Guilford County delegation takes up city council requests

by Eric Ginsburg

State representatives and senators from Guilford County have agreed to support 13 legislative items in the General Assembly that the Greensboro City Council requested action on. Council unanimously approved the items dealing with vacant housing, transportation, alcohol, environmental protection and more, but while different state lawmakers signed on to each issue, each member of the county delegation does not embrace the city’s full agenda.

The city’s assistant general counsel, Tom Carruthers, said staff and department heads began compiling legislative issues in November, with council narrowing the list to 13 it could reach consensus on. Carruthers, council members and state lawmakers used the metaphor of “tools in the toolbox” to describe the functionality and importance of the city’s legislative agenda. One of the top issues: the Jordan Lake rules.

City council is considering hiring Marlene Sanford, the president of the Triad Real Estate & Building Industries Coalition, or TREBIC, to represent its stance on the Jordan Lake rules. The city has battled the state law — aimed at providing environmental protections to ensure safe drinking water and decreasing chemical run off in the Jordan Lake in the Triangle — for years and has worked closely with TREBIC.

Sanford, who recently registered as a lobbyist on TREBIC’s behalf to push back against the rules’ implementation, said the $25,000 the city would pay her for this legislative session would cover costs and would not generate a profit for her or the organization. Mayor Robbie Perkins said the city needs some relief on the issue and said council would vote on the contract at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Sanford said she would be coordinating with stakeholders and interested parties to address three of the Jordan Lake rules that pertain to urban areas. The rules have different implementation dates, she said, and rules for stream buffers were implemented in 2010. The city and TREBIC successfully pushed for some of the implementation to be delayed last year and are now seeking to stave off rules around retrofitting existing development to decrease run off.

It would cost $300-400 million for the city to bring existing development up to par with the law, Sanford said, and similar rules in the Chesapeake Bay failed to solve the problem. Sanford said it was possible that there would be “measurable” benefits from the Jordan Lake requirements on waste water and industrial treatment plants that would allay the need for other costly changes that she said were based on flimsy science.

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said the Jordan Lake rules are a top agenda item among the request, alongside one for breast density awareness.

“You’re talking about mega-millions of dollars,” Johnson said. “I am not unwilling to spend money that will save people’s lives, because life is important, but I am very skeptical about doing that when there’s absolutely no proof whatsoever it’s going to make any difference.”

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat who was out of the country during the delegation’s meeting with council, sent a memo to the delegation and city with points to consider on the topic. The Jordan Lake rules have already been watered down and the protections in them are still being chipped away, Harrison said, adding that council hasn’t received balanced information.

“TREBIC has convinced many in the city staff of their opinion on this,” she said.

Harrison and fellow Democrat Rep. Alma Adams wrote a letter last summer accusing council of undermining residents in favor of developers. Mayor Robbie Perkins said at the time that the city had worked closely with TREBIC for years to oppose the rules, which he characterized as “devastating.”

Republicans in the Guilford County delegation have strongly supported the city’s stance on the Jordan Lake rules in the past, but a proposal to generate funds for public transportation was initially met by silence from the delegation. According to a March 8 memo from Carruthers, the only item on the council’s legislative agenda that wasn’t taken up by a representative or senator was a requested increase in funds for the Greensboro Transportation Authority, but Harrison has since stepped in.

Spokesman Donnie Turlington said the city is seeking an increase in vehicle assessments, which would up the charge from $10 to $15 per vehicle registered locally in order to generate $1 million in funding. The funds would cover the $507,000 estimated cost of a new bus route to deal with overcrowding and the additional money would help offset an impending federal revenue shortfall to the transit authority.

Elizabeth James, the city’s public transportation division manager, said the city has been notified that federal funding through an urban transportation grant program will be cut beginning July 1. Just over half the funds generated by the increased assessment rate would be spent to tackle the department’s top priority — overcrowding on the Randleman Road route 12, Turlington said.

The money would be used to split up or separate the existing route, creating a bus route along South Elm/Eugene Street, James said. The majority of the users along the current route rely on the bus for work, educational and medical transportation, she said.

“It’s critical to the quality of life of users on that route,” James said.

Harrison said she supports the legislation because it would benefit low-income residents who rely on public transportation and said it has been a longterm need of the city. Like other lawmakers on the state and local level, Harrison said she is concerned that it might not pass the General Assembly because of conservative opposition to tax hikes.

“There is a group of legislators that routinely vote against tax increases,” Harrison said. “If a local community wants to tax itself that should be up to the local community.”

James said the transit authority doesn’t have any other funding sources beyond the legislative request.

“That’s the only option we have at this point,” she said. “It’s important because this is GTA’s most productive route. It’s the most effective route that GTA operates.”

Rep. Marcus Brandon, a Democrat who represents parts of High Point and Greensboro, said he doubts the transportation assessment request will be approved because of it’s framing.

“You just have to be careful how you work things around here,” he said. “I’ve got a similar bill for High Point. I’m not sure why we’re doing that differently [in Greensboro]. I think both cities need it.”

Brandon’s High Point legislation would grant the city the authority to raise assessments up to $20 per vehicle rather than Greensboro’s approach that asks the state for a guaranteed rate increase.

Perkins did not appear hopeful the bill would pass said he is unsure if following Brandon’s High Point approach would make a difference in the future.

“If it’s posited as a tax increase our options are either to reposition or just to let it die,” he said.

One of the items on the council’s legislative agenda wasn’t authored by the city — Brandon is proposing a vacant housing receivership law that the council is supporting. After floating the bill last year and restructuring it, Brandon is trying to take on blighted property in High Point and Greensboro for a second time.

“This gives the city the tools to go to court and get receivership for basically for abandoned properties,” he said. “I happen to live right beside a property that was never ever kept up. It was terrible. No matter what we did and how much we talked to the city, they didn’t really have any recourse. What we found is that this worked really well in depressed places like Cleveland and Detroit.”

The city is often stuck with properties that are not up to code and are abandoned under current law, and under Brandon’s proposed changes the property owner would still receive any profit that was generated from a city-run sale. Brandon said he is confident the bill would pass, partially because it has been successful in 30 cities nationwide and enjoys widespread support from the affected property owners who often don’t know what to do with a parcel that they owe taxes on or can’t sell.

Carruthers, Greensboro’s assistant general counsel, said the law would affect commercial and residential properties, but Mayor Perkins said it is aimed at residential lots, adding that it would improve safe housing but wouldn’t be used in every case.

Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican lawmaker who previously served on Greensboro City Council, agreed to sponsor legislation that would outlaw customers “brown bagging” their own alcohol at sexually-oriented businesses. Fully nude strip clubs are prevented from serving alcohol but patrons can currently bring their own, and Greensboro police have focused on such venues in recent months due to safety concerns.

Council is still considering an entertainment security ordinance that would impose restrictions on certain types of venues, including sexually-oriented businesses. Police Chief Ken Miller and District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny have championed the proposed ordinance, but Matheny recently said he is unsure if it makes sense. Wade also signed on to sponsor legislation pertaining to parking tickets and breast density awareness, and she introduced a bill supporting the city’s electronic notice goals. She could not be reached for comment.

Perkins said the brown-bagging ban was a “straight-forward initiative” that was an issue of public safety.

“Do you want [people] to bring alcohol into the totally nude strip clubs?” he said. “That’s something that we should have the ability to control and have asked for.”

Johnson was less adamant. “I’m not as up on whether or not [a ban] would make an appreciable difference,” Johnson said. “If it does, of course, I think we need to do it. I would have to do some more research on that area just to be honest with you.”