If you liked the way the Greensboro City Council ran things last year, you should like the council in 2017 just as much.

The City Council held its annual retreat on Tuesday, Feb. 14 at Union Square, at the corner of Gate City Boulevard and Arlington Street, and one of the few differences from 2016 was the location – last year the retreat was held at the ACC Hall of Champions in the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. But if you replace 2016 with 2017 in the material, you pretty much have the same report from staff to the City Council. It can be boiled down to “everything is pretty good and we are working to make it better.”

The lack of council discussion was bizarre. In the past, the council retreat has been a time when the City Council sat down, discussed its priorities and, by the end of the day, came to some consensus on where it would be headed in the upcoming year. This retreat was largely staff driven. Most of the time was taken up with reports from city staff and the discussion by councilmembers was sporadic.

Once again City Councilmember Tony Wilkins, the lone Republican on the council, got a commitment that efforts would be made not to increase taxes this year. After prompting from Wilkins, Mayor Nancy Vaughan said, “I think we can give direction to staff that it is our policy not to raise taxes next year.”

However, the staff is projecting a 2.5 cent property tax increase for 2018-2019 to pay for the $126 million in bonds that the voters passed in November, plus the additional $115 million in bonds from 2006, 2008 and 2009 bond referendums that have not yet been sold. Of the $228.4 million that were passed in those three referendums, the city has only sold $113.4 million in bonds, which does raise the question of why a $126 million bond referendum was needed in 2016. It raises the amount of bond money currently available to the City Council to $241 million, which is a pretty serious amount of money for the city to borrow and spend.

What the City Council didn’t discuss in any detail was how that bond money will be spent. For example, $25 million is reportedly going to be spent in downtown Greensboro. How that money will be spent is a mystery and is not something the City Council discussed at all. The projected spending for that particular portion of the bond package is $5 million a year from 2017-2018 through 2020-2021, and then the final $5 million before 2026. When the City Council was attempting to sell the bond package to the voters there was a lot of talk about the need to pass the bonds so that much-needed projects could be accomplished quickly, but it appears that rhetoric has been forgotten. Not a single councilmember complained or even commented on the proposed downtown bond spending plan.

It seems that it would make more sense to rip the downtown up once and get all the improvements – whatever they are – made, rather than have constant street and sidewalk construction downtown for the next six to 10 years.

During the campaign to get those bonds passed, Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Zack Matheny had some pretty pictures created that show what could be done with the bond money, but Matheny has no authority to spend the $25 million and there are not even any credible estimates of what it would cost to turn his drawings into reality. If anyone on the City Council or city staff knows how that $25 million will be spent, they didn’t reveal it during the retreat.

Wilkins was miffed at the last City Council meeting when the staff found $200,000 in 2006 bond money to spend on the Van Dyke Performance Space in the Cultural Arts Center. Wilkins said he was concerned because he had been told all of the 2006 bond money had been allocated and none was available. On Tuesday, Wilkins asked two or three times if the councilmembers could be informed of bond money that becomes available, either through the cancellation of a proposed project or cost savings. Wilkins wasn’t exactly told no, but it will be surprising if he starts receiving that information. One might expect other councilmembers to want to be able to weigh in on how leftover bond moneys are spent, but no one else showed any interest. So it appears how the bond money will be spent will continue to be a staff decision. The council will have to approve the appropriation, but the indication is that the staff is going to be making those decisions and bringing the results to the City Council only for final approval when the expenditure has to be approved.

Vaughan said that Greensboro needed a vision like Winston-Salem, which has a goal of being one of the top 50 cities in the country. She said the City Council needed to figure out what Greensboro wanted to be in five or 10 years and work toward that goal. But the idea was not mentioned again.

The City Council did perk up during a discussion of branding. The City Council wants to concentrate more on branding Greensboro better in order to compete more effectively with Charlotte and Raleigh. What the City Council doesn’t seem to realize is Greensboro is not competing with Charlotte and Raleigh – both cities have left Greensboro far behind in their wake. Charlotte now has a population of over 800,000 with both National Football League and National Basketball Association franchises. In other words, Charlotte is in the big leagues; Greensboro is not.

Raleigh, with a population of over 450,000, is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It has a National Hockey League franchise, the Research Triangle Park and the state capital.

Wilkins suggested that when a business considers moving to Greensboro but chooses some other city that the City Council look at the reasons Greensboro wasn’t chosen and see if it is something that can be fixed.

He said to his knowledge there wasn’t much follow-up on businesses that looked at Greensboro but went somewhere else. No one seemed to know if that information was available.

When the City Council does talk about economic development it usually talks about the effort to attract more businesses to east Greensboro. The City Council is supposed to represent all of Greensboro, but because of the current system – with three councilmembers and the mayor elected at large – you have a majority on the City Council who depend on support from east Greensboro to get elected.

So the City Council is focused on east Greensboro when it should be focused on economic development period. If a business prefers a location in the northwest, it shouldn’t be steered through council policies to east Greensboro but encouraged – with every ounce of encouragement the city has – to locate in what they believe is the best location for their company in Greensboro.

The City Council thinks it’s competing with Charlotte and Raleigh, but in reality Greensboro has recently lost a number of new industries to Mebane in Alamance County. They should be looking at why a business would chose Mebane over Greensboro, because its obvious why one would chose Charlotte or Raleigh over Greensboro; for one thing they both have airports where you can actually get a direct flight somewhere.

The City Council does also talk about development at the Piedmont Triad International Airport, but the airport is not in Greensboro and is not property that Greensboro controls or collects property tax on.

And Tuesday, it talked briefly about the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, which is in Randolph County but will use Greensboro water.

The City Council at the retreat talked again about its support for infill development, and with the current annexation laws the only way Greensboro is going to grow significantly is with infill development. But in reality the City Council doesn’t support infill development because in Greensboro some group opposes every proposed infill development project and that group gets support from some councilmembers. If the City Council had been proactive in support of infill development Greensboro could already have a Trader Joe’s on the corner of Hobbs Road and Friendly Avenue, but the City Council didn’t support the idea. The land is going to be developed, but Trader Joe’s has said it’s not going to be part of that development and people from Greensboro will continue to travel to Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill to shop at Trader Joe’s.

An indication of just how out of touch the current council is with reality is the one action the City Council did take during its retreat – which was to hire a lobbyist at a cost of $5,000 a month to lobby the state legislature. Last week, Vaughan and Councilmembers Marikay Abuzuaiter and Sharon Hightower testified in federal court in a lawsuit the city filed to overturn a state law redistricting Greensboro into eight council districts.

All three were highly critical of the state legislature and, in particular, of state Sen. Trudy Wade, the original sponsor of a bill, to redistrict Greensboro although she was not the author of the bill that eventually passed. They may not like or respect Wade, but if they were paying attention they might have noted that Wade is now co-chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a member of the Senate leadership team.

President Pro Tem of the state Senate Phil Berger represents a big chunk of northern Greensboro in the legislature. He also happens to be the most powerful elected leader in state government, but you rarely if ever hear a kind word about Berger from the members of the City Council.

Mayor Vaughan has been traveling around the country to talk about how horrible House Bill 2, “the bathroom bill,” is for the state. This is not endearing Greensboro to the legislature. There is bound to be some tension between the Greensboro City Council, with eight Democrats, and the legislature in Raleigh, where both houses have veto-proof Republican majorities. The City Council doesn’t like to be reminded of it, but the state created the City of Greensboro and all of its power is derived from the state.

Considering the earlier decisions of federal District Court Judge Catherine Eagles, it is more than likely the city will win its lawsuit. But at what cost? The city could have stayed out of the lawsuit entirely and allowed the citizens’ group to sue the state. It would have been the politically smart move.

Wilkins cast the lone no vote against hiring a lobbyist for $5,000 a month. He said, “Since this has come up, I have had conversations with both Republicans and Democrats on the Guilford delegation and the consensus is this is a total waste of money.”

He noted that, during the redistricting battle, the city spent a considerable amount of money on lobbyists, but got more information from state Rep. Pricey Harrison than from the paid lobbyists.

Councilmember Yvonne Johnson also noted that the City Council didn’t receive reports on what was going on in the legislature from the last lobbyists.

Councilmembers Johnson and Hightower didn’t vote to hire the lobbyist but they didn’t vote against hiring the lobbyists either. Since it was not an official vote, councilmembers could abstain.

The council spent quite a bit of time discussing the compensation for city employees. Human Resources Director Connie Hammond said that the compensation package was very competitive at most levels.

Councilmember Mike Barber said, “Our benefits are second to none. It’s hard to find this level of benefits in the private sector.”

In addition to the state retirement plan, where an employee can retire with full benefits after 30 years, the city also puts 3.25 percent of an employee’s salary in what is the equivalent of a 401K plan.   According to Hammond, that is a perk many other cities don’t offer.

Hammond said that the city loses about 4 percent of its workforce every year from voluntary resignations and retirement.

Councilmember Justin Outling asked, “If the turnover rate is around 4 percent, what is the motivation for paying people more.”

He asked, “What is the problem we are actually trying to solve by throwing more money at it?” He added, “If we don’t have a problem then we end up wasting money.”

Outling said that in the private sector most employers pay employees what they believe they need to pay them to keep them and don’t give employees raises for no reason.

Hightower said the city needed to pay the workers more because she had heard rumblings they weren’t being paid enough. Vaughan asked that the commitment to pay all employees at least $15 an hour be speeded up.

Hammond said the salaries were pegged to what other cities in the area were paying similar employees.

The way that actually works is a leapfrog effect. No city wants to be at the bottom of the list, so the city on the bottom gives out raises, which puts some other city at the bottom and then that city give raises, which puts another city at the bottom, and it continues with employees getting raises just because other cities are giving raises.

Outling also suggested one of the few, if not the only new idea, that was brought up at the retreat. He said that he and Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann had been working on a program to have people who are arrested for minor infractions, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana, be given a citation and released rather than being taken to jail.

Outling said that under the current system, someone with money is taken to jail, posts bond and is released, but someone without money often has to sit in jail until their court date for what is a minor crime.

Outling said that currently police officers on their own will issue a citation and release someone arrested for a minor charge, but he thought the city needed to have a policy. Outling said Greensboro would be the first city in the state to have such a policy.

The idea didn’t engender much discussion, but there didn’t appear to be much opposition either.

Other than the increase in spending bond money and the resulting increase in debt service of an estimated $3 million next year, there didn’t appear to be any significant changes in the proposed budget and the council gave no clear direction to staff on making any changes.

The meeting began at 9 a.m. took a morning break about 10:30, had an hour and 45 minutes scheduled for lunch and adjourned at 2 p.m.