Neighborhood association in College Hill protests surprise tax cut

by Jordan Green

The renovation of Springdale Park was completed last year with funds from a special district tax, but not all residents of College Hill are pleased with the results. (photo by Jordan Green)

For more than two decades, residents of Greensboro’s College Hill neighborhood have paid an additional five cents beyond the city’s base tax rate, similar to their counterparts in downtown and the Aycock neighborhood.

The revenue collected through the municipal service district arrangement was plowed into neighborhood improvement projects such as streetscaping, street lighting and park renovation. The city website chronicles how the neighborhood returned from the brink of collapse after a low point in the mid-1970s when it “was dominated by absentee-owned apartment houses in substandard condition” and stately homes were torn down to clear a path for commercial development.

The added tax rate for College Hill dropped from five cents to one cent last month with a single unannounced vote when the city council adopted its budget and set the tax rate for the new fiscal year last month. Four College Hill property owners, at least three of whom live in the neighborhood, appeared before the council and asked for the tax decrease. They pointed out that about $700,000 is in the fund, and told council members that no projects have been proposed that need to be financed.

The vote to reduce the tax rate passed 6 to 3, with at-large Councilman Danny Thompson leading the charge.

“If the citizens are coming forward — and we haven’t heard anyone come forward tonight saying, ‘No, keep it, we’ve got plans’ — all I’ve heard from constituents in the area is, ‘This money’s been sitting there. We have no concrete plans. And we’re just asking for relief on the tax rate.’ And as one of the ladies said, ‘When there is a plan, we could always revisit increasing the tax back.’ Is that fair?’” Interim Planning and Community Development Director Sue Schwartz was the staff member designated to field Thompson’s questions.

“Whatever is the council’s pleasure,” she said. “I would just state I don’t think the rest of the neighborhood was aware that this was going to be discussed this evening. If we were setting the rate, for example, we’d go to Aycock and notify the whole neighborhood that this issue was up and get their input and bring you a recommendation. We were unprepared for that this evening.”

Michael Pendergraft, a Sunset Hills resident who is active with the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, cautioned the council that the four people appealing for tax relief had not stated that they represented the neighborhood association, adding, “It seems to me that the association should be given the opportunity to rebut or respond to their request.”

At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins was one of three council members, also including District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny and District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, that opposed the hasty change to the tax rate.

“I think that we’re going in the wrong direction on this one,” Perkins said. “We’ve got an established policy. And the established policy is a tax rate in that area. Having been involved in some of these historic districts over a period of years, everyone has an opinion. And if a lot of the neighborhood don’t know what’s going on and three or four people  come to a budget hearing and we make a quick decision on the fly like this, then I suspect that there’ll be some others that have the exact opposite opinion.”

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan sided with the tax-cutters.

“I have to agree that now is a good time to lower that rate, and I believe that two of the four speakers that got up own multiple properties,” she said. “There may be even more than two of the four speakers. The College Hill area has a large absentee owner […] and you’ve got a lot of people paying a lot of property taxes on rental properties. I just think at this point, given what our economic conditions are, this appears to be a good time to make that change.

“We can come back next year and raise it again,” she added. “Clearly, this would give the community a year to come together. It might give them the impetus to come together and create a plan.”

One of the residents pleading for tax relief was Kathy Burckley, who own two properties with her husband Bill Burckley. The latter is a former city councilman and political consultant who worked on the campaigns of Vaughan, Matheny, Mayor Bill Knight, District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade two years ago.

Another person in the delegation is Rick Sandler, who owns six apartment buildings in College Hill with a combined assessed value of $1.9 million, according to Guilford County tax records. Sandler unsuccessfully lobbied the council last September to exclude one of his properties in on Fisher Avenue from a Downtown Design Overlay, a set of guidelines established to enhance the aesthetic quality of the center city.

Sandler stands to save $475 on his tax bill while the three other property owners will save about $75 each.

Perkins, as it turned out, accurately predicted the reaction to the council’s decision to cut College Hill’s tax rate without seeking input from a broad cross section of the community.

“There was no notification to the College Hill Neighborhood Association, which is the governing board of the special district,” Melanie Bassett, the association’s vice president, told the council last week. “No individual member was contacted regarding the tax rate. And the action was untimely. Council approved action after June 15. And it was disrespectful towards the College Hill Neighborhood Association.”

Perkins nodded in agreement from the dais.

Bassett and two other officers from the neighborhood association provided members of council with copies of North Carolina statute governing the changes to tax rate in municipal service districts.

The state law regarding tax rates for special districts holds that “the governing board of the special district” should notify the governing board of the city with a request to “levy taxes on its behalf” before June 1. By law, the city should determine the tax rate after that time and notify the “district governing board not later than June 15.”

The council voted to reduce the neighborhood’s tax rate on June 21.

In a quirk of timing, the city council voted to hire an interim city attorney immediately before representatives of the neighborhood association appeared before council. The NC General Assembly passed a law last month making the city attorney in Greensboro answer directly to the city council rather than being an employee of the city manager, as has been the case in the past.

“The College Hill Neighborhood Association would like to know why procedure was not followed,” said Julie Davenport, secretary of the association. “The College Hill Neighborhood Association would like to know why the law was not followed. Perhaps our new interim city attorney could look into this. The College Hill Neighborhood Association would like to know how four individuals, half of whom own income-producing properties in the district, can request such change yet the governing board of the district was not consulted. The College Hill Neighborhood Association objects to taxation without representation.”

After the meeting, District 2 Councilman Jim Kee approached Bassett and Davenport, who were accompanied by association president Ron Walters.

“I want to apologize to you because they orchestrated this,” Kee told the trio. “Had I known they were not part of your organization….”

“You needed to know that you got duped,” Davenport said.

“That’s exactly what happened,” Kee agreed.

The three neighborhood association officers concurred with City Manager Rashad Young that the city council cannot consider its vote because the tax rate is set. The neighborhood association officers questioned the legality of the council’s decision, but Walters said they don’t intend to take the city to court to find out for sure.

Davenport reiterated that she would like the new interim city attorney, Tom Pollard, to investigate the legality of the vote. No council members who supported the tax decrease returned calls for this story, and none have stated whether they will ask Pollard to investigate the legality of their vote.

On at least one count, what the four property owners told council turned out to be inaccurate.

“The money has been there for years, and has not been utilized,” Cindy Sheppard said. “And that really bothers me as a citizen. I don’t feel like I should be taxed if the money’s not going to be used. It needs to be reduced to one tenth of a percent or one tenth of a penny, or whatever it is. Or rescind the tax until something is viable because there’s no need to continue taxing us if we aren’t going to be reaping the benefits.”

Walters provided a list of projects completed with the fund to members of council. Most notably, perhaps, the renovation of Springdale Park wrapped last October. Other projects financed by the special tax include granitewalled gateways at intersections, landscaped medians, bike lanes along Spring Garden Street, a pergola at the intersection of Walker Avenue and South Mendenhall Street, decorative trash receptacles and security lights on Edgar Alley.

Sheppard said in a recent interview that she doesn’t believe the association represents the neighborhood, and that she has a right to speak to council without notifying the neighborhood association.

“I don’t even think about the board except when something tragic happens like we weren’t represented well in the Edwards case,” Sheppard said.

The council approved a rezoning request so that the Edwards Communities firm [sp] could build a massive student housing complex in College Hill last year. The neighborhood association opposed the rezoning.

Burckley hired on as a consultant for the developer.

Sheppard also charged that the neighborhood association acts in a way that is not inclusive or transparent.

Sheppard indicated she was aware of the Springdale Park renovation project.

“I tried to be on that committee,” she said.

“It never happened. I did suggest an iron fence around the park. I am flabbergasted. It looks like a mountain lookout. There’s nothing Victorian about it.

“It’s not a historic park,” she added. “It’s not done in period like I wanted.”