Parsing differences between city council candidates, at large and district

A candidate forum last night at Congregational United Church of Christ drew aspiring public servants seeking to fill the three at-large seats, along with all five districts. In the at-large segment, discussion about sustainability and ties between council members and developers brought out the most interesting responses. The candidates’ answers shed some light on their level of familiarity with the issues and sense of priority about them — or lack of each, as the case may be.

George Hartzman, an unsuccessful candidate for the District 3 seat two years ago asked the candidates to address the possibility that a company called Land Port Investments LLC owned by local developer Roy Carroll might come before the council in the future with a request for incentives, and that Carroll has made substantial contributions to some candidates’ campaigns. Before the request was withdrawn, the city had considered granting $4 million to Carroll’s company.

Candidate Yvonne Johnson, who is among those whose campaigns have benefited from Carroll’s largesse, seemed to fumble in her response.

“When I talk about site-ready, I’m certainly not talking about any particular person’s business, except the city and the economic development council and the partnership needs to do that independently so that when people are interested in coming to Greensboro to build… that we have site-ready land,” she said, “not to benefit any particular person.”

Danny Thompson, who owns a personal care company said, “I’ve never received a dime from Roy Carroll, although I’d like to. I care for his mom.

Thompson told the audience: “The economic development bond project was a project that was brought before council just in the last several months by Andy Scott, our assistant city manager of economic development. It’s not a gift. What it is — it’s that economic bond money, and it will front the money to go ahead and put in the infrastructure – curb and gutter, and water and sewer. And then you, the taxpayers — correct me if I’m wrong — get the money back once a developer comes and buys — or they actually develop the project.”

In fact, Scott said that to date all projects approved by council have involved direct grants to developers for the purpose of improving infrastructure. With the Land Port Investments LLC proposal, which has been withdrawn indefinitely from council’s agenda, Scott said staff had envisioned that the city would make a direct grant to cover the cost of water, sewer and storm sewer, but loan money to the applicant for grading. The loan would be repaid upon sale of the property.

“I would say that the evaluation of whether to approve a project is, is it going to benefit the citizens of Greensboro as a whole,” candidate Wayne Abraham said. “And so that will be how I will make the decision. If it’s going to benefit Greensboro as a whole, and we’re going to come out ahead by putting some money into a project, then yes, it makes sense to do it. If it’s not, then it doesn’t make sense. Mr. Carroll has never donated a dime to me either, so I won’t have any conflict of interest in reviewing his proposals to us.”

One audience member was concerned about a proposal by city staff to dismantle the Greensboro Sustainability Council, which was established by Yvonne Johnson at the time she served as mayor. The current council voted to accept a Sustainability Action Plan earlier this year instead of adopting it. With the exception of Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan, who applauded recycling efforts at her daughter’s private school, no council members asked any questions or made any remarks about the plan.

Vaughan said last night that she would be surprised if the Greensboro Sustainability Council was dismantled, as proposed by staff.

“I hope it doesn’t get demolished,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a very important entity that we have here in Greensboro. I think it could be a catalyst for bringing green jobs and green-job training. I know when I was mayor we got $5 million from the federal government to do retrofitting and weatherization. One of the reasons is because we had a sustainability commission. I would definitely want it to remain. I think it has some great recommendations for Greensboro’s future.”

Marikay Abuzuaiter, an at-large candidate who is politically and personally aligned with Johnson said, “The sustainability action council was set up, and Mr. Joel Landau and Bob Powell are co-chairs of that. They worked very, very hard with the council to bring forward a plan to our city council.” She added that the four candidates who eagerly raised their hands to answer the questions — herself, Johnson, Abraham and Vaughan — would likely vote to bring the plan back and adopt it.

“I have not only been interested in keeping the sustainability committee alive; I’ve advocated from the very beginning that we have to implement the plan, look at all of its aspects and figure out how we can immediately start using some of the benefits that it provided for our city so that even the city government itself has means that it can use to save energy and reinvest our own money in ourselves,” Abraham said. “The plan itself says that if we could spend $9.3 million of our own dollars and then save $29 million of our own dollars. So to me, it makes perfect sense to use this revolving account that it talks about in order to do that because, in my opinion, we’re reinvesting our own money in ourselves.”

Thompson noted that he was among the council members who voted to accept the plan.

“The one little problem we had is we didn’t have $9.3 million to spend this past year,” he said. “That’s why the majority of council accepted it, gave it back to staff to break it down piecemeal to see what we can afford each and every year.”

Abraham challenged Thompson's statement today in a Facebook post: "If he had bothered to actually read the plan he would know that it does not call for an immediate expenditure of that amount. The city would start by refitting some buildings, bank the saved energy dollars, and then use those savings to do the next project, and then bank those savings and do the next project. The point was to create a fund that would cover these costs and in the end save us $29 million tax dollars."

One woman asked candidates what council could do to incentivize business investment in core areas of the city that suffer from high vacancy rates. The question seemed to be lost on many of the candidates, who instead discussed wage requirements in the city’s incentives policy. An exception was Johnson, who noted that many of the companies that bring large numbers of jobs to Greensboro prefer to invest in outlying areas.

“Part of implementing the Sustainability Action Plan will be to do exactly what you called for — looking at our land development ordinances, figure out ways to incentivize businesses to come and infill areas that we already have so that we’re not constantly expanding and then trying to send water and sewer yet further and incorporate more land,” Abraham said. “So obviously I would be in favor of that and I think it would be a wise investment of our own capital and our own resources.”

Thompson added, “When you’re referring to trying to incentivize a business to locate in a geographic area, typically that’s like an enterprise zone. In fact, last night, I was happy we unanimously voted for a small business loan for a specific area for businesses that are only in a blighted area where we need economic development, we need businesses to grow — along High Point Road, in the southeast Greensboro corridor area…. It is important because it’s less drain and drag on our services — police, fire et cetera when we have infill in a dense area.”

The $80,000 approved by council on Tuesday to help establish a small business loan pool will be drawn from federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

I'll have coverage of candidate statements in the district 1, 3 and 4 races in this space when time allows.

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