Months before Sen. Trudy Wade inserted a budget provision that would pave the way for residents to kill special property tax districts, her longtime political consultant fought with a tax district’s leadership over a retaining wall.
Bill Burckley is a former Greensboro city councilman who was paid $7,500 last year to advise Wade, a Guilford County Republican. He’s been seeking city permission to demolish a crumbling retaining wall in the College Hill historic district – one of two historic districts that have a municipal service district tax. The neighborhood association, which makes recommendations for how the tax money is used, opposed his request.
In 2011, Burckley was among a group of College Hill property owners who successfully lobbied to lower the neighborhood’s additional tax from five cents per $100 valuation to one cent, according to news reports.
Wade said her legislation – which would allow residents of a tax district to repeal a tax through a referendum – was prompted by complaints from the Greensboro historic districts. College Hill Neighborhood Association leaders say they’ve heard no such complaints, and Wade won’t say who contacted her.
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Asked Thursday if Burckley was among those who complained, Wade’s response was that “I’ve only heard from certain citizens who live in certain districts.”
Burckley did not respond to multiple calls from The News & Observer. But he told The (Greensboro) News & Record earlier this month that he’s concerned that the College Hill tax money is being used to purchase a fire-damaged house.
Neighborhood association leaders say they want to know why Wade proposed the change to municipal service districts. The neighborhood uses the tax to fund street lights, landscaping and other projects, similar to a homeowners’ association.
“Why this is coming up is a complete mystery to us,” said vice president David Arneke. “Sen. Wade never asked about this, she’s never contacted the neighborhood association. We have no idea who she’s talking to or what their motives are.”
The provision’s impacts would go well beyond Greensboro. A total of 53 municipalities have service district taxes, and most cover primarily commercial property in downtown development areas, like in Raleigh. Four coastal towns also use the tax to pay for beach renourishment projects.
Many of the cities and towns fear that because the referendum would only be available to voters registered within the tax district, a small minority of property owners could decide the fate of the tax.
Wade said Thursday that she’s open to tweaking the proposal. “I think it will change, and we haven’t even had a chance to meet with the House on that issue yet,” she said. “It’s just in the early stages of working out what we hope will be a great provision.”
Because the provision is only in the Senate’s version of the budget, it will be among the items for discussion as the House and Senate negotiate a final budget in the coming weeks.
Wade said she’s heard from people across the state who want a new option to drop the tax districts. Under current law, only a majority vote of the city or town council can end the tax.
“Most everyone is interested in an exit clause,” she said.
In Greensboro’s College Hill, however, leaders say it make sense to have the city council oversee any changes.
Because renters could vote in a referendum, neighborhood association president James Keith said, it “would allow someone who has no vested interest in the fund to have a say/vote in whether or not to abolish the fund. This makes no sense to me as a taxpayer.”
Both Keith and Arneke said Burckley hasn’t approached the neighborhood association with concerns about the property purchased with district tax dollars.
The association weighed in with opposition last fall when Burckley sought approval from the city’s historic commission to tear down his retaining wall. The commission ordered him to instead repair the wall in its current form.
According to meeting minutes, Burckley called his property a “money pit,” and said he’d consider requesting tax district funding to pay for the work. Arneke said he never made a formal request, and the wall, which is holding up a slope next to a sidewalk, is still standing. He dug a trench behind the wall to keep it from shifting further.
“More people have complained about that big trench that Bill Burckley dug than have complained about the municipal service district,” Arneke said.