Greensboro City Council Flustered by Bill from Higher State Powers

Council members were noticeably uncomfortable while expressing their general lack of faith in a resolution to support a student prayer and religious activities bill passed by the NC House on June 4.

The resolution was introduced by Councilman Tony Wilkins, who felt that SB 370 clarified confusion among administrators and students.

The first amendment already protects the religious freedoms of students in schools. The NC ACLU opposes the bill, which it called problematic.

“The right of students to voluntarily express and practice their faith in public schools is already well-established and protected by the First Amendment,” said Sarah Preston, ACLU-NC Policy Director. “Some of this bill’s unnecessary and confusing language could wrongly encourage public school personnel to takes sides in student-led religious activity, making students with different beliefs feel excluded or ostracized not only by their classmates, but also by their teachers and schools.”

Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter was concerned that the bill might encourage faithful students to become more aggressive in proselytizing to their public school peers.

“I believe that moments of silence allow everyone to pray; you’re not co-mingling church and state,” said Abuzuaiter. “This allows students to distribute literature. This part concerns me.”

Mayor Vaughan voiced concern that it was not the place of City Council to take a stance on the issue. Vaughan felt that the bill was under the jurisdiction of the School Board.

“I feel that this is a resolution that should come from the School Board,” Vaughan said. “We’ve had concerns over what the legislature has been doing to us by overstepping into areas of our authority, and I feel that we would be doing the same thing here to the School Board.”

“This isn’t us telling the School Board what to do, it’s the state,” said Wilkins.

Councilman Jamal Fox also agreed that it was a School Board issue, even though he expressed his agreement with the first part of the bill, which explains what students are allowed to do while at school.

Councilman Zack Matheny felt that he had to support the resolution as an advocate for free speech, but made it clear that he was unhappy about having to vote on it at all.

“I don’t like these resolutions,” said Matheny. “We bring them up and I complain about them every time. We’re talking about something where we don’t really have any say-so whatsoever.”

Councilman Mike Barber was also frustrated by presence of the bill on the supplemental agenda, and felt it was an example of the NC General Assembly’s lack of priorities.

“Here in this Council we’re doing things where the rubber meets the road,” said Barber. “I wish our state legislators spent as much time on more pertinent issues. I commend Tony for bringing this to us but this is one that I just can’t support.”

Sharon Hightower voted to support the resolution after expressing her apprehension over the consequences of the grievance process outlined in the bill.

“When I see Raleigh stepping up to something like this I’m a little leery of the reason behind it,” said Hightower. “I’m not against religion at all. I’m just afraid that supporting this with the grievance process will get people going back and forth in court.”

Matheny and Wilkins voted to pass the resolution along with Hightower, but ultimately the bill failed to pass on a vote of three to six.

Greensboro Proposes False Alarm Fee Increase

The Greensboro Fire and Police Departments currently lose about $1 million a year responding to alarms that were set off in error. During a City Council work session on May 27, members expressed concern over this waste of taxpayer dollars and proposed two solutions to help recoup some of the funds. At a work session on June 12, Council agreed on a final proposal for the fee changes.

Currently, the City charges a $50 fee for three of more false alarms at a property within a 12-month period. These charges bring in about $120,000 a year and only cover a fraction the cost required to address all the false alarms in the City.

At the May 27 work session Council members proposed enforcing higher fees. The proposal recommended that the City charge a fee of $50 starting with the second false alarm occurrence. This proposal would bring in an estimated additional $180,000 to help cover the public safety cost of addressing false alarms.

Councilman Jamal Fox proposed an even more aggressive fee system that would charge a $100 penalty beginning with the second false alarm. This proposal would increase revenue by an additional $400,000.

Council members felt that while Fox’s proposal was too severe, the revenue from the first proposed fee increase would not be sufficient.

Councilman Zack Matheny suggested a compromise between the two proposals with a $50 false alarm fee beginning with the second instance, and a $100 fee starting with the third occurrence. Council members quickly decided to adopt this Goldilocks option into the recommended budget, which is scheduled for a final vote on June 17.

The City of Greensboro defines false alarms as:

  1. Negligently activated signals that are the result of faulty or malfunctioning equipment.
  2. Signals activated to test the alarm systems that have not been approved by the Greensboro Police Department
  3. Signals that are purposely activated to summon police personnel in non-emergency
situations

Chief Ken Miller recommended that part of the ordinance should emphasize the importance of having property owners register their alarm information with the Police Department.

Winston-Salem currently fines property owners a $100 penalty for false alarms from unregistered units. Otherwise the City charges a $50 fee for the fourth and fifth false alarm occurrence within 12 months, $100 for the sixth and seventh, $250 for the eighth and ninth, and $500 after ten or more occurrences.

Greensboro Looks for Creative Ideas to Improve Budget

Members of Greensboro’s City Council are brainstorming to find any last-minute ways to decrease City expenditures in the budget before presenting a public hearing on the proposal on June 3.

At a work session on Tuesday afternoon Council members looked for creative solutions that wouldn’t force the City to cut services or City employees.

While Councilman Jamal Fox praised the City Manager for increasing the number of vacation days for City employees from 11 to 12, Councilman Zack Matheny thought it was a bad idea.

“I don’t like that. We’ve already got good vacation here,” said Matheny. “The City needs to be open to the people.”

Fox and Matheny did agree on increasing false alarm fees. The Fire Department currently spends $1 million a year responding to alarms that were set off in error. The current fee is $50 for the second false alarm from a location, but increasing that fee to $100 would make up for that sunk cost.

“People are going to be mad at you,” said Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson to Fox.

Councilman Tony Wilkins offered the suggestion that the City could start charging user fees for leaf collection. Most other members of Council were strongly against the idea and felt the revenue gained from the fees might not even make of for the cost of implementing such a collection program.

“What about selling them oversees then,” said Wilkins, “We have some good nutrient-rich leaves here.”

Wilkins also suggested increasing ticket prices at the Coliseum by $1. Mayor Vaughan was receptive to the idea and agreed with Councilwoman Sharon Hightower that a $1 ticket increase would not deter people from purchasing tickets that are $35 or more to begin with.

The subject of parking at the Coliseum led to Council to another creative solution. Wilkins expressed frustration that you must have cash in the form of singles to pay for parking at the Coliseum and suggested the City create a way for people to pay for parking in advance and with their credit cards when they first buy their ticket online. The City of Raleigh already has a similar system for the Raleigh Amphitheatre.

“This is 2014 and you can’t buy concessions or park with a card,” said Wilkins

Mayor Vaughan liked the idea and even took it a step further by suggesting that Greensboro residents receive preferred parking at Coliseum events.

There will be another work session to review and tweak the recommended budget before its adoption in mid-June.