January 14, 2010
|Rappin' Cashion Fight'n County Drugs in Fashion|
At the Guilford County Board of Commissioners' annual retreat on Thursday, Jan. 7, the commissioners learned a lot of things: The county can expect to see some cuts in state funding in the next budget; there are some solid waste issues in the county that need to be addressed; consolidation is the major theme for Guilford County government this year and they also learned that Commissioner Kay Cashion doesn't smoke marijuana.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston said at the retreat that 2009 had been an important and successful year for Guilford County government, and he added that the themes for the new year would be very similar to the ones for the year that just ended.
"Let's do it again in 2010," Alston said at the start of the retreat.
The meeting, which was held in the blue room of the Old Guilford County Court House, began at noon and lasted about four hours. It had fewer attendees than previous retreats: This year county department heads were informed that they weren't required to attend and, it turns out, not surprisingly, department heads don't like coming to half-day county commissioner retreats if they don't have to.
At the retreat, Alston said he was proud of the fact that the 2009-2010 budget had no tax increase and, he added, he was pleased that commissioners and county staff had been able to make some major cuts in Guilford County's spending last year.
"We've accomplished quite a bit," Alston said. "We've tightened our belt."
But he reminded everyone in the room that times remain tough and more needed to be done.
"The citizens are still hurting," Alston said, citing a high unemployment rate in the county and a large number of foreclosures.
Alston said one point of emphasis this year would be "better communication throughout our 10 municipalities and two major cities."
"We need to have some communication among all of us," Alston said.
He added that, in order to achieve that goal, he wanted commissioners to take on a new duty and become "chairman's ambassadors." He said there are nine different commissioners' districts and two at-large commissioners, and he said he wanted each commissioner to be responsible for staying in touch with a particular city or town and be able to bring their concerns back to the board. Of course, this type of thing is already in place because the commissioners have the towns in their district that they represent. For instance, if Oak Ridge has concerns, Commissioner Linda Shaw already hears about it.
The county is trying to save money, and provide better service to citizens, by merging the Guilford County and Greensboro planning departments. Marlene Sanford, the president of the Triad Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition (TREBIC), gave a presentation on that topic. Sanford has been heading up a task force composed of 17 people who are involved in planning across the county, and that group, which has been looking at the possibility of combining the departments, had reached a consensus.
"Our recommendation is to merge the departments," Sanford said.
She said that, ideally, the merger would be made by July 1 of this year.
Sanford said there might be some cost savings but that wasn't certain, she said.
"It seems to us like you would be able to at least save some money in support services," Sanford told the commissioners.
She added that the main reason for the move would be better customer service.
"Expect to see customer service improve which would lead to cost savings in the private sector," she said.
She also said planners need to be more business friendly and that planning staff should never say no to a customer without coming back to them and saying, "How could we make this work?"
She said that a slow planning department can be very costly to developers.
"Just a few days can make a big difference," Sanford said.
Sanford also said one issue that has to be determined is whether a consolidated department should use the county's software which she called "the gold standard" or the city's, which city planning staff developed from scratch. The county's software cost $620,000 in 2004 to buy and install and, every year, upgrades and other costs to maintain the software come in at around $80,000 or $90,000.
"The software systems need to be reconciled," she said.
According to Sanford, right now, planners are in limbo and she said the task force recommends that, if the county and the city want to merge the departments, they should go ahead and do it and, if not, they should make a firm decision not to do it.
The city and county have been talking about consolidating the planning departments for years. However, only in the past year has the idea seemed to gain much traction.
"We'd like for High Point to include themselves in the merger as well," Sanford said and, while the task force might like that, High Point is notorious for being an island unto itself. High Point was not, for instance, part of the Metro 9-1-1 service merger between Greensboro and Guilford County.
Sanford said that, if High Point does join in, there would be a satellite planning office in High Point.
There's also been talk of merging the boards that oversee the Greensboro and Guilford County planning issues, but Sanford said the task force advises against that. She said the planning boards of the towns should also remain as is.
"The small towns should always keep their planning boards," Sanford said.
As for the consolidation of the departments, Commissioner Mike Winstead said he would "be for this today" if he knew that the county would be running things. Winstead is a developer and he said he's had very good experiences with the county's planning department and exactly opposite experiences with the city's planners.
Winstead also said the task force's proposed timeline struck him as way too optimistic.
"July is tough," he said.
The matter of joining the departments is still under discussion, but right now a merger of at least the Greensboro and Guilford County planning departments seems highly likely, though the timeline is unclear.
Sanford is thought to be the first person in Guilford County history to give a presentation to the Board of Commissioners with her Bluetooth headset on, but fortunately she didn't get any calls during her presentation. (She said after the meeting that her new Motorola headset is so comfortable that she constantly forgets she has it on.)
Cashion updated the board on the work of a committee she chairs that's attempting to fight substance abuse in Guilford County. Alston said Cashion's committee had spent a great deal of time and effort studying the problem and coming up with solutions.
"She took her job seriously," Alston said.
Cashion said her committee has been looking at what is working elsewhere to see if those methods could be replicated in Guilford County.
"We wanted to take a look at what other people were doing," Cashion said.
One key recommendation is for Guilford County to establish a juvenile drug treatment court. The county already has drug treatment courts for adults.
If a drug user is arrested and charged, and possession and use are his or her only charges, that person can often use a drug court, which is a structured drug use recovery program that tests the user monthly, provides substance abuse counseling, and, after the person is drug-free for six months to a year, their record is cleared.
Cashion said that, while the new drug court would have a projected cost of $225,000 a year, some of that cost would likely be covered by grant money.
"We just have to do this," she said. "This is a place where those youngsters can be diverted."
While this may be a way for the county to get some grant money, juveniles who are charged with drug use already get something similar to drug court they get counseling, drug tested regularly and their record can be cleared.
She added that any program that diverts youths from a life of drug abuse would be doing both that youth and the community at large "a major service."
Cashion said every dollar spent on substance abuse prevention will save $4 or $5 that would otherwise have to be spent on the societal consequences of drug addiction and substance abuse.
She also said that those fighting drug use among the county's youths need to partner closely with the schools.
Cashion said the fight against substance abuse could begin using social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to make people aware of drug prevention resources in the county; and she said the county should establish a comprehensive website that provides information on substance abuse and mental health in Guilford County.
Cashion said one option may be to offer anti-drug messages through rap and hip-hop.
"You've got to speak their language," said Cashion, who is unlikely to be considered by many to have a great deal of street cred.
Cashion spoke about marijuana as a gateway drug and, for some reason, felt compelled to add that she wasn't "speaking from personal experience."
"I've never used marijuana," Cashion said a comment that drew laughter because clearly no one could imagine Cashion smoking weed.
In response to her comment, Alston added, "You didn't inhale," and he got an even bigger laugh.
Cashion did not address whether or not she had ever done heroin, blow or crystal meth.
Elaine Mejia, director of the NC Budget and Tax Center gave a report on what the county can expect from the state in the next budget.
"Hopefully they won't be taking any money from the county," Alston joked when he introduced Mejia but it wasn't long into her presentation before it sounded like the state might very well be coming after what in the past has been county funds.
In short, she said, the state was badly strapped and the counties shouldn't expect much love from the state in the next budget.
Mejia said most economic predictions are that the state's economy is going to be slow to recover.
"It's not likely they will be able to come in and offer any additional help to counties," she said.
In fact, she said, the county might be wise to expect even less help than it got last year.
"There will be more cuts," Mejia said.
She said state finance officials had been examining the current economic data with great interest.
"We closely track big-picture census data," she said.
She also said that some have been calling the current economy, "The Great Recession," and she added that economic data is sometimes confusing.
"There's certainly lots of mixed signals," she said.
According to state estimates, a year from now unemployment will be about as high as it is now 10.8 percent. She said the rate appears to have peaked this summer and she also said these levels are distressing.
"The unemployment rate has roughly doubled in North Carolina," Mejia said.
She also said that, while some revenue sources such as the state income tax had more or less stabilized, a recovery in sales tax revenue is expected to take years. Mejia said state financial officials are predicting it will be fiscal year 2013-2014 before the state can bring in the amount of sales tax revenue it was expecting to get in the current fiscal year.
According to Mejia, a clearer picture of the state's shortfall will be possible once the governor's budget proposal comes out in April.
"Fiscal and revenue recovery always lag behind economic recovery," she said.
Commissioner Bruce Davis said that, when it came to stimulating the economy or taking proactive steps that will help businesses across the state, "it almost sounds like we are giving up hope" and Mejia told Davis that the state did not have a lot of tools at its disposal, like the federal government does, for economic stimulus.
When the board heard next from Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox, the county manager's presentation wasn't any rosier.
"I guess I'm the second part of gloom and doom," Fox said. "It is tough times."
She said she felt as though she were on a half-billion dollar boat, plugging holes, and "constantly saying no."
According to Fox, the county's current tax revenues are "fairly in line" with projections used for this year.
Fox said the county's budget process had been accelerated this year, and she added that the strategy for the next budget will be similar to that of the budget currently in place: Budget items will be separated into mandated services and non-mandated services, and the Board of Commissioners will be given choices on prioritizing the non-mandated services.
Toward the end of the retreat, Vice Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Steve Arnold said he wanted county staff to look into the possibility of the county putting off the scheduled revaluation of property in 2012. The county could only make such a move if it were granted an exception by special state legislation. County tax officials and others in the room had serious doubts that the state would grant such an exception but, by even suggesting the move, Arnold provided some insight into his new way of thinking.
Arnold argues that, since property values are down, and the economy is in turmoil, it's not the right time to go to the expense and take the time to do a revaluation.
Arnold said he thinks real estate prices are lower now than they were in 2004, which one might think would make a conservative Republican want to jump to have a revaluation since housing prices would be lower because, if the tax rate stayed the same, that would mean property owners ended up paying less in taxes.
Arnold said it doesn't matter one way or the other because the board has a policy of "revenue neutrality" meaning that, in years when revaluations go into effect, the county commissioners adjust the tax rate to hold revenue equal so that they can't have a "hidden" tax increase.
Though the county has had that policy, the Arnold from 10 years ago, or even from a year and a half ago, would likely have used the occasion to argue fiercely to let taxpayers keep the money. The new Arnold, for better or worse, is one of compromise and while that may be necessary for getting some of the cuts he's pushed for and gotten over the last year, it is sometimes hard not to miss the former Arnold, who always worked from the assumption that citizens' money was their own.
Another topic at the meeting was solid waste disposal in Guilford County.
"Let's talk trash," Alston said when it came time for that item on the agenda.
Commissioner Kirk Perkins and interim Guilford County Planning and Development Director Betty Garrett, who became the department's co-interim director in the fall of 2008 and sole interim director in March 2009, gave a brief report on trash disposal in unincorporated Guilford County.
Garrett said there are six businesses licensed to collect trash in the county but that a lot of people don't take advantage of the service.
The last time a study was done several years ago, she said, about 60 percent of the residents in unincorporated Guilford County were subscribing to a service.
Perkins said some people didn't opt for the service because they felt it was too expensive, and he said that a lot of trash is burned and becomes an issue.
He said that, in addition to the smoke pollution, the charred remains of the trash were a problem.
"Only about half of it ever burns," he said, "and people put it in the gully or somewhere else."
He also said a lot of people take advantage, illegally, of business dumpsters.
Perkins said that one time he'd gotten stuck driving behind a garbage collection truck, and he found it surprising how many houses the truck passed by.
Perkins also said that possible solutions included more public trash drop-off sites and the expansion of the county recycling programs. He said Whitsett had a pilot recycling program that was working out well.
Perkins told the board that the county should consider requiring garbage pickup that would be paid for by an additional tax in the same way some county fire departments are funded.
Perkins then turned the meeting back over to Alston.
Not everyone likes Alston's politics, but there's one thing no one can question: After 18 years on the Board of Commissioners, the man knows how to run a meeting. The agenda called for the meeting to end at 4 p.m., but, before the retreat with a packed agenda, not many people thought that was a realistic goal. Some were even worried about missing part of the national championship football game that night. However, the Alston-led meeting ended just a few minutes after 4 p.m.