Winston-Salem council votes 4-3 to cut fire inspector positions

IAFF Local 682 President David Pollard reacts to a decision by Winston-Salem City Council to cut fire inspector positions.

Winston-Salem City Council took a machete to the budget on Monday, chopping out three fire inspector positions in a split decision as part of review of a set of recommendations by a citizen committee to find cost savings through either spending cuts or fee increases.

Supporting the elimination of three fire inspector positions were Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who chairs the public safety committee, Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, Councilwoman Molly Leight and Councilman Robert Clark. Mayor Allen Joines does not vote unless there is a tie. Councilwoman Denise D. Adams was not present for the vote.

"I want to make clear to the public that we will not be jeopardizing safety," Burke said before making the motion to cut the positions. She added that she was relying on the expertise of the city manager's office to make that judgement. The cuts will save the city an estimated $135,000.

Councilman Dan Besse, Councilman James Taylor Jr. and Councilman Derwin Montgomery opposed the cuts.

Besse said there was legitimate difference of opinion between the city manager's office and fire department on whether the cuts would have a negative impact, adding, "I am going to err on the side of public safety."

Taylor said he trusts the people who fight fires to know their business the best. More than 20 Winston-Salem firefighters represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 682 witnessed the vote.

The organizational efficiency document prepared by the city manager and the budget office states that the city's inspection schedule exceeds state requirements, and that by bringing the city's schedule in line with state standards five suppression personnel could take on the workload currently performed by the three full-time inspectors. Deputy City Manager Derwick Paige said the suppression personnel would have to each spend an additional hour and 30 minutes per day performing fire inspections to make up for the loss of manpower.

Local 682 President David Pollard took issue with Paige's reasoning after the vote.

"The point that was brought out as far as being able to cut those inspectors and put the load on the other inspectors is, those three inspectors, that's all they do," Pollard said. "They do nothing but fire inspections. The other employees in that office, they have a lot of other responsibilities that they do with fire investigations in the city, with a lot of their training, with a lot of the teaching opportunities that they do. So there's a lot more responsibilities there. They cannot focus on all these additional fire inspections as well as these three inspectors can."

The organizational efficiency document warns that the "recommendation could lead to an increase in the number of preventable fires resulting in property damage, injuries and death."

Fire Chief Antony Farmer said because of the department's current staffing levels, Winston-Salem has an enviable track record of protecting commercial buildings.

"When the firefighters go in to do an inspection it's an opportunity for them to see the business," Farmer said after the vote was taken. "It's like a pre-fire survey to see how things are positioned and to talk to the owner about a plan. I suspect that we will find that the other cities around the state have a few more fires in commercial areas. When we added them back in 2007, these inspectors had a 100 percent re-inspection rate, meaning that they re-inspected every single building where they found a violation."

After voting to cut positions for the three inspectors the council decided by consensus to send a related recommendation to adopt state inspection standards back to the public safety committee for further review. Clark signaled some confusion with the move, remarking that when he voted to eliminate the three positions it was with the understanding that the state's more relaxed schedule would make the workload manageable for the remaining inspectors.

The vote to eliminate fire inspectors was by far the most contentious item on the slate of recommendations considered by council, which amounted to a total savings of $1.5 million.

Council members unanimously voted to have the fire department respond only to life-threatening EMS calls, saving $145,000 and to increase parking fines from $10 to $15, raising $70,000 in additional revenue.

A proposal to tighten up the city's backyard garbage collection program by requiring a doctor's note from residents who wish to take advantage of the special service was sent back to the public works committee. The recommendation had previously advanced from public works to the committee of the whole on a split 1-1 vote, with Clark in favor and Besse opposed.

The change would save the city an estimated $114,000.

Besse repeated an argument that there is no evidence that the program is being abused, and said the other cities in the state, which require doctor's notes, are likely denying service to people with disabilities because they're unable to obtain the required documentation.

Montgomery and Leight said they have some concerns about how the program is currently being managed.

"I do believe there are individuals in some places, and even individuals that I have spoken with who said they simply submitted a form because they could," Montgomery said.

Leight added, "I have had citizens tell me that 'my neighbor has backyard pickup, so I just put my trash in their bin.' So, yes, there is definitely abuse. I see nothing undignified in asking your doctor for a — people do it with parking tags. So I agree that it could probably be looked at a little more closely."

Merschel expressed caution about pursuing changes.

"I do remember this is one of the concessions that the current council made, so I guess I'd like to see a little more notification perhaps," she said. "'We're looking at it. We're studying it.' Kind of an 'Oh by the way, this might come up in six months' or something. Because I do understand there is a lot of conversation on behalf of our seniors. And we're just kind of trying to ease into that."

Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Bowman Gray Stadium for sale

In a day full of momentous developments for Winston-Salem, City Manager Lee Garrity announced that the city has received a formal offer from Wake Forest University to buy Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, while Winston-Salem State University has made a tentative offer to purchase Bowman Gray Stadium, pending approval from the NC General Assembly.  

The council asked Mayor Joines to schedule a committee of the whole meeting as soon as possible so that members can review the terms of the proposed sales. City leaders say the sale of the facilities could potentially save the city $30 million.

Council heard from members of the public who were both in favor and opposed to the sale of the two city facilities on Monday afternoon. Public comments sometimes took on a racial tone, particularly relating to the potential demotion of Lawrence Joel, a black Medal of Honor recipient who fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and worries that the survival of stock-car racing would be imperiled under the ownership of historically black university.

The coliseum has been appraised at $33.1 million. The city estimates a savings of $8 million in operating losses over the next 20 years while avoiding the need to invest $14.3 million in capital improvements. Subtracting an additional $1 million for event and lease commitments and $1.8 million for deed restrictions, the city is considering selling the facility to Wake Forest University for $8 million.

The city has negotiated with the university to retain the wording "Lawrence Joel veterans memorial" in the lobby and plaza in addition to the website. Wake Forest would receive all other naming rights.

"In order to mitigate the operating loss, they are proposing they would sell the main name of the coliseum but retain the name in the lobby and plaza," Garrity said.

Some council members acknowledged that money trumps the city's commitment to honor its veterans.

"It is about the money in a lot of ways," Joines said. "If we were to turn our backs on $30 million, we would not be upholding our fiduciary responsibilities to the citizens."

Merschel suggested the city can find other ways to honor veterans.

"Brick and mortar is not a living monument to anyone," she said. "The way we treat each other with respect is a living, breathing monument."

Merschel went on to say that she was "astonished" that a citizen had said that only people of color could feel reverence for Joel's name. The council woman added that she believes Winston-Salem has made significant progress in race relations over the years.

"The people I consider colleagues and friends here," Merschel said, "I believe we're past bricks and mortar."

Former mayor Martha Wood noted that the city has recently realized $800,000 by switching over to rolling carts for its recycling program, and suggested that surely it could close a $400,000 annual operating deficit through similar management improvements.

"Surely our city can find a way to plug such a hole without selling the soul of our city," she said.

Garrity responded that, unfortunately, the cost savings from the recycling program can only be achieved once. He challenged the notion that the coliseum's operating deficit could be closed through better management.

"We can bring in more events," he said, "but I assure you we'll lose more money."

The former mayor's husband, Frank Wood, said that whatever council members' intentions, if the name Lawrence Joel (a black man) is removed and the name Bowman Gray (a white man) is retained, the city will have reached "a racist result."

Councilman Clark protested, "To play the race card at this point I thought was most offensive."

A handful of white citizens spoke warmly of attending races over the years at Bowman Gray Stadium, citing it as a facility built with working-class taxpayers' money where friendships were forged and affordable entertainment could be enjoyed.

Winston-Salem State University has agreed to honor an existing leasing agreement with Winston-Salem Speedway Inc. so that racing can continue. The name Bowman Gray will also remain. But Charles Phillips, a High Point resident, expressed skepticism that the university would capably manage the stadium as a racing facility.

"Money's not everything," said Tim Bowman, a former Winston-Salem resident who now lives in Clemmons. "The dignity of the people in this town is a little more important than money. We pay your paychecks and we put you in office. Next time we vote, we'll remember this."

Clark said he might consider the two potential sales separately, adding, "As far as Bowman Gray, if the racing folks are not happy, I'm not happy."

Some citizens asked whether council members who have formal relationships with either university should be excused from voting on the potential sales of the facilities. Mayor Pro Tem Burke acknowledged that she holds a seat on Winston-Salem State University's board of trustees. City Attorney Angela Carmon said there was no conflict of interest for any council member, including Burke, to vote on either transaction.

"I have not even participated with the trustee board when the matter comes up," Burke said.


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