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Guilford County unveils sparse budget, but still looks to hold property tax-rate steady

GREENSBORO — Blunted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Guilford County’s proposed budget for next year includes only modest growth in spending and no increase in the property-tax rate.

In his annual budget message this week, County Manager Marty Lawing unveiled a $633 million spending plan, stripped of about $16 million in revenue and spending from original projections several months ago just before the pandemic struck.

“The fiscal impact on the current budget and the one proposed for FY 2020-21 is severe, particularly with respect to revenue,” Lawing said in his annual budget message, using the initials for “fiscal year.”

Lawing proposes making up for much of that lapse in revenues by tapping the county’s fund balance, its rainy day money.

“The amount of fund balance used to balance the budget increases by $8 million, mainly due to the significant decrease in sales tax revenues projected for next year,” he said.

Major reductions in spending would come from cutting motor vehicle replacements by $2.65 million, as well as taking $1 million each in deferrals from “major facilities maintenance” and capital investment.

The county would buy only five of the originally planned 47 replacement vehicles for the general fleet, law enforcement, animal services and emergency services, he said.

Still, county government can move ahead in the next fiscal year starting July 1 with several initiatives the Board of Commissioners has chosen for special attention, he said.

They include:

  • Completing the construction and opening of a new mental-health crisis center in Greensboro.
  • Redoubling efforts to reduce infant mortality rates among African American and other minority residents.
  • Improving security protections for Guilford’s technology and data systems.
  • Attracting and retaining “quality employees that provide quality work.”

In his annual budget proposal, Lawing told commissioners that Guilford’s revenue from the sales tax is being hit particularly hard by the pandemic, which forced many businesses to close for weeks or otherwise cut into their profits.

“This represents a $16 million decrease and is a significant driver in the decisions that shaped the recommended budget,” he said of the revenue shortfall.

The commissioners will review the proposal, make any changes they think necessary in the coming weeks and then formally adopt the final document as their road map for the next 12 months.

County officials expect to net about $389 million from property taxes in the next fiscal year, a 2% increase over the current year based on higher real-estate values.

But Lawing said the rate itself would remain unchanged at 73.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That means the owner of a $100,000 house would owe $735 in taxes.

In keeping with normal spending patterns, education would take the biggest portion of county revenues in next year’s budget, accounting for more than $312 million. Much of that would go to Guilford County Schools and various charter schools, but the proposed budget also includes $17.6 million for GTCC.

The nearly $213 million recommended for Guilford County Schools represents, “no change over the previous year’s adopted budget due to the budgetary restraints from the economic impact of COVID-19,” Lawing said.

His written report does not address the school district’s recent request for an additional $76 million for staffing, equipment and other changes related to COVID-19 that district leaders said are needed to safely reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year.

In the human services area, Lawing’s proposal includes $56,000 to cover salary and other costs for an “infant mortality coordinator” to work with minority residents on a persistent problem that commissioners have singled out for greater attention.

The proposed budget also would earmark $657,000 for the new mental health center now under construction on Third Street, including operating expenses and salaries for six staff members.

The new facility is scheduled to open this fall.

In his report, Lawing noted that because county government specializes in essential services, it has continued many of its operations throughout the pandemic.

Many employees “have risen to the occasion and faced adversity head on,” Lawing said.

He added that he was thankful for a federal grant of $93.7 million that the county has received to help local governments with additional costs triggered by the pandemic.

But Lawing said COVID-19 has forced county officials to make significant changes to their plans for next year in a relatively short time span.

“Much has changed since the budget retreat held in February,” Lawing said, referring to the county Board of Commissioners’ initial meeting to discuss plans for the next fiscal year.

“At that time, we were anticipating another year with modest revenue growth in property tax and sales tax,” he said.

Wait for it: Restaurants. Barbershops. Salons. They finally opened to an impatient public.

GREENSBORO — On Friday, the wait was finally over.

You could get a haircut.

Or have dinner inside a restaurant.

Or do both.

Residents had been waiting two months to do these things — things not long ago we took for granted — since Gov. Roy Cooper shut down most of North Carolina in an attempt to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

That changed at 5 p.m. Friday when Phase Two of the state’s three-part reopening plan went into effect.

Restaurants. Barbershops. Salons. They officially had the green light to throw open their doors to a public that had been losing patience.

But for some, the event didn’t happen with quite the expected bang. Emily Cervantes and Aaron Wellman said they had a hard time finding an open restaurant.

The couple braved an early evening shower to venture out for a bite and a drink. They even got a sitter for their 4-month-old daughter.

“We’ve just been kind of riding around trying to find some places to go,” Cervantes said.

Luckily for the couple, who were celebrating the day they met four years ago, Natty Greene’s Brewpub opened promptly at 5 p.m.

Inside the restaurant, staff quickly disinfected chairs and other things as customers left. Tables were spaced 6 feet apart as mandated by state health officials.

Still, Cervantes and Wellman stood pensively outside as they waited for customers ahead of them to be seated.

“I don’t want to make patrons or workers uncomfortable by overcrowding,” Cervantes said.

Over at Butler’s Personal Touch Barber on Freeman Mill Road, Johnson Douglas had to wait outside, too. But it was worth it.

“I’ve been praying for this day because I really need this haircut,” said Douglas, who has been a regular customer at Butler’s for over 10 years.

The shop’s owner, James Butler Sr., was just as glad to be wielding clippers again.

“It feels like I’m right back at home after a long vacation,” said Butler, who is pushing 80 and has been a barber for much of that time.

Butler’s answering machine had 75 messages from customers wanting to know when the shop would reopen.

One of those came from Alexander Graham. He grinned from ear to ear as he left the shop after getting a trim.

“Now, I can go home and the man who’s supposed to be in the house is there,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been looking in the mirror and asking, ‘Why is that guy here?’”

In downtown, streets that would be bustling in normal times had far less traffic than usual for a Friday night.

Nevertheless, Gail and Dave Cekuta took advantage of the reopening to drive from Summerfield for some Ahi tuna and chicken fingers along with a much-welcomed beer and margarita.

“It feels good to be back to normal a little bit,” Gail Cekuta said.

But many of the downtown restaurants weren’t yet open.

Liberty Oak was one of them. Instead of serving customers Friday evening, owner Kristopher Reid was painting and making other preparations. He’s been giving the stylish eatery a makeover since the shutdown.

“We tried to use the time wisely and make the best of a bad situation,” Reid said.

He said he plans to open Tuesday.

“We don’t want to rush things,” Reid said. “We want to make sure we’re taking all of the right precautions.”

Back at Natty Greene’s, Ashley Lester, who operates the brewpub with husband Chris, understands the challenges of reopening a restaurant during a time when a rise in COVID-19 cases could mean having to close again.

“We’re just going to take it day by day,” she said. “It’s not just flipping a switch and turning the lights back on.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Ed Hardin: Little League baseball will be back this summer. When and where? No one is sure. Page B1

After heated debate, Guilford commissioners decide amount for school bonds referendum

GREENSBORO — Guilford County residents likely will be voting on $300 million in school bonds in November, less than a fifth of what school officials had requested to address years of backlogged construction needs.

The county Board of Commissioners decided on that amount Thursday evening after acrimonious debate among several board members.

School personnel, parents and others who addressed the commissioners at the start of the meeting were hoping they would approve the full $1.6 billion that had been sought by the Guilford County Board of Education.

But the commissioners’ Republican majority said that the economic damage the COVID-19 pandemic already has done to the local economy dictated the lesser amount.

They said that if voters approved the $300 million and school leaders handled it properly, they could seek more money in another referendum.

“The sooner we complete these projects, the sooner we could consider a second phase,” said Commissioner Alan Branson, who suggested the lower amount. “I believe that a phased approach is the best course of action.”

Branson said he also was leery of the “one-and-done” approach he described as having been used in the last major school bond initiative years ago, when voters approved a large amount for projects that he said were not completed expeditiously.

Democratic Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston lit into Branson, saying that the proposal was an “insult” coming from a fellow commissioner who had detailed knowledge of the school system’s many building needs.

“It’s really an insult for a commissioner that knows all that,” Alston said. “To make a motion for less than 20% of the needs for the schools, it’s insulting and demeaning and shows that he doesn’t give a damn.”

Commissioner Kay Cashion was the lone Democrat to vote with the majority, saying she would have liked to have seen the prevailing side choose a larger amount than $300 million.

But Cashion said she agreed the pandemic had wreaked havoc and left many in no financial condition to see their taxes rise.

“I know many people in business who are really hurting and some of them are not going to make it,” Cashion said.

Thursday’s vote by the commissioners was to direct that county staff apply for bonding authority in the requested amount and to take other administrative steps toward holding a referendum.

The commissioners plan to hold a public hearing on the issue next month, adopt a bond order and formally schedule the November referendum.

In addition to Cashion and Branson, voting for the $300 million in school bonds were Chairman Jeff Phillips and commissioners Justin Conrad, Hank Henning and Alan Perdue.

Alston and commissioners Carolyn Coleman and Carlvena Foster voted against it.

Shortly before that, the board rejected a substitute motion that Foster had proposed to support the full $1.6 billion the school system had requested in a March vote.

“We all know the condition of our schools,” Foster said.

In a separate vote Thursday evening, the commissioners approved a resolution to include an additional 1/4-cent sales tax on the November ballot to help pay for future school construction.

County officials estimate that if approved, the additional sales tax would generate $19 million per year they could pledge to school construction.

In March, the school board voted 7-2 to ask the commissioners to schedule a November referendum seeking voter approval for $1.6 billion in construction bonds to repair, replace and modernize schools throughout the county.

In requesting the $1.6 billion the commissioners rebuffed Thursday evening, school officials had submitted a plan to tackle years of deferred maintenance and other needs for 41 schools.

The commissioners received a report from county staff before their vote Thursday that showed a bond of $700 million would have completed work at 20 schools, many of them elementary schools, while $1 billion would suffice for 27 schools including Grimsley, Smith and Page high schools.

The $1.6 billion list of projects provided by the school board was intended to cover the first two phases of school construction needs identified by local officials and consultants. It envisioned rebuilding, replacing or fully renovating 38 schools and building three new schools.

Greensboro artist emergency relief fund tops $70,000

GREENSBORO — Wesley L. Williams Jr. saw his income plummet with the coronavirus pandemic that closed entertainment venues and sent fans to shelter at home.

“I have had to endure cancellations after cancellations of my annual teaching and performing jobs,” said Williams, who leads his own professional dance company.

So Williams was grateful to receive $400 from the Greensboro Artist Emergency Relief Fund.

ArtsGreensboro started the fund on March 17 to help working visual and performing artists in the Greensboro area who have lost performances, fees, sales and other activities that generate income.

The fund is directed to working artists, not organizations or nonprofits. Donations are tax-deductible.

So far, 162 artists have received grants.

For Williams, the $400 has provided food for his family, and school supplies for his 5- and 8-year-old sons.

“Please know that the funding is really helping us through these tough times,” Williams said.

ArtsGreensboro and fund donors will be grateful to hear that.

ArtsGreensboro, the local arts council, raises money for and promotes the city’s lively arts scene.

The artist emergency relief fund is separate from the ArtsFund, an annual drive that ArtsGreensboro runs to provide grants to arts organizations and programs, teachers and artists.

Since the artist emergency relief fund started on March 17, 139 donors have contributed $72,068 as of Friday afternoon, according to the website.

Among them: an anonymous donor who sent a check for $25,000.

Laura Way, ArtsGreensboro’s president and chief executive officer, said she doesn’t know who sent it.

It came as a check from a Vanguard investment fund. An accompanying note said that it was intended to help ArtsGreensboro’s mission and relief efforts for artists.

“We were just flabbergasted,” Way said.

ArtsGreensboro started the fund’s goal at $5,000. That goal increased when the separate Greensboro Virus Relief Fund gave $10,500.

Then the organization Triad Musicians Matter gave $5,000.

Now ArtsGreensboro Development Director Catena Bergevin has raised the fund’s goal to $100,000.

A grants panel oversees it. The fund pays a percentage of an applicant’s weekly income from art-making, depending on the number of applicants that week.

Because their income losses continue, artists often receive more than one relief check. They range from $25 to $250 per week, Way said.

To date, ArtsGreensboro has distributed 660 checks totaling $44,835. Each week, it helps more than 100 artists.

Way hears how much artists appreciate it.

When she notifies them each Friday to expect a check, she receives replies such as: “This makes me feel so good about my community,” and “I’m glad I’m here in Greensboro where people care about us.”

Andrew Bowen is among those who have donated.

Bowen runs a photography business, specializing in dance, seniors and family.

Over the years, Bowen has photographed Greensboro Ballet promotional material as well as dancers in the local arts community.

“It would have been hard to look at myself as an artist and friend of the arts and not have done something,” he said.

While artists have missed sharing their work, fans have missed going out to enjoy it.

Before the stay-home orders, Ken Caneva typically went to hear local live music at least once a week.

It wasn’t just for the music, “but more particularly to dance and to interact with both friends and performers — and to get hugs!” Caneva said via email. “Those occasions were usually the high point of my human interactions for the week, and their loss is dearly felt.”

He calls his contributions to the artist emergency relief fund “a token — I hope at a meaningful level — of my appreciation for what they contribute to the life of the community.”

Sonia Archer-Capuzzo and her husband, Guy Capuzzo, both teach at UNCG. When they received their IRS stimulus checks, they donated the money to charities.

The artist emergency relief fund was the first recipient. They gave $700, plus the $16 and change that it cost to process their credit card, Archer-Capuzzo said.

“We know what a lot of musicians and artists are going through at this time,” she said via email. “These are hardworking people who spend their time not only creating art, but also networking, traveling, promoting, and generally contributing to our economy and societal well-being.”

“What we gave is a drop in the bucket of what our neighbors in the artistic community need to keep going for the coming months and possibly years as we deal with this pandemic,” she said. “But we hope it can make a difference.”

Artists such as Williams and musician Jonathan Timber, known as J. Timber, say that it does make a difference.

J. Timber earns his entire income from music. Before the pandemic hit, he performed up to six nights a week throughout the Triad.

“This is my job,” he said. “This is what I wake up to do every day, just like everyone else.”

This year started financially as his best yet. He rented a home on his own and bought new gear.

But since the pandemic arrived, he has performed only a few virtual shows on Instagram and Facebook.

Aside from those, checks from the artist emergency relief fund have been his only income, he said. He is now appealing the state’s denial of his unemployment claim.

“I am just thankful for everything that ArtsGreensboro has done for me,” he said.