Aldermen meet this evening to hold a public hearing into how the city will spend taxpayer and user fee money during the next fiscal year.
This is the first budget for the newly coined Board of Aldermen, which met during budget workshops last week that lasted just over 11 hours.
As presented by city staff, the draft budget is fairly status quo and would not result in any additional taxes or fees. However, City Manager Mark Stephens also laid out a number of steps aldermen could take to raise addition revenue to pay for new projects. (Fun fact: “Raise revenue” is boffin-speak for new fees and higher taxes.)
That’s where you come in. This evening’s meeting is when average citizens (that is, those who don’t have board members on speed dial or over for a round of golf) have their say on how the city should spend its money.
During last week’s workshops, which were public but extremely tedious to sit through (video here), board members set up a virtual “parking lot” that includes projects, initiatives and wishes that were not included in the draft budget.
Included in the parking lot are things like $75,000 toward a long-promised community center in the Pleasant Hill community, employee pay raises, aldermen pay raises, and a second animal control officer.
But the biggest thing in the parking lot is $350,000 for six additional firefighter positions that would be based at Fire Station 2 on Thurman Road.
One truck company is based at the station now, but because of OSHA rules, those firefighters can’t enter a burning building until a second truck arrives, usually from the Headquarters Station near downtown New Bern. That could take as long as 10 minutes, an eternity in terms of protecting life and property in a structure fire.
Much of New Bern is well-protected by existing Fire Department manpower and equipment, but the fringes of the city are not. Increasing staffing at Station 2 would plug one gap, but others remain that will have to be addressed over time and as money becomes available.
(A third fire station is on Elizabeth Avenue, covering the north and west ends of New Bern.)
City Hall provides a wide range of services: electric, water and sewer; street maintenance; parks and recreation; law enforcement; fire protection and EMS; and dozens of smaller services.
Keeping it all going while at the same time controlling costs is a challenging thing.
For example, the city operates and maintains 25 parks, many of which are small neighborhood playgrounds. Some of these playgrounds were built in neighborhoods that once crawled with children but are now dominated by senior citizens. City officials estimate about a half dozen city parks go unused.
At the same time, the city has acquired a huge parcel that will become Martin Marietta Park, but work on that won’t commence until the city has secured a $475,000 grant to kickstart plans.
Newly minted City Parks Director Foster Hughes has been rolling out maintenance of city parks, some of which have been sorely neglected for years. Kidsville, a popular wooden playground, has been closed until it can be renovated, for example.
Meanwhile, over in water and sewer, a funny thing happened. The city has been growing at a respectable 2-3 percent, according to city officials, but water usage (and subsequent sewer usage) are declining because of effective water conservation.
At rates seen a decade ago, the city would be looking at expanding water and sewer capacity about now, but conservation has given years of life to existing capacity.
Still, revenue has not increased to match demand. To avoid fee increases, the city will need to maintain its current growth rate of 2-3 percent. A downturn in the economy will force the city to raise fees to make up the difference.
A tradition within the New Bern Fire Department and its ancestors since 1879, threatened by a row over former mayor Lee Bettis, is now no longer a habit, a tradition, or a whim — it’s city law.
Aldermen passed a resolution on Tuesday making it official city policy to add the name of the mayor in office when a fire truck is authorized for purchase. The policy gives a mayor the option to decline the honor.
The resolution passed on a vote of 5-2, with Mayor Dana Outlaw and Alderman Jeffrey Odham voting against the measure.
The controversy arose when the previous Board of Aldermen ordered Lee Bettis’ name removed from a fire truck that was bought when he was in office. Bettis later served time in jail for driving recklessly under the influence of a prescription drug while his stepchildren were in the car.
At the time, members of the board thought having the name on a fire truck of a mayor who served time in jail was inappropriate.
Bettis’ name was restored to the fire truck last month after new board members, led by Ward 1 Alderman Sabrina Bengel, voted as a bloc, joined by Alderman Johnnie Ray Kinsey.
There was no discussion among aldermen during Tuesday’s agenda item. But earlier in the meeting, during the public comment and petitions portion of the meeting, two members of the public spoke on behalf of keeping the tradition intact.
They included Buddy Wetherington, past volunteer fire chief and member of the Button Volunteer Fire Department (like his father), thanked aldermen who voted to maintain the longtime tradition.
The department has many traditions, he said, and asked the board to keep the naming tradition intact.
Richard Blythe, who joined the fire department in 1977 and was chief of volunteers for three terms, said the naming has been a tradition for years and years. “I just wish the board would see kind enough to leave it that way,” 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.
Alderman Sabrina Bengel takes the oath of office after being selected mayor pro tem. Alderman and former mayor pro tem Jeff Odham is in the background fuming. The two sit on opposite sides of the dais and, judging from their first meeting Tuesday, are on opposite sides of other things, too.
It didn’t take long for four years of bad blood between Sabrina Bengel and Dana Outlaw/Jeff Odham to spill over into Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting. The question is, who started it?
• Was it Ward 1 Alderman Bengel who, during her first meeting as alderman (this time around) and using a portion of the meeting called New Business that allows aldermen to bring up issues and call for decisions that aren’t on the agenda, made a motion to restore former New Bern mayor Lee Bettis’ name to a ladder truck that was bought when he was in office? That’s what Mayor Dana Outlaw and Alderman Jeff Odham say.
• Was it Ward 3 Alderman Bobby Aster, who when he was fire chief, ordered the fire truck to include Lee Bettis’ name? That’s what Mayor Outlaw says.
• Was it tradition? That’s what Alderman Aster says.
• Was it Mayor Outlaw, who added New Business to the board meeting format? That’s what Alderman Bengel says.
• Was it Ward 6 Alderman Odham, who used the New Business portion of the agenda to make a motion to remove Bettis’ name from the engine several years ago? That’s what Bengel, Aster and Alderman Jamee Harris say.
• Was it Lee Bettis, who, while recuperating from a hip replacement surgery, took a prescribed medication that could result in drowsiness (although more likely it was sleep deprivation), then drove erratically while taking his kids to school the next day? That’s what Outlaw, Odham and Kinsey say.
• Was it the New Business portion of aldermen meetings, which allows any alderman to bring up any subject and, if it can get enough votes, it passes — without any advance public notice or preparation time by staff or other aldermen? That’s what apparently everyone on the board now thinks.
The New Bern Post was the first with a story, but it’s not a big issue. In fact, the Sun Journal, CityTalk Radio, and All About Craven on CTV-TV 10 all spent a good portion of their next available programming covering it, that’s how unimportant it was.
What it does, though, is reveal the schism that exists between Outlaw/Odham, and probably the entire rest of the board. Even Alderman Johnnie Ray Kinsey, who was one of the aldermen who voted to remove Bettis’ name, was so befuddled on Tuesday that he said he was undecided, which according to some counts as a yes vote.
In the process of indicating that they didn’t care, Outlaw and Odham certainly appeared that they did. Odham said he wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it and that his comments on Tuesday would be the last he would say, but he Facebook Lived himself the next morning– while driving and, frankly, looking like he lost sleep over it — commenting on it, and he popped up in social media throughout the week like a bearded Whack-a-Mole commenting some more.
Bengel, meanwhile, sat next to her radio co-host Lee Bettis (why yes, as a matter of fact, THAT Lee Bettis) on CityTalk Friday morning explaining herself. Yes, it could be interpreted as hypocritical to use a portion of the agenda that she has frequently criticized, to force a decision that some would not like. She was simply using a weapon of Outlaw’s and Odham’s creation, against its creators, she said, more or less.
Anyway, that’s what I have today. My son Cole is in town for holiday this week and, between him and my day job, I’ve had less time to devote to New Bern Post. I’ll catch up next week, starting first with the reporter notebook that I filled up at Tuesday’s meeting.
Alderman Sabrina Bengel takes the oath of office after being selected mayor pro tem. Alderman Jeff Odham is in the background. The two sit on opposite sides of the dais and, judging from their first meeting Tuesday, are on opposite sides of other things, too.
Former New Bern mayor Lee Bettis will have his name restored to a fire truck the Board of Aldermen authorized to buy during his last meeting as mayor but the subsequent board ordered removed because he was convicted of crimes.
Ward 1 Alderman Sabrina Bengel, using the New Business portion of the meeting that she has complained about on her weekly radio program, made a motion to restore Bettis’ name to the 2014 Sutphen Quint aerial ladder fire truck. Ward 2 Alderman Jameesha Harris seconded the motion, and it passed on a 4-2 vote, with one “undecided.”
Ward 3 Alderman also Bobby Aster and Ward 5 Alderman Barbara Best voted for Bengel’s motion. Mayor Dana Outlaw and Ward 6 Alderman Jeff Odham voted against it. Ward 4 Alderman Johnnie Ray Kinsey said he was undecided.
The decision was among the least important but easily most controversial during the new board’s first meeting for newly elected aldermen Bengel, Harris, Aster, and Best.
Outlaw, Odham, and Kinsey were among the six board members who voted to remove Bettis’ name in October 2014 on Odham’s motion.
“I don’t think there is any need to go into any great detail — anyone who has been watching the news lately knows about the unfortunate events of our past mayor,” Odham was quoted at the time in the Sun Journal newspaper. “…When I think about this vehicle attending great community functions and, most importantly, schools, I don’t think it is appropriate, considering the circumstances, that (the fire truck) bear the name of the former mayor.”
Bettis was taking medication for a hip replacement when he was arrested May 6, 2013.
A Breathalyzer test administered to Bettis was negative, but a blood test found traces of Xanax, a prescription drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorder. Bettis was on his way to work and taking his stepchildren to school when he was stopped by Havelock police after being observed by other motorists driving erratically.
Bettis was charged with DWI, reckless driving and misdemeanor child abuse. On Oct. 15, 2013, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail. He was serving his jail sentence when the board voted to remove his name from the $800,000 ladder truck.
Aster, a retired New Bern fire chief who also plays a key volunteer role in the New Bern Firemen’s Museum, said New Bern has a 150-plus-year tradition of putting the names of mayors on fire engines acquired during their terms. The ladder truck that once bore Bettis’ name is the only truck in New Bern, either on active duty with the Fire Department or on display at the museum, that does not bear a mayor’s name.
“It’s all about tradition,” Aster said. “It’s only right that we put it back.”
Outlaw blamed Aster for the controversy in the first place, saying Aster ordered the truck to include Bettis’ name from the factory without Board of Aldermen approval. Outlaw said decisions like that should be based on formal policies, and that the city ought to develop a formal policy on whether and how to name city fire trucks.
He said some cities sell the naming rights to fire trucks.
Aster replied that there likely is a written policy regarding naming fire trucks, but at any rate it was not an action that required Board of Aldermen approval in the past. Plus, he added, “I don’t think the city is ready for a Bojangles fire truck.”
Alderman Odham rehashed his original arguments for removing Bettis’ name, and said traditions change.
“Unfortunately, we’re simply going back to the way it used to be,” he said.
Later, after the vote and during his own time during New Business, Odham said Bengel’s move was out of line and ironic, considering her previous opposition as a radio host to aldermen making binding decisions during the New Business portion of the meetings.
Meanwhile, Bettis, in a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday morning, said:
“Truly from the bottom of my heart … thank you very much for putting my name back on the fire truck. Not that it was a huge deal but it was symbolic for the city of New Bern for the first vote that they took for four aldermen to stand up and say hey we’re putting an end for Mr. Outlaw’s and Mr. Odham’s era of hate and politics by bullying. They are four strong, independent aldermen, and that’s what this city needs.
“The group-think that has prevailed over the past four years is over.”
Bengel and Bettis host a radio program called CityTalk that focuses heavily on City Hall and what the Board of Aldermen do or don’t do. The two started the program shortly after they left office in 2013, Bengel as a former alderman who ran unsuccessfully for mayor, and Bettis, who did not run for reelection for mayor.
The squabble followed an otherwise stately couple of Tuesday meetings, the first involving the old board with its four out-going aldermen (Dallas Blackiston, Victor Taylor, E.T. Mitchell, and Bernard White), then a swearing-in ceremony that included state dignitaries, followed by a robust but uncontroversial second meeting that included the new members.
But the rivalry between Bengel and Outlaw kindled when the two ran for mayor in 2013, well, apparently that’s still a thing. And with Bengel leading the charge, all the new board members voted one way, with all the incumbents voting the other.
Three developers persuaded New Bern planning and zoning board members to hold off endorsing a proposed revised street ordinance, saying a Fire Department push for wider residential streets and bigger cul de sacs will hurt the environment and push up costs for new houses that could make affordable housing a thing of the past.
The board voted unanimously (with one absent and one vacancy) to table the decision and send the proposed ordinance back to staff for further discussion and research.
It was one of three option the board had: Approve it and forward it to the Board of Aldermen for further consideration, reject it, or table the discussion for the time being.
Tuesday’s agenda item was innocuously stated, “Consideration of a request by the City of New Bern to amend the City Land Use Ordinance Article XIV: Section 15-210 “Street classification.”
The proposed ordinance does a lot of things, from cleaning up wording to classifying streets. It was proposed requirements increasing the minimum width of residential streets from 24 feet wide, to 27 feet wide, and to increase the diameter of cul de sacs to 96 feet, that got three developers going during Tuesday’s meeting.
A photo provided by the New Bern Fire Department shows the problem it encounters on narrow residential streets: Not enough space for the equipment, and not enough room for residents to evacuate.
The Fire Department has been pushing for the wider residential streets out of safety concerns. Fire officials, who were not present at Tuesday’s meeting, say that 27 feet is the minimum width necessary to provide access to its bigger ladder trucks and for them to deploy their stabilizers, while still leaving room for residential evacuation if it is necessary.
Wider cul de sacs would make it easier for larger fire trucks to turn around. (Fun fact: cul de sac is French for “bottom of the sack,” though some translate it to mean, “ass of the sack.”)
Kenneth Kirkman, an attorney and Carolina Colours developer, said changes to city building rules over the past years have steadily driven up costs to develop new subdivisions, and these new changes would have unintended, undesirable consequences.
For example, the city will happily take over maintenance of a new subdivision’s streets — as long as those streets have curbs and gutters, which make streets last longer but greatly add to the cost of development. The city also requires one side of the street have a sidewalk.
Under the proposed rules, the minimum width for a street right of way, including sidewalk, would be 57 feet, an increase of 3 feet. The minimum diameter for a cul de sac would be 96 feet — 3 1/2 times the size of the room where the Board of Aldermen meets, he said.
Not only would this affect the cost of dedicating the street right of way and construction, it would also increase the percentage of water-impervious ground surface, increasingly the likelihood that expensive rainwater runoff systems would be necessary, he said. He said the added requirements could increase the cost of a lot at Carolina Colours by $27,000, and result in “cookie cutter subdivisions that are full of asphalt.”
It would also make it prohibitively expensive to develop more affordable subdivisions, he said.
“With very little discussion, things have been adopted without looking at the totality of what will occur,” Kirkman said. “I think it’s now overriding common sense.”
John Thomas, of John Thomas Engineering, which is developing a 253-lot subdivision near Carolina Colours, urged the planning and zoning board to “pull back and have more discussion.”
The New Bern Firement’s Museum dedicated an important relic — a fire house bell — commemorating the three New Bern firefighters who gave their lives in the line of duty.
The museum took the opportunity to show off its newly completed interior, including a second floor that gives a glimpse of a firefighter’s life, educates visitors about the Great New Bern Fire of 1922 (said to be the largest city fire in North Carolina history).
Here is a Facebook video of the dedication:
And here is a Facebook video of the interior of the museum: