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October 25, 2021

Mayoral candidates Alexander, Heggins discuss public safety, poverty, housing issues during candidate forum

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — In a forum for on Salisbury mayoral candidates Tuesday night, Mayor Karen Alexander and Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins discussed public safety, economic investment and tackling poverty and housing issues.

The forum was hosted by the Rowan Concerned Citizens and the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP. Rev. Dee Ellison, pastor for At the Cross Ministries, moderated the discussion from submitted questions. Both Alexander and Heggins had three minutes to respond to each question.

Ellison asked about ideas or plans to attract young adults and families to the city. Alexander said she’s excited by the number of young families moving into the West Square neighborhood, where she lives, who are attracted to the geographic location, arts scene, breweries and biking infrastructure offered in Salisbury. She also mentioned the suggestion from Downtown Salisbury Inc. to create a social district, which would allow patrons to bring alcoholic beverages outside of restaurants.

Heggins said attracting young families requires talking to the youth about what they want to see happening in the community. Reducing crime is the No. 1 priority, she said. Heggins cited Rev. Anthony Smith’s frequent reference to the need for a violence cure model for combating crime. That model would deepen existing initiatives such as Cease Fire by getting at the root causes of violence, she said.

Heggins also said the city needs to build up its greenway and biking infrastructure. Alexander said the city adopted a master plan and cited recent greenway extension projects on Newsome and Long streets.

Both candidates were asked about what they want voters to know about them. Alexander said she’s helped bring millions of dollars to the community and that the creation of 477 jobs in Salisbury in the previous two years has amounted to $19 million in direct and $38 million in indirect economic activity. Alexander said she’s been diligent in working with community partners, state and federal leaders and other coalitions to advocate for and secure funding for the city.

Heggins said success seen in recent years comes from the work of the same council members currently serving and that leaders should “continue to align our valued traditions with forward-thinking vision.” She said part of the mayor’s job is to come to the council with ideas and work to bring them to life. She touted her platform of finding innovative ways to reduce crime while also building up public safety and building equitable access.

Candidates were asked directly what they’ve done to reduce crime and how they can support the Salisbury Police Department. Alexander said she’s always voted in support of funding for police and cited the decision in 2017 to raise taxes in order to support pay raises for officers “because public safety is one of our most important services as a city.” She said Salisbury is one of many cities across the nation seeking a spike in violent crime after a trifecta of challenges in 2020. Alexander said she’s proud to be president of the North Carolina League of Municipalities in providing officers with educational resources and programs for further development and the Salisbury Police Department’s community policing model.

Heggins said she has also always voted in support of fully funding law enforcement, but she wants to look at creating positions such as counselors, mediators and more victim advocates. She recalled seeing a rise in violent crime in 2015 and 2016 and contacting elected officials and other stakeholders in the community to organize a “Stop the Violence” summit. At the time, Heggins was head of the community group Women for Community Justice. She also started Human Praxis Institute, a human relations firm focused on strategic planning, conflict transformation and workshops on diversity and social/racial equity.

Both were asked about how they view the role of mayor now that they will be elected directly by voters. Both said their duties and responsibilities don’t change. Alexander said she’d continue doing what she’s done for nearly eight years now on the council, — “work tirelessly with all of our nonprofits that do all the heavy lifting in our community.”

Heggins said one duty is to lead each council meeting. She cited her work as mayor in 2018 to implement a rules of procedure specific to Salisbury using guidance from the UNC School of Government. Additionally, her work changing the format of the agenda to provide additional information about presenters and staff members involved is another accomplishment, she said.

Both candidates were asked what they’ve done to address poverty. Alexander cited a decrease from around 28% to 22.9% according to the 2020 Census, which shows “strides.” She cited working with nonprofit organizations that are addressing the issue of poverty directly and a $260,000 donation from the Salisbury Community Foundation, which she’s involved in, toward those efforts last year.

Heggins said the poverty rate is “quite sad.” Though the city has put aside funding for Rowan Helping Ministries and other groups working toward decreasing poverty, she said some American Rescue Plan funds should be looked at, especially to address issues with sidewalks, lighting, bike lanes and broadband. Heggins also said the city should be part of the “Mayors for a Guaranteed Income” movement and help take care of the city’s most vulnerable populations “with some love and compassion.”

Alexander said the city has to be careful about “stepping into areas where they don’t have the funding” to support in the long-term, which can later lead to tax increases in the annual budgets.

In another response about addressing homelessness, Heggins said American Rescue Plan funding should be considered and that the city can’t “price out” downtown residents because some need to live there to walk or bike to work since the city’s public transit system isn’t expansive.

“Affordable housing must be a priority,” she said.

Alexander said current council members approved four affordable housing projects over the last two years, with plans similar to Brenner Crossing that involve a blend of market rate and income-restricted units. She said increased opportunities provided with federal Community Development Block Grants and the city’s Community Development Corporation has helped create more housing in the West End, Jersey City and Park Avenue communities.

Alexander and Heggins were asked about the percentage of the budget dedicated to public safety, which Alexander said amounts to 37.5% out of $45.7 million. That includes the fire department.

One question was about whether a tax hike was necessary to fund Bell Tower Green Park, to which Heggins responded with “no” and that it was mostly funded from philanthropic efforts. She said fees for using the city’s parks have increased, but those are necessary to continue operating efficiently. Alexander said of the more than $13 million price tag, about $10 million was raised among more than a thousand donors. Other funds came from Rep. Harry Warren, Sen. Carl Ford and the county.

In closing remarks, Heggins said she wants to make sure government is working for the people and acquiring the wisdom of diverse brain power across the city.

“Not only am I for you, I am also with you,” Heggins said.

Alexander said she wants to continue doing the work she has been doing — leveraging resources, organizing the community via coalitions and collaboration and advocating for funding at the state and federal level.

“I’m doing more hours here as a mayor than I have worked over the last two years because of all the challenges than my own business,” Alexander said. “But I love Salisbury.”

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