Raleigh, N.C. — Maintaining Wake County’s position as a top economic hub requires continued infrastructural investments in transit, housing and schools, leaders told attendees of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the City, County and Schools event Thursday.
Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, county Commissioner Chairman Sig Hutchinson and school board Chairwoman Lindsay Mahaffey called on voters to support bond issues, more affordable housing development and a future commuter rail line from Durham to either Garner or Clayton.
The investments are critical, they said, even as inflation rates reach 40-year highs and economists project some level of a recession later this year. Polling shows inflation and the cost of living these days is the top issue among voters from both major political parties nationwide.
“Right now, prices are escalating, but I am telling you right now we have to get this done,” Baldwin said.
During the luncheon, attended by a few hundred people, leaders also laid out efforts to make the county safer, amid rising gun violence and nationwide fear of the next school shooting.
Transit and housing plans
Plans for a proposal rail line collapsed spectacularly in 2019, and the effort appeared dead until this spring. Just weeks ago, leaders received a draft feasibility study outlining a cost of $2.8 billion to $3.2 billion to build the line.
Now, Hutchinson and Baldwin said the region can’t afford to wait any longer.
“If we don’t get it done, we’re going to end up like Austin, Nashville, Seattle …” Baldwin said. “Do you want your employees commuting two hours in the morning? Hell no. Furthermore, they won’t do it.”
Hutchinson said the combination of public transit near affordable housing can save people money — they can afford a home and ditch their car and the thousands of dollars they may have spent on it each year.
Both Hutchinson and Baldwin said they hear people concerned about denser or multi-family housing being built near them or about how development would change who lives in their area.
“We have to get over that,” Hutchinson said.
Denser housing could cost less and more efficiently organize the county.
“We have to continue to the be the best. It’s nice to be on top, but you can fall off quick,” Hutchinson said.
With robust development in Wake County has often come higher property values, a boon for those who can afford those prices and property taxes and a burden to those who can afford neither. Prices can be sky high in Raleigh’s most walkable areas.
Hutchinson and Baldwin argued the county’s tax rates are relatively low, sitting in the bottom third statewide and below the national average.
Approval of various bond issues expected to be on the November ballot would fund more transit (but not the commuter rail line), more affordable housing efforts, expanded and remodeled parks and greenways, community college buildings and school system buildings and renovations, among other things.
Supporting schools, Mahaffey said, helps the economy, which is powered by residents ready to be a part of it.
“Companies would not be here if they did not see value in our education system,” she said.
Plans for safety
Baldwin said she’s worried about gun violence in the city.
The city has had 24 homicides this year. Police said Wednesday aggravated assaults and vehicle thefts are rising.
The Raleigh Police Department recently announced a partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s office to indict people for gun and drug crimes.
Baldwin said officials have seized hundreds of guns but that hundreds of guns have also been stolen from residents’ unlocked cars.
“People are leaving their damn guns in their car where anyone can access them,” Baldwin said. She urged people to store their firearms safely and noted that most youth suicides happen using a gun found in their home.
Baldwin and Hutchinson both touted the city and county’s use of social workers, behavioral health professionals and other specially trained officers to respond to some emergency calls.
The Wake County Public School System has also employed more school counselors, social workers and psychologists to address students’ behavioral health needs on campus, Mahaffey said.
Most recently, the school system used federal pandemic stimulus funds for the hires but expects to request permanent funding for them from the county later on.
The school system, like most statewide, has fewer counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses than national groups recommend to be able to adequately serve students.
School leaders suggest those employees can help curb behavioral issues among students and help those struggling with mental health issues or contemplating suicide, in addition to providing special education services and evaluations, daily medical care guidance. Research shows the most common characteristic among school shooters is that they have been bullied.
The school system has also worked on improvements to school safety recommended by a group of retired law enforcement officers-turned-school safety consultants. Specific deficiencies have been kept secret, but the school system has unveiled some of the plans. The school system has already taken some action, including updating visitor management protocols to screen for sex offenders.
Recently, the school board discussed adding closed-off areas at school entrances to screen visitors. The cost of doing so is unknown.