilitate a safe learning environment, encourage positive relationships with law enforcement and reduce the number of violent acts within our schools. If approved, the newly inducted School Resource Officers would promote anti-bullying initiatives, lead drug and crime prevention programs, provide a safe and secure campus for both the students and the teaching staff during regular school hours and at after-school activities.”
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.
Things are getting back to normal now that the holidays are behind us.
Just kidding. With snow and ice blanketing the region, it’s like having an extra week off for the Christmas break. Schools have been closed since Wednesday. So much of New Bern was shut down on Thursday, it nearly felt like Christmas Day.
Though we were well supplied with food, cabin fever drove us from the house and we thank the folks at Sonic and Piggly Wiggly for braving the weather and serving our needs. Other businesses were open, too … these are just the two we happened to visit.
There was enough snow that sledders had more than enough for two full days of sledding on the U.S. 70/Country Club Road interchange, with more sledding days likely through the weekend.
And Tyson makes two
Craven County Commissioner Steve Tyson announced on his Facebook wall that he will not be seeking reelection this year. Scott Dacey is also not running for county commissioner, instead seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Walter Jones.
Beneath a picture of a torch being passed, Tyson said this on his Facebook wall:
I want to thank the citizens of Craven County for allowing me the privilege of serving as one of their County Commissioners for the past eleven years. It has been a wonderful experience and I feel like we, meaning the County Board and the 650 County employees, staff and department heads that work for the County, have accomplished quite a lot during my tenure. I have enjoyed working with all of the other Commissioners despite at times not always in agreement with them on all issues. When we disagreed on one issue we moved on to the next issue without remorse.
It is with some sadness that I am announcing that I will not seek reelection next year. I will have served 12 years when I finish my current term and It is time to pass the torch. The County is well managed and in excellent financial condition.
I utilized my 35 years of business experience and exercised a businesslike approach in my decision-making for the County government and I would hope my successor will also take that approach.
When my term is up I will forever remain a cheerleader and advocate for the city and County in which I was born and love.
Again, thanks for your past support, and may 2018 be a blessed year to all.
Tyson will undoubtedly remain busy. He is a Realtor, owns an inn, hosts a weekly TV program, is an amateur historian. Am I missing anything? I feel as though I am missing a lot.
Things get rolling
The first Board of Aldermen meeting of the new year, and the first full meeting of the newly constituted board, is on Tuesday, and its agenda is just packed with interesting stuff. Packed!
Public hearing on recommendations from the Master Parking Plan Advisory Committee. At least one alderman, Sabrina Bengel, has expressed reservations about at least a portion of the recommendations. Fun fact: a member of the committee, downtown New Bern businessman Buddy Bengel, is her son.
Discussion of potential lease of the old Firemen’s Museum building at 408 Hancock St. It’s an interesting series of twists. The previous board sped (synonym for “bum’s rush”) the Firemen’s Museum’s departure from the building ostensibly to sell the property during a period which the city sought to shed surplus properties. But in the end the city could not sell the building. A group of local artists, meanwhile, approached the board hoping to lease the building. Now it looks like the building could be taken over by Parks & Recreation.
Consider adopting a policy for naming city fire trucks. The city started doing this in 1879, but Mayor Dana Outlaw expressed doubt whether that long tradition is actually a policy.
Consider a resolution leading to reducing First Street from four lanes to two (“Road Diet”). The latest trend among transportation boffins is not to add lanes to accommodate more city traffic, but to reduce lanes. It makes surface streets safer, they say.
Speaking of fire trucks
Alderman Jeffrey Odham had a poll on his Facebook page that ended Friday. Here is the question (more of a leading statement, really) and the results:
New Bern has a long tradition of putting the sitting Mayor’s name on fire trucks purchased while they are in office. Most are aware of the controversy surrounding this tradition due to the issues of the former Mayor. Evidently there are two Aldermen that feel we should issue a resolution supporting this tradition. Some of the ideas that hat (sic) have been discussed are a Fireman of the Year from within the NBFD, honor fallen firefighters, name them after non-profits throughout the community, etc.
27%Keep the tradition
73%Do something different
In the interest of full disclosure, I had to vote in the poll in order to see the results. I was among the 27 percent who voted to keep the tradition.
The two focused on a particular passage in the commentary:
So what did (former alderman E.T.) Mitchell accomplish during her year as an alderman?
She worked on goals set out for her by the mayor and other members of the board (which means, mainly, Ward 6 Alderman Jeffrey Odham).
On its face that sounds great, but it put her in a sort of unique position on the board: no other alderman or the mayor had their agenda set for them by other members of the board.
While Ward 3 may have been represented, it was the only ward during that year whose alderman’s main purpose was accomplishing tasks set out for her by aldermen from other wards.
Alderman Jeffrey Odham took issue, leading to the following exchange between him and me:
Odham: Randy, I’m curious as to what you mean when you say that Alderman Mitchell worked on goals laid out for her by the mayor and other board members, mainly me. What do you mean by that exactly and where do you get that idea
Me: She said so in her final comments on the board.
Odham: Interesting. I’ll have to go back and watch ch because I don’t recall those comments. Thanks for bringing it to light. Although I don’t remember setting out any specific goals and objectives for Alderman Mitchell. She came in with her own agenda for Ward 3 based on things her and Alderman Schaible had discussed (flashing lights at Taberna, widening of Old Airport Road, etc.)
Former alderman Pat Schaible chimed in, as well. She was the alderman who resigned and who was replaced by Mitchell. Schaible wrote:
Alderman Odham is correct in that I had lengthly conversations with Alderman Mitchell about the concerns of Ward 3 (including the flashing lights at Taberna and the widening of Airport Road). In fact, I gave Alderman Mitchell my entire file cabinet with everything fully documented.
Note: This has been corrected since originally posted to reflect that there had never been more than two women on the board, not one.
The glass ceiling was cracked, if not shattered, on Tuesday, as three women took their seats on a Board of Aldermen that had never had more than two female members throughout its existence.
And one of the first things the more feminine board did on Tuesday was vote unanimously to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment.
In 1972, a proposed Equal Rights Amendment (“ERA”) to the Constitution passed both houses of the U.S. Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. To add the ERA to the Constitution, ratification was needed by 38 states prior to 1982. Only 35 of the required 38 states ratified the ERA by this deadline.
Earlier this year, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. (More)
North Carolina has not ratified the ERA. In 2015 and 2017, bills supporting state ratification were introduced to the N.C. General Assembly in both the House and Senate, but the General Assembly has still yet to ratify the amendment. U.S. Representatives G. K. Butterfield, David Price, and Alma Adams cosponsored bills in the 114th Congress to pass an ERA and lift the time limits on the states for ratifying the ERA.
The resolution aldermen approved on Tuesday calls on the N.C. General Assembly to ratify the amendment and for Congress to remove the time limit for ratification and pass the ERA.
Ward 2 Alderman Jameesha Harris introduced the resolution, saying that she had approached the all-male Craven County Board of Commissioners to seek support without success.
“I hope to set the tone and show the Board of Commissioners that this is how you do it,” she said.
Ward 1 Alderman Sabrina Bengel said she was in school protesting for equal rights in 1972: she wore pants, and was sent home.
Earlier in the meeting, Bengel pointed out that women make up 53.3 percent of the population in New Bern, and though she said she didn’t think she needed a piece of paper to give her equal rights, she supported the motion and seconded it. The motion passed on a 7-0 vote.
Here is the resolution:
RESOLUTION IN SUPPORT OF THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT
WHEREAS, the City of New Bern forthrightly supports equal rights for the citizens of New Bern; and women constitute over 53 percent of the citizenry of New Bern; and
WHEREAS, women play a critical role in families, the workplace, and in society, contributing to our economy and advancing our city and our nation; and
WHEREAS, women continue to confront a lack of political parity, workplace discrimination, health care inequities, disparate rates of poverty, rape and domestic violence assaults; and
WHEREAS, the US Constitution does not explicitly guarantee that all rights that it protects are held equally by all citizens without regard to sex; and
WHEREAS, the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause has never been interpreted to guarantee equal rights for women in the same way the ERA would, by situating sex as a suspect category invoking strict judicial scrutiny, just as race, national origin and religion do; and
WHEREAS, state laws are not uniform and federal laws are not comprehensive; additionally, these laws can be repealed or reduced; and
WHEREAS, the Amendment would help correct systemic sex discrimination; and
WHEREAS, the ERA was passed by Congress in 1972 and ratified by 35 of the 38 states necessary to put it into the Constitution, yet was assumed to have expired in 1982; and
WHEREAS, Congress can alter time limits in the proposing clauses of amendments; and the deadline for ERA appeared only in the preamble and not in the actual legislation; and
WHEREAS, US Representatives G.K. Butterfield, David Price and Alma Adams co-sponsored the bills in the 114 Congress to pass an ERA and to lift the time limits on the states for ratifying the ERA.
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the City of New Bern calls on Congress to pass into law a bill to pass an ERA and remove the time limit for ratification of the ERA so that ratification shall be achieved upon the affirmative vote of 38states, of which 35 have already ratified; and
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the City of New Bern calls on the NC General Assembly to pass into law a bill to ratify the ERA to the US Constitution as proposed by Congress on March 22, 1972.
This the 12th day of December, 2017.
(Signed Mayor Dana Outlaw and City Clerk Brenda Blanco)
Belk, the North Carolina-based retailer that relies so much on holiday receipts to meet investor expectations, got into some hot water over its decision to ban Salvation Army bell ringers, so much so that it has reversed course and decided bell ringers are welcome, after all.
Here’s the Tweet that Belk sent out on Dec. 2:
Merry Christmas! The picture Belk included in its Tweet that it had restored bell-ringing privileges to its stores.
Christmas truly is the giving season and we’d like to welcome Salvation Army bell ringers to all 294 Belk stores. Merry Christmas!
Happy ending to a story that started badly for the retailer, which has a store at New Bern Mall.
Belk was once a family-owned chain, but no more. It is now owned by Sycamore Partners, which also owns Staples, Dollar Express, Coldwater Creek, Talbots and a bunch of other things.
Steve Tyson, a New Bern real estate agent, Cable TV show host, amateur historian, and county commissioner, was among the first to squawk about the bell ban on Dec. 1.
“I was very disappointed to hear today that the new manager at the New Bern Belk store will not allow the Salvation Army to have their bell ringers there this year. The Salvation Army raises about 1/3 of their funds through the bell ringing campaign,” Tyson said on his Facebook page.
“Good news is that J.C. Penney is allowing the Salvation Army at their store so shop at J.C.Penney and you will see my smiling face doing the ring-a-ding. If this info is disappointing to you please share and shop at J.C. Penney.”
Tyson’s post got some traction. Since he posted it on Saturday morning, his post was liked or wowed or sadded by 117 people, had 128 shares and 51 comments, not counting the comments others made to comments.
Later Saturday, Tyson posted this update:
“The manager of the NB Belk store called me and said that the decision not to allow the Salvation Army to ring bells at Belk was a corporate decision, not hers. I believe her and we had a good conversation. There are some stores that had committed to the Salvation Army prior to the corporate decision and that is why they are ringing bells at the store in Morehead. Belk was once a family run store. They were recently bought out by a large private equity firm called Sycamore Partners firm based out of New York. I personally believe, but have no proof ,the decision was made because the Salvation army is a Christian based organization. Their decision will cost the Salvation Army, a great charity, in excess of $1,000,000. I bet it will cost Belk more than that.”
Tyson and his Facebook followers weren’t the only ones complaining about the Belk ban on bell ringers.
“Hundreds of Wilsonians — and thousands of shoppers throughout the Southeast — expressed their outrage with Belk after news that charitable contributions would be taken at the register as part of a Home for the Holidays campaign with Habitat for Humanity in lieu of the Salvation Army’s red kettles being placed outside the stores,” the Wilson Times reported.
“‘As you know, Belk decided to focus our giving this holiday season with our Home for the Holidays campaign, and during the process of making that commitment stronger, we mistakenly left out the Salvation Army at some stores,” said Belk public relations manager Tyler Hampton in a statement Monday and reported in the Wilson Times. “But we have fixed that. We have had a long relationship with the Salvation Army, and they are absolutely welcome at all of our 294 stores
“And they will certainly be a part of our community commitment moving forward.”
In 1992, the same year Bill Clinton was elected to his first term as president, the City of New Bern installed a software system called Banner. It’s still in use today, even though the software developer got out of the municipal software business long ago and focuses on education institutional software now.
Only one person among the 450 who work at New Bern City Hall knows how to maintain the Banner system, and the company that makes it will stop supporting the version the city uses in early 2018.
The city’s aging software system has been a subject of conversation by city leaders for at least eight years, but because the “current” version is aging out in 2018, there has been an increased sense of urgency that began in March.
The city has zeroed in on an “enterprise resource planning” (ERP for short) software package called Munis by Tyler Technologies. Described as the Cadillac of municipal software packages, Munis is used by more than 1,500 counties and cities including 89 in North Carolina and two in Craven County (Craven County, which is installing the system, and Havelock).
Munis will be able to handle functions throughout city hall, including financials, human resources management, computer information services, utility billing, contract and purchasing, content management, project and grant accounting, comprehensive annual financial report, time and attendance, work orders, talent management and permits and inspections.
In New Bern, those functions are presently handled by six other software systems or some other workaround (including forms filled out by hand, in triplicate). Costs to run and maintain the systems run at $273,000 a year, and with needed upgrades would cost the city $3.94 million over the next 10 years.
The Munis system, on the other hand, would cost the city about $106,000 a year following an up-front implementation cost of $1.35 million. The 10-year cost with the new system would be $2.6 million.
So, in boffin-speak, the city would save $1.34 million over 10 years by going with the new system, plus have software that is more integrated and user-friendly.
The bid for the project expires at the end of this month, so there was a sense of urgency in moving forward.
The Board of Aldermen went over the specs during a work session on Tuesday, but inexplicably went ahead and OK’d the new system (6-1, with Mayor Dana Outlaw voting against, saying that he would rather gamble on the price going up than gamble on the budgeted contingency — $115,000 — being sufficient to pay for unforeseen costs).
Inexplicably? The meeting was a work session, not a regular meeting. The board has one more meeting this month, on Nov. 28, before the bid expires. Typically, among most local elected bodies, work sessions are intended to work out bugs and regular sessions are intended to take action. Both run off agendas that are publicly available, both types of meetings are public, but regular sessions tend to be better attended by the public and media.
It amounts to a lame-duck board (four new members — a majority of the seven-member board — take office in December) committing to spend more than a million bucks during a work session just weeks before the new members take their seats. Erp!
Regardless of anything else, Outlaw said, because of the outdated system now in place, “This board or the next will implement a new system.”
Aldermen-elect Sabrina Bengel and Jameesha Harris attended Tuesday’s work session as private citizens. (Aldermen-elect Bobby Aster and Barbara Best did not.) Mayor Outlaw gave Bengel and Harris the floor to express any concerns. Harris said she supports city staff’s proposal and would vote for it.
Bengel, on the other hand, had some questions. She wanted to know why the cost increased from when it was initially unveiled in October, to when it was re-presented on Tuesday. City staff accounted for some of the discrepancy, but not the majority of it. Bengel also wanted to know whether the system would be compatible with the city’s electric utility billing software, which handles $80 million per year in utility payments.
“I strongly support the new system,” Bengel said. “I’m just concerned about the missing pieces.”
Following the meeting, Bengel expressed concerns about a decision involving such high expense being made at a work session. She sent Mayor Outlaw a message about her concerns:
My overall comment is that a Work Session should be for review and comment only and not a vote, especially when spending that large amount of taxpayer dollars. I do understand that the voting part of the agenda was noticed but felt strongly that it should not have been included in the agenda. There was no representative from Tyler to really assure us of what the system can and can not do. I also was concerned that you did not have any comment from Jordan or Carl Toler relative to the AMI system and the pay as you go application.
Our citizens deserve better when it comes to spending large sums of money and this item should have been scheduled for a vote at the next regular meeting of the Board of Alderman. There still is a regular meeting on November 28th so the vote could have taken place then and possibly a Tyler rep could have been present and still meet the Nov 30 quote deadline. I like you agree that Tyler would have happily given us at least another 30 days on a contract of this size.
Going forward I will ask the Board of Aldermen to review our policy for Work Sessions. The most transparent thing would be that during Work Sessions we review and discuss items in an informal manner that will be coming forward for a formal vote in the future. Work sessions should be where we get and digest information on particular items and then allow us some time to do additional research or ask questions based on what we learned at the Work Session. If an item must be decided due to deadlines, etc I would ask that a special meeting be called to make the vote.
I am committed to working towards a more transparent process for our Board and most importantly for our citizens.
Sometime soon, when you call 911 in New Bern for an ambulance, the 911 dispatcher may ask a lot of questions that, in the heat of the moment, may seem beside the point.
But the questions 911 dispatchers ask, and the answers they get in return, will save lives.
New Bern’s 911 dispatchers are rolling out a system called “Emergency Medical Dispatch.” The system is a combination of software and training that allow 911 dispatchers to ask medically pertinent questions and then give medical advice about how to save that person’s life.
The program was hatched in New Bern earlier this year, and in October the first phase of implementation began: software installation and training.
Expect to see a PR blitz including brochures and a video explaining the system.
Said Dr. Stanley Koontz, Emergency Medical Services coordinator for Craven and surrounding counties, “We’re trying to make our city safer. I think we can save some lives. This is a good first step.”
Craven County 911 dispatchers have already been using the Emergency Medical Dispatch system for some time, said Koontz.
If you find yourself in one of those situations, don’t worry that the EMTs and ambulance will be delayed while you are answering questions and delivering first aid. The dispatchers will have already taken care of those details simultaneously.