The Greensboro City Council spent over two hours discussing the solicitation ordinance it had passed in April and about 20 minutes on the 2018-2019 budget at the regular meeting on Tuesday, May 15.

It’s a good indication of where this City Council’s priorities are – and they aren’t on taxes, water rates or the budget that has an effect on all 290,000 residents of the city.

The City Council eventually passed the new ordinance outlawing aggressive solicitation, but it was by a 5-to-4 vote, which means the ordinance will have to be passed by the City Council again before it becomes law.

On April 24, the City Council passed the same ordinance by a 6-to-3 vote, and after that vote it did become law, because it passed by a super majority. But City Councilmember Sharon Hightower became upset later during that April 17 meeting when the City Council passed a policy to give a preference on certain contracts to locally owned businesses. After that local preference policy passed, Hightower said that she was changing her vote on the aggressive solicitation ordinance. How the two are related is known only to Hightower.

Councilmember Justin Outling pointed out during the meeting that this was the reason that Hightower was changing her vote. Hightower responded that as a councilmember she had the option of changing her vote and said, “I don’t need to be chastised by anybody.”

As a city councilmember, Hightower has the right to ask for “reconsideration” of any vote where she voted in the majority for any reason. Since she had voted for the solicitation ordinance and it passed, she had the right to ask that the motion be reconsidered and she did.

Since the reconsideration was an item on the May 15 agenda, Mayor Nancy Vaughan allowed the public to speak on it, and mostly the same speakers opposing any regulation that related to panhandling spoke. However, Tuesday night there were more speakers, including downtown business owners, who spoke in favor of having an ordinance that made aggressive panhandling illegal.

When this issue surfaced months ago, speakers said that the Greensboro ordinances governing panhandling – which required panhandlers to have a license issued by the city that regulated where and when people with a license could legally panhandle – were unconstitutional.

According to City Attorney Tom Carruthers, one federal court of appeals had found that panhandling was speech protected by the First Amendment, and laws such as Greensboro’s could be found unconstitutional. And even though this decision was not from the federal circuit court that governs Greensboro, Carruthers recommended that the panhandling ordinances be repealed and replaced with an ordinance that made “aggressive solicitation” illegal and doesn’t speak about panhandling at all.

So this new ordinance, which doesn’t deal with panhandling specifically, but will affect all kinds of solicitation, is a huge step for the City of Greensboro and it was still opposed by members of the Homeless Union and those who said they were speaking for the homeless.

It appears that nothing short of no regulations on solicitation or panhandling will satisfy the homeless community and their supporters.

One of the most amazing speeches celebrating the homeless lifestyle was made a woman who said, “The homeless are not the only ones that panhandle. In this city there are people who panhandle across every demographic.” All demographics would include 80-year-old millionaires with doctorates and a whole bunch of other age, education, race and economic demographics that would never consider panhandling.

One of the most persuasive speakers in favor of the ordinance was Amy Murphy, aka “The Chicken Lady,” who handed out chicken and biscuits to the homeless every week for five years. Murphy said, “If our homeless services are working well, why do we have people panhandling? Why would we, as a city, want to encourage homelessness as a lifestyle? And that’s exactly what giving to panhandlers does.”

Andy Zimmerman, who has redeveloped a number of properties along South Elm Street, said, “Panhandling downtown is a big problem for downtown businesses.” He noted that there weren’t many successful retailers downtown and one reason was that “a lot of people want to go to Friendly Shopping Center because they don’t have to deal with panhandlers.”

He suggested that the city try innovative programs to help solve the panhandling problem.

A number of downtown business owners talked about how the aggressive panhandling had a detrimental effect on their businesses and pointed out that they employed people downtown.

Attorney Vaughn Ramsey said he had been a downtown resident for four years and that every time he walked outside his door there was a 50 percent chance he would get asked for money. He said that the aggressive panhandling caused some people he knew to say they would never come downtown again.

Ramsey said, “How would you like it if every time you walked out on your front steps you got asked for money?”

Phillip Marsh, a downtown business owner, said he was speaking for the people of east Greensboro and said, “We have to have boundaries, and when we don’t, people run amuck.”

Right now the city has no boundaries on panhandling or solicitation. The City Council repealed the old ordinance requiring permits and setting limits on panhandling, and because the proposed ordinance after the reconsideration passed by a 5-to-4 vote, it won’t go into effect unless the City Council passes it a second time.

Those voting in favor of the ordinance outlawing aggressive solicitation were Mayor Vaughan and Councilmembers Outling, Nancy Hoffmann, Tammi Thurm and Marikay Abuzuaiter. Councilmember Hightower, who voted in favor of the ordinance in April, changed her vote and joined Councilmembers Yvonne Johnson, Goldie Wells and Michelle Kennedy (who participated in the meeting by phone) in voting against it.

In the discussion, Hightower asked about the ordinance prohibiting aggressive solicitation saying, “Does The Salvation Army person ringing the bell too hard, is that aggressive?”

After three meetings and hours of public discussion on the topic, Hightower said that the City Council needed to have more discussion and hear from more people before making a decision.

Kennedy said, “I have never been wrong when I have stood beside people of color and this sounds a lot like Jim Crow to me.”

Outling said, “What we are looking at quite simply is aggressive solicitation, not panhandling, aggressive solicitation and specific, very specific kinds of aggressive solicitation.”

Outling also said he objected to trying to make the ordinance into a racial issue. He said that he vigorously disagreed with those that compared the law to separate but equal laws. He said, “Quite frankly, I find that argument objectionable and offensive.”

Johnson said that she agreed that aggressive solicitation should be outlawed but thought the city should not pass a law for which it would likely be sued and needed to develop a better solution.

Thurm said that she had met with the homeless community but she had also heard from her constituents. She said, “I have heard very loudly and very clearly from my constituents that we need some kind of ordinance. They are scared. A couple of people said their wives are scared to go out and that is unacceptable.”

She also said that the panhandlers were being disrespectful of the downtown business owners who had invested their life savings in their businesses and were simply trying to make a living.

Abuzuaiter said she went to a meeting of the Homeless Union and didn’t see many people of color there.

She also said that the city put a lot of money into the Interactive Resource Center and to say that the City Council didn’t care about the homeless was unfair.

Wells made an interesting statement; she said the ordinance did target panhandlers because “nobody else does aggressive solicitation other than panhandlers.”

After a break and a closed session on the lawsuit filed by former Police Chief David Wray, the City Council heard a presentation by interim City Manager David Parrish on the 2018-2019 budget.

According to the manager’s budget, the tax rate will remain at 63.25 cents – the highest in the state of any comparable city – and water rates would be raised 3.5 percent for both those inside and outside the city.

The total proposed budget is $541 million, which is a small increase from the current budget of $536 million. But the last year for which actual figures are available is the 2016-2017 budget year, and in 2016-2017, the city spent $490 million. So it is a considerable increase from what was actually spent last year.

Also in the current budget, the city had a stealth tax increase. Because all the property in the county was reevaluated, the revenue-neutral tax rate would have been 2 cents lower. By keeping the tax rate the same rather than lowering it to the revenue neutral figure, the City Council had about $5 million more money to spend without technically raising the tax rate.

This year if the City Council wants to spend more money – and it has given every indication that it does – either it will have to raise taxes or cut spending somewhere else. The City Council has discussed increasing city employee salaries more than the recommended budget, adding bus routes, allocating more for participatory budgeting and spending more on affordable housing, just to name a few items that have come up.

The City Council is holding a budget work session on Tuesday, May 22 at 3 p.m. in the Plaza Level Conference Room, and, after that meeting, the intentions of the City Council regarding the tax rate should be known. If the City Council funds half the initiatives it has discussed, a tax increase is likely.