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City officials outline proposed budget, shortfall expectations

GREENSBORO — Officials say they’ve found a way to keep up with the city’s growing expenses — and declining revenues — by recommending a variety of reductions in spending.

The city is bracing for a nearly $8 million drop in annual income for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The recession was caused when Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools, services and stores in response to the coronavirus pandemic has especially reduced sales-tax revenue, one of the city’s top sources of income.

In a presentation to City Council on Tuesday, staffers hope that by cutting building maintenance, debt payments and grants for special projects, they can make up the shortfall.

They’re also recommending changes for the city’s transit services to further reduce expenses.

Sales-tax receipts this year will be down by $3.4 million, and other fees are likely to be lower as well, city officials told the council.

Greensboro had predicted it would receive $56 million in the coming year from Guilford County’s 2% sales tax, which is collected by the state and then returned to the city every quarter. The 2% sales tax is levied on top of the state’s 4.75% sales tax.

But because consumer spending was dramatically reduced during the shutdown, officials are having to readjust that estimate.

The city’s total budget, including capital expenses and other major costs, is $612.5 million which, even with spending cuts, is up by 5.5%, according to figures presented Tuesday by City Manager David Parrish and Assistant City Manager Larry Davis.

In their recommended budget, Parrish and Davis have made a variety of suggestions to recoup the nearly $8 million shortfall. Among them:

  • Reducing the amount the city pays on money it borrowed by $1.8 million in fiscal year 2020-21.
  • Delaying building maintenance projects for a $1.1 million savings.
  • Delaying the Participatory Budgeting program, which allows residents to vote on city-funded projects in their neighborhoods. The city had planned to spend $535,000 on those projects.
  • Freeze hiring and delay new city programs for $1.8 million in savings.

One change that could draw fire from bus riders, however, is a proposed reduction in routes and some fee increases. The city’s proposed Transit Fund budget is $24.4 million, an increase of about $364,000 over this year.

But costs are rising and the city is currently falling short of needed revenues by $1.4 million.

To help cover the shortfall, city staff is recommending:

  • Eliminate two service hours on weekday routes for a savings of $531,000.
  • Reduce route service from twice an hour to hourly between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. for all but four core routes. That would save $760,000.
  • Eliminate free fixed-route passes for the SCAT service that transports disabled riders, which would save $40,000. This means those riders would have to pay the $1.50 fare that other bus riders pay.

Those service reductions, according to city staff, would avoid fare increases for the transit system’s regular riders.

‘People are still in need’

Despite the rain on Tuesday, Mount Zion Baptist Church and Out of The Garden held their seventh food giveaway since April 7. “People are still hurting; people are still in need,” says Marcus Thomas, the church’s Dream Team director. Tuesday’s giveaway, held under the canopy near the main sanctuary “to keep people out of the elements,”served 374 cars, representing more than 1,000 people, Thomas says. The giveaway included fruits, vegetables, bread, 800 sandwiches from Chick-fil-A, 100 boxed lunches from United Healthcare, 2,000 care kits from Cone Health and 2,400 canned Dasani water drinks from Coca-Cola. Find more photos at greensboro.com.

N.C. venues, arts organizations plan for eventual reopening

GREENSBORO — When will North Carolinians be able to see live shows again? And how will performance venues operate safely?

As the state prepares for the further easing of restrictions prompted by the coronavirus, leaders of entertainment and cultural organizations lay careful plans for reopening their doors.

Phase Two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s reopening plan could begin as soon as Friday. This phase would allow gatherings at entertainment venues at reduced capacity, although it hasn’t defined “reduced capacity.”

Phase Three, to be implemented at least four to six weeks after Phase Two, would allow “increased capacity” at entertainment venues.

Lifting of restrictions will be based on the state’s statistical improvement trends in the coronavirus pandemic.

Heads of the state’s major entertainment venues, including the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, announced Tuesday that they have joined forces to plan for the return of concerts, Broadway and comedy events — when the time comes.

No opening dates have been announced for the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, including its new Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts.

The newly-formed NC Live coalition will provide guidance and best practices to ensure safe reopening of facilities.

Also Tuesday, other cultural leaders released a “Guide to Reopening the Arts in North Carolina” to keep patrons, workers, and artists as safe as possible in response to COVID-19.

The leaders represent the N.C. Theatre Conference, the N.C. Presenters Consortium, Arts North Carolina, the N.C. Arts Council and independent arts organizations.

The guide includes practical tips that many stores have been following on cleaning and disinfecting and social distancing.

Other ideas include redesigning seating charts and limiting performance length to reduce restroom traffic.

ArtsGreensboro sent a similar communication to local arts groups last month, said Laura Way, its president and chief executive. It also launched an artist emergency fund, convened groups and provided other information and training.

At the Carolina Theatre of Greensboro, for example, team members are creating a tactical re-entry plan. A committee of its board of directors also will address reopening the historic venue, which hosts concerts, plays and other events.

“Most of what’s here I’ve seen already, and most will be included in our plan,” Brian Gray, Carolina Theatre executive director said about the state guide. “Each venue is unique and will have to tailor their plan to their specific venue.”

Triad Stage is studying the recommendations, to determine when it will be safe and economically feasible to resume live performances, said Preston Lane, producing artistic director of the downtown professional theater.

“The need to keep patrons, artists and staff safe demands a kind of social distancing that will make rehearsal and performance difficult in all but the largest of theaters and will severely limit the potential for necessary ticket income,” Lane said.

Also, he added, theatrical unions are also not releasing contracts right now because of safety concerns.

“As eager as I am to re-open our doors and engage with our audience through live performance, I fear that theater will be one of the last industries able to return,” Lane said.

The NC Live coalition announced Tuesday an executive committee of representatives from the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Durham Performing Arts Center, Live Nation Carolinas, Spectrum Center and Red Hat Amphitheater.

Their specific plans are still in the works but will include “venue and fan-experience modifications” such as cashless transactions, venue disinfection, staggered fan arrival time and temperature checks.

“The safety of our artists, fans and staff is our top priority as we move forward to reopening our arts and entertainment facilities,” the coalition news release said.

“We realize that there is no easy way to mitigate this situation and no guarantee that we can completely eliminate risks,” the guide says. “However, we believe that we can take collective action that will allow the arts sector to reopen to the public safely and responsibly.”

An interesting article in today's paper

Reality bites: For would-be chefs with scant supplies, these cookbooks are perfect for pandemics. Page D6

Guilford commissioners divvying up federal COVID-19 millions

GREENSBORO — Guilford County officials acted Tuesday to start distributing more than $93 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds, including plans for $20 million in grants to small businesses.

The county Board of Commissioners approved a broad-brush outline for spending the money that staff members presented in a morning work session. The outline included grants of up to $10,000 to local businesses with no more than 25 employees, plus a total of $2.5 million to help “nonprofit social service agencies” through grants screened by the Greensboro and High Point United Ways.

The overall plan envisions spending roughly $68 million in an initial phase and holding the rest in reserve to see what needs stemming from the new coronavirus remain unmet.

The total grant — $93.7 million — came to the county on April 24 as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Support Act, better known as the CARES Act.

The money must be spent on costs triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and it must be dispensed by year’s end.

“It seems like a lot of time,” County Manager Marty Lawing said of the deadline. “But with some of these programs we’re discussing today, it’s not a lot of time.”

Lawing said the program is evolving as the federal government more clearly defines its boundaries and what exactly qualifies as a reimbursable expense related to COVID-19.

“We’ll be flexible and don’t be surprised if what you hear today might be totally different in a month,” he told the board.

This first disbursement would include an estimated $9.5 million for other local governments that would be divided among Guilford County Schools, the cities of Greensboro and High Point, and eight smaller communities.

The grants to defray expenses related directly to COVID-19 range from as much as $5 million for the school system to just less than $3 million for Greensboro, $1.1 million for High Point down to $5,130 for Sedalia.

Don Campbell, the county’s emergency management director, said the amount for each city and town was based on their population.

Campbell said local governments could use the grant money in such ways as outfitting local offices with plexiglass panels to protect staff members and visitors from potential contaminants or for technology to assist with online meetings or “teleworking” from home.

Commissioner Kay Cashion said she wanted to dispel any earlier misunderstandings the public might have had that “Guilford County has the money and we may or may not give the cities some.”

The spending outline commissioners approved Tuesday divided the Phase 1 allocation of about $68 million in four groups:

  • $20 million in direct county government expenses for salaries, overtime and other costs incurred by public health, emergency and other agencies responding to the coronavirus threat.
  • $22 million that includes grants to the other local governments, personal protective equipment for county personnel, improvements to the county’s public health lab, and a variety other safety measures.
  • $5 million for “community lifeline support” that includes the $2.5 million for nonprofits, plus other money to help homeless people and funding for county fire departments.
  • $20 million for the small business grants that owners ideally should be able to apply for starting June 1 on Guilford County’s website.

Initially, county staff and an informal commissioners subcommittee that assembled Tuesday’s original proposal sought to limit the maximum grants of $10,000 per small business to companies that grossed less than $1 million per year and were not home based.

Commissioner Justin Conrad, a restaurant industry owner and executive, said the $1 million cap would exclude a lot of businesses in his industry that should qualify as small businesses by any reasonable definition.

So after some debate, the commissioners agreed to raise the cap to $2 million, while dropping other suggested exclusions of businesses based at the owner’s home.

Small business applicants would be required to verify their costs through tax documents, as well as demonstrate their losses stemmed directly from COVID-19.

County Attorney Mark Payne stressed in remarks to the board that under the new law, local officials are required to make sure all the CARES Act money is spent properly and that the county, not wrongful grant recipients, would have to repay any amount that was not.

“This isn’t just a bucket of money someone found and we hand it out to whoever wants it,” Commissioner Alan Perdue said.

Some of the money will be used to continue stepping up communitywide testing for the disease, leading commissioners Carolyn Coleman and Melvin “Skip” Alston to assert that black residents were being slighted with lesser access to such tests.

Coleman noted that county officials had set up a test site in UNCG’s Oakland Avenue Parking Deck, but not at a similar facility on the N.C. A&T campus that is more accessible to minority residents.

“People are getting infected in the African American community disproportionate to the white community, and we need services over there,” Alston said.

Campbell said county staff inspected the A&T deck but it had structural limitations that raised safety concerns. He said the county is working with federal partners to soon deploy vans that will take tests to residents in public housing and other neighborhoods considered “high focus areas.”

Coleman added that churches needed to be included in the mix of groups eligible for the social service grants because “black churches have carried the burden with feeding people.”

Commissioner Alan Branson encouraged county officials not to focus their COVID-19 program only on urban residents, but also to consider the needs of rural communities.

“There is more to Guilford County than just Greensboro and High Point,” he said.

The board agreed that rather than set up a duplicate screening process, it would rely on the two United Way agencies to make recommendations for divvying up the grant money among nonprofits that meet food and other essential needs aggravated by the new coronavirus.

But county officials would verify that each recommended recipient met all requirements before dispensing any money, the commissioners said.

After adopting their overall CARES Act road map, the commissioners acted quickly to begin spending some of that money.

They agreed unanimously to spend $1.7 million from the federal grant to buy five new ambulances and specialized equipment to decontaminate vehicles used for emergency response and other county purposes.

Tuesday's numbers

Number of N.C. cases: 19,445 as of 11 a.m. Tuesday, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, an increase of 422 new cases since Monday.

In Guilford County: 904 cases of COVID-19 and 49 deaths, up 32 cases and two deaths since Monday’s report, according to Guilford County Department of Public Health.

N.C. deaths: 682 statewide, according to state health officials, up 21 since Monday.

N.C. hospitalizations: State health officials said 585 people are currently hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19, 74 more than Monday.