Thursday, June 13, 2024

‘Experiment reached the end of its term’: Commissioner wants PCU funds for schools

New Hanover County suspends Port City United's mediation and outreach division

Port City United’s outreach and mediation division has been suspended after one of its employees was connected to a shooting last week and subsequently arrested. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After a Port City United employee was arrested in connection to last week’s Houston Moore shooting, the county is taking a closer look at its multi-million-funded program. Some commissioners are speaking out against the program’s continued support and suggesting money be put toward schools instead.

READ MORE: Port City United offers pathway to education for adults facing barriers

According to an announcement from New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet on Tuesday afternoon, the mediation and outreach function of Port City United has been suspended immediately.

“This decision has been made to allow for a thorough review of its protocols and practices,” according to Coudriet.

The outreach and mediation division includes 10 employees, placed on paid administrative leave. Port City Daily asked how much is cumulatively being spent, but the county did not answer.

Commissioner Dane Scalise called Port City United “an experiment that reached the end of its term” on a phone call with Port City Daily following the county manager’s announcement. Scalise questioned its long-term viability and whether it was a good investment for taxpayer money.

Port City Daily asked the county how much is proposed for the 2024-2025 budget to go toward Port City United; an answer was not received until two days after press. County spokesperson Alex Riley said county staff is currently preparing its recommendation for the FY24-25 budget.

What is Port City United?

Started in 2022, Port City United has often been referred to as an “anti-violence department.” The community-building initiative’s goal is to create better foundations in an effort to help underserved communities thrive. The county stated upon its founding — spurred after the August 2021 New Hanover High School shooting — it would pledge $39.6 million over four years.

To date, Port City United has received nearly $10 million. Money has been pulled from various county revenue sources, including from the hospital sale, the revenue stabilization fund, general fund and the American Rescue Plan Act, the latter of which sunsets on June 30, 2024.

The program includes three main sectors: school-based resource coordinators to help students in need by providing contact to nonprofits; a 24/7 call center, PCU Connect, to pair up resources — food, housing, transportation — with community members; and a localized version of a Cure Violence Global intervention program, referred to at Port City United as mediation and outreach. 

Cure Violence started in Chicago in the early 2000s and has been adopted in cities nationwide, including in Durham and Greensboro. Its intent is to curb shootings, by sending “violence interrupters” into the community to help intervene in conflict. The program has involved hiring ex-gang members to intercede before anything escalates to gunplay. 

The county hired Stephen Barnett — who admitted to WECT in 2017 to being a Bloods gang member by age 15 and pleaded to voluntary manslaughter in 2005. Barnett acted as supervisor for Port City United mediation and outreach, with a start salary of $68,000 annually, which increased to almost $80,000 by 2024.

Before working for the county, Barnett was employed by TRU Colors, which hired active gang members at the brewery in hopes that providing financial security would bring down violence on the streets. The brewery shuttered in 2022.

Wilmington Police Department Lt. Greg Willett told Port City Daily he could not advise whether Barnett is still an affiliated gang member. 

According to a report from WHQR, Port City United employees were “conducting routine duties” as shots were fired last Thursday in Houston Moore; police confiscated a county vehicle as part of its investigation.

Barnett was arrested Monday evening for accessory after the fact in connection to attempted murder. The shooting took place in the 1300 block of Greenfield Street and sent one person to the hospital, who is expected to recover.

Wilmington Police Department announced Tuesday a 17-year-old has been arrested in the incident. The teenager is charged with attempted first-degree murder and felony possession of a firearm; he will be tried as an adult due to previous charges. WPD said Barnett operated the county vehicle to drive the teenager away from the scene.

“I just think that it is a mistake for us to engage directly [and] employ active gang members, gang-adjacent individuals that is outside the purview of what I think a county of New Hanover should be doing with its money,” Scalise said, “and we run great risks and attempting to mitigate violence in this manner.”

Port City Daily asked the county if it will be shielded from liability for Barnett’s alleged involvement but did not receive an answer. Commissioner LeAnn Pierce said she asked the county the same question but had not heard back either.

“This has unfolded for us pretty much the same way it has unfolded for the public and we don’t know all the details, but it’s just not something I can support,” Pierce said about Port City United.

Funding and data concerns

Scalise was the first to speak out against continuing the program Tuesday as news broke the county had parted ways with Barnett. Scalise told Port City Daily he would prefer money to go to New Hanover County Schools — facing a $20 million shortfall — than continue funding Port City United.

“I would rather divert that money or some portion of that money, whatever the case may be, to the needs of our schools,” he said. “To me that is a more pressing need.”

While he conceded there are talented people running portions of Port City United, he didn’t think the mission or “deliverables” of the program were clear. Scalise called the program’s updates to commissioners “largely anecdotal.”

“Is crime actually being reduced?” he asked Tuesday. “We don’t have any data that demonstrates that.”

According to a summer 2023 update from Port City United executive director Rashad Gattison — who took over the position in May last year after founding director Cedric Harrison was let go — the connection center averages 14 cases a day and opened 5,100 cases since June 2023. Of those, 957 were for the mediation and outreach team, who goes into high-risk areas.

Gattison also stated Port City United had a 96% success rate out of almost 90 team interventions in 2022. As a result, it led to a 25% reduction in weapon-related calls to 911 and a 14% reduction in 911 calls related to domestic incidents, within PCU’s target areas.

“I’ve heard from numerous members of law enforcement, prosecutors, members of the school board from both parties that they have concerns about PCU and its role in our community, and whether or not the things that they’re doing are really value-add propositions, or whether or not they are redundancies of existing services that are already out there,” Scalise said.

Commissioner Rob Zapple agreed more hard data needed to be collected on the success of the program, though he wasn’t as quick to banish its funding altogether, cautioning against “knee-jerk reactions.” 

“I don’t think we’ve done a good job, or a good enough job yet, explaining to the general public what we are looking for to describe it as a success, or what it is we need to adjust for the continuation of it,” Zapple said.

The commissioners are amid budget considerations currently, with the school district suggesting a $4.5-million additional request in funding.

“This is going to impact the budget,” Scalise said of PCU. “If the majority of the commission makes a determination to keep it, or to remove it, or to modify it, whatever the case may be, that’s going to impact when we proceed in our budget discussion.”

Pierce said she began rethinking Port City United’s monetary support a month or two ago, since the board was informed it would need to allocate general fund money to cover the hole left by expiring ARPA.

“I don’t have anything good to say about it,” Pierce said. “Just no … That money could go a long way with the education of our children and paying our teachers and working with our schools.” 

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated ARPA funds sunset at the end of the year; after PCD received requested information from the county, the article was updated to June 30, 2024. The total money PCU has recieved has also been updated.]

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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