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News & Record Masthead
October 23, 2003

Hockey debated at candidates' forum
Council challengers criticize the city's decision to manage the Greensboro Generals.

BY MARK BINKER
Staff Writer

GREENSBORO - The city's takeover of a minor-league hockey team was the focus of a lengthy exchange between City Council candidates at a forum Wednesday night, with challengers calling the move a bad business decision and incumbents defending it as the best of two bad choices.

All 16 candidates running for council either attended or sent a representative to the forum hosted by the Congregational United Church of Christ on West Radiance Drive.

The city agreed this summer to manage and assume some of the risk of running the Greensboro Generals, who play at the Greensboro Coliseum. City officials say the deal kept the team from folding and leaving the city-owned coliseum without it's major tenant.

District 4 challenger Bob Skenes and at-large challenger Bill Burckley criticized the deal during their opening presentations. Burckley said it was one of several moves that had caused "a lack of confidence" in city government.

Skenes questioned why the city would "own a hockey team" when other needs, such as fixing old sewer lines, had not been met.

After the candidates' opening remarks, a church member asked some of the incumbents to explain the deal.

"We do not own a hockey team," said Mayor Keith Holliday, clarifying that the city has only agreed to manage the team for a year.

"We had two choices, and they were both bad," he said: One was to lose the Generals, the other was to take the unusual step of having a government manage a sports team. Holliday said the city's decision was "a Band-Aid decision," not as a permanent solution.

Florence' Gatten, who is the incumbent running against Skenes, said that city officials sometimes needed to take risks.

"This is an experiment," Gatten said. She likened price breaks the city has given the Generals to breaks a mall might give a big store to avoid losing it and creating an empty store front.

But Skenes said the council did not have enough information to make such decisions.

"Mayor Holliday, you're a banker," he said. "Have you ever made a loan to a client who came in with no information?"

Holliday responded, "No."

"How much information did we have on the hockey team when you made that decision," Skenes asked. He has criticized the fact that a written agreement was not in place until Sept. 29, months after the city agreed to run the team.

Holliday said that council members were briefed in private by Coliseum Manager Mall Brown.

Council Member Tom Phillips, one of six candidates in at-large race, said the coliseum contributes to the city's quality of life. He said most critics of the Generals deal were people who don't like the coliseum because it loses money every year.

"I ask you, how much money do we make off our parks?" Phillips said. "The coliseum is a crown jewel in our city."

After the forum, mayoral challenger Bruce Ashley said that Holliday and the other council members 'should have done more to explain the deal to the city before it was made.

Burckley also attacked the incumbent council for planning to raise taxes and fees on city residents next June. He criticized the council for raising property taxes in 2002 by the equivalent of $35 for a property assessed at $100,000.

"Your City Council is going to raise your fees and your taxes $15 million next year unless someone like me gets elected," Burckley told the audience. Burckley said he was referring to projections in the city's current budget documents.

But at-large incumbent Yvonne Johnson said no such fee and tax increase had been contemplated yet. Typically, the council does not begin debating the budget it enacts in June until the December before.

"We've always asked the manager to do the budget so that there would be no tax increase, so I just needed to clear that up right here," Johnson said. The tax increase in 2002 was implemented because the state government took back $9 million that was due to Greensboro.

When asked about potential tax and fee increases later in the evening, Phillips acknowledged that the city would need to raise fees for trash collection and water and sewer service to pay for needed upgrades and expansions. But he said council members would try to keep property taxes stable.

Burckley responded, "It's perfectly obvious that members of council don't read their own budget documents."

At-large candidate Jason Arispe did not attend Wednesday's forum. At-large challenger David Hoggard and incumbent Don Vaughan stayed out of both the hockey and tax discussion.

But Hoggard did go on the offensive by pointing out that each incumbent in his race had been in office for four terms or longer. He said that long tenure has lead to complacency and a "dearth of new ideas."

"Ask them what their new ideas are for the next two years," Hoggard prompted the audience. But no one asked that question before the forum ended.

Contact Mark Binker at 373-7023, or mbinker@news-record.com

 
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