Port City United was well funded in the budget New Hanover County passed on Monday. But during an agenda briefing last week – usually a tidy, one-hour affair – commissioners Dane Scalise and LeAnn Pierce sparked a lengthy and frank discussion about the organization’s future.
“I think it’s fair to say that there are members of our community that are strongly in favor of this organization,” Scalise said. “And there are folks that have some pretty serious questions about this organization.”
That includes members of law enforcement and the district attorney, Scalise added: “And whenever the district attorney has concerns about a concept, I have concerns.”
Scalise is really talking about PCU’s violence interrupter program.
At the meeting, County Manager Chris Coudriet tried to emphasize that the program is just one part of PCU, which also includes a call center, data analytics team, and a recently launched community counseling program. But the violence interruption program has come to define PCU, especially for its critics.
It’s based on a model known as Cure Violence, specifically Bull City United in Durham, a program founded in 2016 to take a public health approach to violence in specific neighborhoods. But PCU also grew out of Tru Colors, local businessman George Taylor’s ill-fated attempt to combine social impact and for-profit brewing.
Tru Colors hired active gang members, hoping to leverage their street cred and connections to stop violence before it happened. How, exactly, that was supposed to happen remained inside a black box – in interviews with journalists, including me, Taylor declined to discuss details about the actual logistics of interrupting violence, claiming the opacity helped protect his employees.
When the county hired a number of Taylor’s employees to run PCU’s version of violence interruption, the “how” didn’t become much clearer.
Scalise didn’t get specific about his “concerns” with PCU, but the county’s hiring of active gang members has been the main issue for District Attorney Ben David, Sheriff Ed McMahon, and about a dozen other law enforcement officers in the area that I’ve spoken to.
But there is another concern, especially for fiscal conservatives like Scalise and Pierce: How to prove the public is getting their money’s worth when it comes to violence interrupters.
Many factors drive the waves of violence that periodically sweep through Wilmington, and it’s just as difficult to explain the crests as it is the troughs. Taylor famously struggled with proving that negative in making the case for Tru Colors’ impact on violence.
Now, the county has the same problem.
“There is, candidly, not enough data to prove a positive or a negative,” Coudriet admitted last week.
Commissioner Rob Zapple pointed to the good work PCU has done, and supported including funding for it in this year’s budget. But when it came to the overall, long-term value, he noted “the jury’s still out.”
PCU Director Rashad Gattison took responsibility for the miscommunication with stakeholders like the District Attorney’s office, but argued it was necessary for the staff to “have similar life experiences as the participants they encounter” to build rapport. He argued PCU was making a difference and promised to provide measurable data in the coming months.
“As a newly formed county agency, we knew we needed to garner trust within the community and work to help people understand exactly what we are trying to accomplish,” Gattison said. “Ultimately, we know we are all working towards the same goal – to make the New Hanover County community a safe place for everyone.”
PCU’s budget is just shy of $6 million, and the violence interrupters cost $685,000 — a fraction of the county’s $590 million spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. If you wanted to make cuts, PCU is not the only place you could look. And, as Commissioner Jonathan Barfield noted sharply, the county continues to fund school resource officers with little or no empirical data pointing to their efficacy in stopping violence. But there’s been little pushback from elected officials on that expense.
Despite clearing the budget hurdle this round, PCU is likely to remain under a microscope.
PCU has been funded by a combination of Covid-relief funds and the interest from the county’s hefty $300 million rainy-day fund. The point Scalise and Pierce were making is that eventually PCU will become just a regular line-item expenditure.
Or it won’t, if it can’t prove its worth.
– Ben Schachtman
Roses and Thorns
Van Dempsey, the dean of the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), had a fair idea that the selection of Sen. Michael Lee for a 2023 Razor Walker Award would be controversial.
He just didn’t realize where the backlash would be coming from.
For The Assembly, Kevin Maurer takes us inside a faculty protest, a fiery missive from a powerful member of the Board of Governors, and a chancellor’s directive to bring political diversity to what was generally seen as a feel-good award for service to public education.
It’s a tale that shows the thorny path the school is navigating through a culture war.
By The Numbers
Around the Region
A few of the stories we’re following this week:
State Treasurer Dale Folwell raised concerns about the purchase — sparking pushback from one Wilmington city council member — but the measure ultimately passed by a 7-1 vote. The sale process now goes to the city for a final vote.
North Carolina Republicans continue to feel uneasy about gubernatorial frontrunner and conservative firebrand Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. But no coherent strategy yet exists to knock him out in a primary.
Chemours Co., DuPont de Nemours Inc., and Corteva Inc. said last week that they had reached an agreement to settle claims over water contamination from toxic “forever chemicals” for $1.19 billion. The companies are facing thousands of lawsuits in the U.S. over the impacts of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, substances, or PFAS, that have been used for decades in manufacturing products like nonstick coatings and firefighting foams.
Across the State
The former president of Duke Energy NC has quickly ascended in the state Senate, where he’s been forced to maneuver in an intensely partisan environment.
The General Assembly declared 2023 the “Year of the Trail” — but can it move beyond a marketing effort?
Charles McNeair was 16 when a white woman accused him of rape. His advocates say the case deserves another look.
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