Property tax increase or no property tax increase – the City Council will decide on Tuesday, April 18.
At the City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 4, City Councilmember Justin Outling made a motion that the council hold a public hearing and decide on April 18 whether or not to raise taxes to pay for the bonds. The motion passed unanimously.
This is a wide departure from the way this City Council has done business, which is to argue at great length about the little stuff and leave the big decisions like the budget, bonds and taxes up to staff.
The City Council held a work session in the Plaza Level Conference Room beginning at 3:45 p.m. before the council meeting that was scheduled for 5:30, but started after 6 p.m.
The work session was set up for the city staff to explain how the bond money would be spent. The city currently has bond money available from the 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2016 bond referendums. The 2006 bond money has to be spent this year because the authorization for bonds is limited to 10 years.
What happened was unexpected. City Finance Director Rick Lusk said that simply to spend the 2006 and 2008 bond money would require a tax increase and more of a tax increase if some of the 2016 bonds were sold.
The plan presented to the council was to allocate $50 million of the older bonds plus $30 million from the $126 million in 2016 bonds in 2017.
Lusk said this would increase the debt service to the point where taxes would have to be raised in the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
Councilmember Mike Barber said, “In theory we could cut expenses drastically.”
Outling said that he would like to see at least two budgets, one with a tax increase and one without. Outling suggested that the staff get a commitment from the council before going ahead with the budget, and that eventually led to his motion at the council meeting.
At the work session, Councilmembers Outling, Barber and Tony Wilkins lined up against a tax increase and Councilmembers Sharon Hightower and Nancy Hoffmann expressed support for a tax increase.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilmember Jamal Fox were absent and the other councilmembers didn’t take a position.
Fox has for the past few months talked about the need for the city to reduce spending.
It appears that this year, unlike the other years since Vaughan has been mayor, the City Council is going to get involved in the budget process.
Outling said that he didn’t see the point in the city manager developing a budget that was based on a tax increase if the City Council was opposed to a tax increase.
On April 18, the City Council plans to hold a public hearing on a possible tax increase to pay for the bonds and then take a vote. It is likely the council will vote against a tax increase because this is an election year and politically it isn’t wise to vote for a tax increase in an election year. But the 2017 election is for four-year terms, and assuming most of this present council returns, it’s extremely likely that, not having to face the voters for four years, they will vote for a large tax increase next year.
Greensboro currently has the highest property tax rate of any comparable city in the state, so a tax increase would put Greensboro at even more of a competitive disadvantage when recruiting industry.
Bonds and taxes came up again at the City Council meeting in a different context – allocating $2 million in 2016 bond money for the completion of the Bryan Park soccer expansion. The City Council had originally approved the project in 2015 before the 2016 bond referendum was even considered.
At the March 7 City Council work session, such support was expressed for the additional $2 million – which will take the complex from the current 18 fields to 20 fields and make it eligible to hold tournaments that are too large for an 18 field complex – that councilmembers asked if they could go ahead and approve the allocation in the work session. Votes can be taken in work session, but it is rare.
After that was discouraged, councilmembers tried to get the item placed on the agenda of the regular council meeting that evening, but, since the resolution had not been written, the decision was made to vote on it at the March 22 council meeting.
The vote at that meeting was continued largely because of confusion about an email asking that synthetic fields be lined for both soccer and lacrosse. Since the two fields at Bryan Park will be grass fields and not synthetic fields, the email didn’t apply to the Bryan Park soccer complex expansion.
So the matter was once again before the City Council on April 4 and this time it met with opposition.
Some of the opposition was difficult to understand. Hightower couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that this was an additional phase of the project and the earlier phase, where the city had contributed $1 million and the Greensboro United Soccer Association (GUSA) about $4 million, had been completed. It seems simple, but Hightower never got it.
But most of the opposition came from Outling, who didn’t like the fact that spending this $2 million in 2016 bond money put the Bryan Park soccer complex expansion ahead of all the other bond projects. Outling said that the City Council should discuss the priorities for the bond projects because they couldn’t all be done at once. But his main point was that if the City Council was unwilling to raise taxes then the bond projects will most likely be delayed, but this one would have already been funded.
Pete Polonsky, executive director of GUSA, told the council that if the fields were ready by December then the city had a good chance to host some major soccer tournaments. Outling wanted a guarantee that if the city spent $2 million for soccer fields that a major youth tournament would select Greensboro and Polonsky finally said it was “highly likely” but could not be guaranteed because the bidding for these tournaments is very competitive.
The discussion went round and round.
In the end, the City Council, which had originally approved the project unanimously, voted 6 to 3 to allocate the $2 million from the 2016 bonds. Outling, Hightower and Fox voted no.
Vaughan participated in the meeting by phone and voted yes.
Outling doesn’t agree, but it appears that what makes this project different is that the City Council had already committed to an outside agency, GUSA, to participate in funding the soccer complex expansion. GUSA had raised and spent money based on that commitment. To back out at the last stage would have been unfair to GUSA and the people who had donated money based on a commitment from the city to finish the project.
In other business, the City Council spent a lot of time listening to speakers about the Jose Charles case. Charles is a young man who was arrested on July 4 in the disturbance at Center City Park, where groups of young men were getting in fights and throwing bottles and other objects at people. The police had to use pepper spray to break up the fracas and Charles was one of the young men arrested.
Charles has become the latest cause of Rev. Nelson Johnson and the Beloved Community Center, so followers of Johnson show up at every meeting to demand that Charles not be prosecuted.
It is amazing to listen to people who weren’t there July 4 and haven’t seen the police body-cam videos say they know exactly what happened. Assuming that they have not talked to the arresting officers – because the arresting officers would not talk about a pending case – what they have heard is one side of the story, yet week after week they insist that that one side of the story is the absolute truth. The City Council plans to view the police body-cam videos after the Police Community Review Board makes a decision on the case.
City Attorney Tom Carruthers said that he has filed a request with Superior Court to allow the City Council to view the videos, but the court has not yet heard the case. Because of the state law passed last year, the City Council no longer has the right to view a police body-cam videos without permission from the court.
The City Council doesn’t run the Police Department and can’t hire or fire a police chief, but this City Council has shown a great propensity to want to review individual arrests and make decisions about law enforcement issues – something they are not qualified to do.
As Barber frequently points out, the City Council is supposed to be a policy making body, it’s not supposed to run departments.
However the Charles case is settled, Nelson Johnson will come up with another incident that he demands be investigated and this City Council will investigate it.
It’s a sad state of affairs when you have Nelson Johnson running the city, but that is what is happening with the current City Council.