The Greenville Guardian Actual journalism, virtually delivered

Of Grandstanding and Budget Wrangling

by Anthony Mercando
Government Analyst

Editor’s note: Imagine you’ve never attended a municipal meeting. For too many of us, it’s no stretch: Residents seem to attend – the few who ever will, at any point in their lives – only when something “directly affects” them. This despite the fact that every decision of those who govern directly affects the society over which they preside, and in which we participate–be it a neighborhood, town, city, county, state, nation, university, professional association, social organization, or company.

If we don’t care enough to understand and weigh in as the decisions by which (and with which) we must live are debated and finalized, what hope should we – can we – hold of influencing those decisions?

Anthony Mercando immersed himself in the recent proceedings of city council, with the sensibilities that have informed his life in tow. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

If you’re thinking of attending city council meetings regularly, you might want to start after the budget is first proposed.

I didn’t, and left that May 9 session dizzy.

Graphs and charts blurred into a colorful stream. Those in the gallery got no say in where the money goes, and the only entertainment one could hope for was some councilor throwing a tantrum about halfway through. Fortunately, in that regard at least, we were not disappointed.

Mingled among griping over historical houses bought by the city and the council’s unanimous agreement to scrap an across-the-board wage increase for city workers, the panel also okayed the placement of a traffic light at Copper Beach and East 10th Street. There were other items, but the agenda – covering nearly 200 pages – was daunting. And that’s being generous.

District 5 Councilor and real estate man Patrick “P.J.” Connelly cornered the market on outrage for the evening, blasting the city’s purchase of a historical home at 610 Roosevelt Drive, blasting the proposed purchase of the former Imperial Tobacco site, blasting the involvement of the city in real estate deals at all, and blasting the budget in general.

If his claims about spending hours crunching numbers are true, perhaps it was the irrelevance of that work that set Connelly off. There was merit in some of his points, but this reporter couldn’t help wondering whether a slight change of perspective was in order: One would think Connelly’s vocation might allow him to consider preservation of historical sites not as a loss, but as holding potential for attracting more residents–you know, people who buy real estate. Proper planning and use of such sites could give Greenville a historic district to rival Wilmington’s.

burned tobacco warehouse, photo by LE

The former Imperial Tobacco site, circa 2013 (photo: Lisa Ellison)

The council moved on to the budget proper, the biggest issue being the $1.5 million Imperial site purchase. The old tobacco processing plant off Dickinson Avenue consumed a huge share of the proposed budget. Connelly’s resistance to purchasing it indicates a reluctance to invest city funds in a site whose value seemingly has nowhere to go but up. His argument won out nonetheless, with the council voting four-to-one against the purchase.

Next, in a spur-of-the-moment move, council backed off an expected across-the-board wage increase for city workers, leaning in instead on “merit” pay. There seemed general agreement that city employees work hard, but distaste for rewarding them as a whole–which, of course, would keep their wages competitive overall.

So, while Greenville Utilities – the separately-managed provider of electric, water, sewer, and natural gas services to the city and 75 percent of Pitt County, each of whose board members is approved by city council – favors increasing salaries with benefits broadly while maintaining the potential for merit pay to boot, the city seems content to think its managers will doggedly watch for star performers and file the necessary paperwork to give them their especial rewards. The system was another Connelly proposal, and, to my eye at least, a failure to grasp the realities faced by those who live paycheck to paycheck.

Finally, with the exits at the rear of council chambers looking ever more appealing, the issue of safety along East 10th Street was raised. District 3 Councilor McLean Godley gave an impassioned speech about the loss of a “fellow Pirate” and proposed a traffic light be installed, at the city’s expense (about $150,000), at the entrance to the Copper Beech apartment complex, the scene of a recent student fatality. After penny-wise Connelly clarified an intent to seek reimbursement from the state or federal government, council unanimously approved.

Another governing body in some other town might have left the matter at, “The road is outside our jurisdiction and therefore not our problem”–the kind of rampant buck-passing that only creates greater problems. While Greenville councilors realized NCDOT could enact different changes, movement with passion was warranted and council answered the call, finding it better to spend money now than blood and life later, through inaction.

May 12
When council met again three days later, it learned NCDOT is indeed pursuing a plan to improve safety all along the 10th Street corridor, including right-turn-only lanes and the installation of medians.

The budget bonanza continued, with long looks at numbing numbers broken by sharp moments of discussion. The two largest issues from the prior session remained: salary increases for city workers and the purchase of the Imperial Tobacco site. Things rolled along fine until Connelly again got hot under the collar upon continued mention of the Imperial proposal.

“We haven’t done this [prior real estate deals] well,” said he, and, “The private sector can best decide the use of property.” His tax-axing, small government bluster was backed solely – publicly, at least – by Godley, his fellow council newbie.

Only District 4 Councilor Rick Smiley spoke up in defense of the purchase, supporting it as betterment of the city: “This is exactly the kind of thing people are calling for,” he said, concluding, “The argument that this is not what people are calling for fails.”

Godley said, “Nobody’s asking to buy a warehouse,” arguing that funds for the Imperial site would be better spent on sidewalk expansion, increased police staffing, street lights, and a myriad of other things–each of which is already comfortably funded in the proposed budget.

Smiley rattled off a series of uses for the site, noting that student housing isn’t serving the needs of the community.

“People are saying ‘why is it that we only get student housing uptown?'” Smiley said, adding that some of his constituents, while glad the students are here, would prefer to see more market-rate housing.

Godley said Smiley had “rubber stamped another student housing [project] to go through last week,” suggesting, it seemed, that any support for more student housing makes it impossible to also support less of it in a particular area.

Godley seconded Connelly’s motion to leave the Imperial site out of the budget entirely, justifying the move with their (apparently) shared belief that the 10th Street connector and “Millennial Campus” are landmark projects, and betterment enough for the time being.

“The 10th Street connector, the Millennial Campus, the sidewalk expansion,” Smiley countered, “are all public-private partnerships that are the crowning achievements of the city.”

Godley remained adamant, saying he supports removal of the Imperial project to “minimize the impact on this budget,” and adding that the EPA won’t have the site cleared until June, nor will it be shovel-ready before January of next year at the soonest.

In the end, those opposed to the site purchase carried the day, though Smiley proposed “exploring ways to get the land we need without buying the whole site,” and seeking support for “costless studies to look into acquiring the whole site in the future.”

Pay for city workers
The across-the-board pay raise for city workers, slashed in the prior session to a merit pay increase, was further burned in this one, which saw the pool for the merit increases proposed by Connelly reduced from 3 to 2 percent. This means the ceiling for raises will be at the discretion of managers, but that increases must be considered in the context of the funds remaining in the pool. Included was something called a “merit matrix,” the explanation of which just made my brain hurt.

District 1 Councilor Kandie Smith raised concerns.

“We’ve had a merit program in the past and those who are in a position of power to allocate funds to staff… they’ve gotten the percentage… you could see a pattern that you shouldn’t have been seeing.”

Her point: Some staff members were consistently awarded raises and others weren’t, alluding to two key issues surrounding the merit pay approach: favoritism and self-interest. Though Smith and District 2 Councilor Rose Glover paid lip service to an across-the-board increase to counter potential discrimination inherent in merit pay programs, the die was cast: As reported at the top, the original plan of a payroll-wide increase was unanimously scrapped three days before.

What’s next
Council meets again tonight at 6 p.m. The agenda includes a public hearing on the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. You can see the full budget proposal by clicking here and scrolling to page 146.

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