More than any year in memory – and perhaps more than any year in history – the series of events that played out between Guilford County government and High Point in 2017 exhibited the immense tensions present when one county has two major cities within its borders. The role, status and place of the City of High Point in Guilford County – and High Point leaders’ constant contention that their city is treated like the “red-headed step-child” of the county – was a burning issue from the start of 2017 to the finish.
Guilford County is one of the only counties in the state that has two major population centers – Wake County being the other notable example – and, in 2017, that tension proved more prevalent than ever – and not just because of the heated, half-year long discussion over whether Guilford County would help fund a new downtown baseball stadium in High Point.
The 2017 War of High Point Stadium Funding was the highest profile example last year of the stress between the two local governments, but there were other major projects that brought those tensions into full view last year as well.
For instance, High Point leaders balked when some Guilford County commissioners proposed, in late 2016 and early 2017, that a new county animal shelter be built in east Greensboro. It’s was a long haul from High Point to that proposed location when compared to the existing shelter site, which is convenient to High Point.
High Point Animal Control officers take their collected stray animals to the Guilford County shelter and the idea of having the shelter in the northeast part of the county was, to say the least, highly unpopular with High Point leaders. In 2017, the High Point City Council adopted a resolution calling for Guilford County to build the new shelter on the same site as the current shelter, 4525 W. Wendover Ave., where it would remain relatively close to High Point.
The site the commissioners selected in late summer of 2017 – 979 Guilford College Road, next to a rock quarry – wasn’t in exactly the same spot as the existing shelter, but it is only a two-minute drive from it and the Guilford College Road site is in fact even a little closer to High Point than the existing shelter. So the shelter’s new location ended up being to High Point’s satisfaction, but not before that city’s leaders flared their nostrils over what they saw as their city’s interests being pushed off to the side by the county.
Another issue where High Point’s envy showed up in 2017 was in discussions over the Guilford County Family Justice Center, which helps victims of spousal abuse, elderly abuse and addresses other family-centric problems and crimes.
For two years, Guilford County had offered the service to all county residents, but it had done so through a family justice center in downtown Greensboro. The center has been a big success by most accounts, but the question the Board of Commissioners kept getting in 2017 was, “Why doesn’t High Point have a family justice center if Greensboro does?”
In November, the commissioners voted to open a new family justice center in High Point, inside that city’s courthouse. As with the new animal shelter project, in the end, High Point got its way and now, starting in fall of 2018, the city will no longer have to be envious of the shiny Family Justice Center In Greensboro.
Of course, the $35 million gorilla in the room when it came to High Point/Guilford County relations in 2017 was the blistering fight that lasted for the entire second half of the year – a fight where High Point decidedly never got its way.
In August, High Point leaders asked Guilford County to help fund the $35 million baseball stadium, the centerpiece of a massive downtown revitalization project. That $35 million loan will take about $55 million to repay when interest is added in.
Led by former High Point Mayor Bill Bencini, High Point University President Nido Qubein and a large contingent of other government and business leaders in that city, High Point pressed Guilford County to help fund the stadium, asking the county to commit $11.2 million in future county tax revenues that High Point leaders said would be generated by property value increases around the stadium.
Before a mid-August work session where High Point officials asked for the help, there was clearly an assumption on High Point’s part that the Guilford County commissioners would approve the proposed financing plan with little to no debate. After all, the High Point leaders argued, Guilford County had nothing to lose since, if projected future property values increases didn’t materialize, the county wouldn’t be out any money nor would the county be on the hook for the debt. That would fall squarely on High Point’s shoulders.
But the county commissioners had a lot of questions they wanted answered. In the August work session, some commissioners questioned the projected stadium revenue models while others argued that property in downtown High Point might appreciate whether the stadium was built or not; therefore, they said, the county could very well be giving up revenue it would otherwise have.
Some commissioners said that, if that downtown property in High Point was going to appreciate in value anyway, they weren’t particularly keen on sectioning off over a square mile of High Point’s downtown area and committing to not collecting any additional tax revenue from that property for close to two decades. The commissioners also stated that, if the project was a success and a lot of people moved to downtown High Point, Guilford County would have to provide services to that population, but the county wouldn’t be getting any additional tax revenues from downtown High Point for about two decades. Normally, when there’s population growth in any section of the county, increased property values help pay for the additional services.
The tensions between the two local governments grew, and then, at a Thursday morning, August 24 meeting of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA), Bencini gave his now famous “straw man” speech where he chastised Commissioner Jeff Phillips, then chairman of the Board of Commissioners, and said the county commissioners were making straw man arguments – essentially baseless ones – in order to justify not helping High Point finance the stadium. The ripples from that encounter were so deep and so wide that GCEDA cancelled its next meeting to give everyone a cooling off period – though of course, GCEDA didn’t give that as the official reason for cancelling that meeting.
From that August 24 confrontation, it was Katie bar the door in the raging debate, and the war between the two sides often played out in the media because the county and High Point weren’t talking all that much. The commissioners already had a lot of questions when Commissioner Justin Conrad took a close look at a spreadsheet of property values that High Point leaders were using the show the ongoing decline of property values in the downtown High Point area. Conrad found major errors that exaggerated the decline of downtown property values. High Point leaders said the mistakes weren’t important since downtown property values had still fallen, just not as much as initially billed.
But Conrad said those mistakes mattered a great deal: If the numbers were wrong, he asked, what else was wrong with the proposal? Conrad also said the mistakes were easy to catch once someone examined the spreadsheet, and that made him wonder how closely the High Point City Council had looked at the numbers before voting to move forward on the project.
The commissioners raised those issues at a county commissioners meeting and publicly chastised their own staff for handing them the numbers from High Point without vetting them, and for about an hour after the meeting, several county commissioners stood in a circle with top county staff – and asked them to explain how such a flawed set of numbers could be handed over the to commissioners.
On Thursday, Sept. 21, High Point stadium backers filled the commissioners’ meeting room in the Old Guilford County Court House to help get the county commissioners on board, but the commissioners voted 8 to 1 to delay a decision on stadium funding for “60 to 90 days.” The board never addressed the issue again in 2017.
In the end, High Point got approval from the State of North Carolina to issue the loan without the state requiring any repayment help from Guilford County government. But that had many commissioners, including Commissioner Hank Henning, asking why High Point had been saying all along that county participation was needed in order for the project to move forward if in the end High Point didn’t need the help at all.
While the county’s relationship with High Point was at the forefront of county politics in 2017, there were plenty of other issues and projects that kept county officials busy. One of those was finding a new chairman. Phillips was the chairman of the board in 2017 after serving in that position in 2016. However, in early December, Phillips handed the board’s reins over to new Chairman Alan Branson, who won that role unanimously (if one doesn’t count the fact that Branson mysteriously abstained). At that Thursday, Dec. 7 meeting, Conrad was elected vice chairman on a unanimous vote.
In 2017, the county moved forward on some major projects that had been on the table for years and years – the new animal shelter for one, and, for another, a new emergency services maintenance center that the board has been discussing for well over a decade. Both those projects are expected to take a couple of years to complete but many county officials are now relieved that they are finally under way after years of discussion. The county also began work on renovating the old jail in downtown Greensboro to give the Sheriff’s Department a new headquarters. The Otto Zenke building that’s now home to the department’s administrative offices is on its last legs.
Conrad, the District 3 commissioner who represents much of northwestern Guilford County, will no doubt play a big role in 2018 in a major initiative that began in 2017: Exploring the creation of a water system in the county’s northwest. The State of North Carolina has put money aside in the state budget to help fund the development of a water system in northwestern Guilford County and southern Rockingham County – high growth areas that often have problems with well water supply and quality. Well water contamination has been a big issue in Guilford County’s northwest for years.
In April 2017, the board got a new commissioner even though 2017 was an off year for commissioner election seats. Commissioner Skip Alston, a 20-year veteran of the board and five-time chairman who didn’t seek reelection to his District 8 seat in 2012, joined the board after former Commissioner Ray Trapp got a job offer too good to refuse with NC A&T State University. Trapp’s new job, which involved interacting with local governments on behalf of the university, clearly would have created a conflict of interest if Trapp had remained a commissioner. Trapp seemed to enjoy being commissioner but that only pays $20,000 a year and Trapp is pulling down a whole lot more than that in his new job with the university.
Representatives of the Democratic Party in commissioner’s District 8 selected Alston to replace Trapp after an extremely tumultuous selection process. At first, it looked like the Board of Commissioners would get its first openly gay county commissioner – Alston’s challenger April Parker – however, in the end, the veteran Alston got the nod from the Democratic Party.
When it became clear that Alston would be joining the board again after a five year hiatus, nearly everyone thought the board was in for some rocky times, anticipating that the often fiery Alston would clash in a major way with the Republicans who held the majority. However, to the surprise of many, Alston showed he was interested in working with the Republicans when he could, and the new Alston version 2.0 has had a good deal of success getting what he wants for his constituents. To take one example, he helped get county funding for the Renaissance Community Cooperative, a community run grocery store meant to provide fresh, high quality foods to east Greensboro residents. Before Alston came on the board, it would have been an almost unthinkable move by this Republican majority board, which has never bought into the “food desert” narrative.
Alston also helped get more money for the Guilford County Schools than the Republicans planned to give in the 2017-2018 county budget. Even with those items in it, the budget passed on a 9-to-0 vote.
In early February 2017, at the Cameron Campus of Guilford Technical Community College, the board held its retreat and it became evident there that the board’s no-nonsense approach to governing often didn’t mesh well with what county staff wanted. That was evident when staff tried to have a discussion about county goals for the year. Commissioner Henning clearly thought the whole exercise was absurd. He pointed to the first item on the list of proposed goals staff was presenting – “encourage employee health and well-being” – and he said, “What are we going to say? ‘We want unhealthy people?’”
The troubled situation at the county’s animal shelter was a topic of discussion at that retreat and though it wasn’t for lack of trying, the county never got a handle on animal shelter operations in 2017. In many ways, the Guilford County Animal Shelter has never been on track since the giant animal neglect and cruelty scandal that broke in August 2015. The troubles continued throughout 2016 and 2017. In late July 2017, former Guilford County Animal Services Director Drew Brinkley resigned after state inspectors found yet more problems at the shelter and it failed to pass inspection once again.
Perhaps the most telling display of the level of dysfunction at the animal shelter in 2017 was when First Baptist Church of High Point attempted to donate a truckload of dog and cat food, animal toys, electric fans and other items the shelter needed – as well as help the shelter with its adoption efforts – and shelter employees told the church they didn’t want the donations and proceeded to insult the church officials.
As 2017 closed, the commissioners seemed to finally get a handle on the extremely recalcitrant problems at the shelter. In December, the county paid just over $500,000 for the new shelter site and hired a new shelter director, Jorge Ortega, a decision that has been widely praised by almost everyone in the local animal care community.
There were plenty of other projects for Guilford County in 2017, including a new Guilford County Reentry Council meant to help former jail and prison inmates adjust to life outside those facilities.
In 2017, the commissioners also voted down a proposed rock quarry at a site near Pleasant Garden, hired a new public information officer that County Manager Marty Lawing had been asking for for years. The county selected Worley Smith – who’s worked in public relations department for the cities of Greensboro and High Point – for that job.
In 2017, the county lost one of its most liked former employees with the death of Jenks Crayton, who served as the county’s tax director for years before stepping down in November 2006.
Both Conrad and Alston made an interesting observation at the end of the year. They pointed out how non-partisan the Board of Commissioners has been this year. A lot of key votes were unanimous or mostly unanimous. The 2017-2018 budget was adopted unanimously. The new chairman and vice chairman were elected unanimously. The vote not to rezone property for the proposed rock quarry was unanimous and the decision to delay a vote on the High Point stadium financing was an 8-to-1 vote. Few votes these days break down solely on partisan grounds.
On the lighter side, 2017 marked the end of the Guilford Cup Challenge – a series of athletic battles between the county and state. Everyone seemed to simply forget about the competition once its two founders – Trapp and former Greensboro City Councilmember Jamal Fox – stepped down from their elected positions this year.
The county also, six years and over a half million dollars later, was unable to get a kiddie train running at Northeast Park. The commissioners are hoping 2018 is a charm in that respect. Of course, they hoped that in 2012, 2013, 2014 …