BoCC Candidates Talk Conservation And Climate Change

CARRBORO- Candidates running for a seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners outlined their top environmental priorities Wednesday night at a forum hosted by the Orange-Chatham Sierra Club.

Barry Jacobs, who has served on the board for four terms, said he wants to make sure the Lands Legacy program continues to protect natural areas, watersheds and agricultural land.

“We’ve acquired a thousand acres for parks and natural area protection, and we have conservation easements on more than two thousand acres,” said Jacobs. “We have drawn down grant monies so that land has cost us half, as Orange County taxpayers, what we have had to lay out.”

Earl McKee currently represents District 2, which covers Hillsborough and the rural portions of the county. He touted the success of the voluntary agricultural district program.

“If we’re going to focus on open space preservation, we’ve got to work with the people who own most of the open space in Orange County, and that’s the agricultural community,” said McKee. “The voluntary agricultural districts, having that program and the increase in acreage over the past few years, has done a lot to encourage farmland to stay in the farming community.”

Mia Burroughs is a member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board looking to win a seat on the Board of County Commissioners. She said she’d like to see more collaboration between the county and the school systems in planning recreation areas.

“I think we’ll want to continue to do co-locations the way that has been done with the Gravelly Hill school and West Ten Soccer Complex,” said Burroughs. “I think there’s a lot of good, cooperative programming and use of resources that can go on.”

Burroughs faces Gary Kahn for the District 1 seat representing Chapel Hill and Carrboro. As the only Republican in the race, Kahn stressed that he too values conservation.

“I am pro-conservation. As much as our legislature in Raleigh is anti-conservation, I am pro-conservation, so I want to make that point perfectly clear,” said Kahn. “I’m the Teddy Roosevelt kind of Republican.”

When asked how to reduce the county’s carbon footprint and tackle climate change, District 2 challenger Mark Marcoplos said the region’s local food system is key to increasing the area’s resilience.

“The price of food is going to sky-rocket as global warming wreaks havoc around the country,” said Marcoplos. “Food prices are going to go up; local food is going to be highly valuable.”

Bonnie Hauser, who is challenging Jacobs for an at-large seat on the board, said the county needs to do more to help residents prepare for natural disasters.

“Climate change is here. It’s time to be prepared for disaster. The county does have a disaster plan, but no one in the community knows about it,” said Hauser. “So we need to get it out to the communities, especially our affordable communities who are being stuck in places with no heating, no cooling. That needs to be fixed.”

Early voting begins April 24. Both the District 2 and at-large races will be decided in the May 6 Primary, while Burroughs will face Kahn in the November 4 General Election.

Orange County Commissioner Candidates Talk Trash And Taxes

CARRBORO- It’s been five years since Orange County residents have seen a property tax increase, but the question of when the rate might rise was on the minds of voters at last week’s county commissioner candidate forum hosted by the Orange County Democratic Women.

Barry Jacobs is seeking his fifth term on the board representing the county at-large. He told the audience that despite recent efforts to trim the budget, future tax increases might be necessary to fund what he called Orange County values.

“Schools are expensive,” said Jacobs. “People in Orange County want quality public education, we raise taxes to pay for the schools. We don’t apologize for it. Not everybody likes it.”

Challenger Bonnie Hauser said she’d try to avoid a tax increase by re-prioritizing county spending.

“In the short term I’d work to re-prioritize our spending to meet the needs of our schools and avoid raising taxes,” said Hauser. “To me, that means funding schools first and cut or delay funding to government facilities and non-essentials to free up capital and revenue.”

Incumbent Earl McKee faces Mark Marcoplos for the District 2 seat representing Hillsborough and rural Orange County. McKee said he hopes to hold the line on property taxes for at least one more year.

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you all that we’re not going to raise taxes this year, or that we will never raise taxes again. Everybody knows I will be telling a bald-faced lie if I do that,” said McKee. “But I will work to try to find areas where we can do reductions, areas where we can wring a few more dollars out of different funds.”

Marcoplos said recent boards have been judicious in their budget decisions, a trend he’d continue if elected.

“I can’t think of anybody who has wildly raised taxes or wildly slashed taxes,” said Marcoplos. “It’s a process that has been done reasonably in the confines of the realities of the day, and I would be in that tradition.”

The future of recycling and solid waste disposal was also a hot topic, as the county is currently trying to find a new funding model for curbside recycling pick-up, while also searching for a long-term solution for solid waste disposal now that the landfill has closed. Marcoplos said he’d make solid waste a top priority.

“One of my key goals as a commissioner will be to work towards that comprehensive end-game,” said Marcoplos. “We need a [waste] transfer station in Orange County and we need a recycling station right next to it which will simplify the picking up of trash and recycling.”

McKee agreed, saying his thinking on the issue has evolved during his time on the board.

“I’m going to be quite honest with you, I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” said McKee. “I don’t know what the best way is, but I’m coming to the conclusion that we need to step back and look at this in a holistic way. We need to put it in a task force, to hire a consultant, which is something I opposed in 2010.”

Hauser said she’d like to see greater cooperation between the towns and county to reduce waste at schools and other institutional facilities, with an eye to regional solutions in the future.

“I’m disappointed that two years after deciding to close the landfill we still don’t have a plan for solid waste and recycling,” said Hauser. “In the short term, I’d like to focus on an interim plan to reduce waste that includes an inter-local agreement with the towns.”

Jacobs said the county is on the verge of signing a five-year contract with Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill to collaborate on recycling services, but that going forward, locating a site for new solid waste facilities will be a challenge.

“One of our problems has been, especially recently, the towns have not wanted to work with us; they weren’t sure they wanted to have an agreement,” said Jacobs. “We’re about to sign a five-year agreement with the towns and the basis of doing planning going forward is, how do we do, in a cost-effective and socially just way, solid waste in Orange County?”

All four candidates are Democrats and there are no Republican challengers, meaning the race will be decided in the May 6 Primary.  The candidates will meet again to discuss the issues at a forum hosted by the Orange/Chatham Sierra Club at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday at Carrboro Town Hall.

OC Register Of Deeds Candidates Face Off In First Debate

CARRBORO-In what might be a first for Orange County, a crowd of nearly fifty turned out to hear from three candidates vying for the job of Register of Deeds.

The usually low-key race is garnering attention as former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton has stated that if elected, he’ll issue marriage licenses to same sex couples in defiance of state law. He said North Carolina’s Amendment One, which bans same sex marriage, violates the U.S. Constitution.

“I think it is clear it’s unconstitutional, and the oath of office requires that we enforce first and foremost the United States Constitution and that’s what I plan to do,” said Chilton, speaking Thursday at a forum hosted by the Orange County Democratic Women.

But the incumbent, Deborah Brooks, said it’s not that easy.

“Same sex marriage is illegal in the state of North Carolina, and we cannot issue a marriage license,” said Brooks. “If they change that statute, then we’ll go along with that. We do not discriminate.”

The other challenger in the race is Sara Stephens. She sided with Brooks on the question of same sex marriage licenses.

“My personal beliefs cannot and will not interfere with my professional obligations,” said Stephens. “It is my intention to have a friendly and welcoming office for everyone that enters the Orange County Register of Deeds Office, but I will not go against the oath.”

Chilton stressed he’s not just running to take a stand against Amendment One. He’s also a real estate lawyer with a long interest in Orange County land use history. He said he’d like to see the county offer online filing for documents.

“We’re part-way into implementing it now and I believe it’s very important to finish it,” said Chilton. “Every real estate closing that happens in Chapel Hill and Carrboro results in a 20 mile round-trip that some paralegal has to do to drive it up to the office. That makes no sense to me.”

Brooks has held the position as Register for the past four years, and worked in the Deeds office for nearly forty years. She says the office has made progress toward providing more online services, including scanning more than 900,000 records that will be available to the public by May. In addition, she says she hopes to move away from a cash-only system.

“Everybody has to pay cash that comes into our office,” said Brooks. ”We’re getting ready to implement credit cards so you can come in and use your credit card.”

Stephens worked in the Register of Deeds office for five years before moving to the private sector. She said her priority will be providing good customer service to all residents of Orange County.

“A little over 3,500 births took place at UNC Hospitals, around half of those children born were Latino. Right now the office does not employ a Spanish-speaking person, or have Spanish on the website,” said Stephens. “That does not accurately reflect our community.”

All three candidates are Democrats and there is no Republican challenger, which means the race will be decided in the May 6 primary. Republican voters can participate in the primary if they change their registration to “unaffiliated” by contacting the local Board of Elections by April 10.

Thursday’s forum, hosted by the Orange County Democratic Women, also featured candidates running for the Board of County Commissioners. WCHL will bring you more from that forum early next week.

OC Sheriff Candidates Square Off In First Debate

EFLAND- More than 50 people filled the auditorium at Gravelly Hill Middle School on Friday night to hear from the candidates running to be Orange County’s next sheriff. The forum, sponsored by the Efland Ruritans and moderated by Greg Andrews, was the first time the six men have faced each other in debate.

But though the field is crowded, the discussion was calm. Better communication between law enforcement agencies and more crisis intervention training for deputies were ideas each candidate endorsed.

They all agreed that the current slate of gun laws is sufficient, and stressed they want the sheriff’s office to continue to issue concealed carry permits, rather than shifting that function to the state or federal level. They also agreed the Orange County Jail should continue to house federal prisoners awaiting trial, as this brings in about $2.7 million dollars of revenue each year.

Andy Cagle, a local businessman and the only candidate without law enforcement experience, said he wanted to reconfigure how deputies patrol the county, but this idea got little reaction from other candidates.

Keith Webster said he would aggressively target known drug houses, while David Caldwell said he’d make diversity a priority for hiring new officers.

Buddy Parker touted new officer fitness requirements, saying as sheriff he would hold himself to any physical standard required of deputies.

Larry Faucette said the department needs to bring more education programs to local schools. Charles Blackwood promised to reduce redundant paperwork by switching to a paperless reporting system.

All six men are running as Democrats, and there is no Republican challenger. This means the race will be decided in the May 6 primary. Voters registered as Republican cannot vote in the Democratic primary unless they change their party affiliation to “Independent” before April 10.

The race has already garnered much attention, at its the first time in more than three decades that Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass has not stood for re-election.

The six candidates will face off again on April 16 at a forum hosted by the Orange County Democratic Party.

Mark Chilton: Register of Deeds Job ‘One of My Goals in Life’

Former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton says his extensive research into local real estate and land history is what inspired him to run for Orange County Register of Deeds.

His name will be on the May 6 primary ballot along with two other candidates, Sara Stephens of Durham and Deborah B. Brooks of Hillsborough.
“I saw that there was a race shaping up between Sara Stephens and Deborah Brooks,” he told WCHL recently, “and so I decided that now’s the time to go ahead and pursue one of my goals in life, which is to be the Orange County register of Deeds.”

Chilton says it’s an idea he’s kicked around in his head “for at least five years.”

His research on local history and real estate records led to the creation of The Land Grant Atlas of Old Orange County, a planned four-volume series. Chilton has completed one volume so far.

He said he’d like to make sure that Orange County completes the process of putting all of its old land records up on the Web.

“Right now, they only go back to a certain point,” he said. “But the records go back much further, and I think we ought to go ahead and ‘image’ and index and get all the rest of those records online.”

He went on to say that the county needs to use less proprietary software when presenting those records online, so that users may have easier access to them across multiple platforms.

Over the last year, Chilton has been active in the progressive Moral Monday movement.

He was arrested, along with fellow members of Carrboro’s town government, during a protest at the North Carolina General Assembly last June.

As Register of Deeds, Chilton would have authority to issue marriage licenses. When asked by WCHL if he would defy the state’s current prohibitive stance on gay marriage, he didn’t answer outright.

Instead, Chilton spoke about where he sees the future of marriage equality as it’s being decided in federal courts.

“To my way of thinking, the number one responsibility of all elected officials in North Carolina is to uphold the federal Constitution, above and beyond all other purported laws or constitutions,” Chilton said.

In recent months, federal judges have struck down gay marriage bans in Virginia, Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Utah.

WCHL will profile candidates in all local races in upcoming weeks.

Local Candidates Gear Up For 2014 Election

HILLSBOROUGH- Even before the start of the filing period, more than a dozen local candidates have declared their intent to run for office in 2014.

Long-time Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon announced she won’t be seeking re-election, prompting Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board Vice-Chair Mia Burroughs to seek the seat representing District 1.

Bingham resident Mark Marcoplos says he’ll challenge incumbent Earl McKee for the District 2 seat representing rural Orange County, and Bonnie Hauser will take on Board Chair Barry Jacobs for the at-large seat.

For the first time in three decades, there’s no incumbent running for Orange County Sheriff. Lindy Pendergrass announced he’ll be retiring after more than thirty years as the county’s top lawman. Already several challengers have put their names forward, including Charles Blackwood, Andy Cagle, Larry Faucette and David Caldwell.

The Orange County School board has four seats up for grabs- that race will be determined in the May primary.

At the same time, the Town of Carrboro will hold a special election to fill the board seat Lydia Lavelle left vacant when she was elected mayor last fall. To date, planning board chair Bethany Chaney is the only candidate to come forward, but others are likely to run.

At the state level, newly-seated House District 50 Representative Graig Meyer will stand for office for the first time, and State Senator Valerie Foushee will be running to keep the seat she was appointed to when Ellie Kinnaird stepped down. House District 56 Representative Verla Insko will be seeking her tenth term.

Last but not least, Superior Court Judges Carl Fox and Allen Baddour are up for re-election, as is District Court Judge Joe Buckner and District Attorney Jim Woodall.

The filing period opens at noon on Monday and  runs through the end of the month. The primary election is May 6, the general election is November 4.

Sen. Hagan’s Fate May Rest In The Hands Of The President

RALEIGH - Public Policy Polling Director Tom Jensen says the 2014 senate race will be greatly affected by the President’s approval rating.

“It’s really kind of amazing,” Jensen says. “Barack Obama’s approval has dropped ten points in North Carolina since September; Kay Hagan’s net approvals has dropped ten points in North Carolina since September. We really are seeing that Obama’s fate is basically dictating Hagan’s fate.”

Democrats are losing points when the Affordable Care Act and its website aren’t working the way legislators said it would. Senator Hagan sent a request to the Obama Administration to launch an investigation into the problems behind the ACA, but Jensen says that hasn’t really helped her numbers.

“She’s not somebody who voters have really strong feelings about one way or the other,” Jensen says. “So, where she ends up in our polls sort of goes up and down depending on other things that are going on politically.”

Jensen says the next 11 months will be crucial for Senator Hagan.

“Really, if it’s a good year for Democrats, Hagan should be fine,” Jensen says. “If it’s a bad year for Democrats, she’s in a lot of trouble. If it’s kind of a neutral year, I think we should expect a pretty close race.”

There are five Republicans vying for the opposition to Senator Hagan. Jensen says the numbers have started to settle, and that over the last three months there’s been a big shift in how the race is looking.

“Kay Hagan is up on Thom Tillis by two points, tied with both Heather Grant and Mark Harris, and down by two points to both Greg Brannon and Bill Flynn,” Jensen says.

Public Policy Polling found 43 percent of voters approve of the job Senator Hagan is doing while 49 percent disapprove.

To see the complete results of the polls, click here.

Sen. Hagan Approval Slipping in Wake of Obamacare Web Launch

Raleigh – The failed launch of the Obamacare website is acting like gravity for the approval ratings of democrats in Washington D.C.

***Listen to the Story***

Senator Kay Hagan’s approval ratings are changing, but Public Policy Polling Analyst Jim Williams says they’re not going the direction the Hagan administration would prefer.

“We had found Kay Hagan with a small, but consistent lead throughout most of this year,” Williams says, “We’re finding now that it’s really kind of crept into a statistical tie at this point.”

The poll shows Hagan in a dead heat with her prospective 2014 opponents; coming in no more than three points ahead of state House Speaker Tom Tillis, Heather Grant, and Rev. Mark Harris. And she’s trailing one point behind Greg Brannon.

So what’s the force behind the trend?

“That stems probably from the botched roll out of the Obamacare website,” says Williams.

The website has been a nightmare for the faces of the Democratic Party since opened its marketplace for federal health insurance on October 1.

“Obama’s approval rating in September was 48 percent approve, 29 percent disapprove,” Williams says, “Now it’s down to 43 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove.”

Williams says North Carolinians have responded negatively to the health care plan they were already skeptical of in the first place.

“Obamacare has never been particularly popular in North Carolina, but now only 38 percent of voters say they approve of it, compared to 48 percent who disapprove,” Williams says.

“Even worse 69 percent of voters say its rollout has been unsuccessful so far.”

The 2014 senate election is still a year away. Williams says there’s a large group of undecided voters who could come to Hagan’s rescue.

“The race is sort of unformed as far as the senate race,” Williams says, “A lot of the folks who either are running or may run are not well-known to the voters yet; so that’s why you’re seeing high numbers of undecided voters.”

Senator Hagan originally supported the Affordable Care Act. But she announced Tuesday that she is asking for an investigation of the failed website launch.

Shutdown Hurting GOP In Key Senate Battleground States

CHAPEL HILL – A new poll shows that voters in six Senate races, including North Carolina, are unhappy about the government shutdown. Republicans trail in five of the six key races that will likely determine which party controls the Senate, according to Public Policy Polling in Raleigh.

Tom Jensen, Director of PPP, explains that Republicans need to win six seats to claim a majority.

“North Carolina was one of the states where we found voters particularly unhappy about the shutdown,” Jensen says. “Only 29 percent of voters in the State supported it, 63 percent opposed.”

The numbers show that voters “strongly opposed” the shutdown in each state polled, even though most voted for Mitt Romney last year. Jensen says this may make it harder for Republicans to win back the Senate in next year’s election.

“In a lot of these races, we are seeing Democrats in better shape than they were before, or at the very least, we are seeing that Republicans are sort of making it hard for themselves to dig out of a hole that they were already in because voters are so unhappy with them about the shutdown,” Jensen says.

In North Carolina, Kay Hagan leads a generic Republican challenger by five percent. Sixty-three percent of voters oppose the government shutdown, compared to 29 percent who support it. Jensen says is a significant margin given that North Carolinians are divided over politics with in the state.

Jensen adds that many North Carolinians will likely have favorable opinions of State delegates who voted to end the partial government shutdown and raise the nation’s debt limit.

Hagan, Senator Richard Burr (Rep.) and Representative David Price (Dem- NC 4th District) were among those who voted to end the shutdown.

PPP also collected data from Georgia, Michigan, Iowa, Louisiana, and Arkansas for this poll.

To see the full results of the poll, click here.

School and County Leaders Consider $100M Bond Referendum

CHAPEL HILL- Years of deferred maintenance are taking a toll on local schools, leaving county and school officials scrambling to figure out how to foot the bill.

“We have to have a different communication with the citizens. We cannot even afford this. We don’t have enough money to do this,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Vice-Chair Jamezetta Bedford, speaking Thursday at a joint meeting of school board members and county commissioners. “The idea that we want new things and we want this new park or whatever, when we can’t afford to maintain what we already have is very worrisome.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school budget allocates $20 million in the next decade to repair aging facilities, but a recent evaluation of the district’s oldest schools school revealed that repairing or replacing those facilities could cost as much as $170 million.

Orange County School administrators are still in the process of inspecting that district’s schools. Initial estimates for renovation range between $20 million and $68 million, but school officials say those numbers are likely to rise as many of the county’s oldest schools are in the Orange County system.

Members of the two school boards and county commissioners came together Thursday to discuss a potential bond package to take to voters, possibly as early as November of 2014.

County commissioners are considering a $100 million dollar bond referendum to pay for a new county jail and a fifth middle school for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system, but that plan doesn’t yet include any projects to repair aging schools.

And with the jail and the middle school estimated to cost about $76 million, that leaves just $24 million to address what school officials say is a $230 million dollar problem.

County leaders hope to break ground on a new jail in the next four years, but Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board Chair Michelle Brownstein said the school systems can’t wait that long.

“My anticipation is that as more details come out about both Orange County schools and Chapel Hill schools, about the level of need at those schools, there’s going to be a greater sense of urgency,” said Brownstein. “There’s going to need to be evidence that we’re coming up with a plan. I don’t think it is reasonable to think that we’re going to be able to wait until 2016 to address our county’s school needs.”

The need for a new jail is also pressing, not only because the county jail is consistently overcrowded, but because the board recently signed a land lease with the state that mandates the county start construction within five years. Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs said failure to do so would invalidate the lease.

“If we haven’t done what we need to by that time then we’re just out of luck,” said Jacobs.

Nonetheless, County Manager Mike Talbert warned commissioners their options may be limited.

“Right now, outstanding debt is $190 million dollars. You’re looking at proposals that would nearly double that in a fairly short period of time. There are going to be limitations,” said Talbert. “Our debt has to grow in proportion to our budget and to our population. There are very much limits on what we can do.”

Veteran Orange County school board member and former county commissioner Stephen Halkiotis said he’s worked on three bond referendums over the years. He told the assembled leaders not to get too worried this early in the process.

“It always starts this way, so don’t get flabbergasted, don’t get upset,” said Halkiotis. “The first reach is real high. Then you realize you can only get certain fruit from the tree. Then you get real practical.”

Commissioners will discuss the feasibility of a possible bond package at their October 8 work session.