By James Kiefer
With topics ranging from policing, the Town’s purse and road safety, Wednesday’s town council work session offered Chapel Hill’s elected officials updates from task forces and options for how to spend federal funding.
CHPD launches pilot program based on Task Force recommendation
Chapel Hill Police Chief and Executive Director for Community Safety Chris Blue informed council members the department would be piloting a virtual response unit later this month. The move is tied to a recommendation from the Reimagining Community Safety Task Force, which was created last year as part of a Town resolution to eliminate structural inequities in public safety systems.
In June, the task force presented 28 recommendations and 31 action items to Council that primarily focused on areas of prevention, crisis management and post-crisis management. Town Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer Shenekia Weeks outlined the body’s top five recommendations:
- Increase community collaboration opportunities;
- Expand existing policing alternatives;
- Increase affordable housing options;
- Restructure the 911 emergency dispatch system;
- Fund street outreach programs along with avenues for harm reduction and deflection.
Chief Blue told council members the task force encouraged police to continue seeking creative responses to service calls beyond simply sending an armed officer.
“Our Crisis Unit already does some of that,” he stated, and related the need for alternatives to the department’s existing staff shortage. “Our police staffing woes have not improved. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. We currently have 18 vacancies out of 102 positions. So, with the task force suggestion and our staffing challenges in mind, in late-October we will begin piloting a virtual response unit.”
Blue said the purpose of the new unit is to implement the task force’s recommendation that CHPD decrease the need for officers to respond to calls in person. Citizens will be able to make a report online, and Blue said he hopes the tool will provide citizens with a direct point of contact to the Crisis Unit.
With regard to other task force recommendations, Blue explained the department recently adopted new language for a low-level misdemeanors policy that encourages the diversion of certain eligible offenses away from the court system. He did not explain what misdemeanors will be covered under the policy, but did say that if a diversion is not made, a report must be drafted explaining why.
CHPD is also exploring revisions to its data-reporting strategies, according to Blue. He said the department is having discussions with University of North Carolina political science professor Frank Baumgartner to elicit his assistance as a third-party auditor of annual reports. Going forward, the reports may include information on diversion efforts, enforcement of local ordinances and a deeper look at how communities use the 911 system. The department may also change to a six-month reporting cycle.
Funds from the Feds
Town Manager Maurice Jones summarized for council members how funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) can be used. The $1.9 trillion legislation was passed by Congress in March.
States, territories and local governments that receive funding must use the funds to combat public health challenges and economic hardships impacting communities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chapel Hill is slated to receive approximately $10.67 million, according to Jones. The first half of the funds arrived in May and the remaining $5.3 million will be delivered in 2022. He added that the influx of cash will be deposited in a multi-year special revenue fund.
Jones explained that the funds have to be committed to government spending plans by Dec. 31, 2024 and must be exhausted by the end of 2026. Business Management Director and Finance Officer Amy Oland noted that the funds can be used for five categories of expenses: supporting public health (which normally is the purview of county governments), addressing negative economic impacts, replacing lost Town revenue, offering premium pay for essential workers or investing in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.
Oland further stated the United States Treasury Department is expected to issue clarifying guidance on how the money can be spent. She pointed out that, to date, the building of stormwater infrastructure, one of Chapel Hill’s major capital improvement needs, has not been declared either an acceptable or unacceptable use of funding.
As for how Chapel Hill’s finances were impacted by the pandemic, Oland estimated that the Town revenues for 2020 decreased by $4.18 million compared to the previous year. Mayor Pam Hemminger noted the gap was not entirely a result of the pandemic and that the Town explored avenues to cut spending in 2020 and crafted a budget shaped by the sudden economic downswing.
Mayor Hemminger asked Oland whether there was a better way to illustrate Chapel Hill’s current economic health. Oland said she didn’t have exact numbers and that she would be able to better answer the question once budget discussions begin in December. She added that implementing a hiring freeze and other belt-tightening measures have helped the Town cope with a reduced budget.
“We are in really good shape as we ended fiscal year [with an infusion] of sales tax dollars that were not anticipated,” she said. “We had extremely strong sales tax [revenue]. We were very conservative in our budget approach and Council made some smart choices.”
Oland told council members there are various options for how the federal funds can be spent. She suggested dedicating some of the funds to address Town revenue loss, but added allocating funding for a project chosen by the community is another possibility, as long as it meets requirements stipulated in the ARPA.
Hemminger asked Jones to explore a way for residents to provide input on possible projects in an online forum. She also suggested using some of the funds to pay for items in Chapel Hill’s Climate Action Implementation Plan.
Jones said he would look into it, but noted the Town also could see funds from a large federal infrastructure bill, pending action by Congress. Jones is slated to present an update on ARPA spending Nov. 17.
Finally, Transportation Planning Manager Bergen Watterson introduced an information session about a nationwide safety initiative, “Vision Zero,” which calls for local governments to make a commitment to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries.
“[The goal is] to implement policies, street design and infrastructure that recognizes humans will make mistakes,” Watterson stated. “We [want to] absorb those mistakes so these instances are not fatal.”
The plan stretches back to 2018 when a representative from the Highway Safety Research Center approached the Chapel Hill Planning Commission about Project Zero. That led to the Town implementing a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan in 2019, which Watterson characterized as a similar project.
She added that a version of Vision Zero is up for adoption by council Oct. 13 and commits Chapel Hill to the goal of ending traffic-related deaths and injuries by 2031.
Complete Streets specialist Jordan Powell shared a traffic analysis overview showing that 19 streets in Chapel Hill account for 58% of traffic incidents and 100% of fatalities. Capt. Donnie Rhoades further explained that these incidents impact minorities at a higher rate than white residents.
“[The data] simply tell us that nonwhite pedestrians have a higher chance of being involved in a crash than do white pedestrians in Chapel Hill,” he said.
Rhoades also said many local pedestrians do not walk along streets by choice, but because they lack other forms of transportation.
According to Watterson, adopting Vision Zero would mean the creation of a town-wide transportation plan, which should prioritize communities impacted by mobility inequities. The Town would seek ways to manage vehicular speed and to make Chapel Hill a more walkable community.
In their questions to staff, council members focused on opportunities to expand bike lanes, especially as e-bikes may become more prevalent. Powell advised that more speed management will be needed in that case, as bikers move into areas that are not cyclist-friendly.
“You can’t just put a bike lane down and expect the road to change,” he said. “You have to design the road in a way that drivers will be driving safely so regardless of whether there’s a bike lane, bikers will feel comfortable on that road.”