September 27, 2012I received an unexpected phone call this week from Greensboro City Manager Denise Turner Roth. The call actually wasn't unexpected, but the content of the call was very unexpected and very heartening.
Roth called to say that The Rhino Times had been right and she had been wrong. She said that The Rhino was "definitely technically correct."
In this business you don't get many of those calls.
Last week I had written a scathing column about how the city manager's office was wrong and had unfairly accused The Rhino of not getting our facts straight. Fortunately for all, that column wasn't published because I finally got to speak to Roth. We had such a good game of telephone tag going it didn't seem like we would ever actually speak to each other. However, I apparently dropped the ball at one point – I was it and wasn't aware of it.
But last week I finally got Roth on the phone and she listened to what I had to say. Roth responded that she would look into the situation and let me know what she found. Roth actually did that, and when she found out we were right she called to tell me.
It is good to know that we have a city manager who realizes she is human and makes mistakes. One of the reasons our city government is still in such bad shape is that we had a city manager for far too long who was never wrong and never made a mistake. Fortunately for the good of the city that city manager, Mitch Johnson, was fired in March 2009.
But the city manager is a powerful position and Greensboro's government has not yet recovered. The city would be much farther along the road to recovery if former City Manager Rashad Young were still in the corner office across the street. But after he left last fall things were in limbo until Roth was named city manager in June.
There is a world of difference between an acting city manager and a city manager. There is no doubt right now that Roth is the city manager and the city is moving in the right direction.
Roth and The Rhino had a disagreement about the funding for Center City Park, which most people don't realize is a privately owned park that is run by Downtown Greensboro Inc. (DGI) with city funds. An article by staff writer Alex Jakubsen in the Sept. 6 issue of The Rhino Times stated that the city funded Center City Park LLC with $350,000 a year. On Sept. 7 Roth sent an email to all the members of the Greensboro City Council stating that The Rhino Times article was wrong and the city only paid $200,000 a year for the operation of Center City Park. She wrote that she would be notifying The Rhino Times of its mistake and asking for a correction. When Roth and I spoke she immediately apologized for not notifying us about the mistake. We had acquired the email from a councilmember and waited to be notified for a week or so, but as Roth readily admitted – notifying us had fallen through the cracks.
The question boils down to what are city funds.
When we spoke on the phone about her email, I pointed out to Roth that although $200,000 comes from the general fund, an additional $150,000 comes from the downtown Business Improvement District (BID) funds, which are the proceeds from an additional 9 cents in property tax that downtown property owners pay, and that $350,000 was the amount in the contract between Greensboro and Center City Park LLC. The BID money is collected along with regular property tax and is allocated to
DGI, but the money is still city tax money. The City Council has to institute the tax and collect the money.
This situation is even weirder than just involving BID money, which is what the article was attempting to point out. The contract between Center City Park LLC and the City of Greensboro states that the city will pay Center City Park LLC $350,000 a year, with $200,000 from the general fund and $150,000 from the downtown BID.
What makes this weird is that Center City LLC is nothing but a front organization. It has no employees and is a fully owned subsidiary of Action Greensboro. In other words it is Action Greensboro operating under a different name.
It would appear the reason for Center City Park LLC is that the city doesn't want to be seen giving money to Action Greensboro, which is an organization made up of some of the largest foundations in Greensboro but is primarily the Bryan Foundation. Action Greensboro has over $9 million in assets and over $2 million in cash equivalents according to the latest audit available to the public.
So the City Council could rightly expect some criticism for giving $350,000 to wealthy foundations that exist to give away money. The Bryan Foundation alone gives away millions of dollars every year. Why it can't spend $350,000 to maintain its own park is a mystery.
But the story is even stranger because the city allocates all the downtown BID money to DGI to spend on the downtown – evidently except this $150,000. So why does the city take $150,000 out of the money it awards to DGI to give to Center City Park LLC so that Center City Park LLC can pay the money to DGI to run the Center City Park? It doesn't make any sense.
Roth agrees that it doesn't seem to make sense and said it would take her a little while longer to see if there was a good reason for the front organization receiving money or if that is actually what happened. Roth said that the contract might misstate what was actually taking place.
If a check for $150,000 goes from the city to Center City Park LLC to DGI, then the city should have a good reason for making the maintenance of Center City Park as opaque as possible.
Roth has only been city manager for a couple of months, but she certainly appears willing to straighten out some of the messes at city hall, and this appears to be one area that could use some work.
And thanks for the phone call.