What the Greensboro City Council did on Tuesday, June 19, was agree on how to spend $543 million in the next year without any meaningful discussion. What the City Council didn’t do is causing problems that are only going to get worse the longer the City Council fails to act.
What the council did was pass the 2018-2019 budget, which this City Council has never discussed and, except for increasing nonprofit funding, has had virtually no input. During the City Council two-day retreat in February, each councilmember was given two minutes to talk about their priorities and that was more discussion than the City Council has had since on the budget.
The only changes made to the budget presented by City Manager David Parrish was some additional spending for East Greensboro Now and the Greensboro Community Development Fund requested by Councilmember Sharon Hightower.
The city tax rate remained at 63.25. So there is no tax increase this year, but last year taxpayers in Greensboro got a stealth tax increase. The effective tax rate increased by 2.11 cents because of reevaluation. Although the rate remained the same, the city collected over $5 million more in property taxes because of the revaluation and, of course, they will collect that extra $5 million this year as well.
What the City Council didn’t do Tuesday night was pass an ordinance dealing with panhandling. Instead it punted, postponing the final vote on the panhandling ordinance until July 24 – that is, if the majority can’t think of some reason to postpone it again.
The downtown – which has shown steady improvement and is on the verge of game changing development coming to fruition – is sadly becoming a place some people don’t want to go because of the increased number and aggressiveness of the panhandlers.
In April, the City Council repealed the panhandling ordinance and passed a less stringent ordinance by a 6-to-3 vote, so that new ordinance went into effect. But in May, Hightower wanted to change her vote and did.
This is something councilmembers are allowed to do through a process called reconsideration. It’s the legislative version of a do-over: The City Council votes again as if the earlier vote had never happened.
The second time the panhandling ordinance passed 5 to 4 with Hightower joining Councilmembers Michelle Kennedy, Yvonne Johnson and Goldie Wells in voting against it. According to state law, for an ordinance to go into effect it either has to pass by a super majority (at least 6 to 3) or it has to pass twice at two different meetings by a simple majority.
So when the City Council passed the ordinance in May, it didn’t go into effect because it only passed by a simple majority.
One of the problems with this whole scenario is that, following Mayor Nancy Vaughan’s lead, the City Council has decided that it will only vote at one meeting a month. Since this City Council rarely does anything, only voting once a month usually doesn’t matter. But when considering ordinances that are vital for the safe operation of the city, it causes things to drag on and on, which is what has happened.
The panhandling ordinance was supposed to be on the agenda for the meeting on Tuesday. However, as Councilmember Justin Outling noted, it had been removed from the agenda.
Outling brought the matter back up and tried multiple different tactics to simply get the City Council to vote on the ordinance rather than continuing to kick the can down the road.
As soon as Outling made the motion to approve the ordinance that the City Council had already approved twice, Councilmember Tammi Thurm, who rarely speaks at City Council meetings, made a motion to postpone the vote until July 24, when a special meeting will be held to consider the panhandling ordinance that the City Council began discussing in early April.
Vaughan said, “I don’t know that we should rush into this tonight.” It’s hard to understand how the City Council could rush into something it first passed after lengthy discussions over the course of two meetings in April. The motto of this City Council should be, “Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next month.”
The vote on postponement was 6 to 3, with Councilmembers Outling, Marikay Abuzuaiter and Nancy Hoffmann voting against postponing and Vaughan and Councilmembers Kennedy, Hightower, Johnson, Wells and Thurm voting in favor of delaying making a decision another five weeks.
The reason given for the postponement was that the city had recently hired an outside law firm, Parker Poe, to advise the city on the ordinance that the City Council has already passed twice on the advice of City Attorney Tom Carruthers.
As a result of discussions with Parker Poe, five public hearings have been scheduled to get more public input on a topic that the City Council has already had public input on for three months. It would appear from the locations of the public hearings that the city is not interested in hearing from the vast majority of the people who live in Greensboro but are interested in hearing from panhandlers who frequent the downtown. Four of the meetings are in the downtown area and one is off Aycock Street on West Radiance Drive. For people who live in Adams Farm, the Cardinal, Battle Forest, Reedy Fork, Guilford College or dozens of other neighborhoods, there is not a convenient location.
Outling noted that there was no City Council vote on holding the public hearings. Outling called the motion to postpone the vote “remarkable and disappointing.” He noted that the ordinance, which the City Council had passed twice, was “provided as the best ordinance that the city attorneys believed was constitutional.” He added that the proposed ordinance was much less stringent that the ordinances of other cities in North Carolina.
Outling has been frustrated with this City Council’s penchant for putting everything off until tomorrow. He said, “Take action. Make a decision. Make a decision and move on and let the chips fall where they may.”
Abuzuaiter said, “I’ve said the same thing for the last three meetings and we still haven’t voted.” She added, “Because there are concerns about public safety we need something to address aggressive solicitation.”
Kennedy said, “If this vote passes tonight, what this will end up with is immediate litigation, which would result in no panhandling law being allowed in the City of Greensboro.”
Outling, who is an attorney with Brooks Pierce, disagreed with that characterization. He said that the City Council could amend the ordinance or pass a new ordinance depending on whether or not the court issued an injunction and what the injunction prohibited.
Hoffmann said that the City Council had a responsibility to provide for the safety and security of businesses. She said, “Having no policy or ordinance in place we have abrogated that responsibility.”
Kennedy, who is the director of the Interactive Resource Center, a day shelter for the homeless, has repeatedly stated that the rights of the panhandlers are her primary concern.
What the City Council has done by repealing the panhandling ordinance and not passing a new ordinance is taken away all the tools that the police had to control panhandling. As Police Chief Wayne Scott explained to the City Council on several occasions, it was rare for the police to make arrests for violation of the panhandling ordinance, but it did provide police with a reason to talk to panhandlers about their behavior if they were for instance blocking the entrance to a business or if their panhandling appeared to be getting too aggressive. Most people, including panhandlers, don’t want to be arrested and when given a choice of moving along or being less obnoxious in their appeals for money most panhandlers complied with the request from police officers.
With no law in place, even if a panhandler is blocking people from entering or leaving a business, even if their actions could be considered aggressive, even if they are hanging out in front of an ATM at night, knocking on the windows of cars as drivers are parking, or even if they are effectively blocking drivers from getting out of their cars, there is little the police can do.
There is no law against tapping on someone’s car window. There is no law against hanging out near an ATM at night and there is no law against standing on the sidewalk making it difficult for someone to get out of their car or into a building.
People who work downtown say that the situation regarding panhandlers has been getting progressively worse since the city repealed the ordinance on panhandling and have failed to replace it with anything.
The Greensboro City Council often talks about the need to support the renewal of the downtown area and to encourage business growth in the downtown, but its actions speak much louder than its words. In this case, the City Council is demonstrating much more concern for panhandlers than downtown residents, workers and business owners.
Vaughan and Thurm said they needed more information before voting on the panhandling ordinance that they had both voted for twice. The City Council has discussed this more than any other topic this year with the exception of the Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) program, how many months of discussion do Thurm and Vaughan need before they can make a decision? Three months clearly wasn’t enough. Will four months be enough, or eight or 14 or 24? Downtown businesses are currently losing money every day because of the lack of a panhandling ordinance.
Greensboro appears to be on the path toward following cities in California, where the homeless population has taken over block after block. One problem Greensboro has that cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles don’t is that Greensboro has a tiny downtown. If the homeless population is allowed to take over a few blocks there isn’t much left for everyone else.
The City Council did pass the $543 million budget with no substantive discussion. Hightower tried to get some more money for housing vouchers put in the budget, but Greensboro Neighborhood Development Director Stan Wilson did something you don’t see government employees do very often – he advised Hightower against allocating more money for his department. He explained they would need to develop a program and after they developed a program would be the time to consider funding.
Hightower for once didn’t argue.
Hightower did argue that the MWBE department needed more funding for staff and for software.
Assistant City Manager Barbara Harris explained that the software she was referring to was purchased last year and would be upgraded in July.
Vaughan has held firm that the City Council should follow the course it set out when the MWBE disparity report was presented and allow Harris to finish the process and make recommendations on the MWBE program in August.
Hightower also questioned funding the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce because in the budget it was referred to as “Greensboro Partnership,” the old name. Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson explained it was the city’s mistake for not changing the name in budget document.
Abuzuaiter pointed out that the City Council had held two work sessions on the budget and suddenly the name had “become a big issue.” Hightower interrupted Abuzuaiter to say repeatedly that she could ask any question she wanted.
Hightower proved that by asking how much the water and sewer rate increase was. It’s 3.5 percent and the City Council has been told that numerous times.
There was some discussion of funding Participatory Budgeting with $500,000 a year instead of $500,000 every two years.
The problem with the entire Participatory Budgeting process is that people don’t participate. The idea is that each council district gets $100,000 and the people in that district decide how to spend it.
The reality is that despite a tremendous amount of effort, lowering the voting age for projects to 14, allowing on line voting and going to schools where they have captive audiences, they still can’t get people to participate. In the session that will be funded with $500,000 in the 2018-2019 budget, 55 events were held and a total of 1,907 people participated. A solar charging station was funded to the tune of $20,000 because it received 34 votes.
Councilmembers talked about the great participation from citizens, but each council district is roughly 56,000 people, so 34 votes in a council district is not a high percentage of participation.
If some club or organization that is primarily in one district wanted to, it could completely take over the Participatory Budgeting process for that district and do whatever it wanted with $100,000. It’s worth considering.
The City Council decided that despite what they agreed was good participation, it would not allocate an additional $500,000 for Participatory Budgeting this year.