County commission warms to eastern Guilford sewer plan
Guilford County Commissioner Billy Yow (left), a well driller by profession, chats with Greensboro interim Water Resources Director Kenney McDowell. (photo by Jordan Green)
Welcome to the county,” said Mayor Robbie Perkins as he reached for the door of the Old County Courthouse after walking across Governmental Plaza from the Melvin Municipal Building with Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan and interim Water Resources Director Kenney McDowell.
Perkins had worked the phones, and he and Vaughan had met with Chairman Skip Alston before the trio made their presentation during the Guilford County Commission’s retreat last week. Judging by the receptive hearing from members of both political parties on the county commission, the longstanding cold war between city and county government has begun to thaw.
Based on a plan drawn up by city of Greensboro staff, Perkins is proposing that the city and county jointly fund construction of new water and sewer lines to attract data centers in unincorporated eastern Guilford County using money from the dissolved Joint Water and Sewer Fund. Estimates of the amount of money in the fund vary: Interim City Manager Denise Turner Roth pegged the figure at $23 million, and Alston said about $25 million is available. Perkins and Alston are proposing that the city and county each put up $11 million for the infrastructure project. To sweeten the deal for the county, about $2 million would be set aside to extend water and sewer to the Forest Oaks community in the county’s southeastern corner.
“What we’re proposing here is the single, No. 1 thing we can do as elected bodies to enhance jobs and enhance our tax base for this county,” Perkins said. “We have an area that has the most important ingredient of economic development already in place, which is two interstate highways. If you look on this map, you’ve got almost a billion dollars worth of highways just on this one piece of paper. And you’ve got a Duke power grid that was good enough to attract one of America’s leading companies to build their data center here, so that every card transaction that comes through an American Express card anywhere in the world comes through Guilford County.
“For us to do the kinds of things we need to do as a county, we’ve got to look for a large, dynamic, game-changing opportunity,” Perkins added. “It’s going to happen along these interstates and we’ve got to be prepared so that we can get the next American Express. I was shocked when our staff said, ‘If we have another one come along out here’ — and this is where it’s gonna come [because] Duke Power’s got the juice out here — that we would have to turn ’em down because we’re not ready. And it’s up to all of us to get ready.”
Notwithstanding Perkins’ advocacy, recruiting new data centers for eastern Guilford would likely have minimal impact on the employment picture. Unemployment in Guilford is about 9.8 percent, about even with Mecklenburg, but higher than Forsyth, Durham and Wake.
John Shoffner, the city’s economic development manager, said American Express initially projected a need for 150 employees, but that number could be whittled down over time because of automation. He said the company expected to invest $1 billion over the next 20 years, and would have to update and replace servers every three years.
“We would love to see data centers because they bring in tax base, but they don’t employ a lot of people,” Assistant City Manager Andy Scott said in an interview earlier this month. “Right now we’re seeing lots of other types of organizations. We’re talking to pharmaceutical and back-office operations. CitiCorp has been in Greensboro for the last two months. They would employ 1,600 to 1,800 employees. Another company would employ 4,500. I don’t know if we’ll get it, but we’re in the running.”
The county has also identified a need for water and sewer lines to serve the Lynwood Lakes community in southeastern Guilford, but that is not part of the tentative deal struck by Perkins and Alston.
District 6 Commissioner Kay Cashion asked Perkins if the county could contribute a lesser amount to the industrial development project so it could also fund the Lynwood Lakes extension. Perkins indicated that the city would be unwilling to entertain such a modification.
“It’s a hard deal for us because it’s out of our corporate limits,” he said.
At-large Commissioner John Parks also pushed to include Lynwood Lakes, but Alston reiterated the city’s bottom line.
“Right now, I think the position of the city is they’ll help us with Forest Oaks, but not Lynwood Lakes,” he said.
District 9 Commissioner Carolyn Coleman told the city delegation that the satellite municipality of Pleasant Garden needs additional water and sewer capacity, while District 3 Commissioner Linda Shaw spoke up for needs in northwest Guilford. Alston remarked that the county would have to fund those projects independently, adding that the city of Greensboro has its own needs.
District 5 Commissioner Billy Yow and District 2 Commissioner Bill Bencini proposed that the city share revenues accumulated through water service to the area with the county. County Manager Brenda Jones Fox said the county owes $10.8 million on its share of the water and sewer fund.
“We think it’s an excellent idea,” Perkins said. “A model that involves revenue sharing should be on the table because a deal of this magnitude is going to generate hundreds of millions of dollars.”
While characterizing the proposal as “fantastic,” at-large Commissioner Paul Gibson said he would like some time to make sure all the right questions are asked. Alston said he wants the commission to take final action on the item at its first meeting in February.
The commission also heard a report from Tax Director Ben Chavis on the scheduled property revaluation this year. The eight-year process was last completed in 2004. Against expectations that the mortgage crisis that began in 2008 will significantly degrade the county’s $45 billion tax base, Chavis said he expects a relatively gentle adjustment.
“We’re not looking at a huge deviation from the tax base that’s on our books,” he said. “I would say the tax base would go down slightly, but I wouldn’t expect the bottom to fall out.”
Chavis said notices will be sent out for about 200,000 parcels in early March and a team of 13 appraisers and three clerical workers will conduct the revaluation.
Chavis characterized the process as “volatile,” but later emphasized that this revaluation promises to be little different from previous times, adding that 10 percent of property owners typically appeal their revaluations. Appeals are heard by the Board of Equalization and Review, whose members are real estate professionals appointed by the county commission.
Alston said from past experience he expects the commission to take a revenue-neutral approach to revaluation, meaning that if the tax base declines, the county would increase the tax rate to compensate rather than keeping the rate the same and making do with less revenue.
Jones said the county is currently facing a $40 million budget gap, and will have to raise taxes by 9.5 cents on $100 of property valuation to cover the shortfall. About a third of the increase would pay for debt service on bonds approved by voters in 2008.
Commissioners also discussed the possibility of adopting a policy to give preferential treatment to local contractors that are competitive with out-of-state businesses, but members reached little consensus on the matter.
“You all start drawing lines around Guilford County, next thing you know other counties are trying to draw lines around themselves,” cautioned District 4 Commissioner Kirk Perkins.
Gibson took the other end of the argument. “We ought to bend over backwards to keep as much business in Guilford County as possible,” he said.
County Attorney Mark Payne said 83.3 percent of county purchases are from North Carolina vendors, and 45 percent are from Guilford County vendors.
The issue arose when the county dropped its contract with Berico, a local fuel company, in favor of a northern Virginia supplier, prompting consternation from Yow and Sheriff BJ Barnes, among others. Gibson said the county should avoid a repeat of that situation.
“Your friend didn’t get the contract,” Coleman said. “That’s what the problem was.”
The county has not received clear input from the business community on the issue to date. The Greensboro Partnership will be holding a forum in March so that purchasing representatives of the county, city of Greensboro and Guilford County Schools can hear local business owners’ needs and concerns. The city of High Point has also been invited.
Alston said Jason Cannon, the partnership’s lobbyist, has expressed some reservations about the idea of preferences for local contractors.
Alston suggested the county should prioritize the county’s taxpayers over its businesses.
“Maybe we can teach our local businesses to bid lower,” he said.