City Council Looks Into The Future
The Greensboro City Council’s Thursday, Jan. 16 “visioning session” at the ACC Hall of Champions was marked by cheerfulness, a sense of optimism and occasional trash talk about former Mayor Robbie Perkins.
At one point, someone asked if Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan needed a gavel to get control of the session.
Vaughan said she didn’t because Perkins didn’t use one. She said, “If he did it for two years, I can do it.”
Not much later in the discussion, she said of Perkins, “Anything he can do, I can do better.”
Councilmember Zack Matheny, who drew some good-humored gibes about his tendency to speak at length during City Council meetings and work sessions, got in his own jab at the absent Perkins.
“People are wondering why we can’t have a 16-minute meeting,” Matheny said. “If people say I talk a lot, you should sit in here with Perkins!”
For the most part, experienced councilmembers such as Matheny seemed invigorated by the presence of new councilmembers, and new councilmembers kicked in constructive suggestions.
Councilmember Mike Barber, who was elected to an at-large seat on the City Council in November after being off the council since 2009, bounced up energetically during a break to express his optimism about the new council.
“I think this council’s together on a lot of this stuff,” Barber said. “Which is great.”
Barber spent a year in Spain with his family during his time off the City Council.
If history is any guide, the City Council won’t continue to agree on everything forever. But the session was at least a honeymoon period for the City Council after the turmoil of election season.
The City Council on Jan. 7 voted Jim Westmoreland from deputy city manager to interim city manager effective Feb. 1, after City Manager Denise Roth announced her resignation to accept an appointment by President Barack Obama to the office of deputy administrator of the US General Services Administration.
For the most part, Roth sat back and let Westmoreland run the city staff’s dog-and-pony show and field questions. She opened the meeting, explained the visioning concept and occasionally stepped in to comment on issues in which she, but not Westmoreland, had been involved.
The session started with a PowerPoint presentation on five areas of concentration – economic development, city infrastructure, public safety, customer service and “fiscal stewardship, transparency and accountability.”
Vaughan said the format was different from recent years in that staff had come up with the areas of achievable goals and the City Council was supposed to discuss things that fit within that framework. She said the last such session ended with a wish list.
“A wish list is no good if you can’t pay for things and don’t have a strategy to do it,” she said. “I don’t know if our last session was that successful when it came to things we actually implemented during the year.”
Two years ago, the same session resulted in the proposed performing arts center for downtown.
Thursday’s session resulted in a better organized wish list. Once the councilmembers got away from the PowerPoint presentation, which didn’t take long, they quickly started wishing for pet projects.
Running through the session, however, were ideas for saving taxpayer money – and there seemed to be general agreement on those ideas, too. At least no one questioned them.
The councilmembers agreed on not increasing the property tax for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
City Councilmember Tony Wilkins said, “Are we in agreement to instruct the manager that there will be absolutely no tax increase?”
Vaughan replied, “I think that’s what our instruction would be, yeah.”
Councilmember Yvonne Johnson said, “We agree on that.”
Matheny said he remembered once talking to a city staff member who told him the city staff couldn’t spend the money it had fast enough and had to give some back. Matheny said he thought the city could cut every department’s budget by 2 percent with little change in services.
Barber came into the meeting with a prepared list of ideas, foremost among which was reducing the city workforce by 90 people, or 3 percent.
Barber said that could be done by attrition – by waiting for people to retire or resign – “with no layoffs, no firing, nothing like that.”
Barber and Matheny said the city should also identify positions that hadn’t been filled for a certain period of time and eliminate those, assuming that if the city had functioned without an employee in the position, it didn’t really need one.
Matheny suggested eliminating positions that had been empty for six months.
Barber said the City Council eliminated empty positions once before and reduced the property tax rate by two or three cents.
Most of the wish list discussion was on economic development, which pits councilmembers who represent districts against each other. But some things all the councilmembers agreed on – such as Greensboro having too many potholes and two many dead streetlights.
After several councilmembers complained about potholes, Matheny said that, after the 2008 economic crash, the City Council diverted Powell Bill money from the state, which is intended for street repair.
Matheny said, “We basically took the pothole money and balanced our budget.”
Westmoreland, who was the director of the Greensboro Department of Transportation earlier in his career, said city staff were overdue in bringing certain maintenance needs to the City Council, including street resurfacing and roof repairs on city buildings, but would do so soon. He said, “Street resurfacing, like everything else, is expensive.”
Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter said she wanted an easier way for citizens to report potholes and dead streetlights to the city so the city can report them to Duke Energy.
City staff said that capability is buried under the “I want to” section of the city website and that in late February, it will be integrated into the city’s mapping system.
Abuzuaiter said Greensboro, under its contract with Duke Energy, is paying for dead streetlights. She said, “The City of Greensboro is paying X amount a month to Duke power for streetlights that don’t work. For a while, all of Cone Boulevard was dark. I called it in.”
Westmoreland said that Duke Energy repairs streetlights under its own policies. He said city staff have had these conversations with Duke Energy before about fixing streetlights more rapidly, and could do so again. He said staff could figure out a better way to log repair requests and get them to Duke Energy.
The mention of the city website elicited well-founded complaints that it is almost impossible to find phone numbers or email addresses of city employees listed on the website.
Vaughan asked for an online employee directory.
“I can’t find one online,” she said. “There used to be one, but it says it’s missing.”
Roth said the lack of an online phone and email directory was deliberate. She said, “It was a conscious decision that was made some time ago.”
Roth later said the policy of not having an online directory was in place when she arrived in Greensboro five years ago and may have been driven by a desire to have calls come in to a central information desk.
“It could have been centralization or something like that, I don’t know,” she said. “I think it’s a fair observation and something for us to look at.”
BY Paul C. Clark
January 23, 2014
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