From silly to mundane, the Greensboro City Council town hall-type meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 4, covered the bases.
The City Council has agreed not to do any business at the meeting on the first Tuesday of the month. The meeting is simply for the City Council to listen to anyone who walks up to the podium and speaks for five minutes about whatever is on their mind.
Four speakers gave various versions of a one-punch fight at the gay bar Chemistry Nightclub.
District 58 Republican state house candidate Peter Boykin told the City Council his husband was sucker punched in the bar because he was wearing a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat.
Other speakers said the punch had nothing to do with the hat but was delivered because of a rude comment Boykin’s husband made about another man’s recently deceased mother.
Boykin said he was upset that no one was arrested and was in favor of an ordinance that required bars to have onsite security, which seemed to be the purpose for coming to the meeting.
And it was indicative of how the City Council – elected to run a city of 290,000 people – is spending its time. The City Council holds one business meeting a month and this town hall-type meeting. The panhandling ordinance, which the City Council spent all summer working on, only had one speaker on Tuesday night, but perhaps the City Council will commission a months’ long study on one-punch fights in bars and how to handle them.
The City Council also considered a request from Pam Strader, the pastor of Congregational Care and Discipleship Ministry at West Market Street United Methodist Church, to give the families that are being evicted from the apartment complex on Summit Avenue, where five children died in a fire, more time to find places to live.
More than 25 families are being evicted because the apartment buildings have been condemned by the city for building code violations. The apartment fire, however, was not caused by any building code violation but by unattended food left on stove that was on, according to the fire report.
Strader said that she had driven families all over the city in search of apartments and only two of the 25-plus families had been able to find places to live. She asked the City Council to give them more time since the deadline to move out is Sept. 13.
No one on the City Council commented on this problem that the City Council helped create by continuing to spread the false rumor that the fire was caused by a wiring problem or a faulty stove.
Because of the City Council, teams of inspectors with interpreters were sent to the apartments and found enough building code violations to condemn the apartments. Language had reportedly been a major obstacle in getting repairs made by the landlord.
One of the issues according to Strader is that many of the families are large and apartment owners will not rent a two-bedroom apartment to a family of eight or nine. Strader said there was an extreme shortage of three- and four-bedroom apartments in Greensboro.
After the meeting Vaughan said it was unlikely that an extension would be granted because the apartments had not been repaired. She said that the city might have to find temporary housing for the families.
The city has already allocated $45,000 to assist the families in moving. But if the city is going to provide temporary housing for over 25 families, that $45,000 is going to go pretty quickly.
The big losers in this battle between Arcon Realty, which owns the apartments, and the city is going to be the families who, even if temporary housing is found, will have to move and move again. Strader noted that many of them ride in vans to work and they were concerned about getting picked up if they moved.
The fact that the people being evicted are having so much trouble finding places to live is an indication of the shortage of housing in this price range, which means Arcon should have no trouble renting the apartments once they are brought up to code.
The City Council also heard from a number of speakers asking for improved bus service. The speakers said they wanted more frequent bus service, extended hours, more bus shelters and more crosstown connectors.
One speaker complained about a rude bus driver.
City Councilmember Sharon Hightower said she was committed to putting $4 million to $5 million more into bus service. Councilmember Michelle Kennedy also said that the hours needed to be extended and bus routes added to get people to work. She said the bus service should be looked at as part of economic development.
Greensboro Department of Transportation (GTA) Director Adam Fischer gave a short report on the current status of the GTA, which runs the bus service. Fischer said they had accomplished much of what they had set out to do in 2005. He said buses now ran at 30-minute intervals, which basically doubled the cost of bus service, and hours had been extended to 11 p.m.
Fischer said that GTA was running at a deficit of about $1.5 million a year, so they hadn’t been considering expanding services and adding costs. He noted that fares only paid 20 percent to 22 percent of the cost of a bus ride.
Hightower said that ridership was down and the city needed to do something to increase ridership.
Fischer agreed that ridership was down, but said that it was part of a nationwide trend caused in part by the rebounding economy. When the economy improves and people are making more money they buy cars so they don’t have to depend on bus service. The ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft have also had an effect on bus ridership.
Kennedy asked if the city couldn’t save money by using smaller buses on some routes.
Fischer said that this was a widely held misconception and because most of the cost of operating the bus is in labor, using a smaller bus doesn’t save much money. However, Fischer noted that the city has three electric buses and 10 on order. He said if the whole fleet is converted to electric, the city will save $1.5 million a year in fuel and maintenance costs.
Of course, the bus system started out as electric trolleys that evolved into electric buses and then were freed from wires with the diesel buses. The new electric buses run on batteries so there won’t be new wires everywhere, but they’re still electric buses, which is what the city used to have.
Because they started out as electric trolleys, up until 1991 Duke Power, not the city, ran the bus service. Fischer noted that Duke wanted to get out of the bus business so badly that it is still paying the city $1.5 million a year for the privilege of not operating a bus system and will continue to do so until 2027.