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Saturday, May 18, 2024

City’s new housing and neighborhood services department ‘well intentioned’ but ‘murky’ on details

City manager Tony Caudle explains to council during a budget work session his vision for the new housing and neighborhood services department.

WILMINGTON — City staff pitched the creation of a new department within the upcoming fiscal year budget, citing added capacity to focus on more issues, but the discussion left council confused as to the need and role it would take.

READ MORE: Survey says: $2M more, 77 acres needed to elevate city parks and rec

Staff is recommending splitting the community services department — currently parks and recreation, housing, and code enforcement — into two departments. One would be a stand alone for parks and rec; the new housing and neighborhood services department would include neighborhood needs, code enforcement and housing.

Council member Luke Waddell asked about the new department at Friday’s budget work session.

“The description is nebulous,” he said, referring to its description in the budget documents: “creating diverse, equitable, and vibrant neighborhoods through efforts related to housing services, code compliance, community engagement, education, and safety.” 

“I don’t understand what we’re doing with it and why,” Waddell continued. “We’re throwing some good hot button issues and buzz words into one new department, but, realistically, I don’t understand what we’re doing by adding a new department and staff.”

City manager Tony Caudle explained the reasoning for the split is twofold. With a growing recreation and parks program within Wilmington, more attention needs to be given to city facilities and services. 

Also, with 40 unique neighborhoods throughout the town, city staff hopes to be more proactive and strategic, engaging residents on specific needs. Hence the need for a separate housing and neighborhood services department.

City deputy manager Thom Moton explained there are too many responsibilities under one umbrella for one position to handle adequately. The community services department as a whole is currently overseen by director Amy Beatty and 106 employees.

Once the department separates, it is unclear which department Beatty would oversee; staff hadn’t broken down details to that degree yet. 

Just under $1 million would cover the new department’s budget, which includes seven code enforcement officers, two compliance staff, and seven community development and housing positions already established and funded within parks and rec. However, an additional full-time position would have to be created. It will cost $194,000 to cover salary, plus operating costs.

A job description has not yet been created for the new department head, city spokesperson Jerod Patterson said. He clarified the budget merely allocates the funds for the new department, but a more exact timeline and process for separating the roles will come a few months down the road, if the budget is adopted as is. 

What will the new department do?

The housing and neighborhood services department would manage federal funds and the housing-related loan and counseling programs. It also would continue the function of code enforcement, focusing on public health and safety.

Caudle explained the housing division doesn’t have the capacity right now to handle initiatives when it comes to affordable housing, homelessness, and tiny homes as he would like to see, especially as concerns are growing citywide.

Data collected by the Cape Fear Continuum of Care for 2023 shows 558 individuals identify as homeless, up from 347 in 2022’s count.

READ MORE: Tri-county homeless count 60% higher than last year, numbers of unsheltered children on the rise

When it comes to those experiencing homelessness, there isn’t a dedicated person on staff to tackle outreach.

When the Getting Home initiative was created between the city’s police department and county’s social services, there was no “intermediary to marry the two together” Caudle said.

“Obviously, this would be an important function of this particular position on who could we partner with and what programs could we bring forward,” he added.

The role would handle incoming calls as it relates to homeless issues in neighborhoods, as well as other concerns. The person would act as a point of contact for specific needs in the community.

Caudle said there are 40 different neighborhoods within city limits, all expecting different levels of service or as Saffo put it: “Each has its own DNA.”

“We don’t always provide a good differentiation on different levels of service,” Caudle said

He gave a direct example of a neighborhood on Somersett Road, where Duke Energy installed new street lighting; the residents there didn’t want it. This department would be charged with outreach on those situations to gauge public feedback — “take the pulse of folks” — before implementation, Caudle added.

“Right now, if neighborhood issues come up, they don’t get the attention they deserve because we don’t have someone on point,” he said. “It falls to the department heads or deputy city managers over that area.”

He leaned on another example. The Greater Downtown Plan is being designed to look at the different residential areas from the Cape Fear River to Burnt Mill Creek and Greenfield Lake up to Love Grove. It would implement strategic objectives for future planning. Once the planning department completes the document, someone will need to oversee it; this new role would be a good fit, Caudle explained.

“Local governments are neighborhood-oriented businesses now,” he said. “We need someone looking at it on a more comprehensive basis.”

The new department head would also help address affordable housing, traffic and infrastructure, such as streets and sidewalks.

The person in charge would likely work with overlapping departments — zoning, stormwater, traffic engineering — depending on the requested need. The role would be one of a liaison between  various staff.

The city parks and recreation department has 106 employees and oversees 744 acres of parks. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

Why separate parks and rec?

Chief communications officer Patterson called the Wilmington’s parks and recreation department a “behemoth,” taking a lot of staff time and energy. 

Currently, more than 100 employees — under the direction of Beatty — maintain 744 acres of parks, a nature center, cultural venues, recreation centers, athletic facilities, and more than 32 miles of trails.

It’s industry practice for parks and recreation to maintain its own division within municipalities, according to Moton.

“In my professional opinion, 90% of the community services budget is devoted to urban forestry, parks and recreation, programming and 10% is housing,” Moton said. “But what consumes Amy Beatty’s time is the housing and code enforcement. In essence we’re trying to do a lot in one large department and the time to devote and execute well is lacking.”

Port City Daily requested details from the city as to what parks and rec is currently lacking in but did not receive a response by press.

In December, city council heard a presentation of a parks, recreation and open spaces comprehensive study. One of the recommendations was to create a stand-alone division for parks and recreation.

The results also suggest the city expand its green space by more than 70 acres and construct a new multipurpose facility, while reimagining space and amenities — upgraded equipment, implementing more activities and programs — as a short-term goal to elevate services.

The fiscal year 2024 budget allocates a little over $11 million, up 7% from 2023. 

Another $1.3 million is planned for park improvements, including Empie Park tennis reconstruction, the MLK Center expansion, riverwalk maintenance, and additional facility upgrades.

Council member Charlie Rivenbark expressed his frustration with the city picking up duties the county should be covering.

Council pushes back

After about a half hour of question-and-answer from staff explaining the new department to council, many members had reservations.

Waddell said he would like to see the new department better refined before rolling out. 

“Hearing how confusing this is to us up here, if it was implemented — how confusing would it be to the public: Who handles what?” he asked. “The program is well-intentioned, and I used the word ‘nebulous,’ but it’s murky. It doesn’t seem ready to deploy.”

Council member Neil Anderson worried the new role would become “the complaints box.”

“How would you parse between something we can deal with and should deal with and what we shouldn’t, what’s not pressing?” Anderson said. “It’s a difficult balance.”

Mayor Bill Saffo noted myriad calls he and council receive daily — vegetation, trash in a neighbors’ yard, road conditions deteriorating.  He asked if those would funnel through the new position.

“Not necessarily,” Caudle responded. “The things that fall into a clear department, would go there.”

Both council members Charlie Rivenbark and Kevin Spears already questioned the need for more future money to sustain it, such as to adding more positions in next year’s budget.

“I want to make sure we don’t start something, and we don’t have enough staff available to do what’s expected,” Spears said to Caudle. “I just want you to be forward- thinking, not saying you don’t, but we need the ability to say we need to bring some people in and should probably be thinking along those lines now more than six months down the road.”

Rivenbark was more direct, calling it a “daunting task” for one person to tackle all incoming neighborhood complaints and concerns. He also feared the city was dabbling in duties the county should be picking up.

“There are so many things we do we shouldn’t be responsible for doing,” he said. “The county is the extension of the state. We serve at the pleasure of the General Assembly. There are very specific things we’re required to do for the people we manage and some things we’re doing, the county is doing them and we’re paying twice. And I have a real problem with that.”

On a call to PCD Saturday, Rivenbark explained historically, there are certain services that are the responsibility of the county. Yet over time, “the lines have been blurred.” In more recent years, the city has been doling out additional funds to programs and services also funded by the county, in essence making the taxpayers within city limits “double pay.”

Caudle, during the meeting, explained there are certain things, such as social services, the city should not be handling; however, the city has become a point of contact when either the county is “not responsive” or “doesn’t follow up.”

“Just because they’re not doing their job, doesn’t mean we should take it,” Rivenbark said. “We need to hold their feet to the fire and make ‘em do it.”

Mayor pro tem Margaret Haynes liked the idea, as did council member Clifford Barnett. He stated the city should be focusing on residents’ issues prior to them becoming a larger problem down the road.

“I think you’ll iron it out, but I’m in favor of it,” he said.

Caudle was willing to “stand down” on his position for the new department if council did not want to move forward. 

Waddell stood by his claims it will cause more of a headache for staff.

Ultimately, after a lengthy debate and discussion about the vision, most of the board seemed to be in favor. Patterson said a more detailed presentation will be brought to council before the budget is adopted.

“I think it’s necessary,” Saffo said. “The focus on neighborhoods is extremely important. What’s happening in a specific citizen’s neighborhood, you do need a laser-focused approach making sure we’re addressing those particular issues.”

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