Conservatism prevails in Greensboro

by Brian Clarey

Members of Greensboro City Council wrestled with the implications of a $9.3 million budget gap on April 6 and swallowed hard as they considered cuts to services in parks and recreation, waste pickup, the library, fire and transportation so that they could avoid imposing a tax increase and explore the possibility of cutting taxes.

It’s a scenario that’s being played out in some fashion on boards that govern all municipalities, county governments and school boards across the state and nation.

As the continuing economic downturn strains public budgets, Greensboro provides an emblematic example of the competing philosophies of governance playing out across the American political landscape. If healthcare reform could be boiled down to an economic question, the turmoil surrounding it would find a perfect reflection writ small on the Greensboro council. One instinct is to make investments in public assets to create economic opportunity and achieve long-term savings. Another is to stop spending immediately, and even tamp down on the inflow of revenue. Unlike the federal government, the latter, more conservative approach has the upper hand in Greensboro.

The struggle is too ingrained in the American character to fall along party lines or even predictable political contours — at least in Greensboro. Case in point is a divided 5-4 vote by the council on April 6 to halt work on an outdoor amphitheater at the Greensboro Coliseum.

In some ways, the decision reflected the local system in an admirable light: Citizens on both sides passionately advocated their positions. Council members deliberated openly and somewhat respectfully, then took a vote.

In other ways, overwrought rhetoric weighed down a decision that had little economic impact.

Thanks to the city’s purchase of the old Canada Dry building in 2008, the Greensboro Coliseum Complex now includes a parcel of land contoured in natural bowl shape. Unbeknownst to members of city council, the coliseum started grading and installing a storm sewer on the site to create an amphitheater. Coliseum Director Matt Brown had proposed spending $190,000 in revenue generated from Pepsi and Siemens sponsorships to finish the job. After expenses, Brown said the amphitheater would generate $149,260. Obviously, neither the front-end expense nor the projected savings moves the marker far one way or another when it comes to closing a $9.3 million budget gap.

The swing vote came from Nancy Vaughan, an unaffiliated member on the nonpartisan council. She talked about “a difficult budget work session” and about considering some “ugly cuts” before noting that she would have liked to see $95,000 already spent on grading and storm sewer returned to the city’s general fund. Joining her in killing the amphitheater project were four of the council’s Republican members: Mayor Bill Knight, Danny Thompson, Mary Rakestraw and Trudy Wade.

On the losing side were two Republicans and two Democrats.

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