From a major plant fire to wrestling with money issues and job shortages, city and county officials had their hands full in 2022
Both Winston-Salem and Forsyth County started 2022 dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems it caused finding and retaining workers.
Both Winston-Salem and Forsyth County started 2022 dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems it caused finding and retaining workers.Along the way, the city had a fertilizer plant fire that resulted in a mile-wide evacuation zone and will no doubt go down as one of the significant milestones in city history. The sun sets at the site of the Winston Weaver Co. fertilizer plant fire on Friday, Feb.
- Allison Lee Isley photos, Journal At year's end both local governments were passing economic development incentives that promised to boost local employment.On Jan. 6, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners approved pay hikes, extra boosts for night workers and an increase in the county's minimum wage, after County Manager Dudley Watts pointed to an overall job vacancy rate of 18% but much higher for some jobs: 26% for emergency medical technicians and 29% for jail officers.Citing COVID-19 burnout, Watts said employees were examining 'what they do, why they do it, how they do it and where they do it.' Active employees were given a 5% increase, and pay grade ranges were advanced by 5%.
Night workers got a $2 per hour bonus.The problem only got worse during the year for the county jail. Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough told commissioners in late summer that the vacancy rate had gone north of 40%, and that other counties were putting in signing bonuses in a bid to hire and retain staff.The county board passed $5,000 in bonuses for both new hires and current staff. The staff payments were to be split into two lump sums for this year and next year, while a sliding scale gave new hires a chance to earn their maximum bonuses over 18 months.In a bid to find a more long-range solution to pay woes, the county embarked on a pay study to determine how to right-size the county's pay ranges and grades.
Carrie DuPre and Remy enjoy the Forsyth Humane Society garden Oct. 25, 2018. Allison Lee Isley, Journal In January 2022, the county raised its minimum wage from $9.86 to $10.87 per hour.Over in Winston-Salem's City Hall, officials were struggling just as much with vacancies and turnover brought on at least in part by the pandemic.Faced with severe shortages in both public safety and equipment operator jobs, the city approved pay increases in January for some 50 positions across city government, and relaxed residency requirements for police officers and some other positions.At the same time, the city stepped up its vaccination policies for employees, proving both higher incentives to get the jab and stronger penalties for unvaccinated employees who skipped their required weekly testing.The shortage of equipment operators was such that the city had to comb across various departments to find enough workers to man snow-removal trucks during a storm.
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough hugs district attorney candidate Denise Hartsfield at her campaign gathering Nov. 8. Kimbrough won his reelection bid.
Hartsfield lost her bid to upset Jim O'Neill. Walt Unks, Journal The city raised pay for the critical positions by reclassifying the jobs at a higher grade.A $500 incentive to get vaccinated was supplemented with an indefinite suspension for any unvaccinated employee missing six weekly tests.When the city passed its budget for the 2022-23 budget in June, the city council raised the tax rate by almost 4%, at the same time granting a 14% pay increase to city police and fire officers with at least six years of experience.The firefighters were included in the larger increase when they appeared at a meeting of the city council and said they should be getting the same increase as police.Other city employees received an average pay increase of 3.9%.After months of investigation, authorities could not determine the cause of the fire that ripped through the Winston Weaver fertilizer plant on North Cherry Street on the night of Jan. 31.But the effects were all around to see: A mile-wide evacuation zone that not only had citizens scrambling for shelter, but had the city scrambling later on to set up a reimbursement fund to help the people who were displaced.From a $1 million fund, the city ended up paying about $240,000 to residents for lost wages, hotel stays and other expenses associated with evacuation.Small businesses got help after the fire through Greater Winston-Salem Inc., which handled the distribution of funds through a grant from the Kate B.
Reynolds Charitable Trust.Multiple lawsuits were filed naming Winston Weaver Co. as the defendant, alleging negligence by the company and damages resulting from evacuation costs and health effects from exposure to smoke. Dan Besse, the Democrat candidate for the at-large seat on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, campaigns on Nov.
8 at Little Creek Recreation Center. Allison Lee Isley, Journal One long-term effect of the fire was a change in zoning regulations that would prevent Winston Weaver from rebuilding on its former eight-acre site. The new rules require at least 25 acres for such a plant, and would require 400-foot setbacks from neighboring properties.City officials were thankful no one died in the fire, although long-term health effects may be harder to gauge.
Still, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when a group of brave firefighters who walked out to a railcar full of ammonium nitrate discovered that the stuff had not been damaged by the heat in a way that could have made an explosion likely.Dog and cat concerns shot to the top of public interest in the latter part of 2022 when the Forsyth Humane Society told county officials they needed $1.85 million to properly operate the county-owned animal shelter in 2023.The group received around $600,000 in 2022, but Humane Society chief executive and president Mark Neff said his group had exhausted its reserves spending the extra money it took to provide the level of care needed.The county offered the group an increase to almost $1.1 million, and the Humane Society dropped its request to $1.5 million after Humane Society donors stepped in to fill part of the gap. But that still left the two sides far apart, with a Dec. 31 deadline looming for agreement on a new contract.The Humane Society argued that the increased funding was vital to keep the 'save rate' high among animals that are brought to the shelter, but some Forsyth County commissioners expressed dismay at both the timing of the Society's request and the amount of increase the group wanted.
Forsyth County in 2022 approved major work at Smith Reynolds Airport designed to improve the city and county's aviation profile. Andrew Dye, Journal In mid-December, Commissioner Richard Linville got fellow board members to agree to offer $1.2 million to the Humane Society for shelter operations, but at the same time it appeared that this number was as high as the board would go.Commissioners agreed to pay the Humane Society $375,000 for a three-month extension on the group's contract past Jan. 1, but it was unclear whether the Society would accept the county's latest offer.Both city and county governments in 2022 continued to spend money from a large pile of federal dollars that were made available to local governments across the country from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, as it was known.The spending was passed by Congress to provide economic stimulus money to local governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.With close to $52 million available from ARPA, Winston-Salem found out early in 2022 that it could free up a lot of other money in the budget by using $31.3 million in ARPA money for police salaries alone.To generate $30 million for affordable housing, the city used $20 million from the general fund freed up by the ARPA police spending, plus $10 million awarded the city for housing from the N.C.
General Assembly.The infusion of ARPA money also helped the city beef up the fairgrounds fund by $2.6 million, the downtown ballpark fund by $1.8 million, the occupancy tax fund by $500,000 and the city parking fund by $700,000.As the year progressed, the city directly allocated ARPA funds for housing and for other purposes. To shore up funding for the second phase of the Cleveland Avenue Homes Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, the city approved $4.5 million from ARPA funds. Another $2.6 million was designated to five nonprofits for various housing proposals.From $10.5 million in ARPA funds designated by the city for social and economic assistance, the city awarded $6.1 million to several groups, including $2.5 million to the Boston-Thurmond Community Network.As the year drew to a close, various nonprofit groups were in line to share another $4.4 million from the $10.5 million ARPA fund for social and economic assistance.
A project to close the digital divide got $2 million from city ARPA funds, and money committed from ARPA included premium pay for employees, community violence intervention, alternative police response, eviction diversion, Weaver fire assistance and others.Forsyth County received 176 applications from local organizations and county departments in its first round of ARPA allocation, and designated $27 million in that first round between Feb. 17 and March 3.The county distributed $22.2 million in that round to 29 different community groups. Some of the larger amounts included $2.5 million to Greater Winston-Salem Inc.
for a workforce development hub, $1.5 million for Cure Violence, a program that trains citizens to defuse neighborhood tensions, $3.3 million to Imprints Cares for a ready-to-school program, $4.5 million to the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, and $2.2 million for an anti-gang effort in the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office.The county's plan for the second round of ARPA spending involved spending $13 million on county-sponsored initiatives and $9.6 million of spending for community groups.The county projects included $2.8 million for firefighting equipment, $3.7 million for Smart Start of Forsyth County, and some $3.1 million for improvements at the county's Highland Avenue offices.The funding plan for non-county groups included $2 million for Senior Services, $1.9 million for Horizons Residential Care Center, and $1 million for Trellis Supportive Care.Local governments were not immune to sticker shock in a year of inflation. In January, Winston-Salem officials discovered that the cost to the city of operating a recycling program through Waste Management would almost double, rising from $1.9 million to $3.7 million annually.City officials decided they would not put in any special charges for recycling and would continue to offer the service free to residents. But at the same time, the city began making plans to do its own recycling collection in 2023.In 2020, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem won a $30 million grant from the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development for the renovation of the Cleveland Avenue Homes public housing complex, but in March the city found that inflation was eating a huge hole in the budget with no way to tell when inflation might ease.Even when the grant was awarded, officials knew that they would have to come up with another $17 million in local funding over the life of the project. By March, that gap had grown to $46 million.In April, the city committed $9 million to the project to keep the second phase of the work on track. As noted above, $4.5 million in ARPA funds were used, along with other funds including $3.4 million in economic development funds.Inflationary woes on the project didn't stop in April, though.
It turned out in August that there was now a shortage of $1.4 million for the first phase of work, which had earlier not faced a shortage. The gap was adjusted down to $600,000, and the city agreed to allow HAWS to switch that amount of money from the second phase to the first phase, but not to increase the amount of city funding for the first two phases. The city has approved the installation of dandelion art along Salem Parkway as a symbol of 'Invasive Hope.' Contributed Despite the rising costs, city officials sounded an optimistic note on Dec.
6 when HAWS and the city held the official groundbreaking ceremony for the Cleveland Avenue Homes transformation, which begins with the construction of 84 housing units offsite on the location of the former Brown Elementary School on 11th Street.Sometimes, needed items could not be found at any cost during the past year.That was the situation in which Forsyth County found itself in February, when county officials learned that their order for 17 Dodge Chargers and two Durangos for the sheriff's office was abruptly canceled.Chalk it up to one of those widespread supply-chain issues, officials said.It turned out the county had a backup plan to buy Ford Police Interceptor SUVs, but even that meant experiencing possible delays in getting in the vehicles. Not to mention the problems that switching to a new make and model creates for mechanics who like the cost savings of interchangeable parts.The county also adjusted by making it easier for the county manager to approve a purchase without the time-consuming procedure of bringing it to the board of commissioners for prior approval. Too many deals were being lost that way, officials said.Winston-Salem officials said they had their own supply-chain hassles, but in the fall of 2022 discovered that price and product weren't the only factors in play: When the city decided to buy 45 gas-powered police pursuit vehicles, a council minority unsuccessfully opposed the move on clean energy concerns.The council majority figured the city better jump at any chance to buy the Interceptors in the face of shortages.
But the city took the criticisms to heart as well, and agreed to buy some hybrid vehicles for the police department, as well as 28 gas-powered pickup trucks — half the planned number — for other departments while hybrid and electric options could be checked out.Winston-Salem adjusted ward lines in 2022 to take into account the population shifts recorded in the 2020 Census, following action by the county in 2021. The county also elected two new members to the seven-member board of commissioners, and picked a new chairman.Faced with a mandate to keep the population nearly equal among eight city wards, the Winston-Salem City Council passed a plan that kept the wards basically the same and left council members in their existing wards. The city had to tinker with boundary lines, and since South Ward grew the fastest, it had to lose territory to Southeast Ward.The change upset some city residents who said they wanted to remain in South Ward, but the math trumped sentiment and the lines remained as proposed.Former Winston-Salem Council Member Dan Besse and Malishai Woodbury, a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, won election to the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners after besting incumbents in the May Democratic primary.Besse ran against Ted Kaplan, the incumbent Democrat in the board's single at-large seat, and won 61% of the vote in the primary.Woodbury was among three challengers and two incumbents seeking the two Democratic nominations for District A in the May primary.
Incumbent Tonya McDaniel placed first and Woodbury secured the second party slot by only 88 votes over incumbent Fleming El-Amin, who placed third.In the fall, Besse defeated Republican Terri Mrazek for the at-large seat, and McDaniel and Woodbury defeated Republicans Michael Owens and Reginald Reid for the two District A searts.Republican Commissioner Don Martin, running unopposed in the single District B seat up for election, was also returned to office.Ordinarily, new members of the board of commissioners are sworn in on the first Monday in December, but an election protest filed by some Republican residents held up the taking of oaths until the protest could be resolved.In the meantime, the board of commissioners on Dec. 5 selected Martin as the board's new chairman, replacing longtime chairman Dave Plyler, who keeps his seat on the board. Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt was named vice chairwoman.Forsyth County named the building that houses the new central library the Sylvia Y.
Sprinkle-Hamlin Building in July to honor the woman who was