Council Retreat Shocking in its Lack of Direction

Councilmembers officially got one to two minutes to express their views on priorities at the two-day Greensboro City Council retreat held Thursday, Feb. 8 and Friday, Feb. 9 at the ACC Hall of Champions at the Coliseum’s Special Events Center.

The department heads who gave presentations, like Police Chief Wayne Scott and Water Resources Director Steve Drew, were given 10 minutes each. Speakers from the floor at the first City Council meeting of each month are given five minutes each. So the department heads, some of whom have budgets of over $100 million, got just twice as long as someone who wanders into a City Council meeting and decides they’d like to be on television.

The big exception was not a department head but Michelle Gethers-Clark, the president of the United Way of Greater Greensboro. She was allowed over 40 minutes to tell the City Council that the federal government needed to give more money to people who do not qualify as poor but could use some help.

No one on the City Council has a vote in Congress and, since the City Council is made up of eight Democrats and one member too liberal to be a Democrat, it isn’t likely the City Council is going to have much influence with Greensboro’s two Republican congressmen or North Carolina’s two Republican senators.

But the City Council spent more of its two-day work session listening to Gethers-Clark than any other single topic. She was allowed more time than police, budget and water resources put together.

It was billed as a policy setting meeting for the City Council. But when the head of the water and sewer department, who presides over a $143 million dollar budget, gets 10 minutes, you can’t expect to get too much policy out of that.

Parks and Recreation didn’t make a presentation, nor did the Field Operations Department, which handles street and sidewalk repaving and repairs, garbage and recycling pick up, loose leaf pick up, maintenance of parks and other city owned property, and other duties that affect the citizens of Greensboro every day.

The Fire Department had no presentation, nor did library services.

Communications and Marketing Director Carla Banks gave a presentation and talked about what a good job she is doing. Banks talked about where her department’s advertising dollars were going and nobody asked why she was spending so much money with publications headquartered in Southern Pines and Winston-Salem and little with publications headquartered in Greensboro. If the City Council were really interested in buying local, it would insist that when possible the city buy local, but it didn’t.

Budget Director Larry Davis mentioned that at this point the city was projecting a $4 million deficit, but not much explanation was given to the City Council. A lot of explanation was given to the news media, which seemed to be where most councilmembers got their information about the deficit.

This note to city councilmembers: It’s a $535 million budget. Nobody wants to see the city running at a deficit, but that’s less than 1 percent, and it’s a snapshot of where the city stands on a given day.

The message that the city staff seemed to be sending to the City Council was that it wants a tax increase in next year’s budget. The city had a stealth tax increase last year because it was a revaluation year, which meant property values were increased. To keep the taxes flat, the city would have had to lower the rate by about 2 cents. But the city didn’t lower the rate to the revenue neutral position, which means the city should collect about $5.7 million more in property taxes. When most people pay more in property taxes, that’s a property tax increase, whether the rate increases or not.

This year the city will have to actually increase taxes if it wants more money and there is every indication that this City Council wants to spend more money.

This City Council has reduced business meetings to once a month and all but eliminated the monthly work session, which is not televised and is more informal.

For the past 25 years the work sessions in the Plaza Level Conference Room has been where most of the real work of the City Council took place. With few work sessions and fewer meetings, one might expect some real discussions on what the City Council plans to do in the upcoming year to take place at the two-day retreat. But there is only so much discussion that can take place when councilmembers are given a minute, two at most, to talk about their priorities.

So far this City Council seems content to let staff do whatever it wants to do, except in a few areas.

What should really frighten taxpayers is that the city has already committed to raising the minimum wage for all city employees, including part-time, to $15 an hour; but there was talk at the work session of raising that to $24 an hour.

Also, the City Council discussed raising the goal for salaries from the 50 percentile range compared to other similar jobs in a 300 mile radius to the 75 percentile. Under the current policy the city tries to hit the 50 percentile for all jobs, meaning that 50 percent of similar institutions pay less for the same job and 50 percent pay more.

Raising that to 75 percent would cost the city an estimated $15 million a year. Councilmember Justin Outling did speak up when this was being discussed. He asked if the city was just raising wages to raise wages.

Acting Human Resources Director Jamiah Waterman said that the city did not have a problem with employee retention and that the number one reason for employees leaving city employment was retirement. He said that on their exit interviews few city employees cited salary as the reason for leaving. Waterman also told the council that the benefits package for employees was equal to 40 percent of their salary. Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann noted that this was high.

The City Council did have some discussion on the Neighborhood Development Department report on how the 2016 bond money for housing was being spent.

Outling asked, “Where on a policy level does the prioritization come from. I don’t remember a council-level discussion on these allocations.”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that the discussion came before the bonds were passed by the voters.

Outling said, “I’ve been on the council for two years and have never been part of a discussion. It’s all driven by staff.”

Councilmember Sharon Hightower said that what was needed the most was done first.

Outling said, “You start with the problem. You identify the problem. Then council takes leadership and says we think this is the best way to solve the problem.”

He added, “We have never had a discussion on it.”

Councilmember Michelle Kennedy said that the Community Foundation and nonprofit groups had been formed to set the priorities.

Vaughan continued to say that advocating for the bonds was setting the priorities.

Councilmember Yvonne Johnson said, “We need to move on. We need to talk about this another time.”

Since the council retreat was billed as the time when the City Council would set priorities for the upcoming year, it’s hard to imagine when a better time for the City Council to set priorities would be.

Outling wasn’t through. He asked, “What is the actual goal and the metric for success?”

Outling noted that under “code compliance and repair,” $500,000 had been allocated and “there hasn’t been a single repair.”

He said he was a big supporter of the program but he wanted the money to be well spent.

Hightower said, “The staff has better knowledge than I do.”

Outling asked, “Do we want to be staff driven or take responsibility at a council level?”

Outling got his answer; the rest of the City Council wants to be staff driven.

It was the most interesting discussion of the two-day retreat, which was almost entirely staff driven.

The report by Greensboro Department of Transportation Director Adam Fischer was all about the Greensboro Transit Authority, the official name of the bus system, which only a small percentage of the people in Greensboro use, and not a word about street and road improvements, which most people in Greensboro use every day.

Ridership for GTA is going down in keeping with a trend all over the country. Fischer said that one reason for the decline is Uber, which is seen as an affordable alternative. The cost to the city for each passenger on a regular bus is $3.58 a trip and the average fare is $1.50. So the riders are paying less than half the cost of a trip. But the real cost is in paratransit – the SCAT service where the cost per trip is $30.78 and the fare is $1.50.

The bottom line is that it is going to cost more money to expand bus service and the City Council wants to expand it. There was no discussion about where the money to expand the bus service would come from.

Although not all city departments gave reports, the city did give 10 minutes to the Guilford County Workforce Development, which is a federally funded program that the City of Greensboro administers for all of Guilford County. It’s federally funded and that means federally controlled; unlike city departments the City Council has nearly no control over what Workforce Development does or how much money it spends. But Workforce Development got 10 minutes when many city departments the city does fund and the City Council at least theoretically controls didn’t get a minute.

When councilmembers did talk, they talked a lot about poverty and creating jobs. Finally Hoffmann spoke up saying that the city didn’t create jobs, the private sector created jobs, and the way to create more jobs was to make Greensboro more appealing to the private sector. This was completely lost on most of the City Council, which wanted to talk about spending more money on job training programs.

What the majority of the City Council doesn’t seem to get is that Greensboro can train 1,000 women and men to work in an automobile manufacturing plant, but if Greensboro doesn’t have an automobile manufacturing plant then those 1,000 trained workers are going to have to go somewhere else to get a job.

The City Council likes to talk about jobs, but when you look at North Carolina, not only have Charlotte and Raleigh left Greensboro far behind in job creation, Durham and Fayetteville are both doing much better at attracting industry and jobs than Greensboro.

And even closer to home, Mebane is eating Greensboro’s lunch in attracting new industry. The City Council doesn’t like to hear it but one problem is that Greensboro has the highest tax rate of any comparable city in the state and it also has the reputation for being one of the hardest cities in the state to do business.

Anyone who has had to deal with the planning or inspections department and could go somewhere else probably has. Greensboro keeps businesses that have too much invested in Greensboro to leave, but the city has done a poor job of attracting new industry to replace the jobs that were lost when the textile, furniture and tobacco industries all left or took big hits.

How to attract new industry is what the City Council could have talked about for two days. It would require some changes in personnel and bringing in people who will infuse city departments with a new attitude. The current attitude is “gotcha.” City employees are far too often looking for reasons to say no. What the departments should be doing is looking for ways companies can comply with the regulations, whatever they are.

The attitude at the Charlotte city hall is entirely different. In Greensboro it’s “You can’t do that.” In Charlotte its “Let’s figure out how we can help you do that.”

The word across the state for the past 20 years has been that Greensboro is a great place to live but an impossible place to do business. What the City Council should be doing is figuring out how to change that. But as Outling discovered, there is very little will on this City Council to do anything other than approve what city staff brings before them.

Instead of having any meaningful discussion during its retreat, what the City Council did was listen to various department heads give reports that could have been handed out in advance and councilmembers could have asked questions.

The City Council could have spent two days discussing with each other what they as a City Council wanted to accomplish in the next four years.

As expected, Hightower said her priority was raising the percentage of business awarded to Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE). The City Council already discusses the MWBE program more than any other single item.

Hightower has stated repeatedly that she would like the city to violate federal law and set quotas for MWBE participation, but so far she has not been able to get five votes to do it.

The retreat ended with the required dot placing session where councilmembers placed dots on what they considered priorities, and it appears that was the extent of the priority setting session.

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