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Panhandlers a problem downtown, some say

People are complaining to Winston-Salem officials that panhandlers downtown are getting too aggressive, and are calling on the city to do something about it.

Bobby Finch, a partner in Triad Commercial Properties, wrote an email complaining about panhandlers that’s getting circulated among leaders downtown, the mayor and city administrators. In his email, Finch also proposes moving the Clark Campbell Transportation Center and a drug-treatment center on Fourth Street, saying both draw panhandlers.

In the email, Finch recounts encounters he said other people have passed along to him, and recounts a few of his own.

“I have been shocked by the level of harassment I’ve experienced personally on Fourth Street coming and going from lunch meetings recently,” Finch wrote in the email, which he concludes by saying that he “would hate to see all the progress that has been made downtown be undermined by allowing this unacceptable activity to continue.”

Finch hit a nerve, apparently: Jason Thiel, the president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, sent a response to the email to Mayor Allen Joines, Mark Owens, president of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, and Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem, in which Thiel said “this summer has seen a significant increase in aggressive panhandling in Winston-Salem.”

It’s not a knock at the homeless, Thiel told the Journal in a telephone interview. The problem is when people go beyond simply asking for money politely.

“We have had people followed and walked up to very quickly,” Thiel said. “People present themselves and will not take a simple no for an answer. People feel they (the panhandlers) are getting very close to them sometimes. There are threats, or just popping up out of nowhere. People are aggressively pursuing on many occasions.”

Thiel said the problem is one talked about and shared among “stakeholders from all parts of downtown,” and isn’t simply a response to Finch’s email.

“We want people to think downtown is a welcome place and that everyone is welcome,” Thiel said. “But everyone who is coming should be able to come without getting aggressively panhandled.”

In his email, Finch tells how he recently heard a business client he met at a downtown business telling his wife to use Uber to get a ride down several blocks of Fourth Street after he had been “aggressively accosted” by two men.

Sgt. Kevin Bowers of the Downtown Bike Patrol said that in the incident Finch recounts, no one apparently called the police.

“Some of the information we get is days old, and that makes it difficult to stay on top of things,” Bowers said. “We would prefer that if people are a victim of that, or a party to that, if they see something, report it when it is happening. We are getting a lot of reports of it being very aggressive in nature. A lot of that is coming after the fact.”

Police will investigate if called, Bowers said, adding that most of the people panhandling downtown don’t have the permit the city requires to beg legally.

Even people with a permit are restricted in what they can do and where, Bowers said. According to the city ordinance, panhandling can’t be done at outdoor dining areas or within 100 feet of an automatic teller machine. Panhandlers can’t engage in “accosting another ... or forcing oneself upon the company of another,” the ordinance states.

“Some folks may think it is minor and that we don’t want to know about it, but we do,” Bowers said. “If we don’t know about it, we can’t do anything.”

Finch said he knows that there are people down on their luck, but that the people he is complaining about are “there for no other reason than to harass people and ask for money.”

“I am all for trying to help people who may be down and out,” Finch said. “But there are other, more productive ways to help people. I am all about helping Samaritan Ministries and other outlets where they can get back on their feet. But it is not productive to have them out there, and it may have a negative impact on downtown.”

Finch, in his email, advocates moving the transportation and the drug-treatment center as efforts toward a solution to panhandling. But Bowers said he can’t say that either of those places is the source of problems.

“At the transportation center, the vast majority of people are not causing problems on a daily basis,” Bowers said. While drug-treatment clients have sometimes been reported for being on private property, Bowers said, he knows of no cases of clients engaged in panhandling.

Joines responded to the Finch email by asking City Manager Lee Garrity to see what can be done about aggressive panhandling.

“I am getting calls from other downtown businesses,” Joines wrote, adding in an interview that he sees panhandling as a problem that “kind of waxes and wanes” over the years.

Garrity said the city will be looking for solutions, but that simply asking people for money, in a non-aggressive way, won’t get people arrested. The city can enforce its permit requirements, Garrity said, adding that he doubts any court would lock up someone for not having a permit.

“You can’t arrest people just for panhandling or loitering, if they are not aggressive or under the influence” Garrity said.

Ralph Womble, a downtown advocate who serves on the board of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, said in an email that the panhandling problem “is getting worse and worse,” and called for more bike patrol officers.

“It is a function of police proximity,” Womble said. “If they are not around and people don’t see them, people are more likely to be aggressively panhandling.”

The bike patrol has 10 officers at present, and is authorized for 12. Womble thinks it could use even more officers than that.

Bowers said more is better when it comes to staffing.

“A lot of what police work comes down to is visibility,” Bowers said.

Big turnout for Burke Mill Road plan by Truliant

Truliant officials promised to keep talking with residents and listening to their concerns over a company expansion plan on Burke Mill Road, although one thing the company isn’t doing is abandoning its quest.

About 50 or 60 people who live near the company’s headquarters came to ask questions, listen to answers and, in many cases, voice their objections to Truliant Federal Credit Union’s plan.

But as even the residents made clear, the concerns of people along Burke Mill Road go beyond the company plans: Their concerns include traffic jams on London Lane and difficulties people have in trying to get out from their homes, whether in a car or on foot.

“I’m all for the traffic light, I just don’t support increased traffic on Burke Mill,” Sandersted resident Jim Hatchell said after the meeting. “I’m all for Truliant. I just don’t want to hurt property values.”

Southwest Ward Council Member Dan Besse, who organized and moderated the meeting, told the residents that he wants to hear from all the neighborhood associations to get their views.

Truliant’s headquarters property backs up to Burke Mill Road, but employees get to work from Hanes Mall Boulevard.

Truliant has proposed acquiring a house on Burke Mill Road directly behind its existing headquarters site, so that it can tear it down to accommodate an expansion that would include creating a new entry drive from Burke Mill Road that would be used only by employees.

The Truliant work force would double from 450 employees at headquarters to somewhere between 895 and 970 workers after eight or 10 years. Truliant says it would be providing 400 additional high-paying jobs. A new building would be part of a $40 million expansion.

In July, the company postponed its request for a rezoning until the Aug. 8 meeting of the City-County Planning Board.

Company officials said Truliant wanted to meet with neighbors and discuss their proposals some more. Wednesday night was the first installment on that. Truliant President Todd Hall said more neighborhood meetings are to come.

The partial results of a city traffic study seemed to give some support to the company’s plans. The study showed that without the new entrance on Burke Mill Road, a Truliant expansion would increase the traffic load on longer stretches of Burke Mill Road, as workers made their way around to Hanes Mall Boulevard to reach the main entrance.

Folks seemed skeptical. What if the rezoning for the expansion wasn’t approved, some asked. In that case, Hall said, the company might have to reconsider whether it wants to stay at its current site.

Responding to a concern about how many of Truliant’s employees might use the new entrance, Hall said the company was open to looking at restricting the number through the card-entry system that would limit use of the new entrance to employees only.

Truliant officials stressed how they have tried hard to be good neighbors, and it was noted that residents of Charlestowne, their closest development, have endorsed their plan.

Truliant officials also stressed concessions that it is willing to write into the permits the city would grant, including additional vegetation screening and support for a traffic signal on Burke Mill Road at the Stonewood Drive intersection across from the new entry.

With proper timing, city traffic officials said, the new traffic signal could pause traffic long enough to give others up and down Burke Mill Road a chance to get out onto the road from their side streets or driveways.

The city would also give Burke Mill Road a dedicated left-turn signal for southbound traffic turning left onto London Lane. Intersections would be given crosswalks and pedestrian signals.

Still, many residents sounded unconvinced. People mentioned property values going down, called for the city to wait for the completion of a complete traffic study for Burke Mill Road, and wondered if, down the road, Truliant’s new entry could be turned into a shortcut to Hanes Mall Boulevard.

Siobhan Murphy, who lives in British Woods, asked questions that pointed to trust: How could residents know Truliant was living up to promises it made? she asked at one point. She and a number of others in room wanted something done about congestion on London Lane, a popular cut-through between Burke Mill and Ebert Roads.

Kimberley Bokhoven told a Journal reporter during the meeting that it seemed like she was the only resident in the room in favor of Truliant’s plan. Bokhoven is president of the homeowner’s association in Stonewood.

“I see a lot of good about it, jobs and shifting some traffic around,” she said. “People are afraid it is going to get worse. It could be an improvement.”

Dan Hunt, a British Woods resident standing in the back of the room, got the biggest laugh when he suggested that rezoning approval should be “contingent on a certain percentage of traffic reduction on London Lane.”

U.S. House committee grill BB&T, SunTrust CEOs over socio-economic effects of merger

The congressional hearing dealing with BB&T Corp.’s proposed $29.7 billion purchase of SunTrust Banks Inc. may have been overshadowed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before two U.S. House committees on Wednesday, but the bank hearing did provide some drama of its own.

For example, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez pressed Kelly King, the chairman and chief executive of BB&T, and William Rogers, the chairman and CEO of SunTrust, during the hearing in Washington on whether they support a $20-an-hour minimum wage.

Rival Bank of America Corp. said Tuesday that it will raise its minimum wage to $17 an hour on May 1, 2020, and to $20 an hour on May 1, 2021.

King and Rogers cited recent moves to make their respective minimum wages $15 an hour.

Velazquez, D-N.Y., compared the banks’ minimum wages to their most recent CEO pay ratio to their median employee declarations required by Dodd-Frank financial regulations. The ratios for King for 2018 were $15.86 to $1 in salary and $125 to $1 for total compensation.

“Most Americans find these ratios unacceptable,” Velazquez said. “Do you believe these ratios are fair?”

King said that “we study the (minimum wage) issue all the time. Each institution is different depending on location and what’s the cost of living for employees.”

As King continued his response to say that “we want to be sure we are paying ...” Velazquez cut him off to ask how much of the potential $1.6 billion in annual cost savings — some of which will come from cutting hundreds to thousands of jobs — would be directed to raising employee salaries.

Before King could answer, Velazquez’s interview time expired. When another committee member asked King to answer the question, he declined, which the member took “as a no.”

Velazquez later tweeted that “while the merger will save the banks $1.6 billion annually, their CEO’s could not commit to raising their #MinimumWage to $20.”

King and Rogers also were asked pointedly by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, whether they are capitalists or socialists. They answered “capitalist.”

First hearing since 1998

It was the first committee hearing focused on an individual bank deal since 1998.

The pro-and-con merger comments from members of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee threatened at times to detract from reviewing the potential consequences of the deal, which would create the nation’s sixth-largest bank, with $442 billion in total assets.

Valued at $66 billion, it is the largest proposed bank industry deal since the Great Recession of 2007-11. BB&T shareholders would own 57% of the combined entity.

Using the new name Truist Financial Corp., the bank would have its headquarters in Charlotte, with its community-banking division in Winston-Salem and wholesale-banking division in Atlanta.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the committee’s chairwoman, opened the three-hour meeting by saying, “I’m concerned that if this merger goes forward, it will create another megabank that is too big to manage and poses a risk to our financial system.”

Truist would be less than 25% of the asset size of the Big Four national banks — JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo & Co.

King said Truist would have about 3% of the national asset totals. King would serve as Truist’s chairman and chief executive at its debut.

Rogers stressed that “bigger doesn’t make for riskier” and that Truist would maintain solid risk-management standards and would be “adding scale, not complexity.”

Republican committee members mostly supported the megadeal, announced Feb. 7. They downplayed most regulatory concerns by touting the banks’ ability to have avoided most of the blunders that have plagued the national banks.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., said the banks’ domestic focus and lack of international banking exposure gives him confidence that a combined Truist would meet its socio-economic obligations within its territory.

Fears over job cuts

Several Democratic committee members questioned whether Truist would negatively affect consumers and likely thousands of bank employees in overlapping back-office and other operations.

BB&T has 35,300 employees and SunTrust 22,600.

Those members repeatedly honed in on the banks saying they have at least 740 branches within 2 miles of each other.

Some Democrats wanted King and Rogers to put in the regulatory merger documents that they would limit the number of eliminated jobs and make public the terms of severance packages.

King told analysts when the deal was announced Feb. 7 that “if you are a client-facing associate and doing a good job, then your job is assured.” King repeated that pledge to the committee.

Waters was among the first members of Congress to speak out on the deal, saying Feb. 8 that the merger “is a direct consequence of the deregulatory agenda that (President Donald) Trump and congressional Republicans have advanced.”

“The proposed merger raises many questions and deserves serious scrutiny from banking regulators, Congress and the public to determine its impact and whether it would create a public benefit for consumers,” Waters said.

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, a Republican who represents North Carolina’s 13th District, said he considers BB&T and SunTrust “as strong banks and following appropriate regulatory standards.”

Budd cited his faith that the banks would not neglect rural areas of a potential 17-state market by relating how BB&T has doubled its workforce in its former hometown of Wilson from 1,000 to 2,000 since moving to Winston-Salem in 1995.

Closer reviews questioned

The Federal Reserve Board and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. must approve the deal that is being projected to close between late September and early October. The N.C. Commissioner of Banks gave its approval July 10.

Special shareholder meetings are scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday in Greensboro and Atlanta.

However, depending on the level of congressional and federal regulatory scrutiny, approval, if coming, might not be until early 2020, analysts say.

For example, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., requested that the committee recommend federal regulators “hit pause” on their review until the social and economic ripple effects of the megadeal are thoroughly reviewed.

Maloney expressed concern that federal regulators only serve as a rubber stamp for bank deals.

A committee public memorandum on the hearing found that from 2006 to 2017, 3,189 bank deals were submitted to the Fed, with 3,316 approved, 503 withdrawn and none formally rejected. Analysts say the bulk of the withdrawn applications likely came from the recommendation of regulators after informal discussions with the affected banks.

Maloney said it “is troubling to me that there were no Federal Reserve or FDIC officials at the two community hearings” held in June in Charlotte and Atlanta.

King and Rogers confirmed they were not directly asked a question by officials from either agency at those hearings.

“It’s an insult to the public and (a sign) that the regulatory agencies didn’t take the hearings seriously,” Maloney said.

King woman indicted for involuntary manslaughter and other charges in heroin overdose death of Winston-Salem man

A King woman has been indicted for allegedly selling heroin to a Winston-Salem man that led to his death from a drug overdose.

On Monday, a Forsyth County grand jury indicted Kelsea Jewel Harris, 29, of the 100 block of Culler Way in King on several charges, including involuntary manslaughter and obstruction of justice. possession with intent to sell and deliver heroin, conspiracy to sell heroin, and delivery of heroin.

The charges are in connection with the Jan. 24, 2017, death of Kevin Paul Flaherty, 56, of Bethabara Road in Winston-Salem. Winston-Salem police found Flaherty dead in his home. Police said Flaherty died from heroin toxicity.

According to the indictments, Harris is accused of selling Flaherty the heroin that led to his death. The indictments also allege she obstructed justice by covering Flaherty up to make it seem as if he was sleeping and removing any drug paraphernalia “in an effort to mislead and impede an investigation into circumstances surrounding his overdose.”

The grand jury also indicted Harris on two aggravating factors. One alleges that after she sold Flaherty the heroin, she left him once he became unconscious and did not render him any medical aid.

The other alleges that Harris’ conduct in giving Flaherty the heroin that led to his death was “sufficiently reckless that it constituted malice.”

Harris had initially been charged with second-degree murder. It’s rare for prosecutors to charge someone with second-degree murder in a drug-overdose case.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said the Rules of Professional Responsibility prevent him from commenting on a pending case.

On July 9, Gov. Roy Cooper signed into a law the “Death by Distribution” bill that the N.C. General Assembly passed in late June.

The new state law, which goes into effect Dec. 1, is designed to make it easier for prosecutors to go after alleged drug dealers in fatal overdose cases. Under the law, it will be illegal to sell drugs that result in an overdose death and punishable by up to 40 years in prison. And the law doesn’t require prosecutors to prove malice.

O’Neill, who is running for N.C. attorney general, has publicly supported the new law.

Supporters argue that the law will help fight the opioid epidemic, but critics say it will keep people from calling 911 during an overdose.

Flaherty was a native of Hudson County, N.J., and served five years in the U.S. Navy, according to his obituary. He worked as an electrician for most of his life and also worked at the Hampton Inn in Winston-Salem. He is buried at the Salisbury National Cemetery.

Harris is being held in the Forsyth County jail with bond set at $150,000. Her next court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 5 in Forsyth Superior Court.

DAVID ROLFE/Journal file