Forsyth County commissioners play hardball on National Black Theatre Festival

by Jordan Green

The budget meeting had adjourned and the Republican members had cleared the room, leaving Everette Witherspoon and Walter Marshall — the two black Democrats who represent inner-city District A in Winston-Salem — to bide their time.

Witherspoon pulled out a copy of the budget — named “Plan C” — the commission was about to approve. He jabbed a finger at the numbers — a $5.9 million reduction in services to pay for a 2.5-cent tax decrease, a transfer of $1.4 million from Dell recovery funds to offset cuts to public schools and reductions to economic development projects and reserves. “It’s the best-case scenario, but the reality is we don’t have the power,” he said.

“You see what we’re talking about,” he added, with a short laugh.

What they had been talking about was whether the county should make a $25,000 grant to the National Black Theatre Festival. As a matter of perspective, the total budget for fiscal year 2013-2014 is $399.8 million. In other words, the big decisions had already been made.

An earlier budget proposed by Commissioner Bill Whiteheart had included even deeper spending cuts, and had prompted reservations from not only Witherspoon and Marshall, but Commissioner Dave Plyler, a moderate Republican who often caucuses with the Democrats. With a 3-3 split, Chairman Richard Linville was in the driver’s seat.

Linville briefly gaveled the meeting back to order and announced that he was going to call a second 15-minute break so that he could “see what we can do for the occupancy tax.” He was referring to revenues raised from special taxes levied on hotels and motels that are typically used to promote tourism, and could potentially fund the grant to the theater festival.

The adopted budget came about as a hybrid of Whiteheart’s “Plan B” and County Manager Dudley Watts’ recommended budget. Watts said his recommended budget had allocated an additional $1.9 million for public schools so that the $1.4 million transfer from the Dell fund will result in no net change in funding to the schools.

“It is less than what we had hoped for with the original revenue-neutral budget,” Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools spokesman Theo Helm said. “It’s $2.3 million less than the revenue-neutral budget. It does at least keep funding intact from last year. Now that we know that piece, we need to see what the state budget is. There are certainly things that we can do on our end with the fund balance and other cuts.”

The county commission used a revenue-neutral tax rate as its starting point for the budget. The adjustment was required because the county lost roughly $31.5 billion to $35.5 billion in real-estate valuation due to the 2013 property revaluation. As a result, the county must tax property owners at a higher rate to bring in the same amount of revenue.

To maintain the same level of revenue the county would need to increase taxation from the current rate of 67.4 cents per $100 of valuation to a new level of 74.2 cents per $100 of valuation. The 2.5-cent reduction negotiated by the commissioners brings the new tax rate to 71.7 cents per $100 of valuation.

As a result, a family that owns a house valued at $150,000 — assuming that it held its value over the past four years — will find themselves paying an additional $65 on their 2014 tax bill, an increase from $1,011 to $1,076.

With those details worked out and all five Republican votes locked up, the only matter left to decide was the small-bore grant to the theater festival. Commissioners Gloria Whisenhunt, Mark Baker and Bill Whiteheart said they did not want to allocate the grant because they want to get the county out of the business of making special appropriations. In support of that goal, county staff used some bureaucratic sleight-of-hand to create an “Aging Services Department,” although Watts acknowledged that no staff is assigned to the department and the budget line item is merely “a cost center” — a place to park a $92,700 allocation.

Marshall filibustered the cause of the theater festival, with the implicit understanding that if the majority failed to make this small concession they would be jeopardizing the votes of the two black commissioners and the symbolic value of a unified decision.

Before the final budget vote, Marshall fumed, “I think it’s a cheap shot and probably something that we will all live to regret. I hope this board lives long enough to regret this and suffer the consequences.”

Witherspoon warned that a withdrawal of financial support from the county could result in the theater festival, which was founded by the late Leon Larry Hamlin, being wooed away by another city such as Atlanta.

“It’s a good-faith gesture, and it’s good for marketing and public relations,” Witherspoon said. “It’s one of the few events that gets national media attention — Essence magazine and the New York Times. There has been talk about moving it to Atlanta. This would make them comfortable. You have celebrities from TV walking around downtown. It gets bigger and bigger every year. Let them know: ‘We don’t want you to move to Atlanta. We don’t want you to take that $10 million.’” The Forsyth Tourism Development Authority takes two-thirds of the revenues from hotel-motel occupancy taxes, while the county, the city of Winston-Salem and the remaining municipalities split up the remainder. The city of Winston-Salem’s proposed 2013-2014 budget includes $23,250 for youth events durng the National National Black Theatre Festival. Witherspoon and Marshall said the Forsyth County Tourism Development Authority provides $40,000 for the event.

Whisenhunt said that by not appropriating funds from the occupancy tax, the county can return them to the taxpayers by absorbing them into the general fund.

Plyler said he also supports using the funds to support the festival.

That placed Linville, again, in the position of casting the deciding vote.

After the chairman called for the second recess, the four conservative Republican commissioners, along with Budget Director Ronda Tatum and Finance Director Paul Fulton, retreated in various combinations into a side room where commissioners have food and water provided to them by staff during meetings and work sessions.

Marshall said he overheard Whiteheart tell Linville: “We need to caucus.”

Whisenhunt and Baker also briefly went into the side room, and for a couple minutes all four members of the conservative Republican majority were absent from the meeting room.

The state Open Meetings Act makes it illegal for a quorum, or majority, of members of a local governing board to meet outside of a public meeting that is not advertised in advance by public notice. It is legal for commissioners to meet with one or two other members outside of a public meeting.

Linville said he did not meet with other commissioners, and that he was instead talking with staff members about the occupancy tax.

“The chairman was back there; he met with the budget director and manager,” Whisenhunt told YES! Weekly after the meeting. “I may have had some conversation, but I wasn’t holding any kind of meeting. We had refreshments. We were trying to discuss that black theater festival. I may have said to Bill and Mark that I wasn’t going to support that. But I said that in the open meeting.”

Baker said that he went to the bathroom while Linville was speaking with staff from the finance department and did not speak with the chairman about the budget.

If any deal was on the table, as Marshall’s remarks suggest, it evidently fell through. When Linville resumed the meeting, he announced that he could not support the grant to the theater festival because staff had told him there were not adequate funds available.

“I wish that we didn’t get into these situations where there’s this much disagreement,” he told Marshall on the dais.

“Whatever criticism you’ve got, put it all on me. I believe I can take it.”

The budget was adopted on a party-line vote of 5 to 2, with Marshall and Witherspoon dissenting.