January 03, 2013
This is the story of 2012 in Greensboro
, also known as how Mayor Robbie Perkins lost the Perkinettes or how not to build a music hall.
One theme that has played out over and over again during the year is just how fat the Greensboro
budget is. At the beginning of 2012, this City Council, with a new mayor and three new members, was told that it was facing about a $5 million deficit if councilmembers didn't make some cuts in the upcoming budget. The City Council effectively ignored the budget and instead focused on getting the music hall built downtown, known to supporters as the Greensboro
Performing Arts Center (GPAC).
But look at what the City Council has done with that $5 million deficit. Nothing of note was cut, but the city wrote a check for almost $2 million for the old YWCA and then paid to have it torn down. The city didn't finance it or make any cuts, it just wrote a check for more than the full asking price.
Perkins is president of NAI Piedmont Triad Commercial Real Estate. It would be interesting to know how many times his company has paid more than the full asking price for a piece of property that has been on the market for over a year and had no offers. City Manager Denise Turner Roth was told to negotiate a price. She didn't negotiate them down a dollar, and ended up paying more than the asking price. There are problems with having a city manager with virtually no business or management experience.
But taxpayers might want to ask how a city that was facing a $5 million deficit could suddenly write a check for $2 million. The city also wrote checks for $263,000 for the music hall task force and consultants. Nobody in city government has been told how all the music hall money was spent, but the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro
assures the city that it was well spent.
According to Councilmember Jim Kee, $100,000 of the $450,000 spent by the Community Foundation was used to pay Ross Harris, who is paid manager of the all-volunteer GPAC Task Force. Harris in 2011 was the manager for the Perkins' campaign for mayor. Rarely has Greensboro
seen such obvious patronage on a city level.
The City Council also found $100,000 in incentives for a downtown grocery store and $200,000 for a downtown Mexican restaurant. It seems the City Council saw a great shortage of Mexican restaurants in Greensboro
Back to the music hall that has been an obsession of Perkins and his council. It seems fitting that the music hall got its beginning in a series of secret closed meetings. At the very beginning of 2012, then-interim City Manager Roth and Coliseum Manager Matt Brown held a private meeting with each councilmember in order for Brown to pitch improvements to the Coliseum Complex, including a new performing arts center. Brown had to give the same presentation nine times and Roth had to listen to it nine times, but since they wanted the meetings to be secret and private it was a price they were willing to pay.
The estimated cost of the new performing arts center built on the site of War Memorial Auditorium was $40 million, and Brown was proposing a $30 million bond be placed on the ballot. Two such bonds have already been voted down.
When this was brought up at the budget retreat in January, it took over. There was very little talk of the budget at the retreat and lots of talk of the new music hall, which Perkins said should be built downtown even though the figures showed it would cost up to $20 million more to build it there.
By now the price has gone up to $60 million, not including land costs or, for that matter, the cost of storm water runoff.
The council appointed an 80-member task force that held meeting after meeting mostly to talk about how great a new performing arts center would be, but sometimes to hear from the public about some potential problems. No one outright opposed it, but there was lots of opposition to bonds.
The music hall was an idea that had not been discussed during the 2011 campaign. The issue then was jobs. But Perkins took it on as a personal cause and a new music hall went from an interesting idea to something "Greensboro
had to have to be competitive." It became the number-one priority, if not of the council, of Perkins.
The plan was to put a bond on the ballot in November, and the council took two of the three votes necessary to put the item on the ballot. During both votes Councilmember Yvonne Johnson made it clear that she was voting to continue the process, but not to put it on the ballot.
District 2 Councilmember Kee said that his constituents just weren't that interested. District 5 Councilmember Trudy Wade said at a community meeting she had asked for a show of hands of people who supported the GPAC and no one raised their hand.
The decision was made not to try for a November bond referendum but a discussion was held on holding a special election in the spring of 2013. The idea is that with nothing else on the ballot the turnout would be incredibly low. The theory being it is easier to get people out to vote for something than against something.
Then the city finance department came up with a plan to finance the music hall with bonds that don't have to be voted on by the people. The interest rate is higher than the rate on general obligation bonds, which is the kind the people approve, but it is a way to finance projects that the people don't want.
Councilmembers Nancy Vaughan and Zack Matheny discovered that if the city chose to go that route, it would use up all of the city's available borrowing capacity. So if there were a cost overrun, or an emergency, then the city would not be able to borrow the money to pay for it.
Considering how much money the city has lying around that might not be a problem.
But it was enough of a problem that Wade, at her last meeting before resigning to take her state Senate seat, made a motion to put the bonds for the proposed music hall on the ballot in November 2013. The motion passed 7 to 2 with only Councilmembers Dianne Bellamy-Small and Nancy Hoffmann voting against it. Evidently Hoffmann didn't get the nod from Perkins on how to vote. In her first year in office Hoffmann has been the most loyal of Perkinettes.
When the YWCA was bought Perkins said it absolutely was not being bought for the performing arts center. But then the city hired consultants who said that was the best site and the only site they really considered. It is now the accepted site in part because it is "free." Isn't it amazing? The taxpayers paid nearly $2 million for that site and now it is free.
One of the plots of 2012 was the rivalry between Wade and Perkins. Wade is a conservative and Perkins is so liberal he makes some of Greensboro
's more liberal mayors like Carolyn Allen, appear if not conservative, at least moderate. But Wade, who often cast the lone vote against some of the schemes dreamed up by Perkins, managed to get a lot done.
For instance, the city staff plan was to renew the contracts with Republic Waste Services to dispose of Greensboro
's garbage, and with ReCommunity to take care of recycling for the city, without putting the contracts out for bid....continued on page 2