Council Encourages Mind-Numbing Repetition
Boring is the best way to describe the Greensboro City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 6.
This was the third monthly town hall meeting where the City Council has had no agenda other than listening to speakers.
One difference in this meeting was that Mayor Nancy Vaughan seemed determined to solve the problems of the speakers who appeared before the City Council and – unlike other meetings where speakers are directed not to simply repeat what other speakers on the same topic have said – Vaughan allowed speakers to repeat over and over again the same thing said by every other speaker on the same topic. It appeared that the entire student body of Page High School was going to come to the podium and complain about the traffic on Alma Pinnix Drive, the street that runs in front of Page.
It was only three parents and eight students, but the message was perfectly clear after one speaker. The traffic is bad in the morning and after school and a student was hit but not seriously injured in January.
Vaughan asked for more police presence at Page, cross walks and for the city staff to get together with school officials to see what else could be done.
Councilmember Sharon Hightower noted that the traffic was bad at Dudley High School and the Academy at Lincoln and she had heard complaints.
As the City Council will no doubt soon learn, the traffic is bad at every school in the city in the mornings and afternoons.
Page, according to the speakers, has 2,100 students who arrive and leave at the same time.
If Vaughan is consistent, she will be ordering police and city staff to every school in Greensboro that sends speakers to a City Council meeting.
For parents and students who want help from the city with the traffic issues at their schools, the next City Council meeting for speakers from the floor is Tuesday, April 3 at 5:30 p.m. You only need one speech, and five or six people. They can leave the speech on the podium and each walk up and read it. If the mayor is consistent, at the end she will dispatch the resources of the city to solve the problems at the school.
Councilmember Justin Outling finally had enough of this “come speak to council and Vaughan will solve your problems” when John Hill of Select Cycle on North Eugene Street complained about the construction at Carroll at Bellemeade, being built by the Carroll Companies, which also own this newspaper. Hill’s complaints were mainly about noise, parking and blocking the street.
But he also complained about the fact that last year Eugene Street was blocked off for three months and Battleground Avenue was also blocked off.
Nobody on the City Council admitted that blocking Eugene and Battleground was not caused by the Carroll construction project but was because the City of Greensboro closed two streets in the same area for several months for unrelated projects.
Carroll at Bellemeade is a $70 million dollar mixed-use project that includes a Hyatt Place Hotel and about 300 apartments, and is the largest private investment in downtown Greensboro to date.
People are inconvenienced during construction. Traffic is blocked while equipment is moved. Sidewalks are blocked off. It’s loud at times. It’s messy. But if Greensboro is going to grow, it is going to have construction, which means inconvenience until the project is completed.
The Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, the two new parking decks and two new hotels are all going to inconvenience people. If the city decides to make construction in Greensboro more difficult than it already is, then those may be the last big projects downtown Greensboro sees for a while.
Outling responding to Vaughan’s solutions by saying that he thought the town hall meetings were just to get feedback and “not to make policy off the hip.” He said that decisions should be made that apply to the entire city, not one project.
Outling said, “The city does a lot of construction that hurts neighboring businesses. We should do something that is fair across the city.”
Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter noted that the “street was closed off for a very long time.” But she failed to mention that it was the city that closed the street.
The City Council also got a report from Chairman of the Participatory Budgeting Committee Wayne Abraham, who asked that the city hire a full-time staff person to handle participatory budgeting and increase funding for participatory budgeting from $500,000 to $750,000.
Abraham made a number of recommendations on how to move forward, but when asked if these were recommendations of the committee or his own, Abraham said that the committee was unable to take votes because only nine of the 18 members had been appointed and they didn’t have a quorum.
Abraham also said that over a two-year period, 4,600 people had participated in participatory budgeting. He said that taking the project into the schools to get more participatory budgeting participation had been successful.
It sounds like, if students – who have no choice but to participate – are the ones participating in participatory budgeting, it isn’t very participatory.
Participatory budgeting is a process by which each of the five City Council districts is awarded $100,000 for local projects based on a vote of people who say they live in the district. The city has had trouble getting people to participate and many of the projects that were funded in the last round were staff-initiated projects. On the upside, it has given city staff a way to get pet projects funded that they couldn’t get money for through the normal budget process.
The City Council also heard from two speakers who said the laws regarding panhandling were too strict and unconstitutional.
There was also a speaker who seemed to be saying that there was some kind of conspiracy between NC A&T State University and Ukraine. The City Council offered no solution to his concerns.
Council Dubious on Affordable Housing Proposal
Opposition to the proposed affordable housing program presented at the City Council work session on Tuesday, March 6 came from an unexpected source.
City Councilmember Sharon Hightower – who, as Councilmember Justin Outling said, is the council’s biggest advocate for affordable housing – didn’t like the proposal.
The proposal boils down to the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro starting a nonprofit organization to run the affordable housing program for the city and spending the $25 million in housing bonds passed by the voters of Greensboro in 2016.
The city and the Community Foundation would split the cost of the new nonprofit, each putting in $100,000 for the first two years.
In addition to the $25 million in bond money, the proposal asked that the affordable housing nonprofit be awarded the full one penny on the tax rate known as the Nussbaum Housing Fund, which would mean putting an additional $850,000 into the program, to increase the fund to about $2.7 million a year.
At the City Council retreat in February, the City Council was told it was facing a $4 million shortfall in the current budget. When asked about the additional $850,000 for affordable housing, City Manager Jim Westmoreland said, “We’d have to look at additional sources and streams of revenue.” That is city-speak for raising taxes and fees.
Westmoreland also noted that there were other pressures on the budget, including raising the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour and increasing other employee benefits that the City Council discussed.
After the presentation, Hightower said, “I’m a housing advocate but this plan troubles me.” She added, “I wouldn’t support increasing the Nussbaum fund to give money to an unproven nonprofit.”
She said, “My understanding is that we were going to be a partner, not fund another nonprofit.”
Hightower said, “Personally, I’m not ready to move forward to approve this particular plan because it needs some tweaking.”
Finally she said, “Maybe the council can get involved in some of the discussion.”
Outling questioned having only 20 rental vouchers in the plan. He said it was too small a number to have much effect and wondered how it could be cost effective to manage such a small program.
Outling also said that the conversations between the Housing Our Community Task Force and the City Council should have started “much, much, much earlier.”
He said, “Before I would vote to adopt a plan I would need to know the cost.”
City Councilmember Yvonne Johnson said, “I’d like to know who is responsible for doing what. I’d like to have some background.”
Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who is co-chairman of the Housing Our Community Task Force, said that because the Community Foundation knew how to raise money, “they could be a really good partner.”
Vaughan said that the City Council needed “more clarity. We need to get down to the details a little more.” She said before the City Council could commit to the additional $850,000 from the Nussbaum fund, it “needed a clearer distinction of where that money would go and who the employees are.”
Before the City Council commits to starting up another nonprofit and turning over affordable housing in the city to it, councilmembers might want to do some research on what has happened to previous nonprofits the city partnered with for affordable housing. Project Homestead went under amid a host of legal issues; but before that, the Greensboro Episcopal Housing Ministry was about to go bankrupt when Project Homestead was brought in to rescue them at considerable cost to the city.
If the city is going to partner with a nonprofit on affordable housing in Greensboro, the city needs to keep a much tighter reign on the money than it has in the past. A nonprofit with $25 million to spend can get itself in a lot of trouble.