Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that Councilman Frederick Foster represents Ward 4. He represents Ward 6.
BY MIKE FUHRMAN
If you were expecting – or hoping – that the Statesville City Council would agree on a vision and strategy for providing workforce housing, public transportation for low-income residents, and upgrades to city parks during last week’s annual retreat, you haven’t been paying attention for the past four years.
Despite having a surplus of millions of dollars at its disposal, including $7.7 million in unrestricted federal funds, this dysfunctional council didn’t commit to do any of those things — or much of anything.
Aside from bumping the long-overdue expansion of the Statesville Police Department up a couple of spots on the priority list and directing staff to develop a policy outlining how much money the city should keep in its fund balance, the council took no official actions during the retreat.
For the most part, council members spent the better part of two days listening politely to presentations by senior staff members and offering little direction.
This should not shock anyone. Councilman C.O. Johnson’s comments on the first day of the retreat – his 32nd retreat as a council member – proved to be quite prescient.
“I hear the same thing every time, but I don’t see much in results,” he said. “We don’t use common sense when we make a lot of decisions.”
Then again, if this councilman had any ideas for moving the city forward, he did not bother to share them publicly with the rest of council or the staff during the retreat. As the longest serving member of council, he’s had the most opportunity to be a force for good for Statesville residents and, to be frank, he has little to show for his decades of service.
For the most part, anyone who brought an issue or idea to the council retreat went home last Friday afternoon with little to show for their efforts and no reason to feel optimistic that this council will do anything.
When Councilman Frederick Foster pleaded with his fellow council members to help him attract a grocery store to Ward 6, which he described as a “food desert,” he was met with blank stares and a condescending lecture on how business works.
“We’ve been sitting over there hurting for 30 years,” he told the council.
The other councilmembers offered no hope, no sympathy and, most importantly, no solutions.
Councilman Steve Johnson, who owns a business in South Statesville and as an at-large council member represents all city residents including those in Ward 6, responded by explaining that Foster’s ward is not going attract a chain grocery store any time soon because of the education attainment level and per capita income of its residents.
“Your demographics does not meet their matrix. They are not coming,” he said.
Neither Steve Johnson nor any other council member could summon the energy or compassion to direct city staff to explore other alternatives such as a partnership with a nonprofit that could open and operate a small grocery store in Ward 4. (Other municipalities across the nation who want to help their low-income residents have easy access to healthy food and other essentials are doing innovative things in this space, why can’t we?)
Earlier, Steve Johnson made it clear he did not want to invest city funds in “programs” whose success – or return on investment — could not be measured in a quantifiable way.
That has to be frustrating for staff who want to make a difference in our community — and it should infuriate city residents and business owners. This council is sitting on a $32 million fund balance and cannot be bothered to invest in new programs or services that could improve the lives of city residents and spark private investment in areas of the city where it is desperately needed.
Councilman Foster wasn’t the only person at the retreat with a good idea.
Recreation & Parks Director Richard Griggs was passionate as he pitched several ideas to the council for improving the city’s recreation and parks offerings.
“Parks and programming is really important to the people in this community,” Griggs said. “And it’s important to the health of our city.
The rec department has conducted surveys and held community meetings in an effort to find out what residents want. Among the suggestions from residents are extending the city’s greenways and trails, renovating the ballfields at McClure Park, adding lighting to existing fields at the soccer park, reconstructing the tennis courts at Caldwell Park, building a miniature golf course and a skate park.
The most ambitious ask among residents is for a second municipal pool located in South Statesville. Yet when council members were given the opportunity to express their support for the pool, not a single one did so.
Also during the retreat, Mayor Costi Kutteh renewed his long-held view that the city should invest in public transportation to help members of the local workforce have reliable transportation to work.
“We have to conquer that problem,” Kutteh said. “We have thousands of people in our community ready to work.”
And Councilwoman Amy Lawton said the city should work to improve the area around Newtowne Plaza.
“If my car was on empty, I would not stop there to get gas if my life depended on it,” Lawton said.
Councilmembers did not respond with any substance to the mayor’s suggestion and those who spoke about the plight of Newtowne Plaza or Signal Hill Mall reiterated that those commercial properties are privately held and their upkeep is the responsibility of their owners.
The whole production had to be a major downer for the team of talented department heads that City Manager Ron Smith has assembled during the past couple of years.
Smith said several times during the retreat that he was looking to the council to provide the vision to guide the city during what could prove to be a transformational part of its history.
The city manager shared with the council that he is asked regularly what his vision for Statesville is.
And while he and his leadership team have developed a mission and vision statement, “It shouldn’t be my vision,” Smith said. “It should be the City Council’s vision.”
As a group, this council has again proven that is woefully deficient in that department.
Mike Fuhrman is the editor of Iredell Free News.