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ELECTION 2019: Mayor Bill Saffo talks opioid crisis, over-development and greenspace ahead of 2019 election

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Mayor Bill Saffo has served the city since 2006 and is being challenged for the first time in his candidancy in 2019. Photo courtesy of Mayor Bill Saffo


As another local election campaign nears, new and familiar faces have been filing to fill three Wilmington City Council seats. Mack Coyle, Harry Smith Jr., Kimberly Spader, Kevin Spears, Scott Monroe and Matt Thrift are on the ballot, and up for re-election are Margaret Haynes, Paul Lawler and Neil Anderson (Alexandria Monroe pulled out of the race).

encore has reached out to candidates to get their thoughts and views on top-of-mind issues concerning our city. This week we chat with Mayor Saffo about his upcoming re-election bid—the first time he has been challenged since  taking office in 2006.

encore (e): What have been your biggest successes and failures as mayor?

Mayor Bill Saffo (MBS): When I ran for office I said I wanted to help revitalize downtown Wilmington, and I believe that we are doing that and the Council and myself have transformed downtown Wilmington into a vibrant place.

In addition, I have been part of a group of elected leaders that have implemented two parks bonds, which have added to our park and green space; help pass a transportation bond, which has invested millions of dollars into roads and bridges; fought for film grants; and helped bring and expand businesses with good paying jobs to our city—like Verizon, Castle Branch, Live Oak Bank, nCino, National Gypsum.

A painful issue that has affected me personally and many others within our community is the opioid crisis which is a national epidemic. Friends and colleagues who have lost loved ones and are battling the effects of the addiction has been very personal. This caught all elected and health officials off guard with respect to its magnitude.   

e: Yeah, let’s talk about that: In the last 10 years, 243 people have lost their lives in New Hanover County to opioids. What is being done right now to combat this crisis? Do you think it’s enough?

MBS: As mayor, I convened a group of elected leaders and nonprofits, law enforcement and health officials to come together to develop a strategy to deal with this epidemic. Through those efforts, we were able to pass legislation of the Stop Act, which limits the number of opioids distributed by health officials.

In addition, we have created a fast-response team to engage citizens who are addicted to seek treatment, and have also supported the building of additional treatment facilities within the city of Wilmington. Along with the county, we were one of the first municipalities in the country to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors that helped create this crisis.

e: According to the census, the poverty rate among African Americans in Wilmington is 41%—a dramatic increase from the national average of 25%. What are your plans to fix this?

MBS: A way to combat poverty is through education, job creation and affordable housing. First, we have embarked by creating an affordable housing coalition in partnership with the county. Through the city’s housing initiatives, we have been able to place almost 400 homeowners into affordable houses.

Second, education is key to getting a job. Keeping kids in school is critical, and although we don’t have a direct input into the school system, we can help through programs, such as the Blue Ribbon Commission, which helps students find pathways to success.

We also supported the school system’s creation of a vocational high school, thereby giving students the opportunity to learn a trade, which affords them the opportunity to seek employment directly out of high school.

Supporting our local community college helps to retrain and train people in different skill sets to get jobs. The Wilmington City Council, through its economic development partners, has helped to recruit a number of companies and businesses, which gives people the opportunity to apply for and obtain jobs.

e: Climate change is on a steady up, and we are affected first and foremost living on the coast. What more should the city be doing to combat this? What are your ideas to help be a part of a solution?

MBS: The city will continue to lead as an environmental steward. We have passed a resolution to reduce emissions by 58% by 2050. We have passed two resolutions to oppose off-shore drilling. We have implemented a recycling program for the city. We have lobbied both the EPA, as well as our state and local officials on more regulations of the Cape Fear River to protect our drinking water. We have supported the county’s efforts to get Duke Power to convert its Sutton Power Plant from coal to natural gas, which has resulted in the American Lung Association identifying Wilmington as having some of the cleanest air in the nation.

e: WAVE and our public transportation system could be one way to help decrease greenhouse gases, but how do we get people to utilize public transportation who don’t need to, i.e. car owners? Do you have a plan to invest in and encourage this use?

MBS: First, WAVE is an authority that is governed by a separate Board of Directors, not the city.  The city plays an active role in supporting the initiatives and goals of the authority by helping to fund them.  With a growing population in a very urbanized area, it is imperative that both city and county governments fund WAVE at the same levels to ensure additional ridership and convenience.

e: Citizens aplenty are decrying the over-development of our area, which adds to more flooding problems. How do we correct this and get ahead of it rather than further behind than we already are—especially with being located in hurricane alley?

MBS: The city has an active stormwater program that is funded through stormwater fees and over many years, has improved and alleviated flooding problems in many parts of our city. To date, there are over $100 million in stormwater projects to be done and a prioritized list of those projects has been approved.

e: How do you plan to curb development and/or reallocate development to areas of the city that need it most? 

MBS: Most development is market-driven.  Developments are approved or denied based on the citizen’s comprehensive land-use plan that was adopted by the city over two years ago. This plan is a road map that tells developers what can be built and where. All development where zoning changes are requested are subject to the city’s planning department approval, city’s planning commission approval and finally city council’s approval. In addition, the process is transparent and involves public hearings where the public can voice support or objections.   

e: Also as a problem of over-development: green space deterioration. What are you doing to ensure we aren’t turning into a concrete jungle?

MBS: The city supported and with the citizen’s help, passed a $38 million parks bond to add to our 744 acres of green space. Also, all new development must include greenspace.

e: Part of the mayor’s job is to build consensus with city council. How are you doing so?

MBS: I have made it my goal to work across party lines to get things done whether it’s with our congressional delegation in Washington or Raleigh, the county commissioners or the many advocacy groups that exist or fellow elected leaders in the region.  My goal has always been to build relationships and be a consensus builder.

e: Do you support district representation on council? Why or why not?

MBS: I would if the district lines are drawn by a committee of citizens of the city of Wilmington.  If they are drawn by the state legislator, I would not.

e: What projects do you want to see included in long-range city planning that are currently neglected? How would you motivate council to accomplish those goals?

MBS: All projects are subject to long-range planning and involve the input of the entire city council.

e: What kinds of businesses do you think Wilmington most urgently needs? What are your plans to attract them here?

MBS: Any business that helps create good paying jobs and are good corporate citizens by giving back to the community, I support.

e: What role do you see our local colleges playing in the larger community? How might they be better utilized to support Wilmington at large?

MBS: College plays a very important role in our community and supports the city’s initiatives through its many schools and programs.  They are active in helping our city and our entire region from the environment to business to social ills that affect our community.

e: Rate the following in importance and explain your ideas to correct/enhance them if you already haven’t above: affordable housing; better paying/more jobs; public transportation; tax incentives; climate crisis; hurricane preparedness; systemic equity and systemic equality. What else would you put on this list and why?

MBS: They are all very important issues and after every election, the entire city council convenes to discuss its goals and objectives for the coming year.  Many of the things that have been identified are already priorities of the city council yet they are subject to change with every new council and available funding.

e: What’s missing from our city that needs to be included so ALL people are equally represented? How will you get us there?

MBS: All citizens of Wilmington are represented by their local government and their voices are heard.  Local government is the most accessible government to the citizens.  We are seen in the grocery stores, on the street, we are your neighbors and can be contacted by phone, email and at many public community meetings.

Have follow-up questions for Mayor Bill Saffo? Be sure to leave a comment on the online article, and we will see he receives and answers them for you. His responses will be posted below the article until election day, Tuesday, November 5.

One-stop voting for the municipal elections begins on Wednesday, October 16, and will conclude on Friday, November 1.

Read all candidate interviews online at

Mayor Saffo’s questions were culled by Shea Carver, Gwenyfar Rohler, Jeff Oloizia and Shannon Gentry.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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