Between now and Nov. 8 you will see a lot of information about the proposed Greensboro bond referendum, which now stands at $178.7 million. It can’t go up, but it could come down a little or stay right where it is.
There are currently six categories of bonds and each category needs five votes on the City Council to get on the ballot.
Councilmembers have their pet projects, and if they don’t vote for their fellow councilmembers pet projects then theirs may not get the votes it needs to pass. So the total may not drop much, unless a bond doesn’t have a single councilmember championing it.
Here’s one fact about the bonds. If they pass, your taxes will increase.
Greensboro for at least 10 years has had the highest tax rate of any comparable city in the state. If the bonds pass, the City Council will raise taxes even higher, with the excuse that the City Council didn’t want to raise taxes but the people approved the bonds, indicating that they wanted their taxes raised. The City Council will say it has to acquiesce to the wishes of the people.
Most of the hype you are going to see about how the bond money will be spent is pure speculation. Even the City Council doesn’t know how the money will be spent.
For example, the city still has $60 million in unspent bond money from 2006, 2008 and 2009 bond referendums. In 2006, Keith Holliday was mayor and the council included Sandra Anderson Groat, Florence Gatten, Tom Phillips, Dianne Bellamy-Small, Mike Barber, Yvonne Johnson, Sandy Carmany and Goldie Wells.
Now the 2006 money is finally going to be spent by the current City Council and Barber and Johnson are the only members of the 2006 City Council that are on the present City Council; neither has served continuously since 2006.
So what the City Council said about how the bond money would be spent in 2006 doesn’t matter. The current council will decide and the only requirement that they have is that they follow the extremely general wordage that was on the ballot in 2006.
Any promises Holliday or other members of the City Council made in 2006 to get the bonds passed don’t matter because they aren’t around to demand that the money be spent the way they told the public it would be.
One thing the City Council promised in 2006 was a skateboard park. If you had kids that were into skateboarding in 2006 and voted for that bond so they would have somewhere to go where they wouldn’t be yelled at and told to move on, those kids are most likely not still under your roof and may have kids of their own, but the skate park has yet to be built. However, it is worth noting that the money hasn’t been spent on anything else and the skate park is supposed to be built in Latham Park, a location chosen by the current City Council, not the ones in office in 2006.
Then we have the Greensboro Aquatic Center (GAC). The bonds that were used to pay much of the cost of that facility were listed under the broad parks and recreation bond heading and were, according to the advertising, going to be used for a community pool.
The GAC is run by the Greensboro Coliseum and has had a great deal of success attracting regional and national swimming meets, but it is not a community pool run by the Parks and Recreation Department, which is what people were told they were voting for.
The reason the bonds were listed under parks and recreation is because the voters of Greensboro almost always pass parks and recreation bonds and rarely pass Coliseum bonds.
There was never any intent to build a community pool. That bond money was always intended for an aquatic center, which the voters of Greensboro had already rejected. Rather than risk rejection again, the City Council decided to try deception, and it worked.
Another recent example of bond money legerdemain, although not by the City Council, was the school bonds passed in 2008. The voters in northern Guilford County may have voted for the school bonds because they were told that $80 million would be used to build the airport area high school, in order to relieve the overcrowding at the northern Guilford County high schools. After the bonds passed the school board decided not to build the $80 million high school it had promised and is spending that money on other school projects while the high schools in the northern portion of Guilford County remain overcrowded.
Since the bond money only has to be spent on school projects, not on any particular project, it is all perfectly legal. It’s not very honest, but politics rarely involves honesty.
The language on the ballot is all the government body is required to follow, which is why the city could use money that it said was for a community pool for a competitive swimming facility and why, when the school board decided not to build the airport area high school, it could spend the money elsewhere.
If the bonds are passed, the money will be spent in the broad categories that are defined on the ballot, but beyond the actual language on the ballot there is no other requirement on how the money is spent.
In January, the City Council discussed having one bond, with the thought process being that anyone who was in favor of any of the projects the City Council said it would build would vote for the entire package, but the City Council found out that wasn’t legal.
There is a good reason that the bonds are usually put on the ballot in presidential election years. Voter turnout is high. Voters who don’t follow local politics come out to vote in the national election and, if they see something that looks enticing, like parks and recreation bonds, housing bonds or street improvement bonds, they are likely to vote for them because who doesn’t want better parks, housing and streets.
But in Greensboro there is another reason. Greensboro has a large population of college students. Since most of them don’t own property in Greensboro, they are not concerned about property taxes, and students historically vote for bonds.
If the City Council only wanted people who were concerned about and kept up with local politics to vote, they would always hold bond referendums during city elections when voter turnout is much lower. Very few college students vote in City Council elections.
So the reason bond referendums are held in presidential election years is mainly because they have a better likelihood of passing.
The discussion of a bond referendum began at the budget meeting in January, where a bond that could be paid for without a tax increase was considered; the total amount was about $40 million.
Then the City Council went behind closed doors and met in secret for several months to discuss the bonds. The result of those meetings was about a $200 million bond referendum.
When that was reported in the Rhino Times, Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that the figure was wrong and the bond referendum being considered had been as high as $200 million but had since, also in a secret meeting, been reduced to about $100 million. Two councilmembers said that in their meetings the amount discussed was $200 million. Since the meetings were held in secret, no more than four members of the council could participate in any one meeting and councilmembers didn’t necessarily know what was discussed in other meetings.
When the bonds were first discussed in public again, the total listed was $195.2 million, but the total recommended was $101.7
At a public discussion of the bonds held in June, the goal was to discuss the different options and come up with a bond proposal to put before the voters that was less than $100 million. The City Council started out with $101.7 million in proposed bonds. However, you never know what a legislative body is going to do when they all get together, and the result of that meeting was City Council support for bonds totally $178.7 million, and that is where the discussion now stands.
A public hearing will be held on Monday, August 1, concerning which bonds to place on the ballot. No doubt at that meeting, just as at the City Council meeting, there will be a lot of discussion about specific projects; however, the promises for individual projects is meaningless. The bonds will be placed on the ballot in the broad categories being considered. The categories currently are Housing, Redevelopment, Parks and Recreation, Street Improvements, Downtown Street Improvements and Public Transportation. The only legal requirement will be that if a bond passes, the city spends the money in keeping with the language on the ballot.
So the City Council could tell the voters that the $25 million in downtown street improvement bonds will be spent on sidewalks and streetlights. Then, if the bond passes, they couldn’t spend the money on building a parking deck for the Kotis project on Battleground Avenue because it’s not downtown. But they could decide to pave the street in front of city hall with gold, since it is downtown and it would qualify as a downtown street project.
Look at the GAC. It was deemed a recreation project, which fit under the broad category of the bond language on the ballot, even though it was not a Parks and Recreation Department project. The trick was that the language on the bond referendum didn’t say it had to be a parks and recreation department project, only a parks and recreation project.
Considering how this City Council likes to spend money, giving it $178 million or $100 million to spend with few strings seems a recipe for large-scale disappointment for the voters.