Assuming a new city council reaches an agreement on what to do about solid waste early in the next term, the budget is likely to be the major challenge in the next two years. Revenues are likely to be lower than hoped for because of the depressed housing market, while services and infrastructure remain in demand. Mayoral challenger Robbie Perkins would like to move forward with the Downtown Greenway. At-large challenger Wayne Abraham wants to repair city roads. District 3 challenger Jay Ovittore wants to hire additional police officers.
No surprise that the four conservative incumbents on council, including Mayor Bill Knight, have pledged to not raise taxes or water rates, as documented in a video clip produced by Conservatives for Guilford County. At-large incumbent Danny Thompson and at-large challenger Chris Lawyer also took the pledge. Mayoral challenger Robbie Perkins has left his options open when asked the question.
“It’s a qualified maybe answer,” said Perkins when asked during a candidate forum hosted by the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club on Oct. 25 if he would vote to raise taxes. Asked if he would raise water rates and if he would cut spending, he responded, “It depends.”
Abraham may be the only challenger that has campaigned against cutting taxes, calling the council vote in 2010 to cut property taxes by a quarter of cent, “a jobs-killing tax cut.” He argues that the reduction had an insignificant impact on taxpayers, but stripped the city budget with the result that council cut funding to the Greensboro Partnership, which works to recruit new businesses to the city.
Only one candidate has expressed active interest in raising taxes.
“I don’t believe we can move Greensboro forward if we keep our taxes the way they are,” District 2 challenger C. Bradley Hunt II told an audience at the downtown public library for a forum hosted by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress on Oct. 24. “I am a citizen and I believe that everyone wants to keep taxes low. It makes us all comfortable. But in order for us to spur economic development, in order for us to improve our infrastructure and to improve our services we must look for new ways to generate income for the city. So I believe we have to look at new ways that we may increase our tax rate so we can provide services for our citizens. So I think that in order to improve our services and infrastructure, in order to increase our police department, fire services, and also to give small business owners and minority business owners a chance to compete, we must look at ways to raise taxes.”
Incumbent Jim Kee was happy to take the opposing side on the issue.
“Certainly I would not advocate raising taxes,” he said. “Matter of fact, I voted to lower taxes. In this type of economy, citizens could not afford any increase in taxes. The way we can expand the revenue in Greensboro is to bring more businesses, to create more small businesses right here in our city. And that’s exactly what I have been doing.”
Kee, a developer, said he worked with Kotis Properties to open the H&F cafeteria at the corner of Church Street and Pisgah Church Road, creating 60 jobs. He said he has also worked with Kotis Properties to open Pace Medical at the intersection of East Cone Boulevard and Summit Avenue, which employs 30 people.
“That’s the way we keep taxes low and keep services great in Greensboro,” Kee said.
Zack Matheny, a registered Republican seeking reelection to the District 3 seat, told the audience at the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club Forum that he would not vote to raise taxes. One day earlier he gave a somewhat more qualified answer to the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress.
“I don’t know, quite honestly, what’s going to happen with taxes,” he said. “My goal would be to not increase taxes. I’ve said that and we’ve been able to accomplish that by not increasing and actually have a very small, slight decrease for the city. One of our major issues is going to be real estate valuations in the next couple years.”
Historically, home values have appreciated over all, with the result that local governments can cut the tax rate and maintain neutral revenue. Real estate is revalued every eight years, and Guilford County is due for a revaluation next year. If, as expected, property values have depreciated overall because of the foreclosure and housing crisis, then local governments will have to choose between increasing the rate to maintain neutral revenue or cutting spending to compensate for reduced revenue at the current rate.
After the candidate forum Matheny said in an interview that his ultimate objective is to keep the tax bill flat, whatever that requires.
Jay Ovittore, who is challenging Matheny for the District 3 seat, stressed spending needs.
“I don’t want to make promises that I can’t keep, so I don’t want to say that I’m not going to vote to raise taxes, if necessary,” he said. “We need 200 more police officers on our police force. We need more fire people. We need our roads taken care of. We need to upgrade the Osborne water treatment plan so we can handle a capacity that’s almost near full at this point and continue to bring clean water to our communities. So that money’s going to come from somewhere. We can either get creative and do something about the landfill: Keep it closed, make it a regional solution, maybe own a regional solution, maybe cut off some of that as a portfolio, do some waste to energy. And if we spend the money on waste to energy now, that waste to energy is going to make us back millions more. And if I can keep your tax rate flat, I’ll do that. But I simply don’t know until I have the numbers in front of me.”
Mary Rakestraw, the conservative District 4 incumbent, has consistently pledged that she will not vote to raise taxes.
“With the present economy that we have we’ve got to be good stewards of your money and my money,” she said. “And I pay taxes, too. And this is a situation, y’all, that we cannot go the well but so many times. You have a budget in your own home. And you have to look at how you spend your money. And when you don’t have enough money, what do you do?... And, you know, I bet you even if you go home this coming week and you say, ‘What could I cut out that would not hurt my lifestyle, what would it be?’ Surely there is something. And we’re going to have to look at that as we go into the next two years. We have to be smart. We have to be prudent. And again, y’all, I cannot say this enough: We cannot tax ourselves out of this situation that we’re in at the present.”
Like Ovittore, District 4 challenger Nancy Hoffmann emphasized spending needs, prefacing her remarks by saying she is “committed to sound financial stewardship.”
“No one can predict the future,” she said. “So we really have to see what the situation is next year or the following year, but we know that we have possibly deferred some very important maintenance in this city. Those things catch up with you sometime down the road, and when they do the cost may be greater. We bear the cost of training the police staff and the fire staff in this city. And if we lose them a year or two years after we train them, then we have lost the cost of that investment in those people, and they’ve gone to High Point, or to Burlington, or Reidsville for another thousand dollars a year.”
Hoffmann said that a city, like any business, must “drill down” to see what spending items are “not absolutely essential” during difficult economic times, and have an honest conversation with citizens about what services they want to maintain, what they’re willing to give up, and what they’re willing to pay for.
Trudy Wade, the conservative incumbent in District 5, said she would not raise taxes.
“There’s two ways not to raise taxes,” she said. “And no, I wouldn’t raise taxes. Two ways to do that. Either you’re going to have to cut things or you’re going to have to bring in more jobs, more people, and increase your base of people paying in. There’s only two ways to do it. I think we’ve tried as a council to bring more jobs here. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. For 12 of 16 years the unemployment rate’s been going up. This last year it’s started to go down again.”
In fact, data for the Greensboro-High Point metropolitan statistical area posted by the NC Employment Security Commission indicates that the unemployment rate increased in eight of the past 16 years. The rate has been declining over all over the past two years, but has remained at above 10 percent since 2009 after bouncing between 3 percent and 7 percent during the period from 1996 to 2008.
Wade credited the city council’s efforts to keep property taxes and water rates low with what progress has been seen in reducing the unemployment rate. During her remarks the councilwoman linked the tax rate to efforts to reopen the White Street Landfill, which she favors.
“If we were using our own landfill, we could save $8 million a year,” she said. “We won’t talk about the $30- or $40 million we’ve lost over the past four or five years.”
The $8 million figure tossed around by Wade, Thompson and The Rhinoceros Times is at odds with the $3.1 million per year in annual cost savings estimated by the city’s solid waste consultant for the plan to reopen the landfill that was adopted by the conservative faction. The difference can be chalked up to closure costs once the currently permitted portions of the landfill are depleted. Those who cite the $8 million figure argue that closure costs should not be included because the landfill would eventually have to be closed anyway. But under the current arrangement, the permitted portion of the landfill accepts a miniscule amount of screening, allowing it to remain open indefinitely.
Wade blamed a group of citizens who filed suit against the city to prevent the landfill from reopening with scuttling the city’s ability to pursue a regional approach, recycling, waste-to-energy technology, investments in infrastructure and cost savings.
“And we tried to take a regional approach,” she said. “And we tried to take the companies on the cutting edge of waste management and bring them into an RFP, and say, ‘What can you do for this community with technology, with recycling, and do a long-range plan for us.’ This is the first council that really stood back and said, ‘Let’s take a look at that.’ What can we do to cut this $8 million-a-year cost? And, of course, we ended up in a lawsuit, so all that technology, infrastructure, all that additional money we were going to have for the city, of course that won’t be the case now.”