Guilford County is about to move the method of public notification out of the 19th century and into the 21st.
That’s thanks to legislation the North Carolina General Assembly passed earlier this year that made Guilford County a pilot program in the way the public is notified when notification is required by law.
The new legislation allows Guilford County to advertise legally required announcements electronically on the county’s website at no out-of-pocket cost, rather than paying exorbitant advertising rates charged by the paid circulation newspapers in Guilford County.
Beginning Friday, Dec. 1, Guilford County is the only county in the state with the right to take part in a pilot program that allows the county and the municipalities within it to meet the legal requirements of public notice by posting the information on their website rather than in print. It also allows the county to sell advertising space on its website to other municipalities in Guilford County, the state, and to attorneys who are required to run public notices about foreclosures, deaths, divorces and other matters.
For foreclosures (other than those carried out by the county) Guilford County can charge up to $450. For other notices for private entities, the county can charge up to $100.
This new legislation could affect the way the public is notified about things like upcoming zoning cases, the sale of government property, property owners who are delinquent on their taxes, and public hearings, which are often held as part of Guilford County Board of Commissioners meetings.
Other counties are watching the process and Rockingham County already wants in on the act. In October, the Rockingham Board of Commissioners passed a resolution asking that the state grant that county the ability as well. Rockingham could be added on to the local legislation that gives Guilford County the ability to sell ads and to meet legal notice requirements by posting notices electronically.
At a Tuesday, Nov. 14 Guilford County Board of Commissioners work session, the commissioners expressed their desire to move forward with the initiative and took the first step in doing so: They voted to hold a public hearing on the matter at their Thursday, Dec. 7 meeting.
The county’s announcement of that public hearing will be placed in newspapers; however, it seems likely at this point that, starting early next year, most if not all such announcements will be posted online as well as in a searchable electronic database in a new special section of Guilford County’s website rather than in an area newspaper.
At the work session, several commissioners stated their belief that this move would make the information more accessible to citizens and would, simultaneously, greatly reduce Guilford County’s cost for providing legal notice to the public.
County officials also hope that it can make Guilford County a good deal of money since other governments, including Greensboro, High Point, Oak Ridge, Summerfield, Stokesdale, Whitsett, Gibsonville, Sedalia – and Burlington and Kernersville, which both have extended into Guilford County – can all place ads on the Guilford County website for $10 an ad.
There will, of course, be startup costs for the county; however, once nearly all parts of the process are automated, Guilford County stands to have a nice revenue stream since it may have both public and private entities using the service a great deal.
In fiscal 2016-2017, Guilford County spent $70,900 placing legally required public notices in the Greensboro News & Record, the High Point Enterprise, the Jamestown News and The Carolina Peacemaker. The cities and towns in the county also spent a great deal of money publishing notices in newspapers.
The newspapers that have benefited financially from the state-mandated monopoly on public notice advertising and the revenue stream it has produced, are, of course, vehemently opposed to the move. The News & Record, for instance, has been screaming bloody murder over the legislation ever since it was first proposed.
However, at the Nov. 14 work session, Guilford County commissioners seemed very pleased to have the newfound flexibility, and the board appears taken with the advantages of the new option that would add another revenue stream where, by law, half the money goes to the county schools.
The legislation permits the 13 municipalities in Guilford County to use the county’s new service for announcements. Under the law, originally sponsored by state Sen. Trudy Wade, Guilford County can charge municipalities no more than $10 per announcement.
At the work session, Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller displayed some sample pages of a proposed website on the overhead projector. Once the county’s public notice site is operational, an icon for a new section, “Legal Notices,” will appear on the county’s home page – possibly as early as January 2018. A click on that link will take citizens to the latest county notices and a database that’s searchable by neighborhood, city, date, type of notice or other criteria.
Keller said that Oak Ridge, Summerfield and Stokesdale had already shown interest in using Guilford County’s service and she added that other cities and towns have been contacted about it and are considering the option.
According to Keller, for most towns and cities in Guilford County, the cost of advertising in the new system will be only about 10 percent of what they’re paying now. For instance, a town that spends $30,000 a year for legally required advertising, Keller said, could cut that to an estimated $3,000.
Others familiar with both government and newspaper advertising believe the savings could be even greater for those cities and towns.
“When it comes to the municipalities, the session law was very specific that we only charge $10 for advertising,” Keller told the board. “This is a huge cost savings for the municipalities; this does put a little burden on the county.”
The new legislation, which at this time only allows Guilford County to make the change, requires that the electronic announcements be searchable, archivalable and printable for citizens.
“This will allow transparency, ease of access and cost savings to the county,” Keller said at the work session in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House in downtown Greensboro.
The Guilford County Information Technology (IT) Department has been working with the clerk to the board’s office for some time on a website since county staff knew the board was exploring this move. The bill, HB205, became law in early October, but, even before that, county staff knew the change could be in the works and began studying possible implementation strategies.
A broader bill that included other counties was passed by the legislature but then vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper before the latest bill was brought back with only Guilford County as part of the pilot program.
Keller said that, depending on the number of cities and towns that wish to participate, Guilford County may need to hire a part-time employee to handle the notices and bill those using the service. In the final phase of the project, if commissioners approve the plan, Guilford County will accept online credit card payments for ads – so in time the payment process should become largely automated.
Keller said all indications are that the county could bring down its cost a great deal.
“In the long-term, this would be a huge cost savings to the county,” Keller said of the county switching to electronic announcements.
At the work session, the commissioners were presented with a draft of a potential county ordinance the board may amend and approve before adoption if the commissioners choose to use the new method of getting the word out to the public.
Commissioner Skip Alston said he wanted to know whether Guilford County has an option to implement the service for the county without providing that same service for the municipalities. He said one purpose of this move is to save the county money, and, he added, since Guilford County is capped at charging municipalities $10 per announcement, the county will lose money on advertisements posted for other local governments.
“It doesn’t make any sense for us to do that if we don’t have to,” Alston said of providing a notification service for the towns and cities.
Alston asked if the county had the option of leaving the cities and towns out of it.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said the county has a good deal of latitude with the details since it would be the one interpreting the legislation and implementing the program.
“Frankly, we can do any of it or all of it,” Payne told the board.
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said that, since this is a pilot program and the entire state will be watching what Guilford County does, it may make sense to include the towns and cities even if there’s a financial hit to the county.
“If we do handle the municipal notices and do a good job with it, and it’s very successful, and positive word gets out from the municipalities, there may be more of a likelihood that this could become a permanent program statewide,” Lawing told the commissioners.
Commissioner Hank Henning said that allowing towns and cities to advertise on the county’s website could be seen as a public service, and he added that there are a lot of services the county provides that cost money rather than make it.
“I think we need to move forward and let it be a true pilot program,” Henning said.
One of the only tentative voices in the room was Commissioner Carolyn Coleman who said she was concerned about the effect of the move on area newspapers that now benefit from government paid advertisements.
“It seems to me that what we are doing is taking money from businesses that normally would be earning that money,” Coleman said.
She also said that, when a notice is printed in a newspaper, people sometimes come across it by accident, but they’re a lot less likely, she said, to stumble across a notice on the county’s webpage. She said she didn’t know the percentage of people who lack internet access, “but people walk by a newspaper rack and pick up a paper on the street every day.”
“I don’t know which is the better way to give access to people,” Coleman added.
Most critics of this legislation who make a similar point ignore the fact that anyone can walk by a newspaper rack and see the front page of the paper for free; however, if they want to see what’s inside – such as public notice advertisements – they have to purchase a paper.
Guilford County IT Director Hemant Desai said one thing that may increase public notice discoverability is a feature that could be added to the system down the line that would send out messages to smartphones and other mobile devices if citizens sign up to get all notifications about, say, their neighborhood, or certain types of zoning projects.
Keller said that, under the current system, citizens don’t know which newspaper an announcement will appear in. The county places ads in the News & Record, the High Point Enterprise, The Carolina Peacemaker and the Jamestown News based on several factors such as timing, target audience, cost, importance, etc., so it’s very hard to know which ads will end up in which newspaper.
She said that, if all announcements were on the county’s webpage, they would be available consistently to everyone in one central place. She said it would likely be easier for people to find the notices once they became accustomed to the new system.
Henning pointed out that readership of the High Point Enterprise, for instance, was down to very low levels. He said that, given the very large number of people who don’t subscribe to newspapers, there’s a “whole swath” of the population that wouldn’t see them.
“We can still advertise in the newspapers, if the time comes where we feel like we’re not reaching enough people,” Henning said. “I don’t think it precludes us from doing both.”
“The first year and first months,” Keller responded, “there would be some duplication.”
She said that, if there’s an announcement of particular importance, the county might both post it on the website and run it in a newspaper until people are more aware of the new system. But the new law wouldn’t require Guilford County to run the advertisement in a paid circulation newspaper as it did, which means Guilford County would be free to advertise in the Rhino Times, Yes! Weekly, City Beat and the Northwest Observer if it so chose.
It might find, as do many advertisers, that they can reach more readers at a lower cost in the free newspapers than in the paid circulation newspapers. The county could also place ads on radio and television because the legal requirement would be met by the county website. The law doesn’t stop Guilford County or any of municipalities from advertising anyplace they want, once the legal requirement is met by placing the ad on the county website.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioner Jeff Phillips said he didn’t want the commissioners to “get ahead of ourselves” by moving too fast. He said demand for the service would be very large if Greensboro or High Point decides to start using the county’s service.
“That’s where I’ve got some caution when we implement it,” Phillips said.
The motion to hold the public hearing on Dec. 7 to get input on the proposed new notification method passed 7 to 1, with Commissioner Alan Perdue voting by telephone. Commissioner Carlvena Foster was absent. Coleman abstained, which counts as a no vote in the by laws of the county commissioners.
The grand total for advertisement for the county is about $300,000 each year, with $70,900 being the amount paid for required legal advertisements. Until about three years ago, Guilford County was spending nearly $100,000 on delinquent tax notices; however, the county greatly reduced that cost when it put out for competitive bids, removed them from the News & Record, and began putting them in the Jamestown News.