First of all, THANK YOU for the opportunity to serve you on the Council since 2005. In that time, I've heard your concerns and worked hard to bring about positive change. As we head into the summer, I want to take a moment to look back on the events of the past few months and describe some of my efforts to serve your needs today, as well as to plan for Raleigh's health and prosperity in the years ahead.
I voted against raising property taxes and utility fees. After listening to the concerns of many citizens who are being hit hard by the recent property revaluation, rising gas and food prices, and are struggling to make ends meet, I recommended delaying major city projects until the economy improves. Ultimately, I could not support the proposed property tax increase or utility fee increase and voted against both.
I voted for raising developer impact fees. For many years I have argued that the best growth is growth that pays its own way, and does not need millions of taxpayer dollars every year to subsidize new roads and parks serving newcomers. This year we finally had the votes to make new growth pay about 1/3 of the cost of new roads and parks. I also lobbied successfully to make developer impact fees graduated, so that larger homes pay more, while modest homes pay less.
Improving Transportation Choices
Providing a 21st century transit system in Raleigh and the Triangle is the single most important investment we can make to improve the quality of life for all Raleigh citizens. Benefits include:
spending less on gas and the high costs of maintaining an automobile
spending less time in congested traffic
having better mobility choices, especially for younger and older citizens
attracting quality companies that expect a 21st century transit system
having more compact, walkable growth that reduces environmental impacts, depends less on our existing roads, and reduces infrastructure costs of new development
At times it has been an uphill battle, and I have been on the front line since 2003. Here are some examples:
The Big Picture: Regional Transit Planning --- I share duties with Mayor Meeker in representing Raleigh at our regional transportation planning organization, made up of elected leaders from Wake and surrounding counties. This group is in the midst of reviewing an important new regional transit plan for Wake, Durham and Orange Counties for the next 20 years. There are many challenges ahead in funding and implementing our plan, but Charlotte's successful transit system is a good model.
Charlotte's Lesson --- Last fall, I asked Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin to help me enlist the Chamber of Commerce and other transit advocates in planning a trip to study Charlotte's success. More than 50 civic leaders including City Councilors and County Commissioners made a one-day bus trip to Charlotte to learn how they planned and implemented their countywide transit system. Everyone came away impressed with the 70% voter approval of their one-half cent sales tax for high quality bus service and the first leg of their light rail line, which has already sparked almost $2 billion in nearby private investments and new tax base. Our success will depend upon how well we balance funding sources, service benefits and new private investments throughout the system.
New Transit-Oriented Zoning --- As former Chair of the Planning Commission's Transit & Land Use Committee, I helped draft Raleigh's new transit zoning rules to promote the kind of high-tax-value redevelopment around transit stations that have been so successful in Charlotte.
Conserving Water & Pricing It Fairly
Learning From The Drought. The drought of 2007-08 was the worst on record and overturned the conventional wisdom that safe drinking water is a cheap and inexhaustible commodity. Over the past 6 months, I have worked with fellow Councilors, water conservation experts and Raleigh citizens to outline a new, more sustainable approach to conserving water and pricing it fairly:
Tiered Water Rates --- Our current flat-rate pricing charges all water users the same rate, no matter how much they consume (or waste). I've been a leader in advocating for tiered rates that encourage conservation by starting with a low basic rate, then set progressively higher rates for higher consumption. The Council recently voted to establish a tiered water rate system, which will go into effect in the spring of 2009.
Conservation Incentives --- Tiered pricing will encourage larger users to conserve, but will also challenge some users who have not had to conserve in the past. I've led the effort for Raleigh to offer conservation incentives such as rebates on low-water-use toilets and appliances, rain barrels, cisterns and high-efficiency irrigation systems. The Council recently voted to have its water experts panel create a list of conservation incentives to go along with the new tiered pricing plan.
Developer Capacity Fees --- Most citizens know that developer impact fees pay for new roads and parks, but who pays for new water and sewer plants needed to serve new growth? The answer is you, the existing utility customer pays over 95% of these costs, amounting to millions of dollars a year. Surprisingly, Raleigh and Fuquay-Varina are the only two municipalities in Wake County that do not charge developers a capacity fee to help pay for new water and sewer plants. As chair of the Public Works Committee I have been studying this issue and plan to bring forward a proposal to reduce citizen's utility bills by making growth pay its fair share of the cost of new water and sewer treatment plants.
New Parks and Greenways. Thanks to your support of last October's Parks Bond, plans for about fifteen new and upgraded parks and greenways are moving forward in every part of the city. As Chair of the Public Works Committee, I led efforts on Council to make sure the natural beauty of Horseshoe Farm Park will be preserved for our enjoyment and for future generations. Next, the Public Works Committee turned its attention siting much-needed active recreation facilities in high growth areas. As a result, Council voted to begin planning two new parks: One located on Durant Road in conjunction with a new elementary school, and another one off Capital Blvd, near the Neuse River crossing.
New Senior Center. The Public Works Committee again took the lead in working with seniors across the city to find the best location for a new senior center. Committee members Mary-Ann Baldwin and Rodger Koopman reached out to the community and came up with a plan that stretched our resources to serve seniors at two locations, with a main facility on Whitaker Mill Road and a satellite facility at Millbrook Exchange Park. Both facilities are scheduled to open in early 2011.
Making city streets safer for everyone. One of the most common requests I get as Chair of the Public Works Committee is to calm traffic and make streets safer for pedestrians. This spring I brought nationally-recognized experts to meet in Raleigh with Councilors, city staff and the public to describe how we could change our street planning policies from focusing on moving cars, to making sure streets are safer and shared more equally by everyone, including cars, bikes and pedestrians of all ages. As a result, the Council voted to incorporate these ideas into new street planning policies so that future street projects are designed to be safe and efficient for cars and all other users.
Putting more police in more neighborhoods. Another common citizen request is to improve police presence in neighborhoods, both to reduce response times and to help deter crimes before they happen. In my first meeting with new Police Chief Harry Dolan, I asked about stretching our public safety dollars by developing a police auxiliary force. These would be retired officers who would improve police presence, while freeing up regular officers to focus on the most important service calls. Council was supportive and now Chief Dolan is developing a Reserve Officer Program that is scheduled to go into effect before the end of this year. Expanding after-school and recreational programs. I recently attended a community celebration where neighbors talked about the need to make better use of the city's existing community facilities. I asked the Parks Department to bring forward a proposal to hire additional staff at two Community Centers that are only staffed part time. This proposal was approved by Council and will provide extended hours of operation with expanded after-school and recreational programs for Raleigh residents. Getting control over liquor sales. Stores that sell mostly alcoholic beverages can be a blight on neighborhoods, but local governments have never had control over state ABC permits. As a committee vice-chair at the NC League of Municipalities, I introduced a new advocacy agenda item this spring, to lobby the Legislature for more local control over ABC permits. I will be looking for your support in lobbying our state representatives on this issue.
Working Together For Success
Keeping Our Public School System Strong. This past spring, there was an effort to change the way Wake County School Board members are elected, changing from the current elections by district, to county-wide races. Many citizens were concerned that county-wide races would be too expensive for qualified candidates, too susceptible to the influence of special interests, and would diminish district representation.
I worked with School Board members, Wake Legislators and Raleigh Councilors to draft a resolution reaffirming Raleigh's support for electing School Board members by districts. The resolution passed unanimously, reaffirming that a strong and diverse public school system is the foundation of our children's future and the prosperity of our city.
How can we do better? My door is always open, so please do not hesitate to contact me at 828-3699 to talk about working together for success. You can also email me at Info@RussForRaleigh.com As always, thanks for the opportunity to serve you and the City of Raleigh.