Greensboro council approves budget, discusses water rate and contracting

by Eric Ginsburg


To the untrained eye it might look like the Greensboro City Council breezed through its budget discussions last week, approving nearly every item with limited discussion and unanimous support. A lack of public speakers and the speed of most budget items made the meeting almost unrecognizable in comparison to regular meetings, but council’s front-end discussions helped things run smoothly.

The council’s regular June 18 meeting, which also included the passage of the city’s new tree ordinance, was so jammed with items and fraught with discord that it ran past midnight, with council members opting to continue the meeting the next day at 2 p.m. After resuming, council handled the $459 million budget, despite its numerous items and potential for controversy, in roughly an hour.

The relative ease of council’s approval of the fiscal year 2013-2014 budget — which maintains the current property tax rate but raises water rates by a monthly average of $1.29 — was brought to you in part by three budget work sessions that allowed council to grasp and question the proposed changes.

The three lead-up meetings addressed a range of topics, from proposed cuts to decisions about issues like Cascade Saloon and Downtown Greensboro Inc. Council went back and forth on various issues in the meetings, enabling a cleaner voting process last week.

District 5 Councilman Tony Wilkins voiced the lone dissenting opinion on the water rate increase, said the council shouldn’t commit to maintaining the property tax rate and then “turn right around” and raise water fees.

“We’re still living in very uncertain economic times, and we’re about to extract $3.3 million from our community,” Wilkins said. “I would ask for my fellow council members’ compassion in denying [the] item.”

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson asked staff to explain the need for the increase, and Water Resources Director Steve Drew said it was particularly necessary for repairs that would become more costly if they were delayed.

“That is really risk management and I can’t advise that we pile on the risk and not do the rehab,” Drew said. “It’s pay me now, pay me later.”

When at-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said Greensboro’s water rates are comparatively lower than other cities in the state, Wilkins questioned the logic, saying by the same token the city should lower its property tax rates — as he pushed for during a budget work session last month.

Wilkins restated that residents are “hurting for money” and his stance against an increase, but council was unmoved, passing the item 8-1. Mayor Robbie Perkins said the council reversed a water rate increase several years ago in what was one of the most “short-sighted” votes he’s seen in two decades on council. Perkins said the council needs to think long term rather than quarterly about such decisions and said peer cities were all gradually raising water rates too.

Council passed several fee increases without any dissention, including a small bump in sidewalk and driveway construction and repair permitting fees and a few cemetery-related fee changes including a burial plot price jump from $1,200 to $1,500 due to increased costs to the department like overtime wages.

The most extensive budget discussions, spread over a few items, circled around the lack of minority and women owned business enterprises, or MWBE, in city contracting. The hot-button issue, which has come up repeatedly in council meetings over the last few years, split council more than any other budget item.

Council approved a contract with D&D Grading for hauling and grading at the White Street landfill in east Greensboro by a vote of 6 to 3, with the three black council members refusing to support the contract after a discussion on MWBE participation.

“To hear constantly either they don’t exist or we can’t find them in 2013 is not an acceptable answer,” District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small said, questioning dismal subcontracting rates in the contract.

A contract with Goldsboro-based TA Loving, coming in around $8 million for Greensboro Coliseum arena concourse expansion and bowl improvements, generated similar discussion. After hearing from company representatives, council was satisfied that a sufficient effort at diverse participation was made. Johnson brought up the 1.4 percent MWBE participation rate, and Coliseum Director Matt Brown said he wasn’t pleased either.

I cannot support the current path that the Renaissance Center is taking, though we do want to complete that project.’

Dianne Bellamy-Small

“I share your disappointment with that,” Brown said. “We were hopeful but unfortunately [we’re] disappointed with the result.”

Brown said that MWBE participation aside, there is a general lack of competitive subcontractors in the area. Still, he said, TA Loving made “extraordinary attempts” to garner strong MWBE bids, but the ones they received often fell short.

A company spokesperson told council that of the 42 quotes they received, nine came from minority- or women-owned businesses. Of those, TA Loving accepted one, and is trying to negotiate with at least one other.

“The other eight were just not low,” the spokesperson said, adding that they were disappointed by the number of competitively priced bids and detailing the company’s multifaceted outreach efforts.

When Bellamy- Small asked if there was anything the city could do to help with participation, Brown said one of the issues was the fact that companies were judged on bid-day contract agreements rather than the ultimate participation percentages, adding that though the Greensboro Aquatic Center met its bidday MWBE goals, by the end the project exceeded the initial participation objectives. Brown suggested this contract’s rate could rise too.

Council members all ultimately voted in favor of the deal, and District 2 Councilman Jim Kee, who voted against the D&D Grading contract, said he knew an MWBE owner who could fill TA Loving’s requirements, adding that he would put them in touch with each other.

Council rolled through most of the budget items without discussion, though Bellamy-Small paused the process a few times to ask additional questions. She expressed opposition to several funding items at one point before saying it wouldn’t keep her from voting for the overall budget.

Bellamy-Small asked if funding for four entities — Downtown Greensboro Inc., the Renaissance Center Group, Black Network Television and the Interactive Resource Center — would be included in the budget, saying if any were that she wanted to go on record opposing them.

Bellamy-Small said that Downtown Greensboro Inc. has generated enough money through its income that it doesn’t need all or a portion of the money the city provides.

Council expressed serious concern about the organization’s direction earlier this year but worked out numerous changes including alterations to the group’s board, mission and goals. Downtown Greensboro Inc. is currently searching for a new director because Ed Wolverton’s contract will not be renewed, and council was briefed on the changes at a budget work session.

Bellamy-Small spoke against $50,000 in additional funding to the Interactive Resource Center, a homeless day shelter downtown, at a separate budget work session, reiterating her concern last week that the decision was unfair to other homeless services providers because it created a separate additional funding category for the Interactive Resource Center. Bellamy-Small did not elaborate on her opposition to a $300,000 loan to the local Black Television Network that was approved at the previous night’s meeting, but said she didn’t support the recent decision to sell the Renaissance Shopping Center and loan the buyers $2 million.

“I cannot support the current path that the Renaissance Center is taking, though we do want to complete that project,” Bellamy-Small said.

Council decided on the deal with the Renaissance Center Group, represented by former Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, at its June 4 meeting.

The vote angered many supporters of the Renaissance Community Co-op, a neighborhood-initiated grocery store initiative that wanted the city to maintain ownership of the shopping center.

Council passed the loan to the Black Television Network, which is producing a local sitcom, during its regular June 18 meeting by a margin of 6 to 2. Bellamy- Small abstained from the decision, only elaborating to say she felt uncomfortable about the vote, but the abstention technically counts as a “yes” because she wasn’t formally excused, making it a 7-2 decision. Wilkins and District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann voted against the item.

City Manager Denise Turner Roth said at the June 19 continuation meeting that city staff is trying to be more forwardlooking in regards to the budget, saying that after this year’s finances were approved, staff would immediately begin working on the 2014-2015 budget.