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Marching on City Hall 

Council members are shocked! Shocked!

An amazing thing happened April 28.

Voters from all the right neighborhoods marched on city hall demanding more money to fight crime. It's the kind of rarity that causes city council members to soil their Depends.

In the weeks before politicians got notice that the marchers were coming, they were busy knee-capping the criminal justice system even further while insisting crime isn't a problem here, never mind that Forbes magazine just ranked us 188 out of 200 cities using federal crime rates with 200 being the worst. Never mind that crime in most categories here is a third higher to twice as high as it is in most cities we are trying to emulate.

Two weeks ago, a consultant's report suggesting that police arrest 20 percent fewer people so the county wouldn't have to build more jail space was well received by the Mecklenburg County Commission. So was the expansion of a county program that already backs the bonds of those who commit most misdemeanors and some felonies so they can get back out on the street faster. The only way to expand the program is to add more felony/serious charges to the eligibility list to help more criminals bond out on the county dime at faster rates.

Meanwhile, city bureaucrats were busy putting together a list of what they wanted in a new police chief. The list, which essentially described a glorified social worker with lobbying skills, didn't include the word "crime" or anything about actually fighting it.

But as word of the upcoming march spread, all that changed. Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Jennifer Roberts suddenly announced the creation of a new commission to study our justice system and city leaders pulled a paltry $2.5 million out of their collective rear ends to pacify the marchers.

For a city council that repeatedly dismissed the concerns of crime-plagued African-American residents of Optimist Park when they complained about being afraid to leave their homes a few years ago, it was quite a turn around. While Optimist Park, a struggling low-income neighborhood, was essentially told to bugger off, our friends from Dilworth, Myers Park and Plaza Midwood managed to wrangle $2.5 million out of the council on a moment's notice.

But what did they actually get? So far, essentially, hush money to go away.

City Manager Curt Walton threw a snit fit last week over having to spend even the $2.5 million, a relatively small amount. Walton even threatened to take it out of funds to build sidewalks, as if the city is somehow too broke to fight crime. It was essentially a threat to punish taxpayers for daring to ask to be safe. Yet the council had no problem forking over $5.4 million for a special connector road to drive traffic to the newly developed IKEA store in the University area or another $5.8 million for a connector road for a developer threatening to scale back a development at the old coliseum site. A streetcar funded by hundreds of millions in property taxes? No problem. The $12 million the city spent to turn the impoverished Double Oaks neighborhood into an Uptown destination by subsidizing the construction of $250,000 to $300,000 houses? Chump change. The tens of millions it will ultimately take to redevelop Eastland Mall? No problem.

City council members feigned shock as police described repeat offenders with rap sheets 10 pages long and Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist relayed how his overwhelmed 65-prosecutor office in similar sized cities would have 90 to 100 DAs. Gilchrist told council members there isn't another office in the country with just six district attorneys to argue 106 pending murder cases.

As Mayor Pat McCrory pointed out, it was essentially the same speech Gilchrist gave the council last February, but council members put on Academy Award-winning performances pretending this was somehow all new to them. County commissioners, meanwhile, heard from one of their consultants that our court system was the most understaffed he had ever seen. Despite full knowledge of the real problem, neither body bothered to put a request for more district attorneys and court staffing in their requests to the state legislature this year. So local politicians' convenient claims that this is the state's fault fall a bit flat, since no one but McCrory, who organized an anti-crime caravan to Raleigh last year, has actually asked state legislators for funding recently.

Odd isn't it? Not really. Those that control the state legislature have dug in their heels about building any more prisons. Local leaders don't want to ask for the tens of millions of dollars it would take to bring our justice system up to snuff when they could request it for other more popular economic development and transit type projects. They know they won't get that kind of money for both things from the legislature.

So they compromise citizens' safety --and ultimately their lives -- and then feign shock for the camera. At least up until now. But not if the marchers march on.

Citizen Servatius will be taking a break from her column next week. Catch up with her in the May 28 issue!

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