After getting approval from the county commissioners in early March, Guilford County staff is now making the transition from publishing public notices in newspapers to posting them online on the county’s website, and there are two big questions remaining: How much money will the county save by the move and how much money will the county make by offering the service to others?
Guilford County plans to flip the switch on Monday, March 26 and go live with county notices. From that point on, citizens will be seeing all Guilford County notices for free at the county’s web page at www.myguilford.com.
For the first two months after that, Guilford County will also run the public notices in paid circulation newspapers to help citizens make the transition, and Guilford County will also start running periodic print ads that notify citizens of the change. After that, the county’s legally required public notices – such as those for rezonings, public hearings, the non-payment of property taxes, etc. – will be only be found at the county’s website.
It’s possible that after that point, in some special cases, the Guilford County commissioners could choose to run a notice in a newspaper, but county staff and the Board of Commissioners have now committed fully to the new method of public notice that the state legislature last year granted Guilford County the right to try.
Phase 1 of the program is the move of the county’s notices to the website. Phase 2 will be allowing cities, towns and local government bodies to use the service. Phase 3, the final phase, will consist of taking and posting notices from private parties such as attorneys. In cases such as estate settlements or bank foreclosures, those private individuals and companies must give public notice just as cities and counties are required to do.
Guilford County currently spends about $300,000 a year on advertisements, and about $70,000 of that is for publishing legally required notices – an expense the county is now shedding.
On the revenue side, the ads posted for private sector parties will cost $100 or $450, depending on the type of ad. Guilford County will get $10 for each ad from other local governments participating in the program, which means those towns and cities will see savings in their advertising costs as well as Guilford County.
While citizens will no longer see public notices from Guilford County in the paid-circulation newspapers in the county after May, Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller, who’s playing a big role in implementing the new program, said that for the next 12 months the county will place ads in the print newspapers announcing that all public notices from Guilford County will be on the website.
“We will notice them once a month for 12 months,” Keller said. “We just want to make sure everyone knows how to get the notices.”
Those ads informing people of the change will appear in the News & Record, The High Point Enterprise, the Jamestown News and The Carolina Peacemaker – the paid-circulation newspapers the county has been using to publish notices, as it was required by law.
Keller said that, in the second phase of implementation – scheduled to begin on July 1, 2018, with the start of the county’s new fiscal year – Guilford County will begin offering public notices for municipalities and other government entities in the county. The county will, for a fee, post the notices of the cities and towns of Greensboro, High Point, Oak Ridge, Summerfield, Whitsett, Sedalia, Pleasant Garden, Kernersville and others if they decide to participate. It will do the same for the Guilford County school system, the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority and other government entities that are already on the county’s vendor system with an existing payment arrangement.
“The cities are listed as vendors in the county’s system,” Keller said,
In the third phase, planned for October, the county will implement an online credit card payment system to take payments from businesses and citizens.
Keller said there’s been a lot of interest from area cities and towns that see this as a way to cut their costs. She said that, once Guilford County has the system up and running and any kinks are worked out, municipalities and other government bodies appear ready to jump on board.
“They wanted to see if it would pass first,” Keller said.
There was some serious debate among the Guilford County commissioners whether to make the change or not. However, on Thursday, March 1, the board approved the motion to take advantage of the state’s pilot program that made the option available to Guilford County.
The vote came down along party lines with the five Republican commissioners voting in favor of the move and the four Democrats voting against it.
The board first voted its support in principle when it approved a resolution in August 2017. The board almost approved the move in early December but held off due to a threat of a lawsuit from newspapers. Then, after a snowstorm cancelled one meeting, the board voted for final approval earlier this month.
Commissioner Hank Henning said this week that he felt opponents of the move – mostly the paid-circulation publications that stood to lose revenue – have been disingenuous in their arguments. He said that, when it comes right down to it, it’s clear to him that the opposition from newspapers has been based on one thing and one thing only.
“It’s really all about the money,” Henning said.
He said many of the arguments made by the newspapers were really just meant to mask their main concern – that loss of that revenue.
News & Record Publisher Daniel Finnegan spoke adamantly against the move at the public hearing in February and again, as a speaker from the floor, at the board’s March 1 meeting, even though Finnegan said he knew at that point it was probably a lost cause.
The News & Record subscriber base has been in steady decline in recent years, but one reliable source of revenue for that paper has been from local governments, attorneys and others required by law to run public notices in the newspaper. In what may or may not have been a coincidence, right after commissioners made it clear at a February meeting that they were going to approve the transition from print to the web for the announcements, the News & Record had a round of layoffs. Some county officials said later that they wondered if there was a connection to the coming loss of revenue from the public notice ads.
One of the objections made by some Democratic commissioners who voted against the move was that they didn’t want to see Guilford County competing with private businesses in this way.
With the change in the way county notices are handled, the county hopes to follow on the success of a previous move by the Republican-led board that has meant big cost savings with no apparent negative consequences. Soon after the Republicans took control of the board in 2012, they voted to save money on the annual multi-page spread of delinquent taxpayers, one used basically to embarrass those property owners into paying their taxes. In fiscal 2012-2013, Guilford County spent a total of $109,544 on putting those tax delinquencies in the newspapers: $8,320 went to The Carolina Peacemaker, $14,817 to The High Point Enterprise and $86,407 to the News & Record.
The county then began running the ad in one paper rather than in three and offered the notice to the lowest bidder. The nearly $110,000 the county had been spending fell to about $4,500 per year. Of course, those notices didn’t get as widely distributed because they were only in, for instance, the Jamestown News, which has a circulation of about 5,000 and is rarely seen outside the small town of Jamestown.
Over the last five years that’s saved taxpayers about a half million dollars and the property tax collection rate has been steadily climbing despite the fact that the notices aren’t being as widely distributed.
Guilford County hopes to get the same type of results with the new public notice method. It will see some startup costs this year and is likely to add a new part-time position in the upcoming 2018-2019 budget, but those costs will be paid for from the savings and increased revenue.