Youth crime gets the commissioners’ attention

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Youth violence has received plenty of attention recently from law enforcement officials and District Attorney Ben David, and their calls for programs to reduce juvenile crime were joined Monday by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Support came in the form of a 4-1 vote to spend an additional $233,000 between January and June 2016 to expand prevention services for at-risk young people in the Office of Juvenile Services. The money would not require dipping into the fund balance, said county manager Chris Coudriet, but would reallot existing money in the department’s budget. The full-year budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year would be $421,000.

Kathy Stoute, director of community justice services with the county court system, asked the commissioners to increase funding for prevention services, with the goal of keeping juveniles from continuing down a criminal path.

Her department has several initiatives designed to identify students at risk of falling into criminal behavior and families who need services to bring more stability to their lives.

The programs are working, she said, noting a 1 percent recidivism rate among 227 students involved with juvenile services in 2013-14. The idea is to work with children and teens to divert them from future criminal behavior.

“If we solve behavior issues today, we will definitely improve their lives down the road,” Stoute said.

Investing on the front end also saves money by keeping students out of the justice system.

Commissioner Woody White said while the program has great merit, he was reluctant to approve eight new employees and significant additional spending in the middle of the budget year.

“It is not an insignificant policy issue,” he said.

Chris Coudriet said he planned to bring the issue to the commissioners in next year’s budget, but given growing concern about gangs and juvenile violence in Wilmington and New Hanover County, he said now seemed like an appropriate time to consider it.

Three other commissioners agreed; White voted no.

That discussion was preceded by unanimous approval of a multi-agency agreement designed to reduce the number of students whose behavior problems in school lead to criminal charges. The agreement lays out a number of options for school resource officers to handle problems referred to them, based on severity and frequency.

The effort was led by District Court Judge Jay Corpening, who presides over juvenile court and said he sees far too many offenders whose path to crime started when they were charged at school. Many of those charges are better handled immediately, in a school setting and not in court, he said.

In other business, the board:

• By a 3-2 vote, denied a request to rezone four tracts totaling 73.08 acres off Blue Clay Road near Old Mill Road owned by New Beginnings Church, Raiford Trask Jr. and heirs of Rachel Trask Gonslaves. Cindee Wolf, representing owners of the separate tracts, asked to rezone the property from R-20 residential to R-10, which would permit more units per acre.

Neighbors, including residents of the Runnymeade and Ivy Woods subdivisions, objected because they feared denser development would worsen flooding and septic problems, although Wolf disputed that. Sewers and storm water retention ponds would be required of large developments on those sites, county planner Ben Schuler said.

There was some dispute whether commission chairman Jonathan Barfield, who is an elder at New Beginnings Church, had a conflict of interest that would require him to abstain. But county attorney Wanda Copley explained state law requires elected officials to vote unless they have a direct and substantial financial interest in the issue at hand. Barfield and Commissioner Rob Zapple voted yes; Beth Dawson, Skip Watkins and Woody White voted to deny the rezoning.

• Approved an agreement that will allow the New Hanover County Schools to get a full sales tax refund from the state on capital projects such as new schools. Schools are not exempt from paying sales tax, and state law doesn’t allow the school board to ask the state for a refund. The county can ask for a refund, but not for school construction because the schools own the buildings. The agreement leases school buildings to the county while they are under construction, a provision that has been used in Wake County and which was approved by the N.C. Department of Revenue, said chief financial officer Lisa Wurtzbacher.

• Adopted a resolution in support of the Stepping Up Initiative, a national effort to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders in local jails. More than 2 million people with one of those conditions or both are jailed each year, said Beth Schrader, the county’s chief strategy manager. In New Hanover County, half of jail inmates fit that description, she said.

The initiative aims to bring local experts and agencies together to identify treatment options to divert more people from jails, which do not have the resources to address their needs.

• Passed a resolution in support of Domestic Violence Month, noting that two New Hanover County employees, Gladys Bryant in 2002 and Tarica Pulliam in 2008, were murdered by significant others.

The commissioners met in the historic courthouse at Third and Princess streets for the first time since a lightning strike in August damaged electronic sound and broadcast equipment.

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