BoCC Bunts On Rural Recycling Pick-Up Plan

Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday backed away from a plan to create a solid waste service district tax to pay for rural recycling pick-up.

“It seems clear to me at least, that a one-size-fits-all solution is not ideal,” said Commissioner Mark Dorosin.

The board side-stepped a vote on the proposed district tax in favor of what members called a more wholistic approach.

“On the 13th we’re going to be discussing a draft inter-local agreement which would bring us back into partnership, after several years, with our municipal partners,” said Board Chair Barry Jacobs. “That’s the time to start talking about what all of our options are, how they fit together, how they would be funded, to look at new ideas.”

The district tax would have replaced a fee the county attorney told the board it no longer has authority to levy. The rural curb-side recycling program currently serves about 13,700 homes, but funding runs out in July.

Residents of suburban areas outside Chapel Hill and Carrboro supported the district plan as a way to continue curb-side pick up. But rural residents protested, saying the service is not suited to areas with long driveways and no curbs.

Despite two crowded public hearings and a slew of emails, board members could not agree on the level of public support for the plan.

“I have to say that most of the emails I received were in favor of the tax,” said Penny Rich. “Most of the emails I received are people that wanted to take advantage and continue using the recycling.”

“I must be on a different email list, because the emails I received ran two to one against the tax,” Earl McKee replied.

Unlike the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Orange County does not currently host a public email archive online. However, Jacobs proposed posting all emails related to the solid waste service district tax plan on the county website for readers to draw their own conclusions.

Only one member of the public spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. Bonnie Hauser, who is challenging Jacobs for his at-large seat on the board, called for the creation of a work group of citizens and elected officials to sort through solid waste issues.

“Please consider finding a simple way to fund rural curbside recycling for the short-term, possibly using reserves or the General Fund,” said Hauser. “Second, start a work group with professionals and citizens from the towns and county to work together over the next year or so to explore services, costs and fees for trash and recycling services.”

Though no board member called for a vote on either the district tax plan or its alternative, an opt-in subscription service, some, including Bernadette Pelissier, expressed frustration that the matter remains unresolved.

“While I understand that many of my colleagues want to have further conversations, and there may be fruitfulness to it, we are going to have an inequitable situation that’s going to be aggravated by not making any decision about some way to do this,” said Pelissier.

County leaders must still decide how to fund the program for at least the next year, and whether to move ahead with the purchase of roll carts.

The board will discuss the future of solid waste disposal, potential partnerships with the towns and the question of rural recycling in particular, at meetings scheduled for May 8 and 13.

Town Council Seeks County Buy-In For Ephesus-Fordham Plan

When it comes to financing the Ephesus-Fordham renewal plan, Chapel Hill leaders say they have a unique investment opportunity to offer Orange County Commissioners, if they act fast.

“We’re letting you in on a really good thing,” said Council Member Maria Palmer, at Thursday’s joint meeting of the Chapel Hill Town Council and the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“I’ve heard that before and it doesn’t always work out so good,” replied Commissioner Mark Dorosin.

“What you guys need to keep in mind is the cost of not doing it right,” Palmer countered.

Council members hope Commissioners will sign on to the financing plan for the Ephesus-Fordham revitalization project, which calls for $10 million dollars worth of road and infrastructure improvements to the Ephesus Church-Fordham Boulevard intersection, as well as the rezoning of 190 acres to spur economic development nearby.

The improvements would be financed using Chapel Hill Town Hall as collateral, and paid off with the increased tax revenue expected to come with residential and commercial growth in the area.

But Chapel Hill’s Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer said there’s a lag between the time the town will reap the rewards of the investment and when the bills come due. He said paying down the debt will cost the town an estimated $800,000 each year, but the additional revenue won’t match that until 2030.

“That’s one of the things that we’re trying to solve for, is that gap between the town’s tax increment and our expected debt service cost,” said Pennoyer.

The town is asking the county to chip in by donating a portion of the county’s tax revenue from the redevelopment to help pay that annual debt service, a contribution of up to $400,000 each year.

Although the town has money in its debt management fund that could cover the shortfall, Pennoyer told the board Orange County’s participation in the project is vital.

“Our ability to do it would be marginal. It would be much tighter,” said Pennoyer. “The county’s participation creates the strength of a partnership that basically is a very strong, marketable debt structure. It creates a synergy there that makes it work a whole lot better, but if the town needed to do this on our own, we may be able to squeak by.”

Commissioners questioned the phasing of the plan, which anticipates mostly residential growth in the short-term and commercial development in later years.

County leaders also questioned the impact the project would have on school enrollment. Orange County Interim Manager Michael Talbert said adding 1,000 apartments would cost the county an additional $1 million each year in school funding and likely accelerate the need for new schools.

“That could also put pressure on our building capacity and may move future schools that were maybe five or ten years out up in the schedule,” said Talbert.

Commissioners expressed cautious enthusiasm about the Ephesus-Fordham project, but Chair Barry Jacobs said the board needs to know more before committing to the plan.

“It’s clear that y’all are excited, and as partners, that makes us at least somewhat excited, but I think we need to do our due diligence from our perspective,” said Jacobs.

The Chapel Hill Town Council is looking to vote on the rezoning portion of the plan in mid-April, but the financing would not need to be in place until June.

County Commissioners will discuss the plan at a future work session yet to be scheduled. The Town Council will meet with Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district administrators on April 9 to discuss the project’s impact on enrollment.

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.

Orange County Residents Pan Recycling District Tax Plan

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County residents told the Board of Commissioners that while they love recycling, they don’t love the idea of a new solid waste service district tax.

“This seems like a line that’s being stepped over here, creating this as a tax,” said Lynne Jaffe. “I totally want to support recycling, but it doesn’t feel fair. It doesn’t feel right.”

Jaffe was one of fifteen speakers at Tuesday night’s public hearing asking the board to come up with new options to fund rural curbside recycling pick-up.

Loren Hintz was one of four to speak in favor of the plan. He represented the Orange County Commission for the Environment which endorses the proposal.

“The individual cost for the new tax district is similar to the old recycling fee,” said Hintz. “It is a relatively small cost compared to the benefit the recycling program will give to the entire county.”

If the solid waste service district plan is approved, roadside recycling pick-up would be funded by a 1.5 cent increase on the property tax rate for all land-owners in the new district, regardless of whether they use the service.

The tax would apply to empty lots and farmland as well as homes, a point that frustrated several speakers.

“It is not similar to the fire tax, as stated in the county proposal,” said Marsha Efland. “Fire service can be utilized on each parcel of land that a person owns, whereas a tax on recycling on an undeveloped farm or forest cannot be utilized.”

Currently, the pick-up service is available to approximately 13,750 homes in Orange County, and the majority of rural residents take their trash and recycling to one of five solid waste convenience centers. Theresa Edwards said she prefers it that way.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to pay for a service that we’ll never use, and we’ll never use this service because we live on a private gravel road.” said Edwards. “If I’m going to put my stuff into my car and drive it four-tenths of a mile, I’m not going to dump it on the side of the road where it can blow God knows where, I’m going to take it on to the convenience center, which I’m happy to say, really is a great convenience center. If you want to do something good for us, put the hours back up to seven days a week at the convenience center.”

The board is scrambling to find a new funding model for the pick-up service since a court decision called into question the county’s legal authority to charge a rural recycling fee. Funding for the current fiscal year runs out in July.

As an alternative to the service district plan, commissioners had previously discussed a subscription model that would allow residents to opt out of the program, but some worry that might lead to a drop in recycling rates.

The board will hold another public hearing on the plan scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on April 1 at the Department of Social Services in Hillsborough.

Local Leaders Make Progress On Rogers Road Remediation Plan

CHAPEL HILL- The Rogers Road remediation plan has been in the works for nearly two years, but recently Chapel Hill and Orange County each took steps to move the plan forward.

On Tuesday night, Orange County Commissioners unanimously signed off on an operating agreement for the yet-to-be-built Rogers Road Community Center.

Once completed, the facility will be operated by the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association, or RENA. Minister Robert Campbell is the president of RENA. He told the board this is an important step forward for the neighborhood.

“We have an opportunity to bring our community into the future,” said Campbell. “Our children in the summertime have nowhere to go. But now we have the opportunity to help shape and mold them right here in the community.”

Commissioners committed $650,000 back in January of 2013 to build the center on land leased from Habitat for Humanity, but the project was delayed last fall when constructions bids came in over budget. County staffers say the building has been redesigned and the rebidding process should be complete by April.

The community center is part of a remediation plan agreed on by representatives from RENA, Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, to help make amends to the neighborhood that bore the burden of the county and municipal landfill for forty years.

The plan also includes extending sewer service to 86 parcels in the Rogers Road neighborhood, at an estimated cost of approximately $5.8 million dollars.

Carrboro has already set aside its portion of the total, about $900,000. Chapel Hill, however, is struggling to find a way to pay its share, as the area is outside of town limits. Town staffers are currently investigating the possibility of creating a new utility district or extending the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction to include Rogers Road.

In the meantime, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted last week to spend up to $77,400 on preliminary engineering studies and community outreach to determine exactly where sewer lines should go.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said this is work that will need to be done no matter what.

“What this does is, this moves the ball even though Commissioners and Council members just keep talking,” Kleinschmidt told the Council.

The engineering studies and outreach are expected to take up to 10 months to complete. The Chapel Hill Town Council will revisit the question of the extraterritorial jurisdiction on June 16.

Orange BoCC Backs Off 2014 Bond Referendum

CHAPEL HILL- Both Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools are facing multi-million dollar repairs to fix up aging facilities, but Orange County Commissioners worry there’s not enough time to put together a $100 million dollar bond package before a September deadline to get it on the ballot for the General Election.

“I’m a little concerned that if we shoot for 2014 we’re not going to do a very good job of getting everything in place and take a chance that it will not pass,” said Board Vice-Chair Earl McKee.

He and fellow board members are also wary of taking up bond planning while the county is in the process of searching for a new manager, a search that’s taking longer than expected.

At a work session on Tuesday, commissioners expressed little interest in pushing to meet the deadline for a ballot measure this year, instead eyeing the timing of future referendums.

But some, including Mark Dorosin, worry rural residents would be disenfranchised if the county-wide bond went to the voters in 2015, when only municipal races are on the ballot.

“If you look back at the turnout for an “off” year versus an “on” year mid-term election, there’s more than 25 percent greater turnout,” said Dorosin.

Instead, commissioners said they’d consider May 2016, when turnout is expected to be high for the presidential and gubernatorial primaries, though the board did not rule out the possibility of putting the measure up for a vote next year.

Commissioners say they want input from staff on the timing and process of crafting a bond package, as well as more information from both school systems about what projects are top priorities.

The last bond referendum in 2001 netted the county an additional $75 million for school, parks, senior centers and housing. The proposed $100 million dollar bond would be the county’s largest in recent history. But even that would be a drop in the bucket, as the school districts’ combined list of repairs is estimated to be more than the county’s entire $192 million dollar annual operating budget.

Board Chair Barry Jacobs said voters should know the upcoming bond referendum could be the first of several.

“The needs are too big for one bond cycle, so we say that we’re going to have several bonds over a period of time to address several hundred million dollars worth of school needs for both systems,” said Jacobs.

The board will discuss creating a possible bond planning task force in the near future.

Meanwhile, the Chapel Hill Town Council is eyeing its own $20 million dollar bond package to replace or upgrade aging facilities. That measure could potentially go on the ballot in 2017.

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.

More Sales Tax, Less Grant Money For OC Bus And Rail Plan

HILLSBOROUGH- In their 2013 report to the board, Triangle Transit officials offered Orange County Commissioners both good news and bad regarding funding for the Orange County Bus and Rail Plan.

John Tallmadge is Triangle Transit’s director of regional services development. He told the Board on Tuesday that sales tax revenues are up, but state and federal funding is down.

“We’re expecting less federal and state dollars to provide these services that are promised in the plan and the projects that are promised in the plan, and that is offset by better actual receipt of sales tax revenues,” said Tallmadge.

The bus and rail plan was adopted in 2012 after voters approved a half-cent sales tax to help fund the plan. Transit planners originally estimated the sales tax would generate $5 million in 2014, but they’ve since revised that estimate up to $6.2 million.

Orange County Interim Manager Mike Talbert said that’s because the economy has bounced back following the Great Recession of 2008.

“We did do these original estimates coming out of the Great Recession and we were very cautious on those estimates,” said Talbert. “From what we know today, that $6 million dollar number on an annual basis is fairly realistic with what we anticipate to happen in the next few years.”

Other sources of transit funding are less certain. The bus and rail plan calls for the expansion of bus service throughout Orange County during the next five years, but Tallmadge said both the state and federal funding models for new buses and park and ride lots have changed substantially in the past 18 months.

The original plan relied on federal grant money to cover 80 percent of the cost to purchase new vehicles. Triangle Transit now estimates that will drop to 30 percent. State money, which was anticipated to provide 10 percent matching funds, is expected to be cut in half. Tallmadge said transit planners hope to continue with the bus service expansion by relying more on local sales tax dollars than grant money.

“We know we’re not going to have the grant funds to do everything we thought we were going to do, but now we have a more optimistic forecast of how much sales tax we’re going to use,” said Tallmadge. “The first thing we should do with that is make the plan whole so that we can deliver what we promised.”

Commissioner Earl McKee questioned the revised financial projections, saying he’s not comfortable with the moving targets in the plan’s funding model. Triangle Transit General Manager David King replied that the financial projections are undergoing constant scrutiny and revision.

“We budget one year at a time, and if we err on the liberal side and end up in the hole, we correct every year for that mistake,” said King. “It’s a very dynamic process and I think the early results are quite good.”

Further, King stressed that none of this is expected to impact planning for either the Hillsborough train station or the 17-mile Durham-to-Orange light rail line included in the transit plan.

The light rail project has been submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for permission to begin environmental impact studies. King said a reply is expected in the next 10 days.

Meanwhile, Triangle Transit and Orange Public Transit are currently developing a plan for new rural bus routes which should be implemented in the fall.

Commissioners Nix Orange County Fair Plan

HILLSBOROUGH- Local food, crafts, music, an agricultural expo and a midway- these were some of the plans laid out by a work group that spent the last six months exploring the idea of hosting an Orange County Fair.

But commissioners voted 4-3 on Thursday to put those plans on ice, citing concerns about cost.

“Sure it would be fun, it’s a great idea. But it costs too much right now,” said Commissioner Alice Gordon. “That’s why I’m having a problem with it.”

Gordon, along with Bernadette Pelissier, Penny Rich, and Earl McKee argued the potential $189,000 price tag to plan the event was too high, despite assurances from the workgroup that the fair would likely break even.

The work group proposed a two-day event in the spring of 2015 at the Blackwood Farm between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.

The group estimated funding would come from event partners, corporate sponsors, local governments and donations, but Commissioner Pelissier questioned if the committee’s budget was realistic.

Commissioner McKee said the county can’t afford to take on new projects at a time when schools are relying on more local dollars to compensate for state funding cuts.

“Part of our responsibilities is to make hard decisions. Every good idea does not have to be moved forward,” said McKee. “I’m not saying this is a bad idea, it probably is a good idea, if there were not other considerations for me that were not overriding considerations and education overrides everything.”

Commissioners Mark Dorosin, Barry Jacobs and Renee Price supported the fair concept, saying it would build community through out the county. Dorosin says he’s been hearing from people interested in the fair idea since he first suggested in during his 2012 campaign.

“Why I believe this is important is that there is not something that is for the entire county, and that is what this would be,” said Dorosin. “Everything about this is to focus on the local, to celebrate it, to highlight it, and also to show it off beyond the county.”

Former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton and current Board candidate Mark Marcoplos also spoke in favor of the plan. Marcoplos urged commissioners not to get hung up on the logistics early in the process.

“I’m definitely pro-fair, I think it’s a great idea,” said Marcoplos. “It would be a great celebration of the county’s business, its agriculture, its history, its culture, its dance and music. It would be plain fun, and I think that’s a hard thing to measure.”

Nonetheless, the board voted not to continue planning efforts or hire a consultant to vet the workgroup’s plans. While the current plan was scuttled on Thursday, the board could revisit the topic of future funding for a county fair during the budget planning process later this spring.