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GSO council demonstrates ambivalence towards help for poor

by Jordan Green

This is the final installment of a four-part series about the Greensboro City Council’s votes on human relations matters.

A “State of the City Benchmark Report” released by a consortium of Greensboro economic elites contained a sobering and unmistakable message: “Greensboro now appears to be lagging behind its competitors in the southeastern United States, particularly in terms of average wage rates and tax base growth.” Greensboro has relied on a higher proportion of manufacturing jobs than other cities of comparable size in the South, but workers have made do with comparably lower wages, the report by UNCG professor Keith Debbage found. “The implication,” he wrote, “is that many manufacturing industries in Greensboro may still be low-cost operations that remain vulnerable to competition from cheap, foreign labor.” And while education levels in Greensboro – a city blessed with two land-grant universities, a handful of private colleges and a vibrant community college system – compared favorably, the infant mortality rate in Greensboro was found to be significantly higher than cities like Durham, Greenville, SC and Chattanooga, Tenn., not to mention the state’s prosperous flagship cities of Charlotte and Raleigh. The fate of middle class workers in manufacturing and service sectors is likely to roil the Greensboro City Council in its next session, but in the past two years public discourse on economic class issues centered on a more vulnerable and marginalized sector – people with disabilities who rely on specialized public transportation to get to jobs and fully avail themselves of the city’s social amenities. Greensboro’s Specialized Community Area Transportation, or SCAT, has provided door-to-door service for those who qualify for it anywhere in the city for several years, allowing citizens reliant on wheelchairs to travel to jobs, shopping malls, volunteer centers and baseball games. Concerns about the costs of the program led a transit task force to recommend eliminating an unlimited monthly ride pass and raising fares in May 2006. The city council approved the recommendations in a 7-2 vote that found at-large Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson and District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small in the minority. Before the proposal to eliminate the SCAT unlimited monthly pass was presented on May 16, 2006, council unanimously approved an economic incentives grant to help a downtown developer convert the dormant Wachovia Building into condos and high-end retails shops, in what might be considered a revealing display of its priorities. Assistant City Manager for Economic Development Ben Brown cited new jobs and projected sales tax revenue, along with the fact that the project would reuse a vacant property, eliminate blight and enhance the new Center City Park as reasons the city supported the project. Even fiscal conservative Tom Phillips, a reliable foe of economic incentives, voted for the $1.1 million grant. Later in the meeting at-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten, co-chair of the transit task force, presented a raft of recommendations, including discontinuing the $35 unlimited monthly pass and raising single-ride fares for disabled riders to twice what mainstream riders would be charged, along with increasing fixed-route service to every 30 minutes instead of once an hour. The task force’s plan called for the monthly pass to be replaced by a 60-ride pass costing $72. Arguments for the changes were made by Greensboro Transit Authority Board Chairwoman Mary Lou Zimmerman, who noted the impact of rising fuel prices and increased ridership on the transit system’s finances. Dottie Neely, a social worker who is partially blind and who served on the task force with Gatten and Zimmerman, told council that increased fuel costs had contributed to a $600,000 deficit. Sandy Carmany, councilwoman for District 5 and an elected official with a long record of involvement in transportation issues, spoke to the need to encourage fixed-route transit ridership. She told her colleagues that poor air quality from vehicle emissions threatened to undermine economic development because of the area’s non-attainment designation for particulate matter with the US Environmental Protection Agency. Advocates for the disabled, including an NC A&T University professor and residents of a supportive housing facility, expressed outrage at council’s decision. They argued that many disabled riders subsist on fixed incomes and would be stranded by the fare increase, and that the city would find itself in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by singling out disabled riders for fare increases. They demanded the reinstatement of the unlimited monthly pass. They organized a Consumer Advocacy Network and drafted a counterproposal to the official transit task force plan. They showed up at council meetings week after week. From the outset, Gatten became a lightning rod of controversy, antagonizing SCAT users with her assertion that excessive use of the service by a few riders had driven up costs to the city by as much as $500,000. A May 19, 2006 editorial in the News & Record quoted her as describing the unlimited monthly ride pass as “a wonderful idea that’s been completely abused.” Gatten resisted any notion that council might be considered anything less than a responsible steward of the taxpayers’ money and a humanitarian benefactor to the city’s less fortunate. “SCAT is now running us very close to three million dollars,” she said in June 2006. “We have 30 percent of our [transit] budget consumed by our SCAT service. We are on the side of the angels in this. We subsidize our SCAT service with great love and generosity at 95 percent of the cost for this service. As much as we might want to be painted as the bad guys in this issue, the Greensboro taxpayers are benevolently looking at making sure people are not trapped in their homes, that they do have the opportunity to have a life and get out.” The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina did not share Gatten’s view. In August, the ACLU joined with the NC Governor’s Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities in announcing an investigation into whether the city would be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act with the rate hike. The task force would meet again to consider compromising on the fare increase. Although the task force meetings were open to the public, members of the Consumer Advocacy Network accused Gatten and the task force of ignoring their input. “We presented our counterproposal and they wouldn’t even look at it,” said sometime SCAT user and network member Lonnie Cunningham. “They threw it in the trash.” Advocates told the council that significantly disabled riders such as the residents of the Bell House on Summit Avenue would be priced out of the service because their monthly discretionary income allowance of $66 would not cover the $72 pass for 60 rides, much less soap and other toiletries they need to buy. “What are the characteristics of the people who will suffer the most from the rate hike?” asked Claire Holmes, an advocate whose son is disabled. “They are the poor. Of course the less money you have the more you’re going to hurt. They go to school or a volunteer job. They’re more severely disabled. They rely heavily on SCAT for transportation…. The final characteristic are those who ride SCAT the most often, and that’s been the most contentious.” Discussion at a Sept. 5, 2006 meeting in which Gatten presented her compromise proposal provided some insight into council members’ philosophies about the government’s role in helping society’s most vulnerable. Mayor Keith Holliday, in particular, seemed ambivalent. “If I take your debate that there needs to be a $35 or $45 pass, and you’re saying the family really doesn’t have any responsibility,” he told Holmes, “I guess what I’m hearing is that the government has a responsibility for those who can’t afford it.” Holmes said that, in fact, she did believe families bore some responsibility for their adult disabled relatives. “You see, my son is eligible for SCAT,” she said, “but I haven’t registered him. I take him everywhere. He lives in a group home. But he’s durn lucky, isn’t he?” “Yes,” the mayor replied. Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat suggested that many of the financial challenges facing disabled citizens should not be considered the council’s problem. “I’m really happy that these people are able to be active and about in the community, but I’m wondering because we keep harping on the theme that $66 is all the money they have in a month and they have to pay for everything with that,” she said. “And you were talking about soap and toiletries and all that. But I also hear you saying that they’re going to Wal-Mart and they’re going to ball games and movies and that doesn’t speak to anything about us. That just speaks to the fact that they just have 66 dollars. So I guess they have to count their transportation in that. Am I making sense? It’s not that I begrudge them going anywhere. It’s just that they have 66 dollars to spend, so they have to choose where they spend that.” Greensboro officials have often justified incentives for corporations and developers by framing the grants as an investment that will eventually pay off in new jobs and economic investment for the shared benefit to the city. Advocates for the disabled made a similar argument about the social benefits of SCAT – that the program pays dividends to the city by allowing citizens with disabilities to show up for volunteer work or employment, and contribute to the community. The $500,000 estimated by Gatten as a cost of maintaining the unlimited ride pass compares to $1.1 million in incentives approved for developer Roy Carroll and $590,000 for RF Micro Devices in 2006. The following year, the council would approve $600,000 for HondaJet and $231,000 for Procter & Gamble. “I understand how very expensive it is to operate SCAT, but I would hope that there would be alternatives to a SCAT raise,” said Sherry Mailliez, whose son lives at Bell House, in a letter to council. “The benefit provided by these workers touches our communities in ways we might not notice. A friendly smile when we arrive at Wal-Mart is just the least of what these dependable, cheerful workers provide at little cost. They answer our phone calls, input information into our computers, file, package our goods and generally make our world better.” At the Sept. 5 meeting, Gatten proposed to retain the 60-ride pass for $72, but to also create a 10-ride pass for $15 whose cost would incrementally increase over the next three years. She had promised that the unlimited monthly pass was not up for negotiation, and she did not break her word. When the vote was taken, Johnson joined the majority, leaving Bellamy-Small as the lone holdout. The District 1 councilwoman protested that it wasn’t right to go forward with the decision until the task force and the advocates sat down together and worked out a compromise. Many council members appeared confused and hurt about the disabled riders’ displeasure. Holliday, for one, pointed out that the council had decided three years earlier to make SCAT a citywide service, going beyond the federal requirement to only provide it in areas within three-quarters of a mile from fixed routes. “No good deed goes unpunished,” the mayor said. “I gotta tell you, I have heard from a lot of people. I’m not sure this thing hasn’t been dissected here. We have a dilemma here in terms of difference of opinion about how far the government goes in terms of supporting transportation needs as opposed to augmenting transportation needs. Everybody knows – hopefully, y’all know where my heart is. I was the one who pushed real hard three years ago to make it citywide because I didn’t think it was fair to make people live three quarters of a mile from the fixed route.” With council’s approval of the revised SCAT fare structure in September, neither side came away with an unvarnished victory. Gatten and other fiscal conservatives on council were able to prevent the unlimited monthly pass from being reinstated, but otherwise the proposed fare increases were drastically reduced. In January the Greensboro Transit Authority Board further reduced the 10-ride pass from $15 to $10, making it roughly commensurate with prices for fixed route service. The board voted for incremental fare hikes, bringing single fares up to $1.30 and 10-ride passes up to $12 by July 1, 2009, but to scrap the 60-ride pass for $72 altogether. “The board has the authority to set fares,” said transit manager Libby James. “I think at the time [on Sept. 5, 2006] they said that it was council’s recommendation to the board that they take into consideration their proposal.” As 2007 winds down and a new council takes office, a proposed citywide minimum wage increase is likely to be the next front in Greensboro’s strained discourse over class and poverty. Should a citizens’ committee collect the required signatures, the proposed $9.36 minimum wage will go before council for consideration. If council were to reject the proposal, it would automatically become a ballot referendum. Though the tactics and specific framing of the minimum wage initiative are new, efforts to mandate wage increases have been attempted before in Greensboro. Council voted down a living wage ordinance in 2000 along racial lines. One of the two members who supported the motion was Johnson. She was joined by Earl Jones, who held the seat now occupied by Bellamy-Small. Holliday, Carmany and District 3 Councilman Tom Phillips – the only other members who remain on counsel – voted with the majority against the living wage. Holliday and Phillips have chosen not to seek reelection. Holliday, who makes loans at First Citizens Bank as his day job, suggested he struggles with the notion that government intervention is sometimes necessary to pull people out of poverty. “Capitalism creates poor people, and in order for someone to win someone’s got to lose,” he said. “You’ve got to at least get some minimums set, and you’ve got to get past only the strong surviving. Which is what you don’t want.” The mayor cited the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness as an example enlightened social policy. “Get out front and allow people to sustain themselves with a job, or you can turn a blind eye to that and let the economy suffer, or you’re gonna do it a different way through services, through courts and through jails. My advice is to always take the high road and see what you can do to raise the boats.” That philosophy does not translate into an automatic endorsement of the proposed minimum wage increase. “That’s too much of an emotional issue without studying it, and figuring out how it would affect local businesses, whether businesses would be laying people off,” he said. “On the upside, that’s that much more social income in people’s pockets.” Groat, the top at-large vote getter in 2005 and a candidate again this year, said she has also not made up her mind about the proposed increase. Johnson, a candidate for mayor, expressed no ambivalence on the issue. “I believe folk ought to have a livable wage,” she said. “It does better for everybody. I certainly think people would appreciate making enough money so if they were in crisis they would know how to handle it. You would have less tension and probably a more productive workforce.” Holliday’s outlook may be more representative of the majority view on council than that of his would-be successor. When the issue of the widening class divide in Greensboro and across the country was raised he defaulted to optimism. Rather than discussing mandated wage increases as a solution to poverty, he steered the conversation toward economic development. “We’ve got more job relocation and expansion projects within the pipeline than we have had in 25 years,” he said. “We are on everybody’s radar. I am very bullish. We are just about to turn the corner. We are going to grow and that’s going to create more issues.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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