PGI offers to save historic Cascade Saloon

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With a fate that has been hanging in the balance for years, the historic Cascade Saloon on Elm street may be saved through an offer made to the City of Greensboro by Preservation Greensboro Inc.

Cascade Saloon is one of the oldest structures in downtown Greensboro, and in desperate need of stabilization. The building is currently owned by the City of Greensboro, and on July 10 members of City Council reviewed their options on what to do with the structure.

Assistant City Manager David Parrish presented the best bids received by the City to preserve or demolish the structure. The best demolition bid came back with an estimated cost of $600,000. This shocked some members of Council.

“How can the Greensboro Inn be torn down for $35,000 and this one would be so much more expensive?” said councilman Tony Wilkins.

Cascade’s Saloon proximity to the railroad tracks would complicate demolition. Permits would be needed to ensure that crews would not disrupt the railway traffic, which according to Mayor Nancy Vaughan, sees 65 trains pass through downtown every day.

A recent bid from PGI offered to take the property from the City in order to secure and preserve the building. PGI asks that the City pay them $170,000 to help subsidize the cost of stabilizing the structure.

“This is much better than the initial plan,” said councilman Zack Matheny. “The city can save money. Financially for the City this is a lot better deal than we had anticipated.”

Other members of council were skeptical.

“What if people can’t get to the Cantina and other businesses nearby while construction is going on?” said council member Sharon Hightower.

Other council members argued that the risk of disrupting local businesses was a lesser concern compared to the benefit of preserving a historic building for $430,000 less than the cost of demolishing it.

“We have to make the best decision for the city,” said council member Nancy Hoffman. “Not just one person.”

Matheny added that the City of Greensboro was not a good landlord, and that it would be better for the building to be owned by PGI anyway.

Council decided that they needed more information from PGI about the intended future of Cascade Saloon before they could make a decision about the bid.

“Because we don’t know the end use, we can’t make that decision right now,” said Mayor Vaughan.

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 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.

Hydropower Settlement Reveals $25M Retention Fund in Greensboro

Deliberations over a Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority hydropower lawsuit settlement caused City Council to review the current $25 million risk retention fund for the city of Greensboro.

Council members expressed concern that residents might continue to sue the city even if the City approved the $1.2 million settlement.

“As long as there are lawyers on the face of the earth, we can’t do anything to protect ourselves,” said Tom Phillips, current Director of Piedmont Triad Water Authority for the City of Greensboro.

Council asked Phillips, a 22-year veteran for the Water Authority, to share his thoughts on whether or not the settlement was fair. “I wouldn’t say it’s fair, but it’s reasonable,” said Phillips

“It appears that a lot of dirty politics played out in this decision,” said Councilman Tony Wilkins. Wilkins then referred to reports that the judge in the case had ruled in favor of a company associated with Senator Kay Hagan’s husband after Senator Hagan had nominated the judge to a lifetime appointment.

“I could talk all night about the things that were wrong with that case,” said Phillips.

Despite the dirty politics the Water Authority had voted in agreement with the settlement almost unanimously.

Ultimately City Council decided that a settlement was in the best interest of the City and passed the item.

“If we vote against this then we are voting against our own interlocal government,” said Mayor Vaughan. “It’s not a great decision but it’s one that I feel we are bound to go with.”

Councilwoman Sharon Hightower then asked where the City would get the money for the settlement. Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland explained that the City has a $25 million risk retention fund to cover liability claims.

This was news to most of City Council, including Mayor Nancy Vaughan. Greensboro City Attorney Tom Carruthers said that the City of Greensboro puts about $2 million into the fund each year.

“That’s a lot of money,” said Mayor Vaughan, who struggled with the reasoning behind maintaining such a large fund that rarely experiences a significant payout.

The fund covers four types of liabilities, including legal protection of City Council members.

Carruthers said that the litigation surrounding the 2006 Duke Lacrosse case had exhausted the City of Durham’s legal resources.

“It sounds like you have seen what other cities keep in their policies,” said Councilwoman Marikay Abuzaiter in defense of Westmoreland’s maintenance of the fund. “This is not just something that’s out of the blue and hasn’t been well vetted and researched.”

Council postponed a vote to continue paying into the resource fund until they could have time to review the fund’s balance history for the last 10 years.