County Marathon Meeting
There are plenty of weeks when the Guilford County commissioners don’t come close to earning their pay for serving on the board – last week wasn’t one of them.
On Thursday, Jan. 16, and Friday, Jan. 17, the Guilford County commissioners met from morning until nightfall and discussed a host of subjects important to Guilford County government. The commissioners also took a few key votes and, under Chairman Bill Bencini – elected to that position just over a month ago – the board helped establish a direction for Guilford County in 2014.
The retreat was held on the nearly storybook campus of High Point University in the second-floor conference room of the Plato S. Wilson School of Commerce building – which turned out to be a highly appropriate setting since many of the commissioners’ discussions over those two days were devoted to finances, taxes, commerce and economic development.
In past years, the commissioners’ retreat has been held in one day or less, with the commissioners usually starting late and ending early. However, this year’s retreat – the first one held under workaholic Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing – was a jam-packed affair with the work starting on time each morning and running long both evenings.
Lawing had originally asked the commissioners for three consecutive days of their time, and some staff said that the relatively new county manager started out asking for an amazing four-day-long retreat. So the two-day retreat was something of a compromise. It was an intense two days and probably neither the commissioners nor staff could have endured another day.
At the retreat, the commissioners:
Approved plans for a family justice center in downtown Greensboro.
The new agency, which will be a resource center for troubled families facing issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, runaway children and other problems of that nature, will be a joint effort between the Greensboro Police Department, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department, the county and area nonprofit community-based organizations.
The Board of Commissioners has been considering several sites for the new program and, at the retreat, the commissioners voted unanimously to put the crisis center at 201 S. Greene St. That building is now occupied by the Guilford County Human Resources Department and other county services. However, there’s plenty of unused office space there for the family justice center.
Guilford County will spend about $60,000 to repair, paint and upfit the office space.
At the retreat, Guilford County Budget Director Michael Halford suggested that the board use money now sitting in a renovation fund that has about $360,000 in it. Halford said it made sense to pay for the project using those dollars since the money in that fund was already designated for that type of purpose.
For the most part, the justice center will be staffed by employees already on the payrolls of the participating entities – for instance, three Department of Social Services employees will work out of the center.
At the retreat, the commissioners asked Guilford County Social Services Director Robert Williams if he was agreeable to the move.
Williams said those employees already had a domestic violence focus, and they would be serving the same function as part of the family crisis center’s new staff.
Several commissioners cited the alarming amount of domestic violence in the county and said the center should help address the problem once it was up and running.
The project will require one new position as well, and the commissioners’ vote also allocated $40,000 for that purpose on top of the $60,000 meant for renovation. That $40,000 will come out of the county manager’s contingency fund. The annual cost for an employee to run the center will be more than that, but $40,000 should be enough to cover things until a new county budget is approved in June.
The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the $100,000 in funding and instructed county staff to take the actions necessary to get the crisis center up and running.
Heard an update on Project Haystack.
Lawing told the board that he knew when the project began it would be tough to get five local governments to come together to create the proposed giant data center park. He said he also realized it would be difficult to acquire the land.
“It’s probably more complex than we ever imagined,” Lawing said of the many moving parts of Project Haystack.
He said that, so far, there have been four community meetings with about 10 to 12 attendees at each. At the meetings, project backers and a few Guilford County officials met with landowners to answer questions and see who is interested in selling their land if the project becomes a reality.
“Discussions have been positive,” Lawing said.
He added that Guilford County hasn’t spent any of the $30,000 that commissioners approved in November to explore the feasibility of the project.
Bencini joked, “This thing’s going to come in under budget.”
The chairman got laughs for his comment, since the initiative is estimated to cost taxpayers $103 million when it’s all said and done – if, in fact, it does get done.
Lawing said things were moving slower than anticipated but discussions were taking place, and he said those talks were productive for the most part.
“We made no commitments or decisions,” Lawing said, adding that it was his understanding that Guilford County has a pledge from a landowner willing to sell a 77-acre track to the county.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips quipped, “77 acres down, 1,123 to go,” a comment that drew laughs from the other commissioners.
Lawing said Alamance County officials would hear a presentation on Project Haystack on Monday, Feb. 3.
“It’s further out than we wanted it to be, but it is what it is,” the county manager said.
He also said that, on Tuesday, Jan. 21, the Gibsonville Board of Aldermen was scheduled to hear a presentation on the giant initiative.
Lawing also revealed a recent letter from the NC Department of Transportation (DOT) to Michael Solomon, a project manager with the Timmons Group, the consulting firm hired by the City of Greensboro to do a secret study of the proposed project site.
Lawing said the letter stated that, “generally speaking,” the DOT supports the development and would improve the access roads. The letter said additional lanes wouldn’t be required since the roads in the area can already handle up to 17,000 vehicles a day.
Lawing said that, ideally, some technology companies will state their intent to use the park before it is built.
“We are hopeful we can get a commitment before we make any commitments,” Lawing said.
Bencini said that, as he was getting ready to come to the retreat that morning, he was watching the Fox Business Network, and the discussion was about how companies like IBM, Google and Apple were building data centers all over the country.
“I guess these are going to be hotter than solar farms,” Bencini said, attempting to rib Commissioner Alan Branson, who has fought hard against both solar farms and Project Haystack – two things that many of the residents in Branson’s largely rural District 4 don’t want to see in their part of the county.
Branson said he was disappointed that Solomon, in a recent meeting with Burlington city officials, called the proposed site for Project Haystack “surplus property.”
“That was probably a misnomer,” Bencini said.
Branson said that those were his “exact words.”
Heard a mid-year budget update from budget and finance staff.
Halford told the commissioners that Guilford County had done well in the first half of the fiscal year when it came to actual revenues compared with estimated revenue amounts predicted before the start of the fiscal year. He said a change in the way taxes on automobiles were collected, some newly taxable items and an elimination of the sales tax holiday would also create a bump in tax revenues for the county in the coming months.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman took the opportunity to express her dissatisfaction with the state legislature’s elimination of the sales tax holiday. That tax holiday has proven to be popular – especially for those who do a lot of back to school shopping.
Coleman said that having a day free of sales tax on many items was the sort of thing people notice when they are deciding which state to move to. She said its elimination may hurt the state’s growth.
Phillips said, “It’s like having higher property taxes than the surrounding areas” – referring to Guilford County’s high tax rate, especially when compared to other counties in central North Carolina.
Halford said that in fiscal years 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, the amount of total county revenue compared to estimated revenue came to over 101 percent;. However, that percentage fell to 98, 99 and 99 percent respectively in 2008-2009, 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. In 2012-2013, he said, revenue levels climbed back up over 100 percent of estimated revenue, and he added that the county is on track in 2013-2014 to collect more than was estimated at the start of the fiscal year.
Finance Director Reid Baker expressed concerns about the county’s unallocated fund balance – that is, the amount of money that’s left over each year after the county allocates money for its debt, initiatives and all its other expenses. Guilford County maintains about 8 percent of the county’s budget in reserve, in the unallocated fund balance. That balance is meant to provide liquidity for the county and also to act as an “emergency reserve.”
Baker said the county’s minimum was too low and, he added, it was perhaps the lowest in the state.
“Most if not all have more,” Baker said of the 8 percent held in reserve.
If the county finds itself short of funds it can always go to a bank and borrow whatever it needs. However, county officials continue to express their concern over the 8 percent unallocated fund balance year after year. They say that having the balance at that level could hurt the county’s credit rating.
Baker said 8 percent was the bare minimum suggested by the NC Local Government Commission (LGC). That group is supposed to serve as a watchdog over county government, and it has the authority to come in to a county and take control of the finances if a county falls into dire financial straights.
Many commissioners said they agreed with Baker.
Commissioner Kay Cashion, for instance, said of the reserve fund, “I think it behooves us to beef it up.”
Commissioner Bruce Davis, however, said there’s a down side to a high fund balance.
“I understand the need for 8 percent,” Davis said, “but personally I’m concerned about 10, 15 or 20 percent. The higher the fund balance is, at some point, the less services we’re providing.”
Discussed the possibility of eliminating or reducing the 1 percent tax break the county now grants to those who pay their taxes before August 31.
On the one hand, doing away with the tax break would mean a $2-million bump in tax revenue for the county. However, the county would get the money later in the year, which could create liquidity issues for the county in hard times.
Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis told the board his preference was to keep the discount in place, but he added that, if the board did decide to make a change, he hoped it would be to reduce the discount to half of a percent rather than do away with it entirely.
The commissioners didn’t take any action, but they are expected to debate the matter later this year.
Discussed a school funding formula.
The board considered some options for a “funding formula” that would be used to guide the Board of Commissioners each year as to how much county money it gives to fund the schools’ operating budget.
Each June, when the county adopts a budget, the discussion of how much to give the school system for its operating costs is always a hot topic of debate, and many if not all of the commissioners would like to take the argument out of the equation.
For months, a committee of commissioners has been discussing the possibility of a school funding formula, and the retreat was the first time the full board has discussed the matter. During the discussion, Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green, Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan and other school officials listened attentively.
Halford, who has put a lot of effort into running the numbers for various options for the commissioners, said that counties in the state handle school funding in different ways.
“Most counties don’t have a formula; some do,” Halford said.
He added that a funding formula can be tied to one factor, such as property tax revenues, or to many, such as the number of students, the rate of inflation, the county’s tax rate and so on.
Halford listed some possibilities, assuming a 1.8 percent rise in student population each year, which he said was a reasonable estimate.
When asked about some of the other numbers being assumed, he joked that the possible scenarios were based on, “conjectures, projections … magic.”
Brunswick County, where Lawing was county manager before coming to Guilford County, used a school funding formula. Lawing said that some years the schools officials liked it, but, in lean years, they felt the other side of having the funding tied to economic benchmarks.
“It can swing both ways,” he said.
Commissioner Hank Henning said the committee had looked at several options and he said the Education Committee he chairs has been trying to come up with a formula that would be “fair to both the Board of Commissioners and the school board.”
He added that one of his main goals was to make school funding a much less “overtly political process.”
The majority of the board seemed to back the idea. However, as with everything else, the devil will show himself in the details, and the commissioners didn’t wade into the tall weeds of the funding formula specifics at the mid-January retreat. Also, any formula should be taken with a great deal of salt because in the past the county has come up with funding formulas for various purposes and then just thrown the formula out when the rubber hit the road at budget time.
During the discussion, Henning and Coleman had what ended up being the most heated exchange of the retreat. Coleman said school funding is one of the most important issues Guilford County deals with each year, and she said she wanted to know why these conversations had been going on without the full board’s participation, and why something of this magnitude had never been brought to her attention.
Henning, the chairman of the committee, told Coleman he was dumbfounded by her comments. He said the committee had been formed by the board and charged with looking into the matter and that’s exactly what the committee had been doing. He said that of course no action would be taken without a full discussion by the board. Henning said the purpose of a committee is to narrow down options and to consider feasibility, and he told Coleman there had been northing surreptitious about the process.
“I don’t understand your objection,” Henning told Coleman, adding that the meetings were public and she was always welcome to attend.
Henning didn’t mention that the discussions have also been covered quite a bit in the media.
Coleman said that, if the board was going to make a decision, the board needed to hear “both sides of the issue” so that it could make an informed and intelligent decision.
Commissioner Linda Shaw told Coleman, “This is not a budget meeting,” and a feisty Coleman shot back, “I know that – I went to school.”
Coleman reiterated that all commissioners needed to be kept up to speed on matters related to school funding since it was such an important issue.
“There was a time when this board was sued by the school system,” Coleman said, referring to the early ’90s when school officials felt the amount the county had given them for operating costs wasn’t nearly enough to properly educate the kids in the county. The Guilford County Schools took the commissioners to court but ended up with less money than it had been offered in the first place.
The board is expected to decide on whether to implement a school funding formula before the adoption of the next county budget in June.
Heard a report on the Evans-Blount Community Health Center.
Guilford County Health Director Merle Green told the board that the clinic had been a real success and that it now handles about 10,000 patients per year.
“It’s full every day,” Green said.
Green said it may be time to expand the 4,100-foot clinic that opened in 2010 at 2031 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. in Greensboro.
According to Green, some of the top ailments treated at the clinic are diabetes, hypertension, asthma and bronchitis. She said a lot of patients are also treated for general malaise and exhaustion. Green added that many routine medical exams are conducted at the clinic each year.
She said the Evans-Blount Clinic is budgeted for $265,000 a year, but only costs about $176,000 to operate, and she added that the annual cost per patient is $118. That cost, nationally, ranges from $100 to $150 per patient.
Commissioner Ray Trapp said he’d heard some reports that the doctor at the clinic sometimes had a gruff bedside manner, and he asked Green if she was aware of the complaints. She said she’d heard those complaints as well and said the doctor can be under a lot of pressure since the clinic sees such a large number of patients.
Acknowledged the death of the county’s long dead strategic plan.
Lawing is a new manager so he isn’t sure which cows are sacred and which ones are not. Former Assistant County Manager and Interim County Manager Sharisse Fuller talked frequently about the importance of the county’s strategic plan before she retired last summer.
The grand plan began about seven years ago. However, once the financial crisis hit, the county was fighting fires and the strategic plan was never really used for anything – though Fuller and other county officials would always talk about how important the plan was.
Guilford County started that initiative by polling citizens about the needs of the county. Lawing said that he didn’t think much stock could be put into the plan these days since it was done so long ago.
Lawing said casually at the retreat, of the strategic plan: “A lot of this info is from 2006; if we were to hold public meetings today we’d get an entirely different set of answers.”
Heard some encouraging words from Nido Qubein.
The emotional highlight of the two-day affair was a quick visit by Nido Qubein, well known motivational speaker and president of High Point University.
He lit up the room when he came in with an entourage of staff, and said he wanted to welcome all of the commissioners to High Point University.
“Especially you, Mr. Chairman,” he said to Bencini, “since you were High Point born and bred.”
Qubein said he was proud the college was hosting the retreat.
“I want to see our community grow and prosper,” he said.
He also pointed out that Davis had attended High Point University and said Davis “was a straight A student from beginning to end.”
That comment got a great deal of laughter because it’s highly unlikely that Davis was a straight A student at the university.
Qubein added, “I am not a Baptist – I lie once in a while.”
Qubein also pointed out that The Huffington Post and other national publications had recently given the university some high praise, espousing the attractiveness of the campus and other features.
Qubein added that the university was in the news when it was rumored recently that one young woman from the reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians would be attending High Point University.
He said he heard that news and said to his wife, “Help me, Jesus.”
He said he later heard that he found out she wasn’t coming to High Point University, so the crisis was thankfully averted.
Qubein is a highly sought after motivational speaker who commands a lot of money for his speeches and, after he electrified the room in a quick hit-and-run motivational speech, one commissioner said later during a break, “If he were charging us, that would have cost us $50,000.”
BY Scott D. Yost
January 23, 2014
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