The Greensboro City Council held a budget work session on Tuesday, May 23 where the City Council discussed budget matters in some detail and gave clear direction to the staff. That may not sound like news, but it is.

This City Council has in past years shown little interest in the budget. The standard procedure has been for the council to hold a budget meeting where everything but the budget was discussed, and at some point would tell City Manager Jim Westmoreland to produce a budget without a tax increase. Westmoreland would, months later, present a no-tax-increase budget, the City Council would then add a few pet nonprofits to the list of those being funded and pass the budget

Tuesday was entirely different. Perhaps it’s because the City Council realizes that this budget includes a 2.1-cent tax increase from the revenue-neutral tax rate, and when taxes are increased in an election year, you’d better be able to explain why they were increased.

The tax increase results in a revenue increase in the general fund of over $10 million, or almost 4 percent, which gives the city a lot more money to play with. With money to spend the City Council suddenly became interested in the budget.

But the lack of direction to the city staff on budget priorities earlier in the year is coming back to haunt the City Council, with less than a month before the budget is scheduled to be passed on June 20.

For example, the staff thought the City Council wanted to reduce the difference in the water rates paid by city residents and those paid by people who live outside the city. Currently, those outside the city pay a rate that is about 240 percent higher than those inside the city. The staff, in an attempt to reduce that percentage, proposed raising water rates inside the city by 3.75 percent and outside the city by 1 percent.

As the staff was told in no uncertain terms at the May 16 City Council meeting, the majority of the City Council would like to see those outside the city, who don’t pay city taxes and can’t vote in City Council elections, pay more and those inside the city pay less.

This is something the City Council could have communicated to the staff in February when it held its day-long meeting to set budget priorities, but didn’t.

Now that the staff has been told what the City Council wants, the water rates will be adjusted. It appears that the result will be a 3.5 increase for those inside and outside the city. City Councilmember Mike Barber said that he would like to see people outside the city pay more, and it’s possible those percentages will change.

The other area where the staff didn’t get clear direction from the City Council was in raising the salaries for sworn police officers and firefighters.

At Tuesday’s work session, Barber was outspoken in his desire to send a message that Greensboro was going to take care of its police officers and asked for a 7.5 percent raise for officers in order to raise their wages to the third highest in the state. He said he wanted the message to be, “Wow, Greensboro has really stepped up.”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan noted that the police had been having difficultly recruiting new officers and said, “We didn’t even fill the last class,” speaking of the last police training class.

City Councilmember Justin Outling said that the city needs to raise the salaries to be in the top 25 percent of the state in salaries for police officers and the city is currently about 50 percent. Outling asked that the city provide the information on what that would cost before the City Council made a decision.

Westmoreland said that doing such a study would take 90 days. Of course, if the City Council had made its wishes known back in February, the city would have time for such a study. But since the budget is scheduled to be passed on June 20, there isn’t time. Outling asked that the city staff provide as much information as possible on the cost at the work session on May 31, but maintained that he didn’t like the idea of making a decision without the necessary information.

Barber asked for the staff’s best guess and said that there was some flexibility in the raise because the main concern was newly hired officers and those at the lower end of the pay scale.

The best guess talked about at the meeting was that it would take about an additional $1 million to take police officers from the 5 percent raise in the proposed budget to the 7.5 percent raise that Barber suggested.

Outling said that the City Council needed to direct staff where to find the $1 million. Barber said it would be better to leave that decision up to staff.

Vaughan noted that it is less than one-half of one percent of the budget.

It has long been true that if the project is being promoted by staff, the money appears, but if the City Council is requesting more money for a project then something has to be cut. An easy fix in this case would be for the staff to pretend that they came up with the idea and go get the money wherever it is they find money for their own projects.

Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter talked about police officers and firefighters who had been trained by Greensboro going to High Point, Burlington and Durham.

Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann said the city had to consider the cost of training an officer and then having that officer leave to take a job elsewhere.

Westmoreland agreed that the Police Department had seen more voluntary resignations than usual.

There is definitely a majority of the City Council that wants to give police and firefighters more than the 5 percent increase that is in the current budget.

As one might expect, City Councilmember Sharon Hightower said she wouldn’t vote for a raise for police and fire that was more than other city employees received.   Hightower does not agree that some employees are more important to the operation of the city than others. She also said that she supports the Police and Fire Departments, but her actions say otherwise.

What nobody on the City Council admitted is that there is more to the problems in recruiting police officers than just pay. At City Council meetings it has become common for people to come to the podium during speakers from the floor and talk about how the police have mistreated somebody. Rarely does anyone on the City Council defend the Police Department.

What’s worse is that the City Council has determined that it needs to act as police chief and decide whether or not an individual officer’s actions were warranted or not.

It’s not the job of the City Council to review the actions of individual police officers, nor is the City Council familiar with all the policies and procedures of the Police Department. Police officers who often find themselves in dangerous situations and are forced to make split-second decisions are being judged by nine people who don’t actually know what a police officer is supposed to do.

Greensboro has a well-trained and experienced police command staff and a rigorous process of investigating allegations of improper actions by police officers. If the City Council truly wants to support the Police Department, paying the police officers more will help, but getting out of the analysis of actions of individual police officers would help a lot more.

The City Council, also in keeping with a long tradition, spent much of the work session discussing the nonprofits that receive funding from the city. Councilmember Tony Wilkins is advocating that Sanctuary House, which provides services for the mentally ill, receive $35,000. Sanctuary House was not recommended for any funding by Westmoreland.

Hoffmann asked that GreenHill art gallery, which receives free rent from the city in the Cultural Arts Center, receive the full $50,000 it requested. Hoffmann said that if the city doubles its allocation to Green Hill to $50,000, that Green Hill has offered to give free memberships to 500 city employees.

This might make sense if city employees were putting up the additional $25,000, but it’s not coming out of the pockets of city employees, but from the taxpayers. Many city employees don’t pay city taxes because they don’t live in the city. Wouldn’t it make more sense, if 500 free memberships are being sold to the city for $25,000, to give those free memberships to residents of Greensboro on a first come, first served basis?

One of the more telling comments made about the nonprofits the city funds was made about the Greensboro Community Development Fund, which makes loans to small businesses and is currently slated to receive $150,000 from the city.

Westmoreland said he didn’t know what had happened to the $200,000 that was allocated to the Community Development Fund last year, but he would find out if it was well spent.

Vaughan said, “Not even well spent, just that it has been spent.”

That’s a pretty low bar.

At the end of the meeting, Outling tried to get the council to discuss a couple of other budget items that he is concerned about, but most of the City Council was ready to leave at 4 p.m., so Outling was told they would discuss it at the next meeting.

After the meeting Outling said that he wanted to take some money from departments that didn’t have any verifiable accomplishments and allocate that money to departments that had been doing more with less.

It’s a novel idea on this City Council for a city councilmember to suggest moving money around in the budget, but then there is that tax increase.