It would be fair to say that, in 2016, Guilford County government went to the dogs – but not in a bad way.
It’s just that, in 2016, county officials ended up talking nearly as much about dogs – and cats and other animals at the animal shelter – as they did talking about human beings. Guilford County is usually focused on the county’s 500,000 plus residents, but this past year county leaders spent a great deal of time discussing man’s best friends, cats and other non-human creatures.
There were, of course, plenty of human-based citizen-oriented affairs that were in the limelight as well – like bringing down property taxes for the third time in four years and discovering that parts of the old courthouse, where the commissioners meet, were in danger of falling off and killing those entering or exiting the building. There was plenty more that went on in county government as well, including a new broad based economic development effort.
However, it was the animals that got a great deal of the county’s attention in 2016. Guilford County spent much of the year trying to find a place to build a new animal shelter and it also established a new Animal Services Department and a new board to oversee it. County staff also had to find and hire a director of animal services and a veterinarian for the shelter, both of which they did in 2016. In addition, Guilford County had to convince state inspectors that it was doing a good job running that shelter. The inspectors found some issues but overall gave the county fairly high marks.
This was all brand new to current county officials. For nearly two decades, the county had been outsourcing the animal shelter operations to a nonprofit group, the United Animal Coalition (UAC) – and obviously county officials hadn’t been paying much attention to the job that group was doing.
State findings involving more than 66 documented cases of animal abuse and neglect led to the massive and sad scandal that broke in August 2015 and focused all county eyes on shelter issues that year and this year. Since then, the county has been running the shelter and those operations now fall largely under Guilford County Deputy Manager Clarence Grier.
The Animal Services Board, which met for the first time this summer and is chaired by Commissioner Justin Conrad, includes many of the county’s most avid animal lovers, and that group is now very engaged with shelter issues.
On other animal matters, Guilford County spent a great deal of time in 2016 dealing with Susie’s Fund – a fund containing nearly a quarter of a million dollars meant to help abused and injured animals in need of medical care. County officials spent the first half of 2016 trying hard to get that money from the UAC and then spent the last half of the year not spending any of it.
Even after Guilford County got that money in June, those funds sat in the bank, unused for nearly six months. The Board of Commissioners approved guidelines for expenditures at the commissioners’ Thursday, Dec. 15 meeting and county officials have promised to start using the money to help abused and injured animals at the shelter.
But the biggest component of the county’s animal discussions this year involved an effort to build the new shelter next to the Agricultural Center on Burlington Road in east Greensboro. That would have required a rezoning of the property by the City of Greensboro. City Councilmembers Jamal Fox, who represents that area, and Sharon Hightower, who represent areas of east Greensboro near the site, promised a bitter fight to the death over the proposed rezoning – something Guilford County didn’t want to engage in – and now Guilford County has given up on that location and is looking for other sites to build on.
While Guilford County is still searching for a landing spot for the new shelter, the county did complete and open another major facility that had been in the works for years. This year the county opened a new 24,000-square-foot Guilford County Law Enforcement Special Operations Facility at 508 Industrial Ave. in Greensboro – though, even after the grand opening, the building couldn’t be used for weeks because none of the locks for the doors had been delivered.
In 2016, former Guilford County Parks Division Manager Thomas Marshburn left for greener pastures and less pay in Davidson County and the county’s court system lost invaluable Pretrial Services Manager Wheaton Casey, who retired.
While there was some turnover among county staff, in 2016 Guilford County’s elected leadership remained exactly the same. Four county commissioners were up for reelection this year: Democratic Commissioner Ray Trapp and Republican Chairman Jeff Phillips ran unopposed, while Republicans Hank Henning and Alan Branson faced what turned out to be formidable challengers. Former Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Kirk Perkins, who served on the board from 2004 to 2012 – when Branson knocked him off that board – tried to repay Branson the favor in 2016. But Perkins came up with only 46 percent to Branson’s 54 percent. That was about the same percentage Perkins lost to Branson by in the 2012 election.
Henning squeaked by his opponent, Democrat Rick Forrester, winning on a 51 to 49 percent margin after sweating it out on an election night that saw Henning behind for much of the evening’s returns.
After the election, it looked like Branson might seek the county’s highest leadership position – chairman of the Board of Commissioners. However, in the end, a gentleman’s agreement between the five Republican commissioners made Phillips chairman for a second year in a row and made Branson vice chair for another year.
That combination could bode well for another tax cut, since the two oversaw a budget that cut taxes in 2016 and now property taxes have been reduced more than 2 cents per $100 of assessed property value since the Republican’s gained a majority on the board in 2012. While the cuts have come in smaller increments than some taxpayers might like, those cuts have come over the protests of county staff.
One thing that helped the county’s balance sheet this year is that Finance Director Reid Baker and his department took advantage of lower interest rates to refinance much of the county’s bond debt, a move that’s expected to save the county about $9.7 million over the coming years. That was essentially “free money” that can now be used for other purposes as the savings come in.
Another thing that helped the board cut taxes this year is the effort of Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis and his staff, who have gotten the county’s collection rate to over 99 percent. Chavis has pushed wage garnishment, foreclosures and every other legal means to squeeze every penny out of the county’s tax base. About 10 years ago, the Tax Department had a just handful of foreclosure cases in the pipeline, while now there are over 1,000, and the county has created a new attorney position to focus on those proceedings.
In 2016, Guilford County tried some new things. Phillips, a gun rights advocate and gun enthusiast, worked with the Sheriff’s Department to create a new gun use and marksmanship course that also taught area citizens about gun laws and self-defense tactics.
When Phillips took his turn running though simulator scenarios, he took out an assailant with some fast and on-target shots when the situation called for it, and he didn’t shoot them when deadly force wasn’t warranted. Some trigger-happy citizens who took the course didn’t do quite as well as Phillips – some, in fact, shot at just about everything that moved, and, hopefully, they benefited from the use-of-force training that the Sheriff’s Department provided free of charge. Talks are now in the works for additional similar courses in the coming year.
The county’s focus on guns in 2016 continued soon after that seminar when Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes called on local print and TV reporters to go through a series of video simulations that are used to train his officers. He did that so those reporters could see first-hand how difficult it is to make the split-second life and death decisions that law enforcement officers sometimes have to make.
This was also the year that Guilford County finally got its joint economic development group off the ground in a unified attempt to bring more jobs to the county. The Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) was signed into existence in November 2015 – but it was in 2016 that the alliance held its first in-person meeting at the Donald W. Cameron Campus of Guilford Technical Community College in Colfax. The group has shown an ability to work together throughout the year and there doesn’t appear to be a tug of war between Greensboro and High Point as there was in previous years when new businesses were eyeing locations in Guilford County.
At the Thursday, Dec. 15 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, High Point Economic Development Corp. President Loren Hill ran down a list of companies that had worked with GCEDA and added new jobs since that group was formed. That list included Alorica, adding 800 call center and customer service jobs, HAECO announcing 500 jobs at the airport, Thomas Built Buses adding 200 jobs and Qorvo expanding by 100 jobs. Hill also pointed to NFI Industries’ addition of 60 jobs in the former Kmart distribution center, Total Quality Logistics adding 70 and Heritage Home Group opening its new headquarters, adding 300 jobs. While there has been some expansion of existing industry, what the county hasn’t seen are large new companies choosing Guilford County to open up shop and offer more jobs.
In 2016, Rich Fork Preserve was a very rich source of discussion for the county’s mountain biking opponents and proponents, as well as for the Board of Commissioners and all those citizens with an interest in the park in southeast Guilford County that’s now being developed. The battle had been brewing for years over whether or not to allow unmotorized mountain biking in the park. Some say that Henning’s close race against a largely unknown Democratic contender was in part due to Henning’s support of the mountain biking community on that issue. In August, the Board of Commissioners voted to move forward in developing plans for the preserve allowing mountain biking trails in the nature preserve.
London Bridge was falling down centuries ago, but it was in 2016 that county officials learned that a lot of county structures were either in danger of falling down or of dropping large chunks on innocent bystanders. At one point a large cinder block fell from the ceiling of the second floor bathroom of the Old Guilford County Court House, and it could have killed someone – in what was said to be a stall commonly used by several prominent high-ranking county leaders. The second floor of the Old Court House is home to the county manager’s office, the clerk to the board’s office and several other key county divisions.
More importantly, one part of the building fell right next to press row in the commissioners meeting room, also on the second floor, and that piece could have hurt a reporter if a meeting had been in session.
When the commissioners got the report that gave an estimated $8-million in costs to repair the building, the assessment of the building’s condition was so dire that some commissioners seemed to be glancing at the ceiling checking for potential falling objects while staff was making the presentation.
Guilford County’s large parking deck that serves the governmental plaza in downtown High Point was in danger of collapse, according to county staff. Those repairs are also underway. The Sheriff’s Department headquarters, the Otto Zenke building next to the new jail in downtown Greensboro, now has temporary supports holding up various parts of it and the structure faces all sorts of other problems and by all accounts it is on its last legs.
One very positive accomplishment for Guilford County came, not inside the governmental buildings, but on the athletic field and the basketball court. In this season’s Guilford Cup Challenge – the three-sport tournament between Guilford County and the City of Greensboro – the county took the flag football game and the basketball game in convincing fashion, and Greensboro was so demoralized they didn’t even show up for the softball game between the two local governments. At least, that’s the way some in the county explained the city’s last-minute mystery cancelation of the softball game. Greensboro officials said there were other factors at play. However, either way, the city’s forfeit gave the county a 3-0 victory in the challenge.
In addition, 2016 marked the fifth year of the sad saga in Northeast Park of the Little Train that Couldn’t. After a very brief Indian summer of operation last winter, the county’s $400,000 (and counting) train stopped running again. The county has invested a great deal of time and effort over the last five years trying to get that train to operate, but now it appears that county officials are at the end of their track on the matter.