July 19, 2012The tab run up by the Greensboro City Council on Tuesday, July 17 is considerable, and councilmembers don't know how it will all be paid.
This is a council that has no trouble spending money, and if it were not for Councilmember Trudy Wade, the public and the majority of the councilmembers wouldn't even know where the money they are spending is going.
Wade and Councilmember Dianne Bellamy-Small ask questions, while the majority of the councilmembers behave like marionettes and hit the yes or no button on instructions from Mayor Robbie Perkins without questioning what they are voting for or against. It is apparently enough for them to know that Perkins has decided it is the thing to do. The lack of intellectual curiosity by this council, with the exceptions noted, is startling. All the recorded votes on Tuesday night were either unanimous or 8 to 1 with Wade casting the no vote.
The taxpayers should be wondering if this group is going to run out of money, not before the end of the fiscal year but before the end of the calendar year. It appears the councilmembers assume there is an unlimited supply of money in the city accounts, and they have no problem spending it.
Previous councils have insisted on being told where the staff was getting money for additional spending that was not covered in the budget. This council acts as if there is no budget, just a big basket of money and they can reach in and spend as much as they want.
Tuesday, by an 8-to-1 vote, with Wade again casting the lone no vote, the council resolved to purchase the old YWCA building on Davie Street next to Festival Park. The council agreed to pay $1.84 million, which is wonderful, since the asking price had been $1.79 million. But what's $50,000 when you are spending other people's money?
The council agreed to buy the property in closed session, but came out and voted in open session. As usual, Wade had a couple of questions, but no one mentioned where the money was coming from.
Also on Tuesday, the council said it had to raise water rates to increase revenue and voted to raise water and sewer rates in the current budget by 3 percent for city residents. (For some reason the financial people at city hall had raised water rates the wrong amount. This was a correction.) The water rate increase will raise $2.8 million for the city, but the council just decided to spend an additional $1.8 million on the YWCA knowing that the money is there somewhere but they have no idea where. Isn't that a pretty cushy budget where days after it goes into effect the staff is certain that $1.8 million was left lying around and all they have to do is scoop it up? But apparently if water rates are not raised for all the citizens something terrible will happen.
Perkins said the YWCA building would be torn down and that the lot was about 1.8 acres.
Perkins noted after the meeting that it was a purchase that just made sense because the city owned the property all around the YWCA, with the Historical Museum on the north, the Central Library on the east, Festival Park to the South and the Church Street Parking Deck and Cultural Arts Center also south of the property. Perkins said there were some good discussions going on about what to do with the property, but that he thought it was important for the city to control it.
He said that $1.84 million was the appraised value. Earlier in the meeting the city had sold some property for well below the appraised value because City Manager Denise Turner Roth said the city couldn't get the appraised value. Wade noted that it appeared to be the city policy to buy at appraised value or above and sell at below appraised value, and with the YWCA property it appears that is just what the City Council is doing.
Tuesday night the council, as expected, agreed to spend $24 million in bond money on the Greensboro Coliseum to be paid for with hotel-motel tax money. Since the hotel-motel tax is generally paid by visitors to Greensboro and not voters in Greensboro, it is considered free money by the City Council. It is not, however, considered free money by the hotels and motels that actually have to pay the tax. Wade questioned some of the expenditures but the rest of the council was willing to vote to spend $24 million without asking any questions. Almost $1 million of that will be spent for a new scoreboard.
The question behind the Coliseum renovations was not whether to spend the money but whether or not the hotel-motel tax money should be tied up for the next 20 years paying off bonds for the Coliseum. Coliseum Manager Matt Brown, the city's highest paid employee, seems to think tying the money up at the Coliseum is a great idea. But if that money were not committed to the Coliseum for 20 years some of it could be used on other venues in Greensboro that also attract people from out of town.
Carolina Theatre Chief Executive Officer Keith Holliday has put forth a pretty extensive renovation plan for the Carolina Theatre building to use a lot of space that is now wasted, like the upper balcony, and creating a small theater upstairs in a huge storage area. Holliday's plan would cost millions but is the type of project that would be eligible for hotel-motel tax funding if all the money were not tied up paying off bonds for the Coliseum.
There was also talk of using some of that money for the proposed downtown Performing Arts Center, but Brown came up with a plan to shift money around so that the proposed Performing Arts Center could get its money without Brown having to give up any hotel-motel funding.
If the majority of the City Council knew anything about the behind-the-scenes money shifting they didn't let on during the meeting. Wade asked her questions, Bellamy-Small and Perkins defended Brown's plan, and then they moved on.
Wade asked another question: Did the Coliseum put the engineering contract out for bid or just hire Sutton Kennerly and Associates because the city always hires Sutton Kennerly. The answer from Brown was that Bob Kennerly had worked on the Coliseum when it was first constructed and knew where beams and structures were that nobody else knew about.
The city just spent $200,000 on a disparity study to provide the data necessary to bring more diversity to city projects. But it certainly appears that the city is wedded to the good old boy network when it comes to engineers. Sutton Kennerly gets the engineering contracts and HDR Engineering gets anything to do with landfills or recycling, including transporting garbage to landfills, which, according to their own engineer, is not in their area of expertise.
If the city wants more diversity why not hire a few other engineering firms? NC A&T State University has been producing qualified engineers for years. Certainly some of them have hung around Greensboro and would be willing to do work for the City of Greensboro. Why aren't they at least given a chance to bid on projects? Councilmembers Bellamy-Small and Jim Kee are always asking about diversity, but evidently having no diversity in engineering contracts is OK.
The council went almost a month without meeting, and before that break it appeared Perkins was losing control of the Perkinnettes. Councilmembers were starting to speak out. Even Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter made some comments and asked some questions that were clearly not on Perkins' agenda. Perkins didn't get the votes needed to throw out the new solid waste consultants and give the garbage contract to Republic Services. The motion by Matheny on June 19 failed 4 to 5 with Councilmembers Wade, Kee, Abuzuaiter, Nancy Hoffmann and Yvonne Johnson voting against Perkins and Councilmembers Bellamy-Small, Matheny and Nancy Vaughan
But it appears that during the break, Perkins has done more than just get his ankle operated on. He also mended some fences. At Tuesday's meeting everyone was swaying to the Perkins beat and singing backup. Who knows, maybe it's time for Perkins and the Perkinettes to go on tour.
Kee had some great questions about the transfer station, and the answers he got from Roth only make sense it you live in an alternate universe where money means nothing, and that seems to be where the majority of the City Council lives.
Kee said, "It's come to our attention that at the transfer station we are accepting trash at a rate that is lower than what it costs us to dispose of it."
Roth said that was true and that the charge for private companies at the transfer station was $41 a ton but the cost to the city to dispose of that garbage is $47.12 a ton or $43.42 a ton if you don't consider the debt service on the transfer station. Only the government would even come up with a price that doesn't include the cost of the building, but this is government and the belief is that buildings are free. Roth said the break-even fee for the transfer station would be $46.75 cents. She didn't explain why if the cost was $47.12 the break-even fee would be $46.75, but once again it appears to be government accounting. So much for running the government more like a business.
Roth said one of the questions was what would be the impact if the non-city waste went away all together.
To the layman it appears the impact would be the city would save over $600,000 a year.
Since nearly half of the waste is from private haulers another impact might be reducing the staff at the transfer station. When the city was considering reopening the White Street Landfill the high maintenance costs of the transfer station, where the concrete floors have to be replaced on a regular basis, were discussed. It would seem those maintenance costs would have to drop if the city was processing 129,000 tons a year instead of the current 223,000 tons. Not processing 94,000 tons at the transfer station every year has to result in some savings.
What was revealed, which is also unbelievable, is that the city transfer station Ė where the taxpayers are subsidizing the private multibillion dollar waste management companies for over $6 a ton Ė charges less than the Republic Services transfer station, which charges $43 a ton. So Greensboro could just raise the price to equal its competition and cut the subsidy by $2 a ton. But have no fear, the city is not going to do anything so practical.
Wade asked what was the point of discussing what the break-even point was. Wade said, "Why would we want to just continue to break even? If we are not going to make a profit why would we want to do that? Why would the city want to transport more trash? I'm not really following the logic here."
Roth said there might be some economies of scale, but she didn't know what they would be.
Wade said, "If we are not making a profit I really can't see being in the business of taking trash other than that of the City of Greensboro."
The city also found out from the Waste Management and Recycling Task Force that the White Street Landfill was the largest landfill in North Carolina that did not have a program to sell its methane. The White Street Landfill generates about $2 million worth of methane a year, about 40 percent of that is given to the International Textile Group that runs the old Cone Mills White Oak plant, and the rest is burned. One of the subcommittees of the task force looked at several options to use the methane, but so far the city has done nothing to move forward on selling or using the $2 million worth of methane that is being produced. The City Council might as well build a big bonfire and burn two million dollar bills in Phill G. McDonald Plaza every year and at least they could roast marshmallows. Money is supposed to be tight, but the city is giving away and burning $2 million worth of gas a year.
Something brand new was done at the Greensboro City Council meeting, and it could become an extremely popular and time-consuming feature of future meetings. Duncan Butler, who needs a kidney transplant, was allowed unlimited time at the podium to talk about himself and how he needs to raise $25,000 to help pay the cost of rehabilitation after his transplant.
There are a lot of folks out there with chronic diseases, victims of accidents, and others who need transplants. Many don't have good insurance like Butler said he did. The Rhino Times receives fundraising letters on a regular basis. If the City Council is willing to allow people to have free television time to raise money for their personal causes, this could be a great boon to all of those trying to raise money for themselves or for others.
It appears these requests will have to come from a councilmember. So if you are interested in using the City Council's free television time to raise money for yourself or for a cause, call your district councilmember or one of the three at-large councilmembers who represent the whole city. The three at-large councilmembers are Marikay Abuzuaiter, Nancy Vaughan and Yvonne Johnson.
Fired Greensboro Police Capt. Charles Cherry spoke twice at the meeting, attacking staff and Matheny. The second time Cherry spoke it was during the public hearing for the annexation of property for a new fire station. Cherry called Roth "stupid" among other things, and Perkins had finally had enough and put a stop to it.
Perkins rightly said that his comments had nothing to do with the agenda item and that he would not be allowed to come to the podium and attack staff in that way. Perkins got Cherry, who is becoming increasingly bizarre at the meetings, to sit down. Cherry has started putting on sunglasses when he goes up to speak. And although he repeats the same accusations over and over, he seems, if anything, more intense.
Speaking during the public hearing on a nonrelated topic is a technique pioneered by George Hartzman, who at some meetings spoke at nearly every public hearing. Hartzman did a better job of saying enough about the agenda item to get to stay at the podium.
Earlier in the day, the Commission on the Status of Women also met in the council chambers where they accomplished nothing. Only nine of the commission's 15 seats are currently occupied and only six commissioners attended Tuesday's meeting, two short of a quorum.
The Commission on the Status of Women was scheduled to elect a chair and vice chair as well as approve minutes from two of their previous meetings because their last meeting also failed to achieve a quorum and they were unable to take action. They did, however, hear from the Parks and Recreation Department about a proposed community center and memorial to be built at Barber Park and listened to presentations from the commission's subcommittees.
Alex Jakubsen contributed to this story