Councilman: Boost budget to raze blighted buildings

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Demolishing blighted properties was at the front of Councilman Michael Bell’s mind during the city’s budget work session on Thursday.

“Blight is always a problem in any major city and in the inner city. We’ve got enormous blight with abandoned buildings,” Bell said. “I’m wondering if we cannot increase the budget for demolition of these blighted properties.”

City Manager Grant Goings said the proposed $253 million budget for fiscal year 2019-20 includes a 25% increase for demolition compared to the current budget, bumping the line item from $50,000 to $75,000.

“The reason we only did 25% is not because we didn’t think the council would approve more. We’re running into less of a funding problem and more of a staffing issue because of the legal process,” Goings said. “It is very cumbersome to demolish someone else’s property — as it should be. Even if we appropriate $500,000, unless we hire a private firm to manage all that, I don’t know if demolitions will increase.”

Bell’s other concern was about whether two new buses the city is adding to the public transportation fleet in the coming year would expand the existing routes. Goings explained the federal regulatory red tape needed to navigate to change or add a route, but highlighted a pilot program Wilson is participating in that would offer demand-based routes.

“If we could get to an on-demand system instead of a route-based one, I think the ridership and efficiency would go way up and maybe the cost would go down because they are not driving these big diesel buses,” Goings said.

Also during the work session, officials discussed a column by Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, published April 11 in The Wilson Times that criticized the city for debt undertaken to build Greenlight Community Broadband.

“All utilities other than broadband were built over decades or centuries and took an equal amount of time to pay the debt,” Goings said. “Greenlight went live in 2008 and has paid $34,671,538 in debt payments.”

At the end of this fiscal year, Greenlight will owe $14 million in debt, but Goings said the city has worked from an aggressive calender to pay it off and plans to continue the course. While other municipal-run broadband services have not done well, he said Greenlight is a success story with more than 10,000 customers.

“Wilson people are happy with Greenlight and that is who you built it for,” he said. “If the General Assembly wants to hate on it, fine.”

Councilman Tom Fyle asked how increased funding for street paving in recent years has gone.

“Since you implemented it in 2017, we’ve got a little over 20 miles built and resurfaced,” said Public Works Director Bill Bass. “That is in three years whereas in the six previous years, we did 17 miles.”

Staff conducts a road condition study every few years to determine the priority of street work. The study is for city streets, but state crews are responsible for addressing deteriorating conditions of state-owned roads.