Russell G. Stephenson
Address: 213 Oberlin Road
Hometown: I was born in West Point, New York. I grew up as an Army brat. My mother’s hometown is Raleigh and I live in my grandmother’s house. So I grew up moving all around the country and Europe, but every once in a while we would come back and visit my grandparents.
How long Have you lived in Raleigh?
What brought you to Raleigh?
I transferred to N.C. State and lived next door to my grandmother, which was a block away from what was then the School of Design.
In two to three sentences, please share something that you believe the City of Raleigh does well.
Our energy conservation and innovation initiatives, we’re doing very well.
In two to three sentences, please share one thing that you believe the City of Raleigh could improve upon or change.
The City of Raleigh obviously has been growing very rapidly in recent years, but some of the financial and growth and development models are tied to an earlier period when land was cheap, gas was cheap, natural resources seemed infinite and inexhaustible and we could externalize impacts. But now, we are having this process of turning the supertanker around in many ways, going from a consumption type model of growth and development to a more conservation model of growth and development. It’s a long slow process.
In two to three sentences, please share your position regarding public transit in the City of Raleigh.
That is an extremely important element. We need to move towards more choices in our mobility. There is a big rail initiative going on with the regional STAC [Special Transit Advisory Commission] plan which is great. There’s a rail component, obviously. Looking at the success of Charlotte years ago, 10 years ago, in getting their local funding option, to really emphasize the bus component, to get broad-based citizen benefits early on, which is extremely important, obviously, if there’s going to be a referendum that passes Wake County voters. It goes back to my previous statement about outdated assumptions about growth and development and cheap land, cheap gas, and inexpensive construction. Those are all history now, and we have to look towards more efficient land development patterns and the way we can tie the land development to this more efficient public transportation pattern. Getting public transportation right for the City of Raleigh is critical for us to continue to be healthy and competitive and prosper and be the 21st century city of innovation that we want to be.
In two to three sentences, please share your position regarding growth management in the City of Raleigh.
Once again, the whole notion of turning the supertanker around, and thinking of Raleigh as an area where our quality of life, the cost of maintaining high quality of services and building new infrastructure, is tied very closely to this idea that we need to protect our natural resources, we need to make land use and development pattern decisions that are more compact, more walkable, but at the same time protect existing quality of life elements, neighborhoods and so forth. So, those are all very critical to our continued success and health and competitiveness as a city.
In two to three sentences, please share your position regarding crime control in the City of Raleigh.
My sense is that Raleigh is in a pretty good position economically and I think there’s a direct link between the job opportunities, economic opportunities and crime. And I think we’re doing well there. Obviously, the current economic downturn has put a lot of strain on our safety net, and that includes our school system and all manner of services for disadvantaged youths. The school system is stressed now, of course. They are one of the keys also to our future success in keeping people out of trouble, so to speak. If we can have some high quality education systems, to give people some hope, some real opportunities for building their own personal capacity, becoming constructive members of society, instead of getting involved in some gang and gangster type lifestyles. For the city, that means obviously fully supporting everything that Chief Dolan wants to do to in terms of trying to fight crime, particularly violent crime. The statistics are grim in one regard that he’s mentioned. That is that first offenders used to be a larceny, where someone would break into a car, but now, more often, the percentages are going way up where first offenders are actually robberies and even armed crimes. That’s disturbing, but we are doing a lot of things with our parks programs to try get kids when they’re young involved in some sort of positive mentoring situations after school, to keep them in school, give them some group activities that are more constructive. Now there’s a big push with the stimulus money to help do job training, sort of weatherization, green jobs idea to get people in on the ground floor with some alternatives to what they might otherwise see in their life, which is pretty bleak.
Now, we would like to hear your position on two issues that were not previously mentioned, but that you think are important to the voters in the City of Raleigh. You tell us the issue and then give us two to three sentences about your position on the issue.
Keeping taxes and fees low is extremely important. In the past, we’ve had some elected leaders and opinion makers who took the position that they were for keeping taxes low while they were quietly advocating policies that took millions of tax payer dollars out of existing neighborhoods and communities to support growth and development in new areas. And so for many years, impact fees, which pay for new roads and parks, were kept very low relative to national and even regional averages in Raleigh. The existing tax base subsidized new growth and we had this rapid explosion of growth, meanwhile those tax dollars might have stayed in neighborhoods improving quality of life neighborhood services, parks, street repair and so forth. Likewise, now we are still far behind the curve on what are called capacity fees. Those are fees that new growth pays to support new capacity for water plants and sewer plants.
Right now Raleigh fees, well, two years ago, Raleigh had no capacity fees we were one of only two municipalities of 12 in the county that had none, us and Fuquay-Varina. Now our fees are up around $2,300 or so dollars. But if you look at the fastest growing municipalities in Wake County, Apex, Holly Springs, Cary, their average fees are around $5,300 dollars per unit. And of course the development community would prefer to have their infrastructure, water and sewer plants, subsidized by the ratepayers, but the truth is the fastest growing municipalities, i.e. the fastest one of all, Holly Springs, has an $8,000 dollar per unit capacity fee and we’re down here at $2,500 so Raleigh essentially, once again, the ratepayers are heavily subsidizing new growth. And more and more the Raleigh taxpayers and ratepayers are saying, “Look, quality growth is fine, but the impacts that are being put off on us in terms of school overcrowding and all the stuff about busing to deal with rapid growth, particularly in the southwest, is painful.
The congestion on our roads from new developments, the clear cutting of large parcels to put in new subdivisions, and the stormwater impacts of runoff from new development – these are all impacts that are being borne by the existing residents for the benefit of people who have not arrived yet. That is, by far, the biggest the largest issue that the citizens of Raleigh want to see gotten under control.
The environment. Once again, it’s all related quite a bit to growth and developement, but particularly now in the news you see the concerns about our long-range water supplies – not only in terms of the quality of water in Falls Lake – but also just statewide. We’ve always been a state where we thought our water resources were infinite, unlike the west coast where they’ve been doing water budgeting or rationing for years and years. We’ve developed a public utilities enterprise, the city’s business of providing water and sewer has been based on keeping rates very low, but supporting the infrastructure by selling lots and lots of product. So the way that plays out is, in a cool month, before the drought of ’07-’08, in a cool month, we’d consume about 40-million gallons a day of water. In the hot summer month it could go up to 70-million gallons a day. Not all of that is – maybe people are taking more showers – but they’re not flushing toilets more. Most it is discretionary use, a lot of it for irrigating landscapes. So we’ve gotten into this perverse situation where the health of our public utility’s enterprise depends on people putting 30-million gallons a day of water out on the ground in a hot summer month to pay for the infrastructure.
We’re building, for instance, right now, we’re building the Little River Reservoir – a $25-million project, with most of it yet to pay – in a good season, when it’s wet and we don’t need the extra capacity, it’ll produce about 20-million gallons a day. In a hot dry month it is projected to produce as little as 11.5-million gallons a day, but we’re putting 30-million a day out on the ground for irrigation purposes and there’s just this tremendous disconnect that we’ve got ourselves into in terms of water supplies. So, there’s this enormous effort, once again, to try and turn the supertanker of this big multimillion enterprise around. For instance last year, we’re just coming out of the drought of ’07-’08, around budget time, I said, “Look, our sales are way down because of the drought, our sales are way down because we’re telling people to conserve. Here you are putting forward an increase in the public utilities capital spending plan that’s going to cause some big rate increases. That’s crazy. Sales are way down, consumption is down, but you’re still building capacity like everybody will come right back in and start putting that 30-million gallons a day out on the ground and we won’t care about that anymore. And we’ll ignore the drought and we’ll ignore the fact that we’re already bumping our heads on our water supplies.” And I was unable to get a council majority to take heed a year ago. But this year, they set up a special pre-budget meeting on the public utilities on March 16 when they said “We need a 17-percent rate increase.” And I said, now, “This is the teachable moment I’ve been waiting for a year now.” I said, “Look, this is crazy. The 17-percent increase, when we knew a year ago, that the sales would be way down and we weren’t going to be able to pay for this expensive capital construction project, building lots of new capacity to support growth that is subsidized by the ratepayers.” So I just said, “I’m going to try my best to make the case.” And at the end of that day the mayor said, ”You were right and I was wrong.” So what they did was say, “we’ve got 500-billion dollars in projected capital utility projects. We’re just going to push half a billion dollars worth of projects further off into the future, because it would have been fun to do that, if we could have gotten our 17-percent rate increase plus the projected 21-percent rate increase the next year.” But I just said “This is crazy. Here we are putting 30 million gallons a day out on the ground in a hot summer month. We should be bringing that discretionary peak down, it’s like peak load pricing.” We’re having to build and pay for this big, enormous discretionary peak. It’s all wrong, it’s not sustainable, that’s the big term, I’m an architect and LEED accredited practitioner, so I’m all about sustainability. So finally they said “O.K. you’re right.” So that’s half the story.
The other half is what’s going on in Falls Lake. Obviously, we have limited water supplies. Now we realize, are we going to build another Little River Reservoir in coming years? Where are we are we going to find the land to do that? Where are we going to find another $250 to $300 million to do that? So the big question now is with the Jordan Lake Rules that just got passed to protect the Cary side users who are drawing out of Jordan. And that took 12 years because of the wrangling of the stakeholders upstream who did not want to have to pay for the expensive retrofit on existing development that are putting all the pollutants into the Jordan. So now we’re looking at the Fall Lake and it’s heavily impaired and Joanne Burkholder, at NC State is on contract with the city – the same person who did the pfiesteria stuff a few years back in the lower Neuse – and she’s saying, ”Look, there’s all these cyanobacteria growing up here, there’s all these algae blooms. If it really takes off it’s just going to kill everything in the lake.” The county has already closed down one of its parks on Falls Lake because the water quality is impaired, so we’re in this heavy negotiation in the legislature now about how many more years we’re going to put off bringing forward these Falls Lake Rules to protect water quality up there.
Raleigh needs to stay healthy and competitive. We have to have good water supplies; it’s got to be cost effective to be competitive. Obviously, we have to have a reliable water source to continue to grown and it’s much cheaper for us to grow and have adequate water supply resource supplies by conserving discretionary use rather than having to build expensive new facilities.
What would you say is your guilty pleasure?
If you define guilty pleasure as something I enjoy doing when you really ought to be doing something else, I enjoy spending time researching and learning more about sustainable development and the innovative things that people in other places are doing. Whether its energy conservation, natural resources, urban design. Sometimes I just lay the day-to-day business aside, and just get on the Web, and I really just want to learn about some project that is being developed in a very sustainable, green kind of way. I just want to learn about it.