Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson managed to pull off what in the NFL would be considered a Hail Mary miracle victory on the last play of the game: Branson, against all odds – just moments before the board walked out of the back rooms into its Thursday, June 21 meeting – managed to get every Republican and Democratic commissioner on board to vote for approval of the 2018-2019 county budget.
Reaching that deal meant a lot of horse trading in the final hours leading up to the meeting where the board, with no public debate, approved the $616 million budget that keeps the county’s property tax rate at 73.05 cents per $100 of assessed value, established a new county director position to increase the county’s use of minority and women business enterprises (MWBE) and provided $750,000 for school operations over the amount recommended by Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing. The county budget gives money to some community nonprofits and area economic development groups that the county manager didn’t recommend be funded – such as $25,000 to the Piedmont Triad Film Commission and an identical amount to the Southwest Renewal Foundation of High Point.
The commissioners deal-making took so long that the Thursday night meeting started 15 minutes late as the final arrangements were being made. Commissioner Skip Alston said he decided to vote yes at 5:30 p.m. – which was the time the commissioners meeting was scheduled to start.
Branson looked tired after days and days of negotiations.
“I probably have a few more gray hairs and I probably have less hair,” he said at the meeting soon after the budget was adopted.
To reach an agreement, the Board of Commissioners made a substantial number of changes to the budget Lawing had proposed on Thursday, May 17. For instance, the Board of Commissioners added two Emergency Services (ES) positions to the two that Lawing had included in his budget and also added a crime scene investigator (CSI) position that the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department had requested. The two ES positions added $88,000 to the new budget while the crime investigator job added $50,000.
While the Sheriff’s Department got the new CSI position it had been seeking, it didn’t get money for a pay increase that Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said he needs to keep his department competitive with other area law enforcement departments that now offer better pay.
But the big ticket item that was in contention until the very end was the question of school funding. The Guilford County Board of Education had requested $206.4 million in county funds for the schools’ operating budget in 2018-2019. The county manager’s proposed budget recommended the school system get $201.9 million for that purpose, and, on June 21, the commissioners added $750,000 to Lawing’s recommendation, which put the total county contribution for school operations in 2018-2019 at $202.6 million.
That’s $4.5 million less than school officials asked for – but it’s an increase of about $7 million in operating funds over the county budget adopted last June, which provided the schools with $196 million. The total in the final budget this year means the county gave the schools 98.2 percent of the money school officials requested for operations. That’s a pretty high percentage for a Republican-led board that constantly gets criticized by school advocates for not funding the schools well. The board has raised school funding every year since the Republicans won control in 2012.
The new budget addresses other school needs as well. It includes, as the manager recommended, $373,000 to fund five new school nurses and the purchase of school tele-medicine video equipment. About $50,000 of the $373,000 will be used to buy that equipment and plans are for the five new nurses to be assigned to the schools with the highest healthcare needs.
So, how did the commissioners manage to fund new positions and give more to nonprofits and school operations all without raising taxes or even dipping deep into the county’s savings account, which remains at about 14 percent of the total budget?
Well, it all goes back to an interesting move Commissioner Justin Conrad made about a week before the meeting. Conrad suggested that the county use “two-thirds” bonds – a special type of bond funding that can be done quickly without voter approval – to raise up to $10 million for capital needs for school security enhancements that will be based on the findings of an extensive school facilities report to be finished in September. Conrad’s plan made one key move in the budget possible: Since the schools now have the promise of up to $10 million in capital funds, the commissioners were able to take $1.5 million from the amount in the manager’s proposed budget and put that toward other wants and needs.
The schools had requested $14.4 million in capital funds for 2018-2019, and, in the budget that Lawing proposed, the county’s school system would get $7.5 million from Guilford County. The fact that the board had approved the $10 million in two-thirds bonds funding allowed the commissioners to reduce the schools’ capital funds provided in the new budget by $6 million and use that $1.5 million to increase school operations funds as well also fund a lot of the causes that brought Democrats on board.
At the June 21 meeting, Conrad thanked the board for unanimously approving the two-thirds bonds funding. He said that would raise a lot of money quickly for school security projects. He said that all the commissions had school security “first and foremost on their mind.”
The fact that the Board of Commissioners had a unanimous vote on the budget was nothing short of amazing given where the talks between the Republicans and Democrats were the night before the meeting. On Wednesday, three Democratic Commissioners – Alston, Carolyn Coleman and Carlvena Foster – told the Rhino Times that the two sides were so far apart that there was little to no hope that a compromise could be reached.
A fiery Alston, a day before the budget vote, pointed out that, in December, the Democrats had all voted for Branson as chairman and Conrad as vice chair, with the promise from the Republicans that the board would work together with the Democrats in 2018. Alston said on Wednesday evening that, given the Republicans’ refusal to budget for things like a new MWBE director and more money for causes in east Greensboro, there was little room for negotiation.
“We have to be able to show that we are getting some things for our districts,” Alston said the day before the June 21 meeting, a sentiment he also echoed right after the budget was adopted. Alston said the Democrats also wanted additional money for the school operations – something the schools got in the end.
Alston also said on the eve of the budget’s adoption that, if the Republicans wanted to play this way – “We have five votes so we can do whatever we want” – well, the Democrats could play that game too and it would make for a very rocky and unpleasant road for Guilford County government for the remainder of 2018.
He said he was prepared to make things look like they did about 15 years ago when the Democrats were in the majority and former Republican Commissioners Billy Yow and Steve Arnold were on the board. Alston and the two would frequently get into shouting matches at meetings. Back then, some citizens called the televised commissioners meetings the “Thursday Night Fights.”
But night and day – that’s how different things were at 5:45 p.m. on Thursday when the board finally came out. The nine members were all smiles, with many laughing, joking and patting each other on the back before conducting a meeting where every vote on every item, not just the budget vote, was 9 to 0 to approve.
In the budget deal, the commissioners who represent High Point got extra money for High Point causes. For instance, Foster got $25,000 added for the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, a faith-based High Point program that helps job seekers and provides other services. That money came out of nowhere since the board had never even publicly considered funding for that group before the $25,000 showed up in the budget.
Also for High Point, largely thanks to Commissioner Alan Perdue, the Southwest Renewal Foundation of High Point got $25,000 in county money in the final budget. That group does things like create greenways and promote historic preservation. According to the group’s promotional literature, its main goal is to “Facilitate economic incentives for historic properties to attract business and create jobs in Southwest High Point.”
Another last-minute pot sweetener for the Democrats on the board was $20,000 in funding for One Step Further, run by Greensboro City Councilmember Yvonne Johnson – a nonprofit that provides court-related dispute mediation and counseling services.
Coleman advocated strongly for East Greensboro NOW, formerly known as East Market Street Development Corp. The organization changed its name last year and submitted its application to the county as East Market St. Development Corp. dba [doing business as] East Greensboro NOW. The nonprofit got an extra $15,000 over the county manager’s recommendation, for a total of $35,000.
Coleman argued that the organization needed more because of the level of tornado damage in that area – though no one ever offered a satisfactory explanation of the connection between tornado relief and the services of East Greensboro NOW. One Republican commissioner pointed out that the group was asking for the additional money even before the tornado hit, and added that tornado relief is addressed by the state and federal government.
The Piedmont Triad Film Commission, largely thanks to Commissioner Kay Cashion, got the $25,000 it requested from the county even though the group missed the application deadline earlier this year and wasn’t funded at all in the county manager’s proposed budget.
At the June 21 meeting, after the budget vote, Branson thanked Commissioner Jeff Phillips for all the time and effort he’d put into the budget. Phillips is a financial advisor who was chairman of the board for two years running before Branson was elected to fill that role last December. Phillips has been one of the key players in the budget development since he was elected to the board in 2012.
Branson also thanked Guilford County Budget Director Michael Halford and other county staff. Branson said he hoped Halford’s fingers weren’t too numb after all the last minute calculating he had to do Thursday afternoon.
“What I had hoped to do was have things worked out somewhere around 12 or the 1 o’clock hour; but unfortunately a lot of folks up on this dais – and I won’t call any names – drive a pretty hard bargain.”
Branson also said that everyone up there, including himself, had compromised in some way.
“There’s never been a budget yet passed that I was 100 percent comfortable with,” the chairman said, “but the give and take, I hope, speaks volumes to the fact that we’re here to work with citizens.”
Alston praised Branson and the Republicans.
“Mr. Chairman, I just want to thank you all for the cooperation that we all had as far as trying to put this budget together,” he said. “It was a compromise budget – meaning that we had to give a little and take a little here and there.”
Alston said that, in his career as a commissioner, he’d voted on 22 budgets and, in the end, this one passed on the easiest vote of all of them, with no discussion at the meeting. He said the good thing about this budget is that “Everybody can have something.”
Phillips said he was glad there was a consensus rather than “budget fireworks” that night.
“The civility that was exercised among board members, the respect among us, has been truly refreshing,” Phillips said.
He also said that, while everyone wasn’t going to be happy with where the budget landed on things such as school funding, the board had worked very hard on behalf of Guilford County taxpayers to create an efficient, well thought out budget.
While there were some big changes by the commissioners to the county manager’s recommended budget, the board did follow much of what was recommended. The final budget, for instance, includes $400,000 in new money for an adoption program meant to encourage more permanent placements in families of children currently in the county’s care.
As for the nonprofits that got money, in most cases the funding was the same as last year. The budget offers $20,000 in taxpayer money to the Friends of John Coltrane, the group that puts on the John Coltrane Festival in High Point each year. The High Point Arts Council got $50,000 and the United Arts Council of Greensboro got $55,000 in the 2018-2019 county budget, The NC Folk Festival requested $75,000 this year but only got $25,000 – the amount the county contributed to the festival last year.
Every year, Guilford County gives taxpayer money to the African American Atelier – a downtown Greensboro art gallery founded by 12th District Congresswoman Alma Adams, who moved to Charlotte after the 2016 redistricting put the 12th District totally in Mecklenburg County. This year was no exception. Coleman, a good friend of Adams, pushes for that funding each year. The atelier requested $60,000 from the county this year and got $50,000.
Downtown Greensboro Inc. requested $40,000 for 2018-2019 and that’s what it got. The Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and High Point Economic Development Corp. each requested $100,000, as they got last year.
The High Point Market Authority received $75,000 last year and requested $150,000 in the 2018-2019 budget. Lawing recommended $75,000 and commissioners went along with that recommendation. The Guilford County Tourism Development Authority got $40,000, as Lawing recommended.
This is the second year in a row that the Board of Commissioners has unanimously approved a budget. The 2018-2019 budget takes effect on Sunday, July 1.