The bonds are now up to the voters.
The Greensboro City Council at its regular meeting in the Council Chambers on Monday, August 1, voted to put four bonds on the ballot on Nov. 8 that total $126 million. None of the bonds passed by unanimous votes and two passed by the slimmest of margins, 4 to 3.
Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter was absent. Although she did participate in a closed session earlier in the meeting by phone, she did not participate in any of the public portion. Councilmember Yvonne Johnson participated in the closed session, the special-called meeting on the museum and a portion of the regular meeting by phone, but not the bond portion. Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann participated by phone the entire meeting, which began at 3 p.m., with the special meeting on the museum, and ended at 11 p.m. That’s one long phone call.
The $25 million in housing bonds passed on a 4-to-3 vote, with Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilmembers Sharon Hightower, Justin Outling and Hoffmann voting yes and Councilmembers Mike Barber, Jamal Fox and Tony Wilkins voting no.
The $32.5 million parks and recreation bond passed 4 to 3, with Vaughan, Barber, Hoffmann and Outling voting yes and Hightower, Fox and Wilkins voting no.
The $38.5 community and economic development bond and the $30 million transportation bond both passed 5 to 2, with Vaughan, Barber, Hightower, Hoffmann and Outling voting yes and Fox and Wilkins voting no.
If you are a student of the City Council, there are some strange coalitions in those votes. It is unusual for Fox and Wilkins to be on the same side of a split vote, but they voted against all four bonds.
Fox made it clear that he was not satisfied with the entire bond process. He asked City Manager Jim Westmoreland how bonds had been handled in 2006 and 2008. Westmoreland said that normally a bond is discussed in the fall and then voted on by the council in the spring. He said a committee independent of the council is formed to support the bonds, usually about six to nine months before Election Day.
Fox said that he thought a number of items in the bond package could be taken care of in the regular budget and that he was concerned because of the lack of outreach to the community and stakeholders.
Fox suggested that instead of putting the bonds on the ballot in November, the council wait and put them on the ballot in November 2017, after more community involvement.
Vaughan said that the bonds had been under discussion since October, which means they must have been discussed in the secret meetings that this City Council likes to have. Those secret meetings were held to discuss the bonds after the January council retreat, but evidently they started much earlier.
Fox noted that the proposed tax increase of 3.35 cents had not been discussed with the community and that the total for the bond package had been all over the place before the council settled at $126.
Fox was not at the meeting when the total package was reduced from $178.7 million to $126 million. One of the projects that was cut from $8.5 million to $2 million was combining the Windsor Recreation Center and the Vance-Chavis branch library into one facility. This was a project that Fox had backed to put on the bond. At an earlier meeting Fox complained that $25 million was too much for downtown Greensboro and asked that it be reduced to $20 million. He was unable to get a vote on reducing the amount for the downtown and it remained at $25 million.
Barber has spoken against the housing bonds at every public meeting the City Council has had. Monday night he pointed out that Winston-Salem passed a $144 million bond with $10 million in housing bonds, and San Antonio, Texas, had passed a $596 million bond with no housing bonds and no tax increase because the bonds were used to grow the tax base.
Barber has said at previous meetings that increasing the amount of affordable housing in the community will attract more people who need affordable housing to the city, putting more strain on other city and county services. He said it was taking the city in the wrong direction.
In contrast, Hightower said it disturbed her that the parks and rec bond was higher than the housing bond. She said the parks and rec bond needed to be reduced. It wasn’t reduced and Hightower voted against the parks and rec bond, evidently because it was higher than the housing bond.
Before the vote, the City Council gave the public its only chance to weigh in on the bonds. Eleven of the speakers were from organizations involved with affordable housing and spoke in favor of the housing bond. One from a bank involved in housing also spoke in favor of the bond.
Three people spoke in favor of the $3 million for tennis courts in the parks and rec bond. Earlier in the evening there had been a large number of people, including a lot of children in yellow T-shirts, to support the tennis portion of the bond, but by the time the City Council got to that portion of the agenda most of the yellow T-shirt crowd had gone home.
No one spoke on the community development or transportation bonds and no one spoke against the bonds.
Fox is correct. This is a very short timeline for a bond package. Proponents only have three months to get organized, raise money and drum up support for the bonds. The City Council hasn’t spent the time past councils have spent involving the community in the process and building support.
The whole process started because the City Council was told it could pass about a $40 million bond package and not raise taxes. The $40 million grew to $200 million, and it was only with some difficulty that it was reduced to $126 million. There are no critical needs in the bond package, but a lot of projects the City Council would like to see done but don’t want to pay for in its annual budget.
Plus, “No GSO Bonds” signs have already been spotted around the city, so there is a chance that, unlike past city bonds, this one could have organized opposition.
Greensboro already has the highest property tax rate of any comparable city in the state, and raising property taxes 3.35 cents means nobody is likely to catch us for a while. The city is receiving more revenue from the expanded sales tax and the new utility tax than anticipated, which means the City Council could have reduced property taxes without making any cuts, but it has chosen to spend the money instead.
Earlier in the meeting, the City Council heard two rezoning requests. It passed one. The other will have to come back for a second vote at the August 16 meeting because the motion to annex the property, which has to be done before it can be zoned, passed 5 to 2, and the city charter requires annexation to pass with a minimum of six votes, regardless of how many councilmembers are present. On August 16, the property can be annexed with a simple majority vote.
The vote came at the end of the most tedious discussion of this eight-hour meeting and was on a proposed annexation and zoning of property at 1730 Youngs Mill Road near I-85 for a gas station and convenience store. Officially, the zoning request is from county agricultural (County AG) to city conditional district-commercial-medium (CD-C-M).
It came out in the discussion that a Sheetz is planned for that location if the annexation and zoning passes on August 16.
Because the annexation didn’t have enough votes to be final, the City Council didn’t vote on the rezoning.
It was a full blown rezoning request, the kind that this City Council has seen all too infrequently, with Henry Isaacson of Isaacson Isaacson Sheridan Fountain & Leftwich representing the property owner and developer, and attorney Don Eggleston representing the Twin Lakes community adjacent to the property that opposed the rezoning.
Eggleston was aided by Hightower, who was so opposed to the rezoning that she argued that water from the proposed gas station would flow uphill and then down into the community. Eggleston also got heavily involved in water issues, stating that runoff from the gas station would flow into the creek and from there into Lake Townsend. The land is southeast of the city; because of the topography, the only way water from the gas station could get to Lake Townsend is if someone put it in a tanker truck, drove to Lake Townsend and dumped it in.
But Eggleston got in a long discussion about how dangerous gas stations were in general, how they pollute the water, pollute the air, create light and noise pollution and smell.
Vaughan noted that in her neighborhood there are two gas stations adjacent to residential property and it doesn’t seem to cause a problem.
Arguing against putting a gas station at a specific location is an argument you can win; arguing against the existence of gas stations in the community to city councilmembers who all got in their cars and drove to the meeting is a far more difficult nut to crack.
After a far less lengthy discussion, the City Council voted unanimously to rezone about 16 acres at 3619 and 3629 Lewiston Road and 3410 Crimson Wood Dr. from single-family residential (R3) to conditional district residential multifamily (RM12). The planned development will include a mix of single-family homes and townhomes.
The only opposition was to the increased traffic on Lewiston Road, and city staff said that Lewiston Road could handle far more traffic than this development would create.
At the very beginning of the meeting Hightower and Barber got in a back and forth, talking over each other, after a speaker from the floor, Sandra White, complained about the way city prime contractors treat subcontrators.
Barber said that he had been chairman of the state contracting licensing board and what she was complaining about was covered by state statute. He suggested that she contact him and he would direct her on how to file a complaint.
Hightower interrupted saying to White, “Are you one of my MWBEs?” Hightower said that they should not be pushing her off to the state but should handle the issue “right here.”
Barber said that the laws concerning MWBEs were state statutes and the city was prohibited from interfering with state laws.
Hightower responded, “Mr. Barber has never helped an MWBE person. You have never helped anybody.”
Vaughan stepped in and said that the council needed to behave the way they expected the audience to act.
In closed session the City Council met to consider the lawsuit that former Police Chief David Wray filed against the city because the city refused to pay his legal expenses for lawsuits filed against him for actions he took as police chief.
The city has had a policy since 1980 to pay the legal expenses of employees incurred because of their jobs.
Councilmembers were given the opportunity look at Wray’s personnel file to see if there was any indication of why the city should not pay his legal fees.
Wilkins said he looked through the personnel file and when he finished, he said, “What I see is a 28-year stellar career.”
Wilkins said, “I didn’t see anything negative in the file.”
However, the City Council voted 6 to 3 not to settle the case until after the state Supreme Court decision. Wilkins voted against the motion because he was in favor of settling the case. Reportedly Fox and Hightower voted against it because it implied after the Supreme Court decision the city would consider settling.
The city has spent $457,000 on the lawsuit so far. Wray is suing for $220,000 in legal expenses. The state Court of Appeals ruled that the city did not have sovereign immunity and Wray had a right to sue. That is the decision that will be appealed to the state Supreme Court. If the court rules in the city’s favor then the case is over, but if Wray wins the appeal then the case would be sent back to Superior Court for trial and more legal expenses for the taxpayers.