Jan 282013


By Wesley Brown

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Searching for consensus, a 30-year veteran with the state Department of Commerce was unable to find common ground Saturday among the City Council on more than $50 million of capital investment projects in Greenville.

After five staff presentations, 10 rounds of facilitated discussion and 45 proposed ideas to move the city forward, the council ended its annual planning session with little to no direction for staff.

The board spent close to seven hours at odds — sometimes arguing bitterly — about the projects they wanted staff to pursue the upcoming fiscal year in a debate some members described as a forum for the city’s polarized politics.

Facilitator David Long — a private consultant from Greensboro hired to help the city identify its most pressing issues, needs and opportunities — wrapped up the retreat at 4 p.m., saying he will summarize and return the results of the board’s discussions at a later date.

“As suspected some council members came prepared to fight against a plan before they knew what was going to be presented,” said at-large councilman Dennis Mitchell, who has made economic development his top priority. “In the end, our city manager gave us a bold vision and several options to pay for it and we did nothing.”

Mitchell was the only council member to specifically endorse a capital improvement project, recommending staff to move forward with planning the construction of the $2.5 million Medical Research Park and the $4 million Go Science Center.

The plans presented included ways to pay for road resurfacing, upgrading deteriorating parks and facilities, and possible funding of the 15 economic development projects that together totaled about $50 million.

The remainder of the council only loosely identified West Greenville and the downtown district as areas in need of revitalization, redirecting staff to go back to the drawing board and hammer out alternate forms of funding for projects.

Among the requests made by the board included asking staff to diversify the city’s revenue sources, explore bond referendums, further develop economic incentives and pursue more partnerships with East Carolina University, Pitt County and Vidant Medical Center.

City manager Barbara Lipscomb pushed the council to decide on a time frame and a specific list of projects it wanted to pursue either individually or together, adding that staff had provided enough research to proceed.

Council members indicated they will continue to review the information provided by staff and discuss those topics at future City Council meetings.

“Let’s disseminate this information to the community and take an informal temperature of our needs and wants before moving forward with a set course,” District 3 Councilwoman Marion Blackburn said. “I know we drill down and quantify certain ideas, but we need to first agree on a proposal.”

Greenville’s Financial Services Director Bernita Demery said the city could afford $420 million in debt if it explored a mixture of potential revenue sources.

She said the council could secure limited obligation and special revenue bonds, installment purchase agreements or cash out a one-time contribution of $4.2 million from the general fund to fiance economic development projects.

Demery added the city also could find an extra $24 million in revenue, if it increased property taxes by two percent, food and beverage taxes by one percent and sales taxes by a quarter percent.

“I recommend you move very fast in identifying the list of capital projects you want to pursue,” Lipscomb said. “The money and the construction costs are not going to get any cheaper.”

Although the council indicated it wanted to upgrade the South Greenville Recreation Center and possibly bring a multi-media art center downtown, it said it first wanted to address the city’s system of roads.

Public Works Director Kevin Mulligan told the board that approximately 100 miles of city roadway is in poor condition. At $100,000 per mile, he estimated it would cost $10 million to resurface, which in a 20-year replacement plan, he put at $2.5 million annually.

“These are significant issues that need to be floated out to the business community and area residents,” Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas said. “We are just the tip of the spear for 85,000-plus people in the city. We need to gain input and come back and flesh out the details of each idea.”

Mitchell said in the coming days he plans to lobby his fellow council members to present a bond referendum to voters in November to fund economic development items.

“What we know is that the rates are the lowest they have ever been and with our strong financial standing as a city we have more than enough capacity to handle the bonds,” Mitchell said. “If we are serious about economic development and becoming a first class city, we have to be bold enough to act on a bold vision.”

Contact Wesley Brown at 252-329-9579 or wbrown@reflector.com.

Follow him on Twitter @CityWatchdog.

via The Daily Reflector.


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