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Greensboro council digs in to budget

by Eric Ginsburg

 eric@yesweekly.com

Greensboro City Council held its first of three budget work sessions last week, and with the help of boxed lunches from Jimmy John’s, council made it through numerous spreadsheets, proposals, cuts and increases. The proposed budget, which will be voted on at council’s June 18 meeting, includes $4.3 million in cuts and savings from last year’s budget.

In its work session with staff, council pushed through various specific proposals as part of the $459 million budget put forward by city staff for fiscal year 2013-14. Some of the budget decrease comes easily, like almost $1 million saved thanks to a new recycling contract, while others were cause for tension and disagreement between council members.

The city isn’t earning as much money through various revenue streams as anticipated, staff said, causing budget shortfalls. An expected 1-percent property value growth with the valuation will add little to the city’s income, staff said, and a lack of growth in sales tax revenue means the city is taking about $1 million less than staff anticipated.

The city aims to save money by transferring ownership of War Memorial Stadium to NC A&T State University, a move that City Manager Denise Turner Roth said the university is on board with. A&T accounts for “probably more than 90 percent” of the historic stadium’s usage, and the university wrote the stadium into its long-term master plan for the area, Roth said.

Discussions have focused primarily on fixing the crumbling infrastructure and preserving it. Roth said she was unsure how much A&T would pay the city for the stadium, but said the city would save money because it wouldn’t have to meet programming requirements or upkeep costs.

The prevailing wisdom about saving money through privatization doesn’t always hold true, as evidenced by a plan to return some landscaping work to an in-house operation. As the cost of the private contract has crept up over the years, Roth said, staff now feels it can save by doing the work internally and without hiring additional staff.

Roth said one of the primary cuts to public safety funding would be a reduction in the city’s contract with Lankford Security, a private firm. The proposed budget cuts Lankford’s $1.4 million annual contract with the city by $397,000. Roth said the cuts are recommended after looking at areas throughout the city and asking, “Is their time occupied, quite frankly?” The city will also save money due to delayed construction of the Reedy Fork fire station, the elimination of the McCleansville fire response agreement totaling $47,000 and delaying the police and fire recruit class starting time by a few months, Roth said.

HOUSING

District 2 Councilman Jim Kee said the city needs to “get serious” about improving the quality of its housing stock, adding that Durham recently allocated $50 million for revitalization. Mayor Robbie Perkins said Greensboro started addressing the issue more than 20 years ago and is ahead of Durham so the city doesn’t need to invest as much all at once. The issue, he said, was coming up with a better way to measure progress.

Council briefly discussed the ways that the removal of the Rental Unit Certification of Occupancy, or RUCO, rules significantly altered the discussion about housing code enforcement, but post-RUCO subcommittee chair Nancy Hoffmann was notably quiet.

“We’re entering into a whole new realm in terms of housing because of the law,” Perkins said, referring to the state legislature’s takedown of Greensboro’s RUCO ordinance.

The proposed budget includes $75,000 for “homeowner code compliance” and $50,000 for a “tenant and landlord education program” about primary code violations. The council tentatively approved the increases at the work session.

The council also gave the green light to continue an annual contribution of $50,000 to the Interactive Resource Center, a homeless day shelter, despite some council members’ concerns. District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small questioned the wisdom of singling out the organization rather than giving the money through Partners Ending Homelessness, an umbrella group, saying that it would set a precedent for other organizations working with homeless people.

District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny also said he was concerned about setting a precedent; the center’s staff initially asked for start up funds and said they wouldn’t be back to ask for a renewal despite the current request, he said.

“We’re essentially adding the IRC to our budget,” Matheny said, adding that he supported providing the funding and loves what the organization is doing. “I’m not going to sit here and pretend that’s not going to be up here next year.”

City staff recommended shifting funds from similar areas, including eliminating an unnecessary homebuyer education program and reducing citywide housing rehabilitation, to fully offset the $50,000 for the Interactive Resource Center.

NO ACTION

Over objections from District 5 Councilman Tony Wilkins and Kee, council advised against appropriating $460,000 beyond the proposed budget for a mobile command center for the Greensboro Police Department. The current vehicle is 15 years old and doesn’t have a bathroom or appropriate technology, Chief Ken Miller said, but added under questioning that it was not his “highest concern” for the department.

Wilkins and Kee said a mobile command center would decrease crime in certain areas, particularly in parts of their district where they say a substation is needed but is too costly. Bellamy-Small said “boots on the ground” would be more effective and Perkins said he trusted the chief to determine the department’s funding priorities, but council decided to drop the item entirely.

“We’re trying to cut crime, we’re not trying to buy buses,” Perkins said.

Wilkins said that crime along High Point Road is causing businesses to leave the area, but Bellamy-Small, who also represents residents along part of the street, said new businesses have been taking their place. Wilkins and Kee emphasized that they were bringing up the mobile command center because it was a frequent constituent request.

Council also agreed to drop plans to cut funding for the East White Oak Community Center after-school and playground programs. Peeler Recreation Center and McGirt-Horton Library are within a mile, Roth noted, but the programs only cost the city $14,686-$15,665 annually.

TAX DECREASE?

Wilkins repeatedly advocated that the city consider lowering the property tax rate by 1 cent, which he estimated would cost the city $2.5 million to help taxpayers save money. Arguing that Greensboro has the highest rate among major cities in North Carolina, Wilkins said the high rate was preventing businesses and individuals from choosing to locate in Greensboro.

His idea didn’t gain any traction with other council members, and Matheny asked staff to send Wilkins information about how the city provided more services than other cities with lower tax rates “every day” if necessary.

“We’ve never lost a business because of our tax rate,” said Matheny, who was backed up by Assistant City Manager Andy Scott, who focuses on economic development.

Wilkins said that an additional $2.7 million coming into the city via raised water rates could be returned to property tax payers through the 1-cent reduction, but Roth said it would require “dicey” additional cuts. Wilkins returned to the issue throughout the meeting saying council should at least review the potential cuts, but Matheny and Perkins said the council already has and Wilkins didn’t gain any traction.

“It’s my opinion that we should at least look at it,” Wilkins said, referring to possible cuts that city staff had already identified.

WHAT’S NEXT

Council will have two more work sessions, on May 30 and June 10, before voting on the proposed budget. The upcoming meetings will cover possible changes in the city’s relationship to Downtown Greensboro Inc., a potential new rule used by cities such as Charlotte that would require any of the city’s capital bond projects to set aside money for public art, a funding request from the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and a possible city “office of accountability.”

The May 30 discussion about Downtown Greensboro, Inc, or DGI, will include budgetary changes, including possibly adding a position or “enhanc-ing” existing ones, Roth said. She expects programmatic changes will be recommended as part of a city-DGI taskforce report but said she isn’t positive about specific budget changes that will be proposed at the meeting.

The struggling museum has requested $500,000 in funding but Roth said she wasn’t sure whether it would be allocated for one year over spread over three years.

Council is not planning to address participatory budgeting, a resident-led initiative to let people vote directly on how a fraction of the city budget is spent, during this budget cycle. While Roth said she is aware of an upcoming presentation from the group to council as well as meetings with individual members, she said it’s difficult to only discuss one side of the budget ledger — spending — while ignoring where the money would come from. Admitting that the city already has some difficulty balancing its budget, Roth said the idea brings up the deeper issues of managing the city’s budget in general.

“Our focus is how do we reduce our expenses while preserving services?” Roth said. “Participatory budgeting carves out money and the community decides where to spend it. Well, where does that money come from? That’s a structural challenge.”

Part of the solution to the deeper question of not spending more than the city brings in may be in Roth’s proposed office of accountability. The office, which would cost at least $70,000, would work to ensure the city is meeting its goals, evaluating programs and is being fiscally responsible. The city already does these things, she said, but the office would allow staff to “drill down to a deeper level.” Staff is aware of shortcomings in areas such as housing inspections, selling land to the state for the Urban Loop and a lack of oversight of nonprofit partners such as Grassroots Productions, Roth said, and this office could help.

“For me this is a part of the bigger picture,” Roth said. “As we are looking at our budget we are seeing that our revenues are not meeting our expenses. We’ve had a number of process failures. We fixed [some of] that. I want to see us have that response in all these places.”

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