The Greensboro City Council raised taxes 2.1 cents on Tuesday, June 20, with the passage of the 2017-2018 budget. However, most of the discussion was not about the tax increase but about raising wages for employees, both in this budget and in future budgets.
Councilmember Tony Wilkins said, “Make no doubt about it, a yes vote for this budget is a yes vote to increase taxes.”
Wilkins noted that he had heard from a number of his constitutes who were not in favor of a tax increase, and he said, “I won’t be voting for a tax increase and I won’t be voting for this budget.”
The vote to pass the $534.6 million 2017-2018 fiscal year budget was 6 to 3, with Councilmembers Wilkins, Sharon Hightower and Jamal Fox voting no.
(Councilmember Mike Barber is president of First Tee of the Triad, a nonprofit organization that promotes youth golf and First Tee has business relationship with Gillespie Golf Course, so Barber was recused from voting on the portion of the budget that deals with Gillespie Golf Course.)
Hightower had a very different reason for voting no on the budget. Hightower opposed the budget because it included a 7.5 percent salary increase for police officers and firefighters and a 3 percent salary increase based on merit for the other city employees. Hightower said that no city employee was more important than any other city employee and they should all be treated the same.
Councilmember Yvonne Johnson said she would support the budget but that in the next budget she wanted salaries raised so that not a single city employee was below the poverty line.
Since the poverty rate is based on the number of members of a family and total family income, this could bring about great diversity in salaries paid to city employees for doing the same job.
Later Johnson said that issues like paying different wages for the same job, based on the number of people being supported by that employee, was a problem, but she was adamant that no full-time city worker should be below the poverty rate.
Hightower said that she understood that for a wage earner supporting two family members, the poverty rate would be about $24 an hour.
If the city follows through on this request by Johnson, supported by Hightower, then the taxpayers of the city are in for a whale of tax increase next year.
The City Council previously voted to raise the minimum wage for all city employees, including part time, to $15 an hour by 2020. But Hightower, Fox and Mayor Nancy Vaughan have all complained that the process, though on schedule, is moving too slowly and have asked City Manager Jim Westmoreland to speed up the salary increase.
The council seems unaware that far more is involved than simply raising the salaries of the lowest paid employees, because employees with more experience and responsibility have to be paid more than new employees, and supervisors have to be paid more than the employees they supervise, so that the raise involves far more employees than simply the lowest paid.
Greensboro already has the highest tax rate of any comparable city in the state, and these wage increase plans are not going to be cheap.
Wilkins voted against the budget because of the tax increase. Hightower voted against the budget because of the salary increase for police and fire personnel. Fox voted against the budget, but was participating in the meeting by phone and didn’t give any indication of why he voted no. Fox has also missed a number of the work sessions when the budget was discussed by the council, so was even less involved than other councilmembers in developing the budget.
The actual tax rate will stay the same, at 63.25 percent, but because Guilford County revalued all the property in the county last year and the value of that property increased, the average property owner will see a higher tax bill and the city will collect about $5 million more in revenue than it would have under the old property valuations and tax rate. The revenue-neutral tax rate is 61.14.
North Carolina requires local governments to publish the revenue neutral tax rate after a revaluation so that municipalities and counties don’t benefit from a stealth tax increase, like Greensboro is doing this year. If Greensboro had not raised taxes, the tax rate for 2017-2018 would be 61.14.
It has been widely reported in the media that Greensboro is not raising taxes because the tax rate is remaining the same. Greensboro is raising taxes. Property owners in Greensboro will pay more tax on the same piece of property and the city will collect more tax revenue. The State of North Carolina recognizes it as a tax increase even if the local mainstream media can’t figure out the math.
Guilford County, by contrast, used the revenue-neutral rate and received criticism in the mainstream media for lowering taxes.
Rest assured that most property owners will pay more in city taxes next year and the city will collect more revenue on the same property. The city has, of course, already spent the additional money that it will collect.
More bad news for those paying the bills, the City Council voted 8 to 1 to increase water and sewer fees. Wilkins voted no
Wilkins said, “If we use the fact that we have the second lowest water rates in the state as a reason for increasing the rates then we should use the fact that we have the highest property tax rate to reduce the property tax rate.”
Vaughan noted that water and sewer rates were dependent on providing one service while the property tax was based on a whole host of services – parks and recreation, libraries, trash collection and others – which made it much harder to quantify the property tax rate.
Water and sewer rates were raised 3.25 percent for those living in the city and 5.5 percent for those outside the city.
Cemetery fees were also increased and Hightower expressed concern that the funeral homes wouldn’t be informed of the increased fees.
Hightower and Wilkins voted against raising cemetery fees, which passed.
The City Council made few changes to the budget that was presented by Westmoreland in May. The raise for police and fire was increased from 5 percent to 7.5 percent and water rates were adjusted down slightly for Greensboro residents and up for those outside the city.
But the vast majority of the $534.6 million budget, which is over $10 million more than the 2016-2017 budget of $524 million, and more than $72 million more than the $462 million city actually spent in 2015-2016, was not discussed and left undisturbed.
One change made to the budget that engendered a lot of discussion by City Councilmember Justin Outling was the sudden request from the Housing Hub for $250,000.
The Housing Hub is a collaboration of agencies that work in affordable and low income housing to locate in one facility. The agencies include Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro, Community Housing Solutions, Greensboro Housing Coalition, Housing Consultants Group, Partnership Village and Tiny Houses Greensboro. The group asked for $250,000 of the estimated $500,000 needed to upfit the Triton Building at 1031 Summit Ave. so that they could all be under one roof.
At the City Council work session, representatives of the group made a point that they were putting no money from the organizations into the project. Outling noted that the organizations themselves didn’t think the project worthy of funding and questioned why the city would fund it.
Outling said he didn’t see any connection between this expenditure and the furtherance of the goal of providing safe, affordable housing. He said, “When we spend money it needs to be strategic.” He added that the expenditure didn’t further a city goal or vision.
He also said that no data had been provided about how this expenditure would serve more people or make a difference in providing more housing.
Outling also said that this project had bypassed the policy the city had established for funding nonprofit organizations, which is to apply to the Community Resource Board, which makes recommendations to the city manager, who then makes recommendations to the City Council. Outling noted that this group did not file an application with the Community Resource Board and didn’t supply the information about the organizations that the Community Resource Board requires to consider funding. He said he had been given no financial information about one of the organizations involved and didn’t even know if it was a nonprofit.
Outling has made similar comments about other expenditures, but this is a City Council that likes to spend money, so he doesn’t get much support.
Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann said she thought bringing all the nonprofits together would achieve some efficiencies.
Johnson said, “I think it will make a difference.”
Barber said, “Anytime we can consolidate services I think it is of benefit to the end user.”
There were many comparisons made to the Guilford County Family Justice Center, which is a Guilford County department that the city decided to fund even though city taxpayers were already funding the center through their county taxes.
Vaughan said, “$250,000 is a lot of money but in the scope of our budget it isn’t.”
Outling noted that by funding a project with no defined goals, no data on what would be considered achieving success and one that went around the established city policy was simply inviting more organizations with a good idea to ask for money.
Those organizations with good ideas might also want to consider that Vaughan doesn’t consider $250,000 a lot of money when she’s talking about city money. So it would seem that $50,000 would hardly even be worth discussing at all.
In past years the budget has been passed after weeks of long meetings where agreements on taxes and spending were worked out. That’s not the case this year. The changes made by the City Council were done in a couple of short meetings and account for a miniscule portion of the budget.
But the City Council is keeping with the tradition of taking a break after it passes the budget and won’t meet again until July 18.
There weren’t many speakers from the floor and no one was shouting at the City Council, but one speaker is worth noting. A resident of the Hillsdale Park neighborhood came to the City Council meeting Tuesday to complain of problems in the area caused by the high crime on Gate City Boulevard. He said there was no need to fix the sidewalks if it was unsafe to walk down the sidewalk.
He also complained about the wildlife in Hillsdale Park and posted beautiful photos of two bobcats that he said lived in the park.
It is difficult to get photos of bobcats, which are generally not fond of people, and these were amazing photos. A Google search for bobcat revealed the same photos. Hillsdale Park may or may not have bobcats, but the photos displayed at the City Council meeting were not taken at Hillsdale Park. The photos did provide a great if somewhat misleading visual for his presentation.