Affordable housing and public safety are among the top issues that members of the Fayetteville City Council want the city’s legislative delegation to address in the coming year.
The council met with local legislators Friday morning at Segra Stadium’s Aevex Lounge.
“All of us are here because we love our city. We want it to grow, and we want it to prosper,” said council member Kathy Jensen. “And we need your help.”
City leaders presented a list of issues they want addressed to the Cumberland County state legislature delegation: Democratic state Reps. Frances Jackson, Marvin Lucas and Charles Smith; Republican Rep. Diane Wheatley; Democratic Sen. Val Applewhite; and Republican Sen. Tom McInnis.
In their discussion with the council, lawmakers’ primary concerns were the costs associated with the issues presented, the time needed to work toward solutions and the lack of regional perspective.
Despite these concerns and partisan differences, Lucas stressed that the delegation is committed to addressing the issues.
“Let me assure you that we are a cohesive delegation,” Lucas said. “We drop party lines when it comes to doing what we need to do.”
Mayor Mitch Colvin was absent from the meeting, as were Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Dawkins and council member Brenda McNair.
The top issues
Among the many topics brought up Friday, affordable housing and homelessness rendered much discussion.
Applewhite said she had spoken with many constituents who are concerned about rising rents in the area. Many said their rent had gone up hundreds of dollars when they renewed their leases.
According to Apartment List, a national apartment listing service that estimates local month-to-month rental rates, the median rent for an apartment in January was $1,335. In January 2022, the median was $1,231. In January 2020, before the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was $977.
“Some people say it’s the market, but we’ve got to find a balance,” Applewhite said. “We don't know what it will look like, but we are all trying to figure it out.”
Homelessness, a prevalent issue in the area, was also top of mind in the meeting.
“It's not our fault. It's a societal thing and it's a mental health issue,” Wheatley said.
Fayetteville City Manager Doug Hewett agreed that mental health plays a role, but he said affordability also is a key problem.
“We like to talk about homeownership, but if someone is making 30% of the median income, they cannot afford a house. They can’t maintain a house,” Hewett said. “But they need housing.”
To help with housing affordability, Fayetteville voters passed a $12 million housing bond in November’s election.
Hewett said he hopes to soon invite the lawmakers to the city’s new day resource center for the homeless. The center is estimated to open by the end of 2023.
Cumberland County is in the process of developing a homeless shelter.
The City Council and state lawmakers also discussed public safety.
Council member Mario Benavente advocated for a co-respondent model, one in which police officers would not respond to every emergency call. Mental health crises, for example, could be handled by a social worker in this model.
“We’re expecting them to be mental health experts. All these things are outside of what they do best,” Benavente said, adding that lowering the workload for police officers could help with retention.
In a report this past November, the Fayetteville Police Department said that 70 positions are unfilled.
Hewett spoke about the city’s largest monetary request: funding to help pay for a police training facility. Hewett estimated the cost to be from $25 million to $40 million.
Concerns from lawmakers
Some of the lawmakers expressed concern about the cost of that request and others, as well as the scope of the city’s direction.
In the state action plan that the city presented to the state lawmakers, there was no specific cost associated with individual items, except for the police training center.
“For me, it’s how much?” Wheatley said. “We will never get all of this. We need to know what the priorities are.”
McInnis said he needed a specific dollar amount for each request.
“The delegation did well in the public school system, but we all flunked the mind-reading course,” McInnis said.
Hewett said the requests are more centered around the influence that state lawmakers have.
“Most of them are asking for influence or for legislation that y’all move your way through,” Hewett said.
Besides the cost, McInnis stressed the need to look at the issues from a regional perspective instead of evaluating it from the viewpoint of one city.
“Regionalization is the word of the day,” McInnis said. “We can no longer operate within our silos and expect to get anything done.”
He said inflationary pressures in the past decade have driven costs to a point where collaboration within a larger region is necessary to foot the bill.
The police training facility, for example, should be made available outside Fayetteville in other parts of the region, McInnis said.
Hewett said the training center could be expanded as a regional utility.
McInnis also said that planning needs to be geared toward the long term. He said the city and region need to prepare not only for today, but for the growth in population and the economy that will come in the next 15 years.
“Preparation for today, that's fixing lunch. Preparation for five years from now is planting the crop,” McInnis said.
Applewhite said that the problems in the city need to be more defined.
“Just a little bit more collaboration with defining the real needs,” Applewhite said.