This time the questions will deal with crime – which to all candidates responding was their most important issue – and infrastructure.
Since this is the second part, I shouldn’t need any updates for late responses unless Michael Taylor decides to respond. In that case I’ll add him to both this part and part one I revealed Tuesday evening.
We all know crime is a major issue. Do you feel that Mayor Ireton’s ‘Safe Streets’ program, which addresses the issue from the standpoint of reforming zoning laws and strengthening code compliance, is a valid approach to the problem? Why or why not?
Boda: The root cause of crime is Education, Economic Opportunity and a need for a stronger role from our Faith Based Community to offer programs, volunteers and mentors. These are the three pillars of creating a healthy and strong community, with a message that criminal behavior is unacceptable and not welcome here. That message must be backed up with strong action and prosecution of major offenders to the fullest extent of the law.
As far as the Safe Streets Legislative package that has been presented, I do not believe more regulation is necessary. We already regulate the relationships of individuals living in residences in certain areas of our city. How much more regulation can we stand?
The other part that concerns me is that someone who is accused must prove their innocence of code violations. Specifically, on the Non-Conforming use issue, the government has thrown out all of the records from years past. So you are “Guilty until proven innocent” and the government has thrown out all of the evidence, that sounds like a stacked deck to me.
Another concern with this legislation is forcing property owners to convert these old homes back into single family home. This presents several problems. First, where are all these people going to find affordable housing. Second, the sheer cost of converting these homes back is a huge obstacle. Third, if they unable to afford conversion, they will be unable to sell a home that needs thousand of dollars of work done, required by the government. Fourth, who will be able to afford to live in such a large home, specifically the electric bill and heating bill because many of these homes are not energy efficient.
These are serious concerns that would need to be addressed before this legislation can move forward. However, I do believe the council needs to at least bring it to their work sessions to discuss, after that is what they have been elected to do.
Ford: The social value of home ownership is well established through scholarly studies and research. Home ownership creates stable neighborhoods. Home owners have financial interest in their homes and the homes around them and are more likely to report crime and deter negative behavior in the occupants of their own homes as well as that of their neighbors. Homeownership correlates to lower levels of crime, teen pregnancy and social disorganization, and to higher educational achievement, property values and quality of life ratings.
While homeownership rates for minorities have increased over the past decade, they still lag far behind white homeownership rates. Some sociologists draw a connection between lower homeownership rates in African American and Hispanic communities and higher rates of crime victimization and illness in those populations. I feel strongly that any situation that keeps minorities from owning their own homes should be addressed. In my opinion, Salisbury has a dysfunctionally high rate of rentals to home ownership that is contributing to violent crime and blight.
This is NOT to say that I seek to displace renters or feel that renters are the cause of crime and blight. I, like most young adults, rented apartments myself for years. I do, however, feel that having large blocks of rentals in what should be or have been residential neighborhoods creates pockets of what sociologists call “social disorganization” which again lead to higher crime and lower quality of life.
As such, I believe that housing initiatives such as Mayor Ireton’s Safe Streets program are properly considered as crime fighting initiatives. The research is too strong to ignore and other communities that have addressed similar housing issues as Salisbury’s have reduced violent crime and social instability.
As far as Safe Streets itself, I believe it is an imperfect initiative that with mature and careful consideration can be made to address Salisbury’s specific crime and housing problems.
Mitchell: I have read the Safe Streets Legislation proposed by Mayor Ireton. While I do not think it is a perfect piece of legislation, I do believe it is a valid approach. Reforming zoning laws and strengthening code compliance is just one of the components of the legislation. I believe that landlords AND tenants need to be held responsible for the properties they rent. As Chief Duncan recently said during a work session relating to Safe Streets, there is a nexus between homes with code violations and crime; to take care of one issue will aid in the effort to reduce the other. The language used in the legislation requires clarification as to distinguish what landlords and tenants are responsible for in reference to code violations. We must consider the fairness of fining landlords for issues that are the responsibility of the tenants per their lease (i.e. cutting grass or visible trash cans). That does not relieve the landlords of accountability for the properties they own and the maintenance of those properties. Tenants are entitled to a decent standard of living; the proposed “Tenants Bill of Rights” is a good start to ensure that landlords comply with standard zoning laws. It must also be made abundantly clear that the city is not against renters, rather Salisbury embraces its rental community and the intent of this legislation is to implement safeguards to protect them.
We must also realize that property maintenance, while the most controversial section, is only one component of Safe Streets. Reducing other crime such as gang activity, drugs, and prostitution, is another important aspect of the legislation. Chief Duncan is already developing plans to break the two major gangs in Salisbury as well as deter students from joining gangs by starting early intervention programs in the elementary and junior high schools. Better programs for rehabilitation would also be implemented to prevent repeat offenders and help people return as successful members of our community. I believe this is an especially important issue and I am currently working on implementing a new program with a local non-profit to teach basic work place skills to such individuals.
I must note that I, like many others, struggle with the cost/benefit analysis of the Amortization Provision Eliminating Lawful Nonconforming Uses and I have considered whether an occupancy limit would be preferable. However, I do believe that the idea behind the Neighborhood Legislation part of the Safe Streets package is sound. According to the statistics, and the experts, there is a correlation between the condition of properties and proximal criminal activity. Abandoned homes, and those in disrepair, broadcast the message that no one is paying attention to the property. That can be seen as an invitation to criminals to conduct their illicit activities at such locations. There are issues with the legislation as it currently stands, but I feel that it can be an effective tool for law enforcement and code enforcement once those issues are resolved.
Cohen: At the January 27th work session where the package was discussed in part, I finally got to go on the official public record to some extent regarding these proposals. I encourage the public to listen to the audio, found on the website I share with Councilwoman Campbell, www.OnYourSideSBY.blogspot.com.
First, let’s be sure that everyone understands that the Mayor’s proposals are not the same thing as the Safe Streets “Program,” which is a multi-faceted initiative and partnership with the state and allied agencies. His proposals do relate to the goals of the program and support the findings of the Crime Task Force, which has had a highly diverse and broad community and law enforcement representation. This is the reason I believe he introduced them under the Safe Streets banner.
There is value to be had in this package, but it does need work. There is a connection between poor housing practices, declined neighborhoods and crime. At the work session, Police Chief Barbara Duncan not only noted that correlation, but its relationship to putting law enforcement officers in harm’s way.
The Mayor’s goals are to abate crime, restore neighborhoods and recover costs from those whose properties use a disproportionate share of city services. I support those goals, but recognize that zoning law and behavioral law concerning nuisance and criminal behavior are separate from a legal application perspective.
I have often said that we need to stop “breaking” our children with neglect of their neighborhoods and sending them to school for teachers to “fix,” followed by expensive intervention programs when that task proves insurmountable. We have lost six months of valuable time while this package was used as a political football in a public relations war.
There are ways to pursue the related, but legally different goals, as I began to discuss in the work session, including a way to respect the property rights of both nonconforming property owners and conforming property owners. A council committed to both fighting crime and restoring neighborhoods can use this package as a good starting point for development of tools needed by both our law enforcement team and our neighborhoods.
Spies: Crime is a most serious issue in Salisbury.
Crime keeps away business and customers. Crime keeps away good jobs. Crime raises taxes, cuts profits and makes everything more expensive. Crime raises rents. Crime raises insurance rates. Crime degrades quality of life, destroys neighborhoods and makes livable places unlivable. It destroys families, it destroys lives, and it’s threatening to slowly destroy Salisbury. Prospective investors and companies ready to offer well-paying jobs shy away from Salisbury because of the problems that crime causes and will cause. Local real estate professionals adamantly affirm that crime ranks at the top of the list of reasons why potential buyers do not and will not buy in Salisbury, whether it be residential or business properties. No wonder: a national home sales research company recently rated Salisbury the worst of 79 Maryland cities and towns in violent crime.
The Mayor’s Safe Streets Initiative
Mayor James Ireton presented to the city council this summer a seven point plan to decrease crime in our neighborhoods and across the city. It has come to be known as the Safe Streets Inititiative, while its official title is The 2010 Safe Streets Neighborhood Legislative Package. Each of its components have been proven to reduce violent crime in areas with populations, demographics and problems not unlike Salisbury’s. Many, if not all, are in keeping with the recommendations of the Mayor’s Crime Task Force, a large multi-disciplined committee commissioned over three years ago by Salisbury’s previous mayor. Together with the already extremely effective Maryland Safe Streets program, which has been in active operation in Salisbury for over five months, the components of the Mayor’s Safe Streets initiative can be useful tools to minimize crime and the impact that it has on our city and us all. They offer, through several avenues, the opportunity to go after crime where it lives. And no one that knows our city can deny that some of our residential neighborhoods are rife with crime and the criminals who commit them.
This is not to say that the package is perfect as presented by Mayor Ireton. Most supporters, including myself, have reservations about portions of the initiative and see that others need adjustment and clarification. And as was demonstrated in last week’s city council work session, this process may take a while. Just the opening discussion of only one of the items took nearly two hours before it was derailed by the council president and put to an as yet unspecified work session. How long the discussions will last once they resume and how many of the seven items of the package will be discussed under Council President Smith’s leadership is anyone’s guess, given her nearly five month refusal to bring them before even a work session. But now that they have been, more stakeholders are talking and more interest is being generated throughout the community: many want to know more, and many want to see the best of it work. The discussions should continue as soon as is possible; additional, extended work sessions seem to me to not be out of the question. Every day they are not is another day with new crimes that might have been avoided, another day of more victims, and another day of putting our sworn officers’ safety at unnecessary risk. The time to fix this to the best of our ability is now. Anything less is unconscionable.
I believe that improved code compliance is a feature key to crime reduction. Poorly kept properties invite crime and make it easier for crimes to be committed. A residential building with grossly overgrown shrubbery, broken, dirty and uncovered easy access windows, poorly secured doors, dirty, decaying exteriors, and trash strewn in an unkempt yard with no sign of effort from those who live there to improve those conditions have a well-proven and undeniable negative effect on nearby properties and neighborhoods. They invite criminals because they look like no one cares. They invite criminals because they look like easy targets. And where there’s one easy target, there are very often many.
With crime comes additional neighborhood destabilization, as more and more properties become derelicts and eyesores. Homeowners sell just to get away, but not to those looking for a nice place to live and raise a family. All too often, criminals move in. And the trend, if unregulated and unabated, continues until that neighborhood, and all that a neighborhood should be, is gone. And once it’s gone, it’s very, very hard to get back.
The importance of code compliance was brought home in the statement by our new police chief at last week’s council work session when she firmly addressed Council President Smith: “Madam, I would ask that you take heed of the small things.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
Dryden: I believe that Mr. Ireton is trying to make progress on a very important issue. I do, however, have concerns over the potential for success of the legislation as written. It seems to have divided the citizens and in turn lost its main focus of reducing crime.
Dixon: While I applaud the Mayor for making an effort to address crime, I do not feel his “Safe Streets” Legislative Package is the correct approach because we do not know the financial implications and loss of housing this legislation will have on the City. The legislation in its current form will also duplicate ordinances we already have on the books. It may be more beneficial to the City to enforce and update the current ordinances prior to attempting this package. I believe a different approach is needed. I would support legislation to provide the police department with the resources they need to accomplish their goals. We need to work with the businesses we currently have in the area, while attracting new businesses to Salisbury. Finally, I believe community involvement will deter crime. However, I will say I believe that Maryland “Safe Streets” program has been a move in the right direction in creating interoperability between agencies. The proposed Safe Street Package is very different from those implemented in other jurisdictions.
Taylor: No response at this time.
In the last 24 hours, heavy rain has created a sinkhole along Business Route 13. Other streets are falling apart as well because maintenance has been deferred. Since the “growth pays for growth” approach doesn’t seem to work when you have a lack of growth, how do you propose we pay for needed infrastructure repairs, or is there a different sort of solution you have in mind?
Boda: Infrastructure is a major issue that is often overlooked. We have in our city infrastructure that dates back 50,60,70 years. Salisbury needs to ensure that infrastructure needs are a priority, specifically savings in “rainy day fund” to take care of emergencies. Prioritizing projects (which is being done when referring to our CIP) by categorizing which ones affect health and safety the most and ensuring projects are accomplished without adding to the City’s debt load.
What many do not realize is that Business Route 13 falls under the jurisdiction of the State Highway Administration, not the City of Salisbury.
Ford: First, I would create a prioritized list of infrastructure concerns, with the highest priority being those that affect public safety, such as bridges, electrical safety, lighting, traffic control, etc. With limited funds, we must first address the most critical needs and as funds become more available we can address more cosmetic needs.
Your question of course leads to a discussion of impact fees, or the amount of money that the City charges new businesses when they are applying for permits to cover the cost of water, sewer and road modifications to accept the new business. The idea is that the city has bills to pay, and that a new business should pay its fair share of the costs of the infrastructure from which it will run its business and from which its customers will arrive.
The problem is that in Salisbury right now, impact fees are high and this is creating the impression that Salisbury is not friendly to business.
Impact fees are calculated using a formula set by state authorities and that formula must be applied to all business applicants equally. We cannot pick and choose who must pay impact fees and who does not.
However, this does NOT mean that we cannot reduce impact fees. Any time you have a formula, you have variables that get plugged into the formula. In Salisbury’s case, the reason impact fees are so high is because our variables are high…in particular the high cost of our waste water treatment facility. If we succeed in reducing the variables that go into the formula then the resultant impact fee will also be reduced. We must seek remedies from those responsible for the mistakes that led to the high costs of the waste water treatment plant to reduce the amount the City owes on that project. It will reduce impact fees to new businesses, leading to growth, leading to more revenue for other infrastructure projects.
Also worth discussion is annexing county property into the city. Obviously this is a huge discussion that must reflect the feelings of both communities, but it does seem inherently unfair for city residents and businesses to pay for the infrastructure that their neighbors enjoy but do not pay for. I would strongly suggest using the “Together We Can Build A City” community vision process to discuss this highly charged issue.
Increased territory through annexation means great potential for growth. The City can expand its options for new businesses and assuming the waste water treatment plant could handle the growth, annexation would create additional revenue for the city.
Mitchell: That particular sink hole was on a State owned road, however, it could just as easily happen on a City owned street. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that we must be proactive in bringing new business to Salisbury in such a way that growth does pay for growth and helps to revitalize our infrastructure at the same time. I have detailed three methods that could help jump start that growth on my website on the “Make it Your Business” page. Those are the strategic use of Enterprise Zones, proper use of the Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) program, and possibly the use of the Invest Maryland program. If approved by the Maryland Legislature, the Invest Maryland program would provide seed money for start-up business and funds to help established businesses expand and possibly relocate. Each program requires considerable explanation that would take up considerable space here, so I will refer interested parties to my website at LauraMitchell.org for those details. I do note that there have been unsuccessful uses of TIFs in Salisbury in the past; however, they can and have worked very well in other jurisdictions and could work here if done properly.
Cohen: Salisbury joins virtually every other municipality and government in grappling with this issue, compounded by previous decisions that added to the unsustainability of the infrastructure. There are no easy solutions, especially when there are multiple contributing factors.
First, we need to assess the size of our “infrastructure deficit,” and to our Public Works Department’s credit, this process has been under way, especially in the last couple of years. Second, we need to consider various revenue generation proposals and weigh carefully both their ability to help and their varying degrees of pain. Third, we need to think strategically about how we can “unburden” the existing infrastructure to help it last longer, which is possible in a number of ways.
Finally, we need to set some realistic expectations with our citizens that there will be trade-offs in dealing with this staggering issue. Involving them in the process will help toward that end.
Spies: Answered the question as part of Question 1.
Dryden: To answer the question Rt. 13 is a State highway. However, the question brings up a good point. Growth pays for growth doesn’t work when there is no growth. Salisbury has become known as a tough place to do business which results in a lack of growth. Even in this economy, businesses are still opening. They just aren’t opening here! This is partly due to the high cost of opening and operating a business in Salisbury (ie. excessive impact fees, slow approval processes, and a general anti-business climate). We must change that mentality in order to have the necessary growth to increase our taxable base to allow us to maintain our infrastructure.
Dixon: As everyone knows, the economy is down, but keeping up with infrastructure is vital to the City. The City needs to continue to review its budget, cutting unnecessary expenses, postponing projects that are not vital at this time, and streamlining processes. If grants are available I see no problem with attempting to secure the grants to prevent putting a larger burden on our citizens or business owners. It goes without saying that every major city in the country is facing similar problems with aging infrastructure and a lack of funds to address it.
Taylor: No answer at this time.
Look for part 3 to appear next Tuesday evening. In the meantime, I’ve found out there will be another City Council candidates’ forum on Thursday, February 18 at high noon at the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce building (144 E. Main Street.) That brings the list I’m aware of to three:
- February 18: Chamber of Commerce (details above), 12 p.m.
- February 23: Americans for Prosperity (Brew River, 502 W. Main Street), 7 p.m.
- February 24: NAACP (St. James AME Zion Church, 521 Mack Avenue), 7 p.m.