There’s a lot going on in Guilford County government right now and that was clearly apparent at the Guilford County Board of Commissioner’s jam-packed two-day retreat where commissioners had very lively discussions about county policies, operations and plans – and even addressed some practices of the cities of Greensboro and High Point.
Board of Commissioners retreats can be tough on county officials, so Chairman Alan Branson pointed out something at the very start of the event, which was held on Thursday, Feb. 8 and Friday, Feb. 9 at the renovated Morehead Foundry at 433 Spring Garden St. in downtown Greensboro.
“There’s a whiskey bar in the facility,” Branson told the 40 or so staff, commissioners and reporters in the room. “We might need to visit that after 5 o’clock.”
Even issues that looked boring on paper turned out to be interesting. For instance, Guilford County discussed moving from a five-year countywide property tax valuation schedule to a four-year cycle. Until 2012, county tax assessors reevaluated property values across the entire county once every eight years; however, in 2014, the board approved a move to a five-year cycle and, at that time, seemed to be planning to go to a four-year cycle after 2017.
At the retreat, Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis said the shorter cycle had led to a dramatic decrease in property value appeals.
“We saw half those numbers – and the Board of Equalization and Review met half the time they did in 2012,” Chavis told the commissioners. “So that worked well for us. Wake [County] just went to a four-year cycle and most of the major counties have already gone this route.”
A year ago, the move from a five-year to a four-year cycle appeared to be a perfunctory change the commissioners would approve unanimously. However, at the retreat it became clear that view had changed after something that happened last summer.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips got the ball rolling. He said that eight years was too long for a reval cycle and five may not be consistent with other counties, but, Phillips added, last year, the City of Greensboro used the county’s revaluation to pass a stealth tax increase on property owners in that city.
“That concerns me above all else,” Phillips said. “Many, many citizens live in the City of Greensboro and I have to be sensitive to the fact that, if we do this, the likelihood is that they’re going to get a tax increase even if we decided to hold it revenue neutral as a county.”
Since property values nearly always increase with a revaluation, local governments end up taking more money from property owners if those governments don’t compensate for the new values by lowering the tax rate to the level needed to keep the amount of money collected the same. In June, the Greensboro City Council adopted a 2017-2018 budget that collected more money from property owners by keeping the city’s tax rate at the same level as the previous year.
When Guilford County adopted its budget in June, it reduced the tax rate to an extent that would keep the budget “revenue neutral.” Unlike Greensboro, the county didn’t use the revaluation to generate a “hidden” tax increase.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that many media outlets reported that the city didn’t increase taxes, even though – by virtue of the reevaluation – the city was suddenly taking more money out of taxpayers’ pockets despite the tax rate remaining the same.
Phillips said he can’t predict what Greensboro is going to do but, if this tax year is any indication, he said, citizens there could expect a tax increase from Greensboro after future revaluations.
Democratic Commissioner Skip Alston agreed whole heartedly with his Republican counterpart.
“We don’t want to force a tax increase by us trying to be more efficient,” Alston said.
Alston also said that, though Greensboro didn’t have a tax rate increase, by failing to adjust the rate after the revaluation Greensboro “raked in” millions more than the previous year.
Commissioner Justin Conrad said he appreciated the concern but he wasn’t sure it was a good reason for the county to say on a five-year revaluation cycle if a four-year cycle were truly more efficient, as the tax director argued. In his comments, Conrad included High Point, which also didn’t adjust its property tax rate after the revaluation.
“The Board [of Commissioners] can’t make policy based on bad policy passed by the City of Greensboro and the City of High Point,” Conrad said. “And I do believe the City of Greensboro and the City of High Point passed bad policy; and I do agree that it was a tax increase on their citizens, but our policy needs to be what’s in the best interest of efficient government.”
The Board of Commissioners doesn’t usually vote on items at its annual retreats. Instead, the board discusses matters and then, when necessary, takes action sometime later at a regular televised meeting. It’s not clear when the commissioners will decide on Chavis’ request for a shorter revaluation cycle, but it was evident from the discussion at the retreat that Republicans and Democrats alike are concerned about the tax hikes Greensboro and High Point saddled residents with as a result of the last county revaluation.
At the 2018 commissioners retreat, there was also intense discussion on how Guilford County government could use more women and minority enterprises (MWBE) for its county procurement and construction needs. Tammie Hall, a division director for the state’s Office for Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUB), and CC Lamberth, the owner of C2 Contractors, gave a presentation on the subject to the commissioners.
“I’m here to have a conversation around what’s right to do and what can we do that’s reasonable to create opportunity,” Hall said.
On large projects, the county’s hands are tied because the board is legally required to go with the lowest responsible bidder; however, Hall said, there’s a lot more leeway when it comes to day to day purchasing, smaller jobs and other projects that don’t have to go through a bid process.
She said some places, such as the City of San Francisco, were hitting MWBE participation rates of nearly 50 percent by always insisting on minority participation where it was possible. She said increasing Guilford County’s MWBE percentage was largely a matter of will.
“We have to care about what we’re doing,” Hall told the board.
Hall also said much more could be done to establish relationships with minority-owned businesses. She said it might take a little “handholding,” but it could be done.
Lamberth told the board that county government has been “hostile” to minority businesses, which is why many don’t want to work for the county. He said his company last worked for Guilford County in 2011 and said it was a terrible experience because county staff seemed to be attempting to thwart his company’s successful completion of the project at every turn. He said the county staff gave his workers impossible timelines or would do things like not give them a key to an area where they needed to work.
“The first thing I think is that working with the county is a hostile environment,” Lamberth said.
Phillips encouraged Lamberth to give Guilford County government in 2018 a chance. He said he wasn’t going to suggest “all is well,” but he said new administrators had come in and the county is making a concerted effort to increase its MWBE participation.
“Have you at least considered, since then, to see if this is still the same or that things have improved?” Phillips asked Lamberth. “Because I’d like to think it’s the latter. It discourages me when you say, ‘This is the way it is with the county.’”
Phillips said he was imploring Lamberth and other minority business owners to “give the county another shot.”
“Because, if you don’t, the numbers will stay where they are,” Phillips said.
Lamberth responded, “I am so committed to my community – would I be the first to take a shot? Absolutely.”
Commissioner Kay Cashion asked if Guilford County had been proactive in reaching out to Lamberth and his company. She said the commissioners have for years instructed staff to seek out MWBE providers and staff has said repeatedly that they’re doing just that.
“Well, you’re telling me something different,” Cashion said.
She then asked Lamberth if anyone had reached out to him in any way to let him know about county projects that could use his services.
“Absolutely not as a county,” he said, but he followed that by adding that he and Guilford County Diversity Coordinator Shelia Reaves-Willett “go way, way back, so she always tells me what is going on.”
Some in the room were confused by the answer since Reaves-Willet is the county’s MWBE point person and she would therefore naturally be the one who would reach out to an MWBE business.
“I know she’s wearing a county hat,” Lamberth added, but he said that despite those conversations with her, he and other minority business owners still didn’t have the benefit of having tight, established relationships with the county that others have.
Branson said he didn’t know why places like San Francisco might see 50 percent MWBE participation when Guilford County continuously hovers around 6 percent to 8 percent, but he added that he did know that those opportunities were there.
“I think in today’s world the opportunity is out there and exists for anybody, no matter what color your skin is or what race you are,” Branson said, adding that he sees evidence of that every day at the trucking company he runs and in the trucking industry as a whole.
Branson said those who work hard on satisfying customers at a reasonable price continue to get work over and over again.
“Opportunities exist day in and day out,” Branson said.
The Board of Commissioners must appoint someone to a key Piedmont Triad Airport Authority seat coming open in April and that means deciding whether or not to reappoint Koury Corp. President Steve Showfety, the authority’s chairman, to a fourth three-year term.
Guilford County has a policy that limits service on boards and commissions to two terms, but the commissioners sometimes ignore that policy, as they did the last time Showfety’s seat came up for consideration.
Commissioner Hank Henning said that, since some boards have two-year terms and some three-year terms, and some boards are hard to fill while others are not, the county’s policy for boards and commissions is “all over the place.” Henning suggested the county revisit that policy.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said three county boards and commissions are the “cream of the crop” – the Airport Authority, the Board of Trustees of Guilford Technical Community College and the Guilford County Parks and Recreation Commission. She suggested that perhaps the two-term limit should apply to those boards but not others.
Commissioner Alan Perdue said the existing county policy was confusing and the commissioners didn’t follow it anyway.
“The only thing worse than no policy is bad policy,” Perdue said. “There are a lot of changes that have been made and it hasn’t been followed. I would say it’s advantageous to update this to [match] reality.”
Branson pointed out that a lot of years had gone by since 1987, when Guilford County adopted its current boards and commissions policy.
At that point, Henning asked Alston, “Did you vote for this Skip?” Which drew a big laugh because Alston’s first 20-year stint as a commissioner started a long time ago, in 1992, but not quite that long ago.
At the retreat, the board also addressed potential improvements to county mental health services, examined proposed fixes for the overwhelmed foster care program, heard reports from various department heads and got an updates on county parks initiatives.
On Thursday, Guilford County Board of Education members and school administrators met with the commissioners and county staff. They talked about ways to address expected school cost increases if the North Carolina General Assembly passes legislation that reduces class sizes. The county and school representatives also discussed potential federal funding for county school construction projects. Money could become available if a future federal infrastructure bill is crafted to include school building repairs and construction.
The school board and the Board of Commissioners don’t have control over those two things but they may be able to influence state and federal legislators.
County school system matters are of great concern to the commissioners since each year about 44 percent of the county’s budget goes toward funding school operations. It was nice, for a change, to see the schools meet with the commissioners and be focused on something other than the amount of county funding the schools receive each year. In past commissioner retreats, that issue has almost always dominated the conversation.
On Friday morning, Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford updated the board on major county construction projects, including a new animal shelter now in the design phase. The county has allocated about $9 million for the shelter project but now it looks like the cost will come in closer to $14 million, Halford said.
At the retreat, Guilford County Finance Director Reid Baker spoke about coming economic uncertainty and his concerns that some economic factors might cut into the county’s savings account – known as the “unassigned fund balance.”
“We’re in the middle of projections and they are not looking rosy but I’m still looking into it,” Baker said.
The county’s unassigned fund balance is now at about 14 percent of the overall budget. State of North Carolina finance officials recommend local governments keep a minimum of 8 percent of the budget in that account.
County budget and finance staff expressed a desire to see the county move more toward a practice of regularly putting money aside each year that can to be used to fund future capital projects so the county could used saved money rather than have to raise new money through a bond offering or some other debt instrument each time a major project is undertaken.
The Guilford County clerk to the board’s office presented a plan to enhance the county’s public image, creating a more unified public face rather than have citizens view each department as an individual service. It was the first presentation to the board by Worley Smith, who was hired as the county’s communications specialist last year.
Since the Republicans won a majority of the board seats in 2012, after 14 years of a Democratic majority, the board has paid down the county debt, reduced taxes, increased the amount given to the schools every year and raised the amount in the county’s savings account from 2012 levels, when it hovered around 8 percent to the current 14 percent level.
This year the commissioners and county staff at the table had new microphones for the retreat – ones with large red lights on the top that lit up whenever that mike was on. That may have helped prevent any hot mike mishaps or scandals, but anytime a speaker’s voice rose it generated a lot of audio feedback that swelled into a loud hum that usually lasted for about 15 of 20 seconds. While that often killed discussion for a moment, it also had the benefit of acting as a convenient regulator that kept the talks from ever getting too heated.
Late in the day Friday after the meeting adjourned, several commissioners hung around talking and they were discussing going over and trying out the whiskey bar in the building, but the Rhino Times isn’t sure if they followed up on those plans or not.