The Greensboro City Council will pass a $533 million budget next week that includes a sizable tax increase and that is, with only a couple of exceptions, the budget that was presented to the council by City Manager Jim Westmoreland on May 16.
The City Council gave Westmoreland few directions on the budget before he prepared it. Mainly the council said it wanted to keep the tax rate the same – which actually results in a 2.1 cent tax increase – and that they wanted a raise for the Police and Fire departments.
The City Council has made two significant changes; both came at the request of At-large City Councilmember Mike Barber and were supported by the majority of the City Council.
Westmoreland’s budget included a 5 percent raise for police officers and firefighters. Barber said that the raise for sworn police officers and firefighters needed to be higher to allow Greensboro to recruit, train and keep public safety officers. Barber suggested a 7.5 percent increase and his suggestion was supported by the rest of the City Council, with the notable exception of Councilmembers Sharon Hightower and Jamal Fox.
The Police Department was unable to fill its last training class and has also been losing police officers to other departments in the state that pay more and have less police controversy.
At nearly every Greensboro City Council meeting, the Police Department is verbally attacked by speakers from the floor. Most are followers of Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center, who has been fighting against the Police Department since the Klan-Communist shootout of 1979.
Johnson was a leader of the Communist Workers Party (CWP), which was holding the “Death to the Klan” march that led to the shootout between the Klan and the CWP where four white and one black supporter of the CWP were killed. Johnson blamed the lack of police protection for those deaths and has been a vocal opponent of the Greensboro Police Department ever since.
Not every city has an aging communist organizing constant verbal assaults on its police department, and it puts the Greensboro Police Department at a disadvantage when recruiting and retaining police officers.
The City Council can’t do much about Johnson, but it can raise wages – which it plans to – and that should help.
Barber said that it was vital for the City Council to make a bold statement of support for the Police Department and he thought the 7.5 percent raise did that.
Hightower said that no city employee was more important than any other city employee, and if the police received a 7.5 percent raise every city employee deserved a 7.5 percent raise.
Westmoreland’s budget does include a 3 percent raise for city employees and that has remained unchanged.
The other notable change made to the budget by the City Council was an adjustment in the proposed city water rate increase. Westmoreland’s budget included a 3.75 percent increase for city residents and a 1 percent increase for water users outside the city.
Those outside the city currently pay about 240 percent more than city residents. At the request of Barber, the budget was revised so that there will be a 3.25 percent increase for city residents and 5.5 percent for those residing outside the city.
Otherwise, the City Council increased the handouts to some nonprofits and added some that hadn’t make the manager’s budget.
The vast majority of the budget was never discussed by the City Council either before or after the budget was presented.
Councilmember Tony Wilkins made a motion that the city not raise taxes, but stick with the revenue neutral tax rate, which is 61.14 cents. Only Wilkins and Barber voted in favor of not raising taxes.
There has been more confusion than normal about the tax rate because the News & Record reported that Greensboro was not raising taxes and that Guilford County was lowering taxes. In fact, Greensboro is raising taxes and Guilford County is keeping taxes the same as in the current year.
Because all the property in Guilford County was revalued last year, and the average property increased in value, keeping the property tax rate the same means that people will pay more in taxes on the same property, and the city will collect more revenue.
The state requires local governments to publish the “revenue neutral” tax rate after a revaluation, so the property owners will know what the tax rate should be.
The City Council kept the tax rate the same, which means the average property owner will pay more property tax, while Guilford County went with the revenue neutral tax rate, which means the average property owner will pay the same property tax in 2017 that they paid in 2016.
This year is done. The Greensboro City Council canceled its scheduled June 13 budget work session, so no further changes to the budget are expected. In fact, cancelling the budget work session probably kept the spending down because this council likes to spend money, and another meeting would have almost certainly meant more money for nonprofits, while Hightower has been lobbying for a bigger raise for city employees.
In fact, one issue about the budget that has been left up in the air is how the City Council will pass the budget.
Hightower said that she wants to be able to pull out the parts she doesn’t support, like the raise for police officers, and vote against those portions of the budget. It would be a first, and her request didn’t receive much support at the last council meeting when she announced it.
But considering the budget is set, but the way the City Council approves it is not, here is a suggestion for next year’s budget.
Zero-based budgeting means starting every government department at zero and having them justify every expense. It’s never going to happen. But how about a budget based on actual spending rather than the previous year’s budget?
The actual amount of money spent this year is not available because the year isn’t over yet. But the actual audited figures are available for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, and in the current economy things aren’t changing much from year to year. The rate of inflation is about 2 percent, and in Greensboro the population growth is about 1.5 percent.
So if you take the actual amount of money spent in 2015-2016, which was $462 million, and add 3.5 percent growth, you should come up with a budget figure for the current year 2016-2017 that would be sustainable, providing all the same services as in 2015-2016 at the same level.
If you do that, the city budget for 2016-2017 should have been $478 million, which is the $462 that was spent in 2015-2016, plus 3.5 percent, or $16 million.
The current budget is actually $523 million, which is an increase of $61 million, or 13 percent over what was actually spent, and a 9.5 percent increase over what would be needed to account for inflation and population growth.
If you carry the actual figure forward to the budget currently under consideration for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, by taking that $478 million from the current year and adding 3.5 percent to account for inflation and population growth, then the current budget the City Council is considering would be about $495 million. The budget that is being considered is $533 million, or $38 million more than what is necessary to account for population growth and inflation. In fact, if you add in the additional $5 million that will be needed to pay the debt service on the bonds that will be sold, it only comes to $500 million.
So the city has budgeted $33 million more in spending than can be accounted for by inflation and population growth.
Next year, instead of starting with the budgeting figure for 2017-2018, which is $533 million, why doesn’t the City Council start with the actual spending for 2016-2017, and make the necessary adjustments for inflation and population and see what it has?
If the growth rate should be about 3.5 percent and its actually 13 percent, it’s easy to see why each year the residents believe that the city is taking more of their money. It’s because the city is.