Bridges to Build

(remarks prepared for delivery)

 

[Thank sponsors and attendees]

And of course, thank you to my wonderful wife Janice and our three children, Duncan, Eleanor and Lincoln. If you were at my first kickoff event, you might have noticed they’ve grown a little bit.

Janice and I are tremendously proud of our children. I am tremendously proud of the work Janice does in all three of their schools. And they remain the guiding light I look to as Commissioner – what is best for them? What kind of community do I want to leave for them?

When I ran four years ago – those questions led me to three main promises:

(1) Increase the budget for public education – particularly for teacher pay – in order to prevent the loss of teachers from our system.

(2) Pass a public transit referendum and begin building a cutting-edge transit system in Wake County

And (3) treat my fellow public servants, my fellow Commissioners and the public with decency and professionalism regardless of our political differences.

I’m happy to tell you that I’ve fulfilled all three of those promises.  (1) As of last year’s budget, the contribution to the Wake County Public Schools has increased by nearly $100mm since I took office. An increase of 27% in three years. We raised local teacher pay by 37% to the highest supplement in the state, and our teachers now make, on average, very close to the national average. We’re not done yet, and we have more work to do, but Wake County is back on the path to maintaining its excellent public education system because of this historically-high investment.

(2) in 2014, we presented to the voters, and the voters passed, the most exciting transportation improvements this area has ever seen. We are now in year 2 of that plan, and the changes are beginning to roll out. As of July 2018, all students 18 and under will ride for free, bus service is being dramatically expanded, and over the next 8 years, you’re going to see 4 times as much bus coverage, 24 miles of a cutting-edge Bus Rapid Transit system, and commuter rail from East to west across the county. I am tremendously proud of that.

(3) and personally, (with the possible exception of the legislature), I have worked very hard to listen to everyone, regardless of disagreement or ultimate vote. I will continue to treat my colleagues with respect and give my constituents – all of them – the attention they deserve from their public officials, something they didn’t get from the prior majority on the Board of Commissioners.

I could fill the evening with talk of what we’re doing. But let me focus on a few things.

You know, this is a frustrating, scary and dangerous time we are facing as a country. This is a time when so many of our fellow Americans are deeply cynical about government and about the common good. And the cynicism is much deserved. As we learned yesterday, the fear is much deserved.

Yesterday, Janice and I sent these three children off to school, trusting that they would come home safely, be taught by caring teachers, and enjoy their day. In Florida, 14 other families did the same with their children, many the same age as Duncan. They trusted that their children would be safe. They trusted that their children would come home. And they trusted that their children would be taught by caring teachers. 14 children didn’t come home. They will never go to school again. And a deep and pervasive rot in our society was exposed again.

But let me tell you something. Yesterday, those teachers in Florida pushed children into closets and behind desks, and shielded them from a hail of bullets with their own bodies. A part time security guard and assistant football coach threw himself at the killer, buying time for his students to flee, and dying in the process.  This is not what we should expect teachers to do, but every teacher I know, from my sister, to my mom and Dad, to the teachers I had growing up, to the wonderful men and women of the Wake County Public Schools who care for my children, would do that in a heartbeat. Our children are their responsibility. And they live it every day.

They set an example for all of us. We need to come together to work towards betterment of our society. Protect our children. Make a better world. I am proud to tell you that Wake County is leading the way in building that community.

At a time when the North Carolina General Assembly cynically passes a bill requiring local districts to achieve smaller class sizes, without paying for the teachers or the construction that requires – Wake County has joined with the Wake County Public Schools to reach a seven year plan for construction, that commits the funds and tells the people where the new schools will be. Thinking ahead, working together for the common good and the good of our children.

At a time when the North Carolina General Assembly refuses to expand Medicaid, in the face of huge and provable need, and condemns hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians to behavioral and physical illness without treatment – Wake County has expanded its public health facilities- including a new women’s health center on Millbrook Road that has provided prenatal and well baby care to hundreds of women and their babies who had no other option. At a time when our state has abandoned its responsibility to those suffering from behavioral health challenges, Wake County is working with our hospitals, social services and the Jail to identify those who are frequently in their care, and to provide shelter and services to those people in safer and less expensive settings in the future.

At a time when the President of the United States declares this country closed to refugees – this community reached out, responded, and declared that we were not afraid, and welcomed refugees into our midst. As the President cuts the budget for SNAP and replaces it with a box of canned goods, Matt Calabria and Jessica Holmes led this community to establish food resources at 154 of 175 schools, including all of the schools with over 50% free and reduced lunch participation, and we’ve passed a groundbreaking food security plan to ensure food security and farm preservation in our county.

At a time when the government runs up spectacular debts, and slashes taxes for the well to do – your county government has slowly and methodically paid its way, challenging our taxpayers to do what they can without overwhelming them, and maintained its AAA Bond Rating.

At a time when the news is full of alt-right hatreds and the General Assembly embarrasses the state with the discriminatory law known as HB2 – Matt Calabria and I drafted and our colleagues passed a nondiscrimination ordinance guaranteeing employment protections to Wake County employees, regardless of race, color, creed, sex, veterans status, family status, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. On HB2, this community pushed back and pushed back hard, and the General Assembly backed off. This community declared that Y’all Means All and there’s nothing those temporary residents of our town who occupy that building on Jones Street can do about it!

At a time when the North Carolina General Assembly and the Congress are gutting environmental protections and endangering the planet – We committed to the goals of the Paris Accord, we have developed new guidelines for building construction that prepare us for solar and other renewable energy sources to power our buildings, we’ve protected over 2000 acres of additional open space and we are moving forward on the Wake County Water Partnership, which will work to guarantee healthy, clean and sufficient water for our area for the next 50 years.

Finally, at a time when the world is pulling apart, and certain politicians do everything they can to drive the wedge in more deeply – you can believe that here in our community – in your government – the opposite is happening. We are working to come together. To improve the economic vitality of our struggling communities. To encourage and promote the construction of affordable housing. To build the best EMS service in the country. To build a center that will remove people from the circumstances of homelessness and put them back on the path to productive citizenship. To present a model to the world of what a 21st century county looks like.  And yes, to build the best school system in the United States.

I am proud of this progress. And you should be too. We have much work to do together over the next two years. I need your help to stay in this seat. I need your votes and, unfortunately, I need your money. But most importantly, I need your hard work. Long after the campaign. We have bridges to build and hearts to mend, and I look forward to doing that with you. Thank you.

 

 

Running for Re-election!

On February 12, I signed up to run for a second term as Wake County Commissioner. I’m proud of what we’ve started, and I’m ready to keep working.

Ready to run!

During my first term I have done exactly what I promised the people of Wake County that I would do:

We have increased the schools budget by almost $100 million per year and improved local teacher pay by 37%. We also passed the 2016 transit plan, which will bring more frequent and efficient public transportation to the entire county. And we have restored professionalism and courtesy to the County Commission.

We’ve begun to right the ship and recover from a decade of failed leadership and failure to plan. Instead, we’ve put the County on a path to sustainable growth, national leadership, and continued high quality of life for a larger and larger number of its residents. A landmark and cutting-edge transit plan is in year 2 of a 10-year rollout, with students under 18 riding free after July 1, 2018. We have expanded food security through cooperation with our colleagues in the schools and in non-profit charities. And we have begun to address this county’s water quality and quantity needs for the next 50 years.

We are a more inclusive and forward-thinking community. With my colleague Matt Calabria, I drafted the new Wake County Nondiscrimination Ordinance – permanently protecting our employees from discrimination on the grounds of race, color, creed, sex, family status, veteran status, political affiliation, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. We adopted a living wage as a standard for county employment, “banned the box” for county job-seekers, promoted programs to reduce recidivism and treat the mentally ill, and invested heavily at both ends of the educational spectrum, with new support for Smart Start early childhood programs and greatly increased focus on Wake Tech.

We’re doing amazing things in Wake County. I look forward to working with you to keep us on the right path for the future and prepare for continued growth.

If you like what Wake County is doing (and we will be showing a lot of those things on this webpage over the next few weeks), join my campaign and let’s keep moving forward together.

Thanks! Now let’s win.

HB2 Cuts Off Wake’s Engine

One of my jobs as Commissioner is to be a liaison to the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau board of directors. Today at that meeting, we heard information about HB2’s very real impact on Wake County. This year, we are continuing to sustain some growth in visitor numbers and current bookings. But the problem is in the next several years, particularly 2018. Forecasts for 2018 are grim, especially if the NCAA takes us off the Championship circuit.

Convention and visitor business is a years-long investment that pays off over time. What we have coming to Wake now was put in the pipeline 3-4 years ago. What the Legislature did with HB2 was greatly restrict that pipeline. We spend a significant percentage of every pitch now explaining that Wake does not support HB2 and is working to overturn it. It’s a challenge in every single pitch. Same with Economic Development.

Some will look at our visitor numbers in 2017 and say they prove that HB2 has had no impact. They are lying.

Think of it this way. Raleigh and Wake County are like a rocket. For years, we’ve been climbing. Numbers have been rising. Our national image has been growing. If you cut off the engine, a rocket keeps climbing for a bit, then it slowly turns and begins to fall.

HB2 cut off our engine. It’s time to turn it back on.

Why I marched at RDU

I could hear it before I saw it. Thousands of voices chanting: “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!” carried easily through the parking garage at RDU International Airport. My son Duncan and I arrived about an hour into the scheduled four hour protest, and we wanted to lend our voices in any way we could.

As we walked towards Terminal 2, a woman named Kathy was pushing several cases of bottled water on a luggage cart. I asked if I could help and grabbed one of the cases and started handing out bottles to protesters.

There were thousands of people. Thousands.

As a County Commissioner, one of my responsibilities is to appoint members of the RDU Board. Wake County is one of the owners of this facility. So you might ask why I thought it appropriate to participate in a protest against the Airport.

Well, because the protest was located AT the Airport, but it wasn’t AGAINST the Airport. In fact, the Airport staff and security and the Raleigh Police Department should be congratulated for their flexibility and restraint as a crowd expected to number in the low hundreds swelled beyond all expectation.

No, I wasn’t there to protest the Airport. I was there to lend my voice to the millions who oppose President Trump’s immigration policies, which defile our history and our national reputation. I was there to march in the middle of the crowd, not at the front, because in this battle, I join my fellow citizens in declaring that we do not consent to these policies and they are not being done in our name.

President Trump’s ban on immigration from certain countries where he has no business interests is blatantly discriminatory. It hurts our allies in the region. It puts our troops in greater danger. It condemns refugees to death.

As an American, I am embarrassed by this President’s actions.

As a Christian, I am appalled that the lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is apparently lost on those in power. Those who defend these actions as a way of reducing risk must understand that the Samaritan put himself at risk to help the man on the road. He helped a foreigner, and he exposed himself to the bandits by stopping to help. To paraphrase MLK, Jr., the true neighbor does not ask “if I help this person, what will become of me?” The true neighbor, and thus the true Christian, asks “if I do not help this person, what will become of him?”

When we turn away those who wish to come to this country, we hurt them. What sense does it make to hurt those who want to become Americans?

Today, those thousands of multi-colored faces and thousands of voices raised in protest gave me hope. Thanks to the people who protested and the people who protected them. Today was a good day.Flag 16252139_10154602271003183_6158435873640428836_o

PROMISE KEPT!

Sig Hutchinson and Matt Calabria deserve enormous credit for their hard work on this issue.

Sig Hutchinson and Matt Calabria deserve enormous credit for their hard work on this issue.

WAKE COUNTY APPROVES TRANSIT REFERENDUM!

On Tuesday night, a broad cross-section of community leaders and organizations celebrated a victory many years in the making. The Wake County Transit Plan, the product of two years of work and community discussion, passed by a 53-47 margin.

As a result, Wake County will be able to raise and spend $2.4 Billion of local money over 10 years which, combined with Federal grants and some GoTriangle bonds, will fund the development of a vastly improved public transit system. With three times as many buses running 7 days a week, 19 hours a day, Bus Rapid Transit, Commuter Rail, and a vastly expanded network of commuter express buses, the Wake County Transit Plan will make public transportation an option that is there when you need it, rather than something you need to plan your life around. It will make an enormous difference in our community.

My colleagues Sig Hutchinson and Matt Calabria deserve a huge amount of credit for their hard work and leadership on this measure. But we were joined in that effort by a bipartisan coalition built to prepare Wake County for the growth that is coming. Moving Wake Forward is a remarkable and unprecedented group made up of many corporations, individuals and community groups. It is the first time I can remember the Raleigh Association of Realtors, the Sierra Club, WakeUP Wake County, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce all on the same side of an issue.

In 2014, my colleagues and I ran for Commission on a promise to place a transit plan on the ballot and pass it in 2016. For the last three weeks, during early vote and on Election Day, it was my pleasure to stand and meet voters and tell them about the importance of transit to our growing community and the details of this plan. We promised to do this.

I am happy to say that’s a promise kept.

 

 

Voter Fraud? Show me the proof

Today, I sent this letter to the Vice Chairman of the Wake County Republican Party. In an earlier attempt to recruit poll observers, the Wake County GOP claimed that Democrats were engaged in “daily” voter fraud, including registering the dead and giving false registration information.

Because I believe allegations of voter fraud should be taken seriously and not made lightly, I invited Vice Chairman Hellwig to send me the proof of such fraud, and I would bring all the resources of my office to bear in rooting it out before the election.

Here’s the letter:

hellwigletter

The text reads:

Dear Vice Chairman Hellwig:

I read, with interest, your letter requesting that people register to be GOP poll observers for the upcoming 2016 General Election. As a Wake County elected official, I certainly support the presence of statutorily-allowed election observers at polling stations to ensure that voters have the opportunity to cast legal votes for the candidates of their choice. But I was alarmed by some of the accusations in your letter. Your statements that “nearly every day we see some new example of voter fraud or [Democrats’] attempt to subvert the will of the people” and “registering dead people or falsifying voter information” are certainly serious accusations. Further, I am concerned that a precinct observer will be unable adequately to combat such obvious crimes on Election Day.

Therefore, as a Wake County elected official with budgetary responsibility for the Board of Elections, I would like to assist in rooting out these purported frauds now, before the election season officially begins. After all, I am sure you will agree that neither of us wants to create any unnecessary disturbances at the polling places, which might actually prevent valid votes from being cast and counted.

However, time is running short. So let’s work quickly. By next Friday, October 14, please provide me with evidence of daily examples of voter fraud in Wake County and each instance of the intentional registration of dead people or falsified voter information. Feel free to call me to discuss the best way to deliver this information, as from the tone of your letter, it sounds quite voluminous. Together, we should be able to draw the attention of the Board of Elections to these issues and root out such fraud before the election, rather than relying on challenging voters in an ad hoc fashion on Election Day.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is dedicated to providing financial support for a fair and democratic elections process in Wake County. We value our citizens’ civic engagement and their history of turning out in heavy numbers in national elections. This year should be no different, and I am certain that both major political parties share the belief that every voter should have their vote counted without interference or subterfuge. I must take the allegations in your letter seriously, because I simply cannot believe that an official of one of our two major parties would intentionally call for interference with the right to vote.

I look forward to receiving the evidence of any of the frauds mentioned in your letter, so that we can work together to ensure a fair election.

Sincerely,

John D. Burns
Wake County Commissioner
District 7

Such accusations undermine voters’ faith in democracy and in our institutions. They are dangerous. At a time when the confidence of the American public in our government and democratic process is being shaken every day, it is irresponsible to use such accusations for political gain.

If they have the proof, then I am sure the Wake GOP will provide me with the evidence. If they do not, then the Wake GOP owes voters an apology.

-JB

It’s on all of us

Violent people in Charlotte disrupted a peaceful protest. Quit calling those people protesters. Doing so delegitimizes the reason for the protest, which is something we must discuss and deal with and, yes, protest.

I’m here today at the Wake County First Responders Appreciation Breakfast. We are hearing stories of Sheriff deputies that pulled intoxicated drivers out of burning cars, police officers that talked psychologically suffering people off ledges, and EMS personnel saving the life of a prematurely born infant.

All of these duties came because society is not meeting its responsibilities. We are not meeting our responsibilities to enable treatment of the mentally ill. We are not dealing with the problem of substance use disorder, and we are not providing adequate prenatal care. And, most importantly, we are not confronting the problem of institutional racism, leaving our police officers as sometimes the only point of interaction between “the system” and those it leaves behind. That’s not fair to the officers, and it does nothing to fix the issue or confront the challenge posed by institutional racism.

Dealing with this issue is on all of us. People are dying because we don’t know how to discuss the problems, and many of us in government find it easier to focus on other things.

Work with each other. Talk to each other. We will get through this.

Wake County stands with the people of Charlotte.

The 2016-2017 Wake County Budget

Next week, the County Manager will issue his proposed budget. Knowing Jim Hartmann the way I do, I expect his proposed budget to be well-reasoned, supported by data, and moderate. We have had some internal discussions about areas of emphasis, and of course, the school system has adopted its official request. All of those numbers will come together in a proposed budget on Monday, and then we can start discussing the good and the not so good.

One thing about Jim Hartmann, he will have done his homework, and if I or anyone else disagrees with a budget item, we’re going to have to do a lot of work to come to a conclusion other than the one he reaches. We have tasked Jim with the direction we believe the people want the County to go. He and his team of professionals will give us their best shot at getting us there over the next 12 months.

I expect that a good budget will not please everyone. That’s kind of the way budgets work. But I will be looking for the direction the county is headed under a proposed budget. If I feel it is headed the right way in a responsible fashion, I will be inclined to support it. If not, I’ll speak up. Either way, I’ll listen to you.

This year in particular, I will be looking for a few specific things:

  1. a dedication to the lowest responsible tax rate we can sustain while meeting our responsibilities.
  2. maintenance of historically-high appropriations to the Wake County Public Schools, to continue the recovery from a period of underinvestment.
  3. focus on the areas of emphasis passed by the County Commission this year, including a renewed effort to care for those people who are in our custody, whether that is through the Sheriff, Child Protective Services, or Mental Health. We have a responsibility to meet their needs, and to keep them and our County employees who support them safe.
  4. continued support for cultural, economic, educational and charitable institutions that promote a sense of community here in Wake County. Last year I was happy to support increased investment in the NC Symphony and Smart Start. Those are the kind of high return-on-investment agencies I am speaking of.

In addition, at our work session on Monday, we heard a report from the Wake County Fire Services Director. Chief Campasano laid out a detailed plan that the Fire Commission and Commissioner Calabria have put together to improve the service and funding of our rural and community fire departments around Wake County. That plan will require changes to the fire tax, which the Manager will also recommend Monday. The plan makes sense and will result in better and more efficient fire protection for the 20% of our population that live within the fire tax district (essentially those outside of the service areas of the Raleigh and Cary Fire Departments).

As usual, I will be as transparent as I can be on my thoughts and concerns about the budget. You are welcome to contact me.

Two Votes Worth Explaining

Today, we had two issues come before us that I thought merited an explanation of my vote.

First, we approved the Wake County Public School System’s request for an appropriation to allow them to rent a commercial building near the school system Central Office in Cary in order to house elements of new programs for middle and high school students who do not fit in to the normal track. They will use the facility as a hub for the SCORE program for long-term suspended students as well as for a new online and alternative high school for highly motivated self-learners. In addition, the building will house the employees who will deliver wrap-around services to these students, such as special counselors, social workers and others.

I voted for this lease, despite the price tag, because the terms of the lease are competitive, and the school system answered our questions in detail. The deal must be approved by the County Commission and the Local Government Commission by February 6 in order for the lease to be available. While I did not appreciate that the County had to make a multi-year commitment to funding the lease and the programs based on the timetable imposed by the commercial landlord, ultimately the programs are sorely needed, and the idea is a good one.

Nevertheless, I take my fiscal responsibility as your Commissioner quite seriously, and will continue to review such requests very carefully.

Second, we held a public hearing concerning the Town of Holly Springs’s request for an extension of its Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) into southwestern Wake County. ETJs are a vital tool in both the County and local municipalities toolkits to ensure careful and deliberate planning of development and expansion of municipal services such as water, sewer and street maintenance. However, in this instance, there were citizens who opposed the extension who raised questions that I thought deserved to be heard in more detail than we could accomplish in a public hearing in a meeting with a full agenda. So I moved to refer the extension to our Growth, Land Use & Environment committee and my colleagues agreed.

Over the next two months we will use this case as a vehicle to discuss how ETJs work, what they mean for the people living in the areas that are subject to the expansions, and how we can assure that people who live outside of the town limits can feel better represented in the process. I hope at the end of the process that people will feel they have been listened to, and they understand the nature of the process a little better.

This really is a fun job.

Happy New Year!

As I write this note from my office, the rest of my family has already gone to the beach, where we gather every year with several other families to welcome in the New Year. This is a tradition we’ve been following now for almost 20 years. No matter what life throws our way in each passing year, we all make a point to get together each year. We’ve taken care of each other through thick and thin, and those experiences build bonds that last. Life’s changes shouldn’t get in the way of what’s important at this time of year: family, friends, and hope for the future.

That same focus on building bonds is what drove us here in Wake County in 2015. From a new focus on education in our budget, to new parks and open spaces, we are building a Wake County our children and grandchildren can enjoy many years from now. And with two changes to our own employment policies, Wake County is setting a standard for how employees should be fairly treated and compensated.

As for the year ahead, 2016 will bring the passage of a comprehensive transit plan that will offer new choices and freedom to those who live and work in Wake County. We will also work with our friends and neighbors on tackling two of the great problems that face us as we grow: affordable housing and treatment of those confronting mental illness. It all comes back to caring for each other and building bonds in our community.

So, once I join my family and friends and we toast 2016 in a few days, I will say thanks to you and the voters of Wake County for offering me the opportunity to work to build those ties and bonds. And I look forward to working with you to build a better Wake County in the year to come. If you’d like to help with that work, please help me keep this site going by clicking here and donating a few dollars. I appreciate every one.

Happy New Year!

John