From the blog of Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, covering the week through February 20, 2011.
This was one of the toughest weeks I have had as mayor. It started in Washington and ended with me in bed with the flu Saturday night. In addition to my intense visit to Washington, there were tough issues at home that included the Bowden case, Cary Park safety, and a Motiva decision in Apex. To make this long journal entry more readable I will use sub categories.
Washington, Earmarks, and Potential US Government Shutdown
On Tuesday evening I traveled with the town manager and our legislative expert to Washington. By the time we checked in the hotel it was late so we decided to grab a sandwich nearby. When we left the restaurant all the roads were blocked and there were police cars everywhere. So we asked the doorman at the hotel about it and he said it was a suspicious package and that this usually happens about once a week. Hmmm. I guess we’re not in Cary anymore.
The next morning we met the lobbyist for Cary from the Ferguson group outside the front door of the Mayflower hotel. As we were standing a motorcade went by. We were told it was Biden’s motorcade since he lived just down the road. Imagine going to work every day with a police escort. I guess that makes for a short commute.
The purpose of the visit to Washington was not only to present our federal agenda to the elected officials that represent Cary but to get a better understanding of how the town should apply for grants to the various granting agencies. This is important since the Republicans and the President both said they would not support earmarks.
At this point it is important to understand earmarks. I describe it this way. Congress appropriates pots of money to various granting agencies. In the past Congress would also pass along earmarks. This in a sense is saying that in the pot of money I want you to spend money on the things I listed or earmarked. Now some argue that this is just pork spending. Others will argue that earmark process was open and transparent. Now the granting agencies will make the decisions behind closed doors. It was also pointed out to me by Senator Hagan that earmarks make up seven tenths of one percent of the budget.
The fascinating point about this change in process is that the elected officials wanted us to give them feedback on the pros and cons to applying to these granting agencies. At the same time the granting agencies wanted us to give them feedback on what Congress was thinking. An example of the uncertainty was evident with the COPS agency from the Department of Justice. On Monday the agency had $300 million, on Tuesday Congress said $0, on Wednesday they put the money back. There was so much uncertainty at these agencies that many believed that there was a good chance the government would be shut down on March 4th.
That brings me to the next point. Congress has yet to pass the budget for this fiscal year that began in October. So the government is operating on a Continuing Resolution or CR11 as they refer to it. The CR11 expires on March 4th. To get a budget the House and Senate would have to agree. Currently the House is in a cutting spree and the Senate is digging in. I believe these government employees have a legitimate concern about the government shutting down. Keep in mind this is just last year’s budget. They need to work on this year’s budget too.
Our two days in Washington were jammed packed. On Wednesday we met with Congressman Price followed by a legislative aide from Senator Burr’s office. While I wasn’t able to talk with Senator Burr he did see me in the hall and came up to me and shook my hand. Later Wednesday we met with the EPA about Brownfields, Congressman Brad Miller’s office, and the Department of Justice on police issues. Congressman Miller was caught on the floor in the volley of spending cut amendments that were nonstop. So we didn’t get to meet with him. On Thursday we met with the Department of Transportation, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, the US Department of Energy, and Senator Hagan. Senator Hagan talked about how she needed help from mayors to talk to the various legislators. I vowed to work with her staff to do what I could.
The Bowden Case
While I was in Washington I was hounded by several from the media to do interviews about the Bowden case. Since most of the media is focused on how much money we have spent on this case rather than why we are defending this case, I thought I would print my observations and knowledge about this case (that I am allowed) so that everyone would have the complete story. Please know that these are my opinions and observations and do not represent the opinions of anyone else.
First I would like to thank the CaryCitizen who has done a great job of fair and balanced reporting of what is going on related to this case. If you want to stay current with what is going on in Cary I suggest you check them out. On the other side of fair in balanced is the majority of the media. Most of them are making this a story about cost. I believe the most significant piece of news in this case is the potential impact to our sign ordinance.
Now back to the Bowden case. I thought it would be best if I just answered some of the questions I have been hearing regarding this case.
What is the Bowden Case About?
Mr. Bowden alleges that because Maynard Road was widened in front of his house that the town damaged his property. He cited water damage and wants the town to buy his property. Here is an excerpt from Don Frantz’s blog shortly after this became an issue in 2009. He does an excellent job of covering the topic of damage:
“… After being contacted by Mr. Bowden I gladly met with him at his home to hear his concerns and to see things for myself. While there were obvious signs of water damage to Mr. Bowden’s home (rotted siding, mold, etc…) a number of things just didn’t add up with Mr. Bowden’s claims that the widening of Maynard Road was responsible for his water problems. The rotted siding in the carport area for example had clearly been rotting for years. I asked Mr. Bowden if he had any photographs of his home taken before the road widening project began. He did, and low and behold one photograph clearly showed rotting siding in the carport area.
When the town performed a survey of Mr. Bowden’s home in 2008, it was determined that a clogged gutter downspout was most likely responsible for water entering his crawlspace. Mr. Bowden claimed this was not the case as he “had never had a problem with his gutters”. However, seeing first-hand the trees – yes trees – growing from Mr. Bowden’s gutters I respectfully disagreed and asked when the last time he had them cleaned was. Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever getting an answer to that question. Anyway, it does appear however that sometime between my visit to his home and the media’s he has since had his gutters cleaned…or at least removed the trees. Maybe the ‘sign painter’ removed them, I don’t know.
There were other obvious signs of neglect such as mildew/mold growing all over the siding (you can clearly see it here), the back yard was littered with limbs and tree debris and the grass hadn’t been cut in ages. Siding all around the home was rotting (gotta love Masonite) and in desperate need of paint. It was clear that regular home maintenance was not high up on Mr. Bowden’s ‘to do list’.
The town also states they have observed Mr. Bowden’s property during heavy rainfalls and have witnessed only normal water levels in the yard – no standing or deep water. …”
I would invite everyone to read this entire blog enter here. It is certainly eye opening.
“Why don’t you just buy Mr. Bowden’s house?”
First of all it is questionable that the road widening caused any significant damage to his house. Nevertheless, the town offered to fix any damage which was refused. If the town decided to buy Mr. Bowden’s house then it sets precedence that if a road is widened in front of a house then a person has the right to request the town to buy it. And of course if we did that our tax rate would skyrocket. If we didn’t it would give the homeowner grounds for legal action.
“Why is the Town trying to prevent his Freedom of Speech?”
The town has never tried to prevent Mr. Bowden’s freedom of speech. The act of painting the sign on the side of his house was in violation of the town’s sign ordinance which regulates size, colors, and location. The town explained to Mr. Bowden that he can have the message on a sign, that meets the guidelines of the sign ordinance, and place it in his front yard.
“Why are you wasting taxpayer money fighting this ruling? What are the costs to date? These seem outrageous.”
Cary is fighting this to protect our sign ordinance NOT to violate someone’s first amendment rights. Mr. Bowden is welcome and encouraged to put his message on a sign that is within the guidelines of our sign ordinance.
At the time of the news release the costs associated with this case were $177,000 which includes monies spent at the initial injunction. The town initially hired Womble Carlyle and has paid $77,000 to them. It is also paid over $40,000 to a firm out of Charlotte. In addition, it has paid $60,000 to the firm out of Florida who has expertise on sign and first amendment cases.
These costs are outrageous. Yes attorney’s fees are expensive and I don’t like my tax dollars going towards this more than the next guy. But it is a reality of today’s local government. Cary has budgeted and spent more than a million dollars on legal expenses the last several years. At the same time I believe our expenses match up with other major cities.
On that point I think it is interesting to note that Raleigh has 15 full time attorneys compared to our 2.
“Why are you using a firm out of Charlotte to defend?”
The firm out of Charlotte was picked by our insurance company. Yes, that is right; the town has insurance to cover some of the legal costs. The deductible for this firm out of Charlotte is $75,000.
“Why are you fighting the judge’s ruling? Why not just pay up and move on?”
If the federal judge’s ruling is upheld then we have two choices. The first choice would be to regulate Christmas decorations, which we currently don’t do and is not done by most municipalities in the nation. The second choice would be to abolish the sign ordinance. If we did this then your neighbor could put up a billboard with flashing lights and there is nothing we could do about it.
Cary Park Safety
Another issue that was at the forefront this week was the heightened safety concerns of our citizens that live in and around Cary Park. I along with the town manager, council member Robinson, police chief, and several key officers assigned to that district spoke to a gathering of about 200 residents on Saturday. I think it is important to understand that although Cary is the 2nd safest city in the nation, that designation has little meaning if you are a victim or feel you might be a victim. And that is the anger and frustration I saw on Saturday.
Officers presented handouts to the audience with crime statistics and other information. The residents were also told there would be a substation collocated at the new fire station being built which is scheduled to open late in 2012. The citizens expressed the need to see more sooner. In addition, they wanted an interim substation in a highly visible area. They also wanted the off duty cop cars moved frequently.
There was a lot of concern that the Grove apartments were generating a lot of crime. The data collected by our department did not support that claim. It was pointed out by the police chief that an officer lives in the apartment and that background checks are done on all residents.
In the short term the town will increase patrols, approach apartment complexes to try and get them to participate in a safety program, and move the off duty patrol cars.
We will meet with Cary Park residents after their Homeowner Meeting on Wednesday.
Another key event that occurred while I was on my trip to Washington was the Apex vote to allow the Motiva plant to expand. Cary residents expressed various concerns about this expansion of gas tanks. Since it was a quasi-judicial hearing, Mayor Weatherly of Apex could not discuss the proposal with me. I did call him up after the vote and express my disappointment. He stated that a significant point to his decision was that Motiva was there before the neighborhoods and they had a right to expand. Cary residents were angry because they felt they were not represented. I believe a lot of them do not know or care that it was a quasi-judicial process. They just wanted a voice and rightfully so. Since the vote I have been asked to provide emergency procedures. Both the Apex and Cary fire chiefs are working on this information.
Emails this week were brutal. I lot of people were angry for various reasons and lashed out. The topics included the Bowden case, Cary Park, and Motiva. Other emails included a complaint about C-Tran, complaints about the proposed apartments at Cary Parkway and Tryon, complaints about the proposed apartments on Harrison Avenue, a complaint about the Chatham County pipeline, a request for pink trash cans for cancer awareness, a complaint about the content of Mr. Bowden’s sign, and several requests to interview about the Bowden case.
Staff emails had some significant news. We finally hired a Downtown Manager. His name is Mr. Ed Gawf who has been working in the field for 40 years. I am very optimistic about the changes he can bring to our downtown. As the Town of Cary’s first Downtown Manager, Gawf will serve as the Town’s key contact for those interested in downtown development and encourage downtown development by recruiting businesses and promoting economic opportunities. A resource to developers, businesses, and residents, Gawf will work with potential tenants and brokers to explore downtown real estate options, explain Town policies and procedures, and convey the needs and desires of downtown stakeholders to Town officials. He will also be part of the staff team that assists with planning and prioritizing downtown capital improvements, including identifying and recommending property acquisitions and sales.
Another significant email this week was the announcement the Chatham County had agreed to allow the Western Wake Partners (Apex, Cary, and Morrisville) to negotiate with property owners for the easements needed for the effluent line. This was the last major hurdle for the partners. Construction should begin within a few months.
Next Week’s Schedule
Next week’s schedule is full with a legislative presentation, a volunteer banquet, a Cary Matters taping, a town hall meeting with Cary Park, and a council meeting.
Well that is all for this week. My next post will be on Sunday, February 27th. Please feel free to email me with a comment. Email all Town of Cary questions or comments to Harold.Weinbrecht@townofcary.org. Email personal comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.