Resentment Over Downtown Incentives Led To Contentious Trans-AID Debate

Monday’s marathon city council meeting was eventful. In a little under 3 hours, the Winston-Salem City Council passed its $482.4 million 2017-2018 budget by the thinnest of margins, 4-3 (Council Member Adams was absent). The highlights of the budget include; a marginal tax increase and higher pay for police and firefighters as well as other city employees.

Winston pays its police and fire department and other government workers less than comparable cities in North Carolina. It had no choice but to pay its workers more or continue to pay the high cost of training workers only to see them take jobs in the neighboring cities of Greensboro, High Point, and Kernersville.

There was some debate as to whether the City should use a military service incentive to attract and retain police officers and firefighters. In the end, the measure passed. But the city council agreed to continue looking into the matter and work on the details.

The primary debate at Monday’s City Council meeting concerned raising Trans-AID rates. Given the tone of the debate from members of the city’s predominately African American wards, you would have thought that the city council was planning on drastically raising the prices of Trans-AID or eliminating the service altogether.

Trans-AID cuts have been thoroughly debated in the Finance Committee. The Winston-Salem Chronicle’s Todd Luck described the City’s Trans-AID changes in detail:

Trans-AID rate increase from 50 cent to $1 and ends its Medicaid exemption for non-medical trips. The entirety of the money that’s expected to come from the change, $90,000, will be used for 3,000 monthly bus passes to be distributed through local agencies to low-income Trans-AID passengers that would be adversely affected by the increase. Trans-AID provides on-demand rides to qualifying handicap riders. The increase will mean riding Trans-AID will cost as much as “fixed route” city buses.

But raising Trans-AID fares from 50 cents to a dollar, in my estimation isn’t that dramatic of a change. Raising Trans-AID rates, a service that is more expensive to operate per-ride than the city’s fixed-route buses just makes sense. I agree with Council Member Dan Besse on this issue. As the Journal reported, “Free non-medical rides for people on Medicaid would be eliminated, but the changes would be offset by the distribution of $90,000 in bus passes for those hardest hit by the fare change.”

Council Member Besse is framing the Trans-AID debate as an opportunity to help keep Trans-AID and the entirety of WSTA’s services sustainable. I agree with Besse. It’s in the city’s interest to encourage folks to take the fixed bus routes and not take Trans-AID just because it’s more convenient.

At the same time, I understand why progressive reformers in Winston, like JoAnn Allen, strongly oppose putting any more burdens on the poor of East Winston. Council Members Montgomery, Taylor and Burke seemed to be indirectly responding to Allen’s criticisms by vigorously objecting to increased Trans-AID rates.

Council Member James Taylor introduced a motion removing the Trans-AID changes from the 2017-2018 budget. The motion was quickly seconded by Council Member Montgomery. Mayor Pro Tempore Burke spoke out in support of the measure. She mentioned that the city could coordinate Trans-AID riders with doctor’s offices, increasing the number of Trans-AID riders per trip.

Burke would also like local healthcare providers to absorb some of the costs of Trans-AID. After all, the city is bringing customers to them. (Burke’s argument is similar to the argument Dan Besse made in the 5 years ago when he argued that local hospitals should absorb the cost of extending WSTA bus service).

Council Members Taylor, Montgomery, and Burke’s efforts to keep Trans-AID fares unchanged were defeated by the white majority on the council. If Council Member Adams was in attendance, she would have voted against the Trans-AID hike as well-based on her previous statements. Perhaps Adams was strategically absent from Monday’s vote, to best position herself to run against Congresswoman Foxx. It is curious that she was absent from the city council on the most important council meeting of the year.

Mayor Pro Tempore, Vivian Burke called the 2017-2018 budget, “a shame and a disgrace.” Burke condemned the disparities between majority-minority East Winston and the rest of the city. I agree with Burke. Eliminating racial and economic boundary lines that divide Winston into sections, black and white, rich and poor-this is Winston’s most pressing need. But Burke is part of the problem. As Winston’s longest serving city council member, she bears some responsibility for the current condition of East Winston.

I disagree with my progressive friends on Facebook on this topic. Increasing Trans-AID rates is a relatively minor issue. East Winston council members recently lost their attempt to challenge tax assessments that negatively affected their wards. All the fuss over raising Trans-AID appears to be a shameless effort on the part of Taylor, Montgomery, and Burke to appeal to their bases.

The elephant in the room, during this entire debate, is all the money that the City of Winston-Salem, under the leadership of Allen Joines (Mayor and President of the Winston-Salem Alliance) has invested into Downtown Winston. Millions of dollars on a downtown ballpark that sits unused most days of the year. Subsidy after subsidy has flowed to the pockets of downtown developers over the years.

What has the city provided the poor? Very little by comparison. Resentment over downtown development funding turned what should have been a civil debate over Trans-AID fares into a heated debate.

Homeless man sleeping in a park, with luxury lofts behind him illustrates inequality in Winston.

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