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Broadband Internet among items on Burlington’s wish list to state legislators

Authority for occupancy tax also desired; police chief doesn’t want automatic release of body-cam footage

More money and greater legal authority were the big asks on Tuesday when Burlington’s city council met with the city’s legislators to present their legislative priorities for the coming year.

This meeting, which took place online due to concerns about coronavirus infections, gave Burlington’s leaders a chance to catch up with representative Dennis Riddell, who has served the state’s 64th house district since 2012. It also allowed city officials to break the ice with the 63rd district’s newly-elected representative Ricky Hurtado and reacquaint themselves with former county commissioner and incoming state senator Amy Scott Galey, whose district comprises Alamance County and the eastern portions of Guilford.

Yet, Tuesday’s proceedings were more than some virtual meet-and-greet with the legislators. In fact, the city’s top brass had scheduled this meeting explicitly to share their legislative agenda with the three-member delegation. They ultimately seized the opportunity to pitch not only their own wish list but also those of two statewide organizations that they felt share the city’s objectives.

Among the items that the city’s higher ups sought were state allocations for a variety of projects ranging from the preparation of industrial sites to a proposed expansion of Burlington’s Paramount Theater. The city administrators who presented these wish lists also asked for a state-level endorsement of a multimillion-dollar redesign of the Maple Avenue Corridor as the city tries, for the third year in a row, to obtain a federal grant for this project.

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Other requests concerned the legal authority – as well as the accompanying cash – that the city would need to proceed with a number of ambitious ventures. These items included a workaround to a state-level ban on municipalities acting as Internet service providers so that the city can offer broadband access to its downtown business district and other underserved areas. City officials also requested permission to tax hotels and motels over and above the 3-percent levy that the county already collects to promote travel and tourism. Meanwhile, the city’s police chief asked for the state’s blessing to install stationary license plate readers along U.S. 70 in order to augment similar devices that the city’s police force has in a handful of patrol cars.

See also an earlier story on upcoming discussion about whether Burlington should expand council size, go to “ward system” for city council elections:


‘Net’ worthy
Of all these sundry requests, Burlington’s plan for high-speed Internet service was especially quick to connect with the city’s legislative delegation. The proposal certainly piqued the interest of state senator Galey, who lives in the unincorporated Union Ridge community near Alamance County’s northwestern corner.

“I noticed that you have broadband on your list of priorities and goals, and it’s one of mine as well,” she told Burlington’s leaders on Tuesday. “I live near Lake Cammack [a city-owned lake north of Burlington’s city limits], and the wire goes through the ground up to Lake Cammack but not past it.”

In response to Galey’s inquiry, assistant city manager Nolan Kirkman explained that the city’s interest in high-speed Internet access stems from the reluctance of private Internet service providers to install fiber optic cables in Burlington’s business district, where power lines and other public utilities are buried below ground. Kirkman added, however, that the city has also identified areas in the northern and eastern parts of the city where high-speed Internet is not universally available. Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis went on to suggest that the city’s own plans could be a jumping off point for the provision of broadband access to unincorporated parts of the county.

“We see broadband as a critical next generation infrastructure for the success of our city and also as a way if we’re able to develop a network to reach further into the county,” the mayor said during Tuesday’s discussion. “So, we see any work that we do on broadband as a regional growth item.”

Baltutis added that he and the city’s mayor pro tem Kathy Hykes recently visited Salisbury to learn more about a high-speed Internet service which that city has launched in partnership with a private provider. Hykes added that Salisbury managed to set up this service notwithstanding a state-level prohibition on local government forays into the Internet business. She went on to ask the city’s legislators to help Burlington overcome this restriction as Salisbury appears to have done.

“I think opening options for cities to do a better job with broadband would be helpful,” she elaborated.


‘Occupancy’ tax
Another item that sparked some discussion on Tuesday was the city’s request for permission to collect its own “occupancy tax” on hotels and motels in its municipal limits. Under state law, local governments can impose a levy of up to 6 percent on these businesses in order to fund the activities of a local tourism authority as well as any programs and attractions that attract visitors. At the moment, Alamance County has a 3-percent levy in place, which the city of Burlington hopes to raise to 6-percent within its own limits.

Should it get a nod from the General Assembly to levy this tax, the city intends to establish its own independent tourism authority to distribute the proceeds. According to city councilman Harold Owen, the revenue from this tax could ultimately fund projects like the proposed expansion of the Paramount Theater, which also appeared on the city’s list of legislative priorities.

“The city occupancy tax is critical to us to fund some of the options on this list,” Owen went on to explain.

In addition to the Paramount Theater’s expansion, the city’s administrators asked for state funds to construct additional greenways, make improvements to the Burlington-Alamance Airport, make potential industrial sites “shovel ready,” and to continue the remediation of the old city landfill along Anthony Road. Some of these requests overlap with the legislative priorities of the N.C. League of Municipalities, which lobbies the General Assembly on behalf of the state’s cities and towns. For good measure, the city’s administrators presented the legislative delegation with 10 of the league’s current requests, which they had distilled from a 17-item list that the organization has circulated.


Plea of police
The city’s legislators also received a third list of requests from Burlington’s police chief Jeff Smythe, who had obtained these proposals from the N.C. Association of Police Chiefs. Smythe acknowledged that some of the association’s requests weren’t relevant to Burlington. He did home in, however, on several items that he said are very much on his own slate of priorities.

Among other things, Smythe asked the legislators for permission to install automatic license plate readers along U.S. 70 in order to identify fugitives, find missing children, and other “opportunities to do really good police work using technology.” The police chief conceded that state law already allows automatic readers in patrol cars, noting that several of his own vehicles are equipped with the technology. He nevertheless added that stationary readers would enhance his department’s ability to ferret out criminals and pointed out that the devices are already in use along some of the state’s toll roads.

Another request that Smythe made on behalf of his fellow police chiefs concerned the recommendations of a gubernatorial task force for racial equity in criminal justice. The state’s association of police chiefs has challenged 10 of these recommendations, including one that calls on the state to automatically release all footage from the body cameras that many police officers wear. Smythe was particularly adamant in his objections to this proposal, which he insisted would force police departments to review countless hours of footage to redact personal information from the exchanges between police officers and civilians.

Smythe also urged the city’s legislators to reject a number of recommendations that the Police Benevolent Association and the Fraternal Order of Police have previously shared with the General Assembly. Among other things, Smythe took issue with a request for whistle blower protection and a police officer “bill of rights” that the two police unions have sought from the state.

The city’s police chief argued that these measures would treat municipal police officers differently from other public employees and are, moreover, unnecessary given the legal protections that already exist under state law. Smythe went on to reveal that another one of his gripes with these proposals is their potential to diminish his own authority.

“It’s appealing upfront to say worker rights are important. And they are, right?” he added.

“But if you eliminate the right to work status that you have in North Carolina and create full blown unions, they have a way of derailing and limiting the executive power of police chiefs…I fire or allow people to resign in lieu of termination probably three or five times a year. If I was hampered in my ability to do that we would have less professional policing and lower quality services that are delivered to our citizens.”

In the end, the city’s three legislators didn’t make any promises on this or any other request that they heard during Tuesday’s joint meeting. They nevertheless commended the city’s leaders on their advocacy, which state representative Riddell, in particular, praised for its consistent clarity and depth.

“I know that when I sit down with the city of Burlington,” he said, “[the presentation] is going to be fact based and evidence based. That’s kind of the coin of the realm in Raleigh.”

Catch up on other recent Burlington news:

Gov. names councilman Jim Butler to ACC board of trustees (Jan. 14, 2021 edition):

Arboretum to include Veterans Memorial (Jan. 14, 2021 edition):

Burlington hires new inspections director (Jan. 14, 2021 online exclusive):

City insists that taking “Indian” out of golf course name was not done for political correctness (Jan. 7, 2021 edition):

More sections of Mackintosh on the Lake scheduled to begin construction in 2021 (Dec. 31, 2020 edition):


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