CONWAY – They’re mad and tired, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
In a nutshell, that’s the message sent loud and clear by citizens of Conway to their elected officials on Tuesday night when the Town Commissioners met for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting.
The Conway Town Hall was packed….standing room only as citizens gathered to voice their concerns in the wake of a recent wave of violence, to include a murder and shots being fired into an occupied residence and vehicle over the past two weeks. Most of the citizens said the problem is traced to those living at or visiting Conway Village Apartments, located on Woodard Blvd. off NC 35 North.
“They’re shooting there almost every night. It’s terrible to live out there, always fearing that you’re going to have to hit the floor,” said one citizen.
Another stated, “I’m not going to live like that, not here, not in little old Conway.”
One remarked, referencing the repeated instances of gunfire at the apartments, “I’m too old to get on the floor and too big to crawl under a bed.”
“There are still some good people out there, but they’re afraid to speak,” offered a citizen.
“If these thugs know that there’s help on the way for our Police Chief, and that we’re pulling together as a town, it sends a message. I’m not going to change my lifestyle because of some punk,” said a town citizen.
“This trouble just didn’t start; it’s been going on for a while. We’ve got to take a stand; we need to alert our police when something is happening,” remarked another individual.
“It’s not the citizens of this town; it seems that the imports are the ones causing all the problems here. There’s no better place in the world, and I’ve lived in Germany, where I’d rather be other than Conway. But we have problems with those who have come in an infiltrated our society in a negative way,” noted a town resident.
Collectively, the town’s Commissioners said they feel the same way….and they backed that up by approving two key measures.
In a unanimous vote, the board agreed to add another full time officer to the Conway Police Department. Currently that department is staffed only by Police Chief Billy Duke, assisted by part-time officers.
Initially, the Commissioners agreed to cover the cost of adding the new full-time position by raising property taxes from 44 cents (per $100 of value) to 51 cents. However, Town Administrator Nancy Jenkins, after checking with the North Carolina School of Government, said that tax hike is not allowed under state statute because the Commissioners had already approved the town’s new 2015-16 budget, which took effect July 1.
Jenkins later told the R-C News-Herald that the town will proceed with hiring another police officer, possibly using money from fund balance or shifting some departmental money in the new budget to the police department. If a 7-cent tax hike is still on the table for discussion, it will have to wait until next summer to take effect.
Commissioner Tommy Barrett said increasing the tax rate to 51 cents would mean a $28 annual hike if accessed on property worth $40,000; $49 a year for a $70,000 parcel; and $70 for property valued at $100,000.
“That’s a small price to pay for what we can get in return….another full time policeman,” Barrett stated.
“We’re tying in money with safety; we really can’t put a price on safety when it’s your child, or your spouse. That young man who was killed, it doesn’t matter if he was a good person or a bad person, he still had a mama and a daddy; he still had a brother and a sister, and those persons are now hurting. That hurt doesn’t belong here and we’ve got to do something about it…to end it,” said Mayor Brian Bolton.
The Commissioners also agreed to establish a curfew for youngsters (ages 18 and under). While the complete details of that new ordinance are still being ironed out, it is known that the curfew will be from 12 midnight until 5 a.m. daily. Fines for breaking curfew, which are still under study by town officials, range from a first-time warning to as high as $500.
“The parent becomes liable in the curfew. They’ll have to pay the price if their child refuses to abide by the curfew,” said Bolton.
The curfew will take into consideration if a teen is working at a job that requires them to be out past midnight.
As far as the safety issue is concerned, it was at the June meeting of the Conway Commissioners where ideas were put on the table that would help make the town safer. Bolton told the citizens attending this month’s meeting that some of those suggestions have resulted in immediate action while others are in the planning stages.
Bolton said an overgrown lot that is heavily used for foot traffic in and out of the apartment complex has been cleared.
“There are some other bushes and trees that need to be cut down or trimmed on other properties, and we’re working with the landowners now to get that job done,” Bolton said.
Bolton also addressed the State of Emergency, enacted by town on the July 4th holiday weekend.
“It worked; there were no incidents from Friday through Monday,” he said. “It was a drastic measure to take, but I felt it was the best thing to do.”
On the down side, Bolton said he felt for the Conway businesses whose hours and alcohol sales were drastically impacted by the SOE.
“It was a major sacrifice for them not to have the opportunity to sell alcohol during certain hours,” the Mayor stated. “They lost money; they paid the price for those who chose to behave badly.”
Two other proactive moves by Conway officials in its effort to curb the recent increase of violence within the town is changing the hours of police patrols and installing security cameras that will constantly scan certain streets 24/7/365. Bolton said there will be more of a police presence between the hours of 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. and when there is a lapse in law enforcement patrols, the video surveillance will help.
Another idea surfacing at Tuesday’s meeting was to ask the management firm of Conway Village Apartments to hire a security officer, if only for weekend duty.
Conway officials also see the need to upgrade existing street lights as well as adding additional ones to increase visibility at night.
Police Chief Billy Duke said he has already met with a Dominion Power representative and they studied the areas at and near the apartments and nearby Thomas Street.
“We will be adding some lighting out there,” Duke said. “We’re also looking at pruning some trees, getting those low hanging limbs out of the way, which will allow our existing street lights to filter out wider.”
Conway’s Commissioners unanimously voted to expend town funds to add two new streetlights. Both will be 25 feet off the ground, providing additional coverage.
Duke added that he met with Tim Barnes, manager of Conway Village Apartments, and an agreement has been reached to trim obstructive bushes on that property, to include bushes between the complex and Thomas Street.
Barnes is working with town officials in an effort to make Conway a safe place to live, work and raise a family. However, because the apartments are part of HUD (Housing and Urban Development), certain federal guidelines must be maintained.
When asked how he could remove a person living in an apartment that was not part of the lease agreement, Barnes stated the number one obstacle to overcome was proving that assumption.
“The tenant or tenants sign a lease; if someone else is living there, and not part of the lease, we have to prove that, and we do that by checking if their mail if received there,” Barnes said. “It’s a hard thing to prove. In the incident where the young man was killed, that was the tenant’s brother and she was letting him live there. She was in the process of moving, even though she had yet to give me a 30-day notice as required.”
Barnes said if there was documented evidence of drug or criminal activity by a tenant (or an occupant of the same apartment that the tenant is responsible for) he has the right to immediately evict that tenant. Additionally, that evicted tenant cannot apply for a lease in federally subsidized housing for five years.
“If a fight occurs, even if it occurs among guests of those living in the apartments, we can ban them from the property,” Barnes added.
The apartment manager said he understood that the law-abiding tenants were fearful of retaliation should they make him or law enforcement aware of criminal activity, to include known gang members.
“There are other ways to communicate that information,” Barnes said. “I already have a list of names and have given Chief Duke that list. All we can do at that point is ban them from the property if the name on the list isn’t a tenant who is causing trouble. If that person breaks the ban and returns to the property, Chief Duke is contacted and comes and arrests them for trespassing.”
Barnes said he has informed the tenants by letter of the process as noted above.
He added that the trouble is mostly traced to individuals visiting the apartments, saying, “The trouble isn’t coming from the apartments, it’s coming to the apartments.” He added that one of the gangs involved in the trouble comes to Conway from Rich Square.
“We’ve got some small kids, middle school age kids, that are in these gangs from Conway and Rich Square,” Barnes noted.
He added that vandalism has occurred to signs on the property as well as the streetlights maintained inside the complex being shot out.
“We just spent $2,000 about two months ago replacing those lights, and then they shot them out again,” Barnes said. “We put up a fence to cut down on the foot traffic. They used bolt cutters to cut holes in the fence and when we went back to fortify the fence, they wound up tearing the fence down.”
Bolton commended the town citizens for uniting behind a common effort.
“I thank ya’ll for joining with us, the town officials, to fight this battle,” Bolton said. “We’ve seen just this week that putting pressure on the homeowners who are housing these criminals, we’re getting rid of them. We’re asking you, our law-abiding citizens, to do the same thing. If you see someone that is causing problems, let Chief Duke know. Banding together is the only way we’re going to solve this problem.”
That unification effort has also impressed town resident Calvin Baldwin. He is planning a peace rally and march in downtown Conway, tentatively set for Saturday, July 25 (time to be announced).
“I see us pulling together as a community,” Baldwin stated at Tuesday’s meeting. “Problems happen….it’s the way you stand up to those problems that makes you who you are. The people of Conway are strong. I’m asking all our citizens, all our churches, and you, the town officials, to join in this rally and march. We need to show that the power in this town belongs to the law abiding citizens. We need to show there is strength in numbers.”
“This isn’t just about what’s going on down at the village (apartments), it’s about the whole town of Conway,” said Commissioner Stewart Woodard. “We’ve got to stand up; we don’t welcome those who choose to come here and act the way they do.”