December 20, 2012
It was clear at the Thursday, Dec. 13 meeting of the Guilford County
Board of Commissioners that – while there isn't a new sheriff in town – there certainly is a new Board of Commissioners in town.
At the meeting, no one raised their voice, made biting personal attacks, spoke out of turn, or even really got off topic – so it was, in other words, completely unlike any Guilford County
Board of Commissioners meeting in modern history.
New Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Linda Shaw had an easy night of it as the county's four new commissioners tried to make a good first impression, and the five continuing commissioners attempted to feel out the new board's political and social dynamics as it conducted its business.
A light agenda – typically the case for the pre-Christmas meeting – also helped Shaw move quickly and smoothly through the county's business her first time at gavel.
Early in the meeting, Shaw said, "I'll tell you what; we're going to have a short meeting" – though that prediction proved to be off the mark.
In addition to the lack of theatrics at the first regular meeting of the new board, the meeting was also different in that the board is smaller – nine members rather than 11 – and there was also, of course, the fact that the new board has a Republican majority for the first time this century.
At the meeting, it became clear that the new commissioners have brought some new ideas with them. For instance, at one point in the meeting, when the commissioners were discussing how to spend leftover park bond money from a 2004 bond referendum, new Republican Commissioner Hank Henning asked if using the money to pay off county debt was an option.
The idea of using surplus bond money to pay off debt rather than spend it on other projects seemed alien to county staff, and Guilford County
Manager Brenda Jones Fox finally stepped in and said that debt repayment with the money was an option "as a last resort." However, a quick thinking Fox added that not spending the money would likely cost the county some matching funds in state grant money.
The county's parks situation is something the previous board had apparently taken care of. However, Henning had some new ideas on that as well – namely, he said, he wanted the county to take a step back and reexamine the parks situation. Guilford County
has always outsourced the maintenance and operation of its parks, however the previous board voted in June to bring those duties in house starting Jan. 1, 2013. That move is meant to save the county money, however Vice Chairman Bill Bencini and other commissioners have expressed strong reservations about the creation of a Guilford County
parks and recreation department, and Henning decided to bring up the issue while the board was discussing moving around some park funds.
The item on the agenda at the Dec. 13 meeting called for the county to move just over $291,000 in 2004 park bond money from one project to another, and Henning said that, given the current state of flux, he thinks the board needs to take a step back and assess the entire situation.
"We're trying to take over the parks – that's a big endeavor," Henning said.
He said he thought the new board might be wise to take a fresh look at the big picture.
"I want to see where we are with the parks," he said.
Shaw suggested that the upcoming all-day Thursday, Jan. 10 retreat might be a good time for that discussion.
"Mr. Henning, we could take that up at the retreat," Shaw said.
Like Henning, several other commissioners have concerns about the county taking over of operation of the parks. Vice Chairman Bill Bencini even said earlier this year that he thinks the county will find itself in so much grief with the parks a few months into the takeover that the county might be ready to hand park maintenance and operation right back to the other local governments – such as Greensboro, Gibsonville and Jamestown – to which the county has been outsourcing those operations for years.
The item before the commissioners was a request by staff to transfer $291,354 from the completed Bicentennial Greenway project to improvements at Northeast Park. That money, combined with additional funds from a NC Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, was to go toward many improvements at Northeast Park, including the construction of tennis and basketball courts and a "championship disc golf course," which is better known as a Frisbee golf course.
In addition, the money would be used to purchase playground equipment, add parking and create walkways.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who lives in Pleasant Garden, near Hagan-Stone Park, wanted to know why Northeast Park was getting a major overhaul when other parks like Hagan-Stone still needed a lot of very basic improvements.
"This is a new park," Coleman said of Northeast. "Why are we not spending money on some older parks? We have Hagan-Stone Park which barely has swings for the kids."Guilford County
Property Management Director Sandy Woodard said the move to upgrade facilities at Hagan-Stone was in the works as well.
Coleman asked, "The work done there was minimal, right?"
Woodard responded that the work so far was just the beginning.
"There's much more coming up," Woodard told Coleman.
Woodard said that roughly $800,000 in improvements were planned for Hagan-Stone Park – some of that being state grant money that was in the pipeline. However, Coleman didn't seem satisfied.
"Do you know when that work will begin on Hagan-Stone Park?" she asked.
Vonda Martin, a representative of the state who oversees park grant money, told Coleman the Hagan-Stone Park project is expected to be funded in April of next year. She said Hagan-Stone was "on the short list" for a state grants but Coleman told Martin that didn't give her much comfort.
"With a new governor coming in," Coleman said, "I'm just wondering what 'short list' means."
Despite all the questions, the transfer of the money to the Northeast Park project passed on an 8-to-1 vote, with Henning casting the sole no vote.
It may turn out to be an interesting conversation on the county's parks that takes place at the commissioners retreat. On Jan. 1 the county is taking over those operations and putting about 30 park employees on its payroll. However, on Thursday, Jan. 10, at the retreat – 10 days after that massive transfer of labor takes place – the new board may be debating the wisdom of that move.
The commissioners also named some commissioners and former commissioners to the county's boards. Former Commissioner Skip Alston was named to the Board of Public Health, while former Commissioner Billy Yow was named to the county's Board of Adjustments. Trapp was appointed to the Board of Social Services.
One bit of disagreement at the new meeting came over the 8:30 a.m. start time Shaw had set for the retreat.
Coleman asked, "Do we have to begin at 8:30?"
Henning said jokingly: "You want to do it earlier?"
Shaw said, "I guess we could go to 9."...continued on page 2