CHAPEL HILL- As budget season kicks into high gear, local and state officials are working to determine what services make up the local area’s top priorities—but the local community is sharply divided on which of those entities should come first.
“There’s a level of service we want to maintain, be it libraries, recycling pick-up, or affordable housing,” says community member Greg Bell. “It will be sad to watch the gradual dismantling of those services. Even though the General Assembly is going to force a lot of unfounded mandates on us, we need to do our best to hold on and try to get through this.”
Since the beginning of this year, Chapel Hill Town Council members have been focusing on a process known as priority budgeting, where they will concentrate their funding and where they will consider making cuts. According to local resident Bonnie Hauser, three particular services are at the top of the list of entities that need the most attention in Chapel Hill and throughout Orange County—but she adds that at the same time, local government officials should limit the amount of funding that they put into any one of them.
“I don’t know how to choose between public safety, schools, or libraries,” she says. “Certainly we want them all, but I don’t understand why our services have to be so much more expensive than everyone else’s.”
And Amanda Scherle who’s resided in North Carolina for almost six years, also says the Orange County area doesn’t always have to outdo surrounding communities.
“Every year it just feels like we need to take more money away from this and that, and it’s never about how we can more efficiently do that,” she says. “Maybe we don’t need three libraries, maybe we can make do with two libraries, and that kind of thing.”
As far as libraries are concerned, one major expense over the past several years has been the newly renovated Chapel Hill Public Library. The facility finally had its grand opening earlier this spring after budget cuts postponed the process several times over the past decade. But the project’s financial burden still hasn’t completely been erased—the financial burden still hasn’t been completely erased. Out of the $700,000 from the town budget that was projected for the new library, about $350,000 still has to be implemented into the library’s operating budget cost.
Another recent focus has been emergency services. In recent months, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County have also all been focused on improving the efficiency of EMS resources. Hauser says it’s an ideal opportunity to save money through cooperation.
“The county needs about a dozen or so new ambulance substations,” she says. “They can build separate ones for nearly a million dollars each, or they can co-locate them with the fire stations and save a lot of money. But it takes cooperation between the towns and the county to start coming to those decisions.”
And according to local resident Jeff Danner, cooperation will be essential over the next few months as town officials begin discussing potential tax increases to offset budget shortfalls—even if it means that some town and county members are paying for services that they don’t often use.
“Different people find different things to be vital, and we need to accept that,” he says. “A community is not an a la carte proposition.”
But even so, community member Lee Heavlin says before local elected officials approve any hikes, they also need to consider the area’s affordability.
“It’s going to displace the people who cannot afford to be here,” he says. “You want to bring people to your community and have a true dynamic of all kinds of people with all kinds of talents that will help you grow. Today, we’re seeing people leave, and we need to stop that.”
These comments and many more were made during part one of the Bottom Line panel in the 2013 WCHL Chapel Hill – Carrboro – Orange County Community Forum.