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GREENSBORO CITY COUNCIL DEBATES LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

by Jeff Sykes

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

Greensboro leaders are considering an aggressive list of priorities to submit to the 2015 long session of the North Carolina General Assembly despite the growing divide between the legislature’s rural leadership and the needs of the state’s largest cities.

The divide was evidenced in recent years as state lawmakers set out on what many observers feel is an anti-urban path, with deep cuts in the ability of cities to raise revenue being passed, in addition to the state’s historic preservation tax credit program being allowed to fade away.

Greensboro only achieved about one-third of its legislative goals during the 2014 legislative session in Raleigh. In addition to the sunset of the wildly successful historic preservation tax program, the state gutted the tax credit for film production and took away the ability of cities to raise money via business licenses.

While the lost tax revenue from film and historic preservation cuts is debatable, especially at the municipal level, the end of the privilege license tax will cost Greensboro about $3.2 million.

City Attorney Tom Carruthers presented Greensboro City Council with a list of potential legislative items on Jan. 15. The council was set to further debate the list Tuesday night at its regular meeting.

Support for legislation that restores lost privilege license revenue was at the top of the list last week.

“There have been hold harmless resolutions in the past on other types of revenue losses, like the intangibles tax from several years ago,” Carruthers said. “It is clear that the privilege license is gone forever.”

Council member Tony Wilkins, a conservative member of the ostensibly non-partisan city council, is well acquainted with most Republican members of the Guilford County legislative delegation. Wilkins took the seat of former council member, and current Republican state senator, Trudy Wade. Wilkins took issue with the $3.2 million figure used to describe the city’s loss from privilege license taxes.

Wilkins said that the city received an additional $1.2 million in sales tax revenue to offset the business license loss.

“Each time that $3 million figure is mentioned I’m going to remind us each time that it’s not,” Wilkins said.

Council member Zack Matheny, who recently ran for the Republican nomination for the Sixth Congressional District, questioned the wisdom of the city including the request in its legislative agenda. The Republican Party took control of the state’s General Assembly in 2010, and has solidified its hold on the House and Senate since then.

“That one right there … I don’t even know why we’re poking the bear on that one,” Matheny said.

City Manager Jim Westmoreland said that there had been a promise on behalf of Gov. Pat McCrory and some members of the legislature to revisit the issue during the long session in 2015.

“This is meant to encourage them to revisit that,” Westmoreland said.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan noted that cities across the state lost about $64 million from the privilege license issue, but that state leaders were hoping to add about $14 million back.

During discussion, Wilkins said he agreed with Matheny about “poking the bear”, which led council member Yvonne Johnson to ask what that phrase meant. Wilkins said it meant the council should realize who is in charge in Raleigh.

“Some members of this council are trying to get Roy Cooper elected governor and we need to take the politics out of it,” Wilkins said. “We need to take the friction away from this city council and the state government, who is in charge, and we need to stop poking the bear. That’s what continues to happen, and you’ll see it on here again. It’s not helping Greensboro.”

“So we’ll just let them come run the city?” Mayor Vaughan asked.

Council member Marikay Abuzuaiter said it was not an issue of politics, but good stewardship.

“It’s not partisan, we need $2 million,” Abuzuaiter said.

Vaughan steered the discussion back to the city’s legislative agenda, asking Carruthers what plans staff had to track businesses once the privilege license goes away.

“We still have to know where certain businesses are located,” Vaughan said. “We have to come up with a plan, not to replace the revenue, but for instance, we need to know where the nightclubs are. Will something be in place by July 1?” Carruthers said Assistant City Manager Mary Vigue had taken the lead in researching the issue and was working with the UNC School of Government to create a zoning compliance permit. The permit would have an administrative fee to cover the costs of implementation.

“It will not be a revenue generating device,” Carruthers said. “This is the way we track who is doing business where in the city and it is very valuable for us from a planning, law enforcement and fire safety standpoint.”

A second item that is soon to become a hot political topic is the anticipated move to reduce the size of the Greensboro city council. After much word of mouth discussion, state Sen. Trudy Wade recently said that she did plan to file a bill to achieve that end. Rhino Times Publisher Roy Carroll recently wrote a lengthy column on the idea, which many conservative backers claim is necessary to make the council more business friendly.

There are two issues involved with the move, Carruthers said. One is to reduce the size of the council from nine members to seven. The other is to expand the length of an elected term from two years to four.

Most members seemed to support the expanded length of service, but took issue with the state tinkering with the make up of the city council. Republican legislators have redistricted both the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and the School Board in recent years. Most city council members consider the move a done deal.

Mayor Vaughan said council should still make their voice heard on the issue and directed Carruthers to create a resolution opposing the smaller council size.

Carruthers asked for a consensus from the council. Wilkins led off by reading a quote from President Pro-Tempore of the Senate Phil Berger, who represents Rockingham County and parts of northwest Guilford County. Berger was quoted in the paper as saying he would like to see what Wade proposes, but that he felt she “was on the right track.”

Johnson said that she was opposed to the smaller council, but not the idea of expanded term length. This drew support from Sharon Hightower.

Matheny said that as a business owner he took issue with the expanded term length.

“The thought of having a four-year commitment “” even though I’ve been here for a long time “” it’s easier for me to tackle two at a time,” Matheny said.

Hightower noted that this undercut the stated rationale for the move, which was to have more business people elected.

“I think if you want more business people to run for council then you need to go recruit people to run for council,” Matheny replied, adding that he felt like the measure would pass, but that he did not support it.

Mayor Vaughan said that the city needed to make its voice heard on the issue.

“If we wait to know what they are thinking then it’s too late,” she said. “This needs to be a somewhat preemptive statement that we oppose the reduction of seats. To remain silent can be a problem.” !

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