New Bern’s short-term gains ignore long-term sustainability

Ever since Jeffrey Odham, then a candidate for Ward 6 alderman, ran on a campaign of running city hall like a business, I was apprehensive.

Once he took office, I started to see exactly what he meant.

He wasn’t talking about a business that puts customer satisfaction first. He was talking about the American concept of business efficiency — low cost, high profit, declining customer service, cut-throat competitiveness, and poor responsiveness to customer needs and wants.

There are numerous examples that bear this out.

There’s the example of City Hall pushing the Firemen’s Museum out of its old location on Middle Street into the old fire station on Broad Street. This was part of a push by the Board of Aldermen to get rid of surplus properties, even if the property is being used for the betterment of the community.

Once the Firemen’s Museum finished moving, the old building sat vacant. Despite some initial interest from buyers, the city was simply unable to sell the building.

Then a group of artists who had been forced out of their previous studio approached the city about renting the old museum property.

That brings us to another example, one of cut-throat competitiveness.

The artists wanted to rent the building for the non-profit rate (usually $1 a month or a year) or if not that, as low as possible, and in turn would provide numerous services and amenities to the community.

City Hall refused the offer, and instead tried to go into the art studio business itself. But it couldn’t find any takers and the old museum property continues to gather dust.

Something similar is happening with New Bern Farmers Market. The city tried to force it from its city-owned location on South Front Street to the old electric generation plant off First Street. City strong-arm tactics to get its way failed but only due to the proximity of municipal elections, which would occur at precisely the same time City Hall would be evicting the Farmers Market. Rather than face the wrath of angry voters, city leaders extended the Farmers Market lease for five years but increased the rent from $1 a month to $500 (the only example of the city charging a non-profit anything other than token rent).

City Hall plays the long game, however. If it can’t get New Bern Farmers Market to move, it plans to start its own, fraudulently going after government grants to help pave the way, with the ultimate goal of putting New Bern Farmers Market out of business so it can sell the property on which it operates.

Let’s not forget the city’s habit of tearing down houses of poor people and then foreclosing on the properties when the owners couldn’t pay the demolition costs.

Let’s also not forget the draconian utility deposits the city imposes on people having a hard enough time as it is keeping up with high utility costs.

Let’s not forget the place where you pay your electric bill. Until complaints came to light, they locked their doors 15 minutes before closing time and even closed their public restrooms.

The pettiness just keeps on coming.

These are not the only examples of City Hall being “run like a business,” they are just some examples.

Except where the law requires public participation, City Hall treats city residents (those without wealth, at least) as annoyances. City officials treat citizens disdainfully and ignore their requests whenever the law allows it.

Paradoxically, city workers continue to provide high levels of customer service despite what their management forces on them. Utility workers, police patrolmen, firefighters, desk clerks, street workers and more, they all get the job done.

My belief is that a city should not be run like a business, but should be run like a cooperative.

Citizens are stakeholders, not customers. The money they pay for their rents and mortgages, along with taxes they pay for goods and services, fund an organization that provides for the safety and well-being of these stakeholders.

They are represented by a board of directors, which in this case is the Board of Aldermen. It is each board member’s responsibility to interpret and represent the needs and wants of their constituency to the city executives that carry out those tasks.

But that’s not how it has been working.

Instead, ambitious city officials have been launching a series of vanity projects that will look good on their resumes and that they can point to with pride when it comes time for asking for raises.

Meanwhile, New Bern becomes less and less affordable, with some of the worst housing affordability rates in the state. That should worry everyone.

If entry-level workers can’t afford to live here, New Bern won’t have the entry-level workforce that is the foundation of New Bern’s commerce and tourism.

It takes a community to be a community, but go ahead, Alderman Odham and the rest who stand behind him, keep running the city like a business, searching for profits, and discouraging “undesirables” from living here.

City Hall may play the long game, but it doesn’t play the sustainable game.

July 23rd, 2019 by
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