The City Council usually meets on Tuesday, but this week’s meeting is Monday, August 1 at 5:30 p.m. and provides the citizens of Greensboro with their only opportunity to weigh in on the bond referendum before it is put on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election.
This City Council prides itself on transparency, but the entire bond referendum process could not have been more opaque. Most of the discussions that led up to the current $126 million in proposed bonds took place in secret. The meetings to come up with the initial bond package were held behind locked doors without public knowledge.
When information about the status of the proposed bond package, which at that point was hovering in the $200 million range was leaked to the Rhino Times, Mayor Nancy Vaughan was upset with the paper and the leaker. She said the bond was going to be about $100 million. But when a meeting on the bonds open to the public was held, that $100 million soared to $178.6 million. It was only at the final meeting that it was brought back down to the current $126 million.
Vaughan did say this week that it is higher than she would like, and the City Council may “tweak” a couple numbers on Monday, but she doesn’t expect any major changes.
This is not a bond about needs but about wants, and some of the projects the City Council wants are hard to believe.
The City Council began in January discussing about $40 million in bonds because that could be financed without raising taxes, and the city still has $60 million in bonds passed in 2006, 2008 and 2009 that have not been sold.
But when the councilmembers got behind closed doors with no one watching or listening, they decided they wanted much more money to spread around, mainly in east Greensboro, and most of the bond money, if it is spent on the projects on the list – which is a big if – will be spent in east Greensboro. If you live in District 5 represented by the lone Republican on the City Council, Tony Wilkins, you may get some pocket change but not much more.
The $126 million bond will, according to the Finance Department, need a 3.35 cent tax increase to finance it. That would raise the property tax rate in Greensboro from 63.25 cents to 66.55 cents. Considering the fact that Greensboro already has the highest property tax rate of any comparable city in the state, raising taxes isn’t going to make recruiting new industry any easier, nor provide any relief for property owners facing stagnate wages.
The only legal requirement on spending the bond money is that it meet the language on the ballot on Nov. 8. So any talk of specific projects indicates how the City Council currently plans to spend the money, not how it will spend the money.
For example, the city has a long list of parks and recreation projects with amounts. Most if not all of the projects have not been engineered or designed, so the amount is the best guess of what it will cost.
But more importantly, the City Council is under no legal obligation to do a single project on the list. The council could decide to spend the entire $40 million on some new project that hasn’t been mentioned. Judging from past behavior they could decide to spend the money on a new project at the Greensboro Coliseum; if there were five votes to do it. What is more likely is that some project costs will run higher than expected, so other projects will be eliminated. It is also possible, but not likely, that projects will come in under budget, so new projects would be added that no one ever mentioned during the bond process.
The same is true for all four bond categories. One project that is hard to believe is that the city plans to put $8 million of the $25 million housing bond into a “work force housing Initiative” to help middle income people buy and fix up their homes. It is the single largest item in the $25 million housing bond. A single person or a couple that has an income of $54,000 will qualify for this program, as will a family of four with an income of $79,000.
Increasing property taxes on all property owners in Greensboro to help those in poverty have safe affordable places to live seems appropriate. Helping middle class people buy bigger and newer houses than they could afford without government assistance doesn’t. However, it does appear that several members of the City Council may qualify for this program, so that might explain why it’s included.
The other categories in the housing bond are code compliance repair initiative, east Greensboro housing development, handicapped accessibility and housing for special populations, supportive housing units for homeless/disabled/veterans, nonprofit homebuyer lending, emergency repair programs, multifamily repair programs and homeowner rehabilitation.
A nonprofit homebuyer lending program is what got Greensboro involved in the whole Project Homestead mess. And for those with long memories, before Project Homestead, the Greensboro Episcopal Housing Ministry also went under trying to do the same thing. Never let it be said that Greensboro learns from its mistakes.
The housing bond money will be used for rental units as well as owner-occupied homes. So some multifamily property owners who have let their property deteriorate could greatly benefit.
Although that’s it under the housing bond portion of the bond referendum, that’s not it for housing in the overall bond package. In the $38.5 community development bond, there is $1.5 million for mixed-income rental housing on the Union Square redevelopment site. There is also $2 million for mixed-income housing in the Ole Asheboro Street Neighborhood along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and $1 million for low and moderate-income single-family housing in the Ole Asheboro neighborhood.
So although there is a $25 million housing bond, there is another $4.5 for housing under community development. It’s a lot of money for housing.
Also under community development there is $4 million for “small infill development” projects, and nobody seems to know how this money will be spent. Or, to put it more accurately, you get different answers from different people on what this money is for. It seems to fall under the definition of mad money, since any development currently inside the city limits can be considered infill development.
Along with housing being found under two categories, an even more interesting aspect is that streetscape for the Union Square project at Gate City Boulevard and Arlington Street is also in two line items under community development. There is $4 million for streetscape for Union Square and under the $25 million for downtown infrastructure improvements there is an item for Gate City Boulevard from Eugene Street to Arlington Street listed.
The downtown projects have no cost estimates, but surely the city is not going to have two different streetscape projects, funded out of different pots of money and designed by different groups, going on at the same time in the same place.
The $25 million for downtown infrastructure improvements appears to be optimistic. It includes Elm Street from Fisher Avenue to Gate City Boulevard, Davie Street from Friendly Avenue to McGee Street, Church Street from Lindsay Street to Washington Street, Bellemeade Street from Edgeworth to North Elm Street, and Summit Avenue from Davie Street to Murrow Boulevard.
Considering the city plans to spend at least $4 million on the block in front of Union Square, the idea that they are going to be able to streetscape all those other streets for a total of $25 million indicates one of those figures is way off. The plan includes 11 blocks of Elm Street alone. So if it costs $4 million to streetscape one block, doing Elm Street would cost $44 million.
This is not a well-thought-out bond package. When the City Council cut it from $178.6 million to $126 million, they mainly sliced and diced, cutting some from this project and some from that, with little discussion in public of how that would affect the projects.
There was, for instance, some support on the City Council for cutting the money for the downtown from $25 million to $20 million, but no discussion of what projects would be eliminated. The discussion included statements like, “I’d be more comfortable at 20.” But evidently more councilmembers were comfortable at $25 million, for whatever that’s worth.
The parks and recreation bond was cut from $40 million to $32.5 million and this actually did make some sense. When Councilmember Justin Outling found out that the combination of the Windsor Recreation Center and the Vance Chavis Library into one facility slated for $8.5 million would not take place until 2021, he said the city didn’t need to be selling bonds in 2016 for a project five years down the road. Outling settled for cutting $6.5 million from that line item, leaving $2 million for planning. The City Council also reduced the Barber Park and Gateway Gardens completion from $5.5 million to $4.5 million.
The downtown Greenway completion is under the parks and rec bond for $7 million. This is a project that has been in the works for 15 years and less than a mile has been completed. There is also $7 million to connect the Atlantic and Yadkin Greenway to the downtown Greenway. The now abandoned Atlantic and Yadkin railroad tracks run along Battleground Avenue and between Battleground Avenue and Lawndale Drive. It will provide a walking and biking trail from northern Greensboro into the downtown.
Community tennis courts get $3 million, and $5 million is slated for creating a Battleground Parks District to unite Country Park, the Greensboro Science Center and Guilford Courthouse National Military Park with other city facilities in the area into one park district.
Greensboro voters historically approve parks and recreation bonds. So it wouldn’t be wise to bet against this one.
According to City Councilmember Mike Barber, the bond that everyone is going to vote for is the $30 million for sidewalks, intersections, transit and street resurfacing. This includes $20 million for street resurfacing and $10 million for sidewalks, intersection improvement and transit.
The bond language is supposed to be written so that money can also be used to purchase buses, which gives a good indication of just how loose the language on these bonds is.
Barber fought hard to get the $20 million for resurfacing streets into the bond package. It wasn’t in at least one of the earlier versions. He also wanted street resurfacing to be a separate bond because he said it would be assured of passing if all the money would be used to fix the streets, which councilmembers hear complaints about frequently.
That’s not every single item on the bond package, but really the only figures that matter are the totals: housing $25 million, community and economic development $38.5 million, parks and recreation $32.5 million and sidewalks, intersections, transit and street resurfacing $30 million.
And your only chance to speak to the City Council before it votes on what goes on the ballot in November is Monday, August 1 at 5:30 in the Council Chambers at city hall.