Most people aren’t interested in the city budget. It’s a bunch of numbers that don’t make much sense to people and they would rather not deal with it. But what is shocking is that nine of those people who aren’t interested in the budget have been elected to the Greensboro City Council.

On Tuesday, May 22, the City Council had its big budget meeting.   Interim City Manager David Parrish had presented the manager’s budget to the City Council at its meeting on May 15, and this was the work session where the City Council was scheduled to meet to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about the manager’s budget. Rarely does the manager’s budget meet perfectly with the wants and beliefs of all nine members of the City Council in every department and every line item.

The meeting was originally scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. to give the City Council three or more hours to discuss the budget, suggest changes, discuss changes and turn the manager’s budget into the City Council budget. But the City Council decided that it didn’t need three hours and changed the meeting time to 3 p.m.

One of the two items on the agenda for the meeting was a report on the money being handed out to the chosen nonprofits. The city has hundreds of nonprofit organizations, most doing excellent work, and the city picks about 20 political favorites to hand out some largess.

The other item was the Capital Improvements Program (CIP), which is a list of large construction projects, most paid for with bond money, and really isn’t a part of the operating budget for the city but was listed on the agenda. This was mainly to inform the City Council that $155 million in bonds would be sold this fall.

At the beginning of this meeting at 3 p.m., Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced that the City Council would be going into closed session with its outside attorney Alan Duncan at 3:45, and that Duncan had a school board meeting at 4 p.m., so they could not be late.

If the city attorney, which the city has paid a considerable amount over the years, doesn’t have time to meet with the City Council, the City Council should hire an attorney that is not so busy. But, regardless, when the school board meets should not determine how much time the City Council spends on its budget. Certainly the school board didn’t discuss with the City Council when the school board should meet.

But there was nothing preventing the City Council from meeting with its attorney and then coming back to discuss the budget. In reality the whole school board issue provided the City Council with an excuse to cut its budget discussion short.

The meeting with Duncan was to discuss the lawsuit filed by former Greensboro Police Chief David Wray against the city because the city refused to pay his legal fees when city policy, dating back to 1981, calls for the city to pay the legal fees of city employees. The lawsuit has been going on for over 10 years, and the City Council took no action after the closed session.

The case is currently in mediation and the council took no action, so you have to wonder just how important the meeting was.

For once the City Council needed a few more councilmembers like Sharon Hightower around the table, because Hightower did not let the time constraints keep her from asking the questions she wanted to ask.

Hightower, in fact, got the only thing she asked for, which was another $100,000 for East Greensboro Now, formerly known as the East Market Street Development Company. This organization has been funded by the city for 20 years and its list of accomplishments is dubious at best. But Hightower wanted to give East Greensboro Now an additional $100,000 for a total of $150,000 and nobody wanted to argue with her.

The City Council also didn’t object to raising the amount given to the Greensboro Community Development Fund from $50,000 to $300,000. This is a program to provide loans to small businesses.

The presentation was made on the funding to the nonprofits and there was a short discussion on how the nonprofits should be chosen. Parrish promised to work on it after the budget was passed, which is a speech the city manager has been giving to the City Council now for years.

Hightower complained that to be considered for funding a nonprofit had to present a current audit, which she said was unfair to organizations that weren’t funded because they had to spend $3,000 to $5,000 for the audit.

City staff said that not every organization had to present an audit – some were allowed to present a financial review, which is less expensive.

Hightower still didn’t like the idea that the city required organizations to prove that they were spending their money well before they were considered for funding by the taxpayers.

City Councilmember Michelle Kennedy noted that the audit was financial and there was no audit of the services provided. Kennedy also objected to the funding of Sanctuary House, which provides rehabilitation services for adults with mental illness. Kennedy said that this was a county function.

In a more general discussion of the organizations being funded, Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter said, “We don’t get anything back during the year that states what they did with the money.”

Budget Director Larry Davis said that the city received quarterly reports on how the money allocated to nonprofits was being spent.

Councilmember Yvonne Johnson said, “Maybe those reports should be passed on to council.” The idea that the City Council might be interested in how the money it allocated to organizations was actually spent was evidently new.

According to Parrish, adding the $350,000 to this particular budget item was no problem, which gives an indication of just how fat the city budget actually is.

Then the CIP was presented. The big news is that the city is finally going to spend the last millions from bonds passed in 2008.

Bonds expire after 10 years, so if the bonds are not sold this year the city would lose the ability to borrow that money.

The money is also going to be spent from the 2009 bonds a year ahead of the deadline and the city will start spending money from the 2016 bonds with a plan to spend all of that by 2022. The city plans to sell $155 million in bonds in October and the CIP calls for $1.4 billion in spending on capital projects over the next 10 years.

Hightower noted that some of the council priorities on housing had changed since the bond referendum passed and she was told that the council could move the money around. Selling the bonds does not fund projects. It simply makes the money available for the City Council to fund projects in broad categories.

The presentation was made, and shortly before 3:40, the City Council voted to go into closed session and went upstairs so that their attorney would not be late for his school board meeting. At 3:50, city councilmembers came back downstairs and adjourned the meeting and that was it for the budget work session.

The City Council may hold a second budget work session after the public hearing on the budget on Tuesday, June 5, but in past years the budget work session after the public hearing has often been cancelled.

In the past two months the City Council has spent over six hours on panhandling. The result of all that time and effort is that the City Council repealed all the ordinances dealing with panhandling and currently has no ordinances on the books concerning panhandling.

One would have to assume that the current City Council is about six times more interested in panhandling than it is in its $541 million dollar budget and the tax rate, which is the highest of any comparable city in the state.

The proposed 2018-2019 budget is about $5.3 million, or 1 percent higher than the current budget. The tax rate remains the same at 63.25 cents per $100 of property valuation.

The city brags about maintaining the same tax rate for nine years, but last year the taxpayers of Greensboro received a stealth tax increase. All the property in Guilford County was reevaluated and the revenue neutral tax rate was 61.14 cents. By not lowering the tax rate to the revenue neutral rate, the city collected over $5 million more in tax money than it would have received if the property had not been reevaluated. So while the rate remained the same the effective tax increase was 2.11 cents.

This year there is no tax increase, but water rates will increase by 3.5 percent.

The city is also raising the rates in the city-owned parking decks in January 2019 from $65 a month to $85 a month. This is supposed to put Greensboro more in tune with what other cities in North Carolina are charging for parking in downtown parking decks. But is a law firm in downtown Greensboro going to move to Durham because the monthly parking fee in the decks is lower? The real competition is from the numerous office buildings and office parks in the city where parking is free. The city needs the money to pay for the new downtown parking decks, but to justify it by comparing the parking rates in other cities doesn’t seem to make sense.

The city in 2018-2019 will raise the minimum wage of all full-time and benefitted employees to $15 an hour, or about $31,000 a year. The only city employees who are not being paid a minimum of $15 an hour will be some part-time employees. The City Council had asked that all city employees including, part-time, be raised to $15 an hour in the next fiscal year but seems satisfied with this proposal from staff.