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Q&A: Kinston Mayor pushes for public safety, infrastructure to Washington leaders

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Mayor Dontario Hardy
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Kinston Mayor Don Hardy attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week in D.C. to advocate for infrastructure funding and public safety.

Kinston Mayor Don Hardy is one of nearly 300 mayors from across the U.S. visiting D.C. this week to advocate for issues that affect local communities, covering topics like clean energy, public safety, housing, mental health and federal infrastructure funding. This conversation originally aired Friday, January 20, 2023.

PRE News & Ideas: Mayor, could you just give me a quick overview of what your day looks like? I want to get a sense of what you're doing in D.C., your priorities and what you're learning.

Mayor Don Hardy: This week is advocating for what cities and towns and need most across the nation. Here I was on a panel also to talk about wastewater scanning as well. How we monitor diseases in the waters such as COVID-19, influenza, and other diseases. That's one of the things that I've done since I've been here, and I’ve also been able to advocate for funding like the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) model.

There are conversations around gun violence that I attended and how to reduce violence in communities like mine. Trying to figure out how to put things in place as far as a task force to collaborate with entities throughout your communities, such as like the DSS, Green Light, and the DA's office. That’s something I put together before I left. I had influence from mayors from across the nation as to how to get that implemented and how it would fit the city of Kinston.

That is a is a big deal for us because it's going to help reduce and curb crime at the core. We want to figure out how to take the holistic approach. Hopefully, that would deter or remedy some crime in our youth. That's at the forefront.

Looking at broadband infrastructure, how do we implement that in rural communities like Kinston? How do we tap that type of funding from a small city standpoint? This conference provides those resources. It's a direct, contact with the sources that are here, such as the Department of Transportation.

We actually have conversations President Biden’s cabinet about what has been done and what we would like to see done in the future for city to towns like Kinston. So, it's a lot going on here, and it's a lot of information to pull in and try to bring back to your city.

PRE News & Ideas: The U.S. Conference of Mayors is an organization that represents cities with populations over 30,000 across the U.S. and they host this annual winter meeting. It brings mayors and federal officials together, covering a wide range of topics, clean energy, public safety, housing, mental health. My question, Mayor Hardy, is what is your top priority while you're there and what do you hope to get out of it?

Mayor Don Hardy: Absolutely. Streamlining, direct connecting to the sources that we need, such as how do we get a transportation piece? How do we get the funding for a city like Kinston and what does that look like? What does it take to apply for?

Also, how do we navigate through the infrastructure law and the Chips and Science Act? What can we do to tap that type of funding? These are some of the priorities.

There's many more as we talk about economic development and water and sewer infrastructure. How do we get additional funding for that and roads? With the ARPA Flex, cities and towns can do more within our communities. We just want to make sure we're in line and doing it the proper way.

PRE News & Ideas: One of the big focuses of the meeting is how to utilize big federal funding bills like the American Rescue plan, Inflation Reduction Act, and the bipartisan infrastructure law. I have noticed that our region has been receiving a lot of that funding. I know a health clinic, a community center, and a sewer project have received ARPA money in Kinston. You said that you're spending time in D.C. to make those connections and navigate around these big funding bills. Do you have a story or example of a conversation you've had with someone to navigate that?

Mayor Don Hardy: We’ve had conversations with the president and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen about how to use the funding and what rules are in place now. We've had conversations with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg as well as it surrounds the U.S. Department of Transportation.

We’ve talked in group settings about how we should take advantage of the funding that's available, how to look at infrastructure throughout our communities, and how we shouldn't be afraid of applying for this funding because this is what it's here for. He would like to see it exhausted.

We've had many conversations with Marty Walsh, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, and I'm going there in just a second. But we've had lots of conversations about infrastructure and how we should be implementing the funding that is available. How do we make this work? Who are the points of contact? Who can show us how to navigate the funding process for cities and towns, especially smaller communities like Kinston?

PRE News & Ideas: Thank you, Mayor Hardy. I'm hearing that it is identifying people to reach out to learning the rules around these funding bills and not being afraid to apply for those grant programs.

You're meeting with other mayors across the US. It's a networking event and best practices conference. There are almost 300 mayors in attendance in Washington, D.C.. What conversations are you having with other mayors? Maybe one in particular that has stuck with you and what you can bring back with you?

Mayor Don Hardy: I've talked to the mayor of Atlanta, Andre Dickens, the Mayor of Louisville, and the mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock, as it pertains to implementing crime reduction programs and task forces. I've had conversations with them about how it works in your city and how to prevent crime collaboratively? The crime intervention piece and law enforcement must work hand in hand, right? The only way that we can make this work is to include the community.

Then we start to talk about how do we make our downtown area better? How do we grow businesses How do we advocate for retail? How do we attract businesses based upon what we already have? Small businesses are the backbone of America. I'm able to pull some of the information and say, ‘OK, let's see how this fits for Kinston and Lenoir County.’

How do we better feed children when they need it most? How do we implement feeding programs for our youth in the summer months? If you're in a food desert, how do we put something in place to feed folks on the continuous basis? I’m having conversations with these mayors about how do I make my area more sufficient as far as feeding the homeless and natural disasters. How do I put together a building with resources and supplies for natural disasters? I'm working on that now.

Once I'm back in Kinston on Monday, I will be looking at how I could put something in place like that and take what I learned from here and what they're using, and maybe pitch something to Lenoir County Public Schools.

And then the transportation side, how do we implement a good, on demand, type of transportation piece and pull it together for our Lenoir County public school system, our Lenoir Community College? How do we collaborate on it and put a route in place that we can depend on?

Lastly, mental health is necessary. It's broken, across the nation. Mental health is just bad. We have to figure out a way to help those that need mental health resources. That piece was added to my task force under resources subcommittee type.

So, looking at that and our law enforcement and emergency services personnel about mental health because folks think we're not human, and that elected officials are not human as well. Conversations about mental health need to be at the forefront as well, because we can't, you can't operate properly if you're having issues yourself, especially our emergency service personnel. That's something that we have to bring awareness to is that we are human and that we need to be able to function properly as well.

Those are some of the things and conversations I'm having here in Washington this past week, and I look forward to that continuous conversation.

PRE News and Ideas: What I'm getting from this is that these conversations with other mayors about these various topics are serving as case studies, or people and places that you can look to as models to implement in Kinston.

Mayor Don Hardy: Absolutely.

PRE News & Ideas: You've brought up one issue I am interested in: the Crime Intervention task Force that brings together school officials, law enforcement, nonprofits, various agencies and in keeping it with your visit to D.C. and very briefly, what is the take away that you've had with, say, Andre Dickens, the mayor of Atlanta, or the Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer? What is the take away that you can bring to Kinston?

Mayor Don Hardy: I take the information that that I hear, and I bring it back to Kinston and say, ‘OK, let me strategize and figure out how to make it fit for us.’

The thing is it's being open-minded and being willing to do something with the information that you receive. I learn we all need buy-in from our community. That right there is a big deal for all of us, having everybody on the same page as it pertains to having buy-in and conversations with those in your community, so we can have the best impact possible.

PRE News & Ideas: This is all very interesting. You're hitting on a lot of topics that I hope to cover in the coming months. Just a quick question. Have you met with President Joe Biden at all?

Mayor Don Hardy: We met with President Biden in the group setting a few months back, and I hope to meet with the president today at the White House. I'm sure it's going to be about getting the necessary resources that we need.

We've had the opportunity in the past to talk about the ARPA model, Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and that good stuff.

PRE News & Ideas: If and when you get that opportunity to meet with President Joe Biden, and when you meet with these high positioned federal officials, I imagine the time that you get with them is very limited. So, what is your one-minute elevator pitch for what Kinston needs?

Mayor Don Hardy: The question would be how do we continually put models in place like ARPA, and to be able to push, either CDBG (Community Development Block Grants), however you want to do it, on a continuous basis to cities and towns like Kinston, North Carolina, or cities and towns across America. How do we continually put a model in place like this? Moving forward and how do we do it?

This piece has been edited for length and clarity.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée and two cats.