With a long election year ahead, the city’s elected officials spent the first day of a planning retreat Thursday grappling with Raleigh’s growth, talking about the future and trying to make nice with each other.
The day brought both an airing out of council tensions, eased by humor, and warnings of new financial challenges, including a multimillion-dollar budget gap.
City leaders also hinted at big plans ahead, such as Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s idea to start an organization that connects corporate dollars with the arts. Meanwhile, the word “bold” emerged as the new touchstone in the civic conversation.
The city is hosting the two-day event, featuring top staffers and a facilitator from Novak Consulting Group, at an estimated cost of $16,000. Thursday’s event was at N.C. State University’s Hunt Library. The retreat continues Friday at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
The city’s finances will need some adjusting in the next few months, according to City Manager Ruffin Hall.
Raleigh will be $4 million to $6 million short of the funding it needs to continue current levels of service, according to Hall. As a result, the city may have to choose between lower levels of service in some functions – from public safety to leaf collection – or an increase to property taxes.
That’s because the city can no longer collect the “privilege tax” a special (and unevenly applied) fee on certain types of businesses. Raleigh lost about $7 million when legislators banned the practice.
Raleigh probably can come up with savings or funds to fill the gap, but that won’t leave much money to provide standard services to new or resurgent neighborhoods, Hall said.
“So that would mean not hiring additional police officers, or staff, or things of that nature?” asked Mary-Ann Baldwin. That’s a likely possibility, Hall said, unless the legislature replaces some of the money Raleigh lost in the privilege- tax ban.
Councilman John Odom is dubious that any state money will materialize.
“Even though McCrory says he wants to help us, I don’t see it happening,” he said of Gov. Pat McCrory.
Could the city government do more to boost the arts? It’s on the agenda.
Councilman Wayne Maiorano suggested that the city make an “arts walk” map, which could lead people to galleries and shops, perhaps under the First Friday brand.
The city also might try, Councilman Russ Stephenson said, to brand more artsy neighborhoods with names. Think “Warehouse District” or Asheville’s “River Arts District.”
For her part, McFarlane is in early talks to create a new foundation to connect corporations with the arts.
“The convergence of arts and technology is phenomenal,” she said.
Staffers also have been talking about the idea of “hip,” which might play a role in the long-term strategies the council is discussing this week.
“What did we need to do to be hip? Are we hip?” assistant manager Jim Greene asked, shortly before Councilman Bonner Gaylord informed him that he was “not hip.”
McFarlane said that Raleigh’s just hip enough. It’s a city well-positioned to pick up people who age out – or burn out – of Silicon Valley or Austin.
“This is the place that people say, ‘Clearly, we’re cool if anybody’s moving here,’” she said. “But we don’t have to try to be hipper than Austin or more Valley than the Valley.”
Airing of grievances
Early in the day, the mayor and the seven council members took markers to posters in a form of group art counseling.
They drew symbols and stick figures to represent their relationships and mission. They suggested higher ideals, from common ground to next levels, but they also made frank, if slightly oblique, comments about the state of the city’s governing board.
“Sometimes, I see the council as a very stiff body, sometimes inflexible,” said Councilwoman Kay Crowder, the newest member of the board. Though the council has its “high highs,” its lows can be low, she said.
“Sometimes, there appears to be disdain for each other and loathing for each other.”
Maiorano, the second-newest member, said that the day-to-day work of the council can feel like a slog through “wet cement,” with conversations getting stuck in ideological splits.
Developers are proposing high-density buildings in existing neighborhoods, and in some cases their neighbors haven’t been happy.
“We’ve allowed, I believe, a perpetuation of frustration when we talk about growth versus quality of life, when we talk about development versus neighborhood,” he said.
He wants to see a 40-story building in downtown, he said later, as a symbol of the city’s transformation.
Councilman Eugene Weeks said he liked that the council has been more respectful of city staff than some previous groups. However, he thinks there’s a little too much back-channel talk.
“Let’s be a little bit more truthful about some of the conversations that we have,” he said. “If you have something against me, let’s talk about it. Let’s not go behind each other’s back.”
Gaylord said the council was too quick to shoot down ideas, saying it sometimes seemed like a “contest.” He suggested the elected officials give each other feedback through surveys.
And Odom wants concision.
“We could have some very shorter meetings if people didn’t want to, say, pontificate for two hours – including myself,” he said.
The newer members’ comments about the council’s dynamics, Baldwin said, were something of a wake-up call.
“It’s almost a reminder of how you could appear to be to others – and I think when you’re more entrenched, you don’t see it,” she said.
Thursday ended with happy words. About 50 people gave their takes on how Raleigh is becoming more “bold.”
“It’s good to hear people admit that we’re a great city,” said the city’s longtime clerk, Gail Smith.