UNC Fraud Report To Be Released Wednesday

OC Approves 2-Cent Property Tax Hike

Orange County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a $200 million dollar budget that includes a 2-cent property tax rate increase.

The property tax rate for next year will be 87.8 cents per $100 dollars of assessed value, the first increase in five years.

The additional revenue will go to support education, as both school districts are braced for funding cuts from the state that will likely translate to a reduction in teaching assistants.

The chairs of both the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school boards came before Commissioners to thank them for the increase.

Orange County Schools Chair Donna Coffey said the additional local money is not a windfall for the district, merely a patch at best.

“There’s still a great bit of uncertainty coming out of Raleigh and the budget hasn’t been finalized,” said Coffey. “At the very least I think we’re going to face more cuts, which will mean a lot less funding from Raleigh.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chair Jamezetta Bedford agreed.

“We don’t know what the state is going to do but it won’t be good,” said Bedford. “Our TA allotment is also the most critical piece that could be cut, well over 50 positions in the State Senate proposed budget. So this increase in taxes really will help us.”

Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs reminded the audience that the two school districts have seen a combined loss of $42 million in state funding in the past five years.

The 2014-2015 county budget goes in to effect July 1. Legislators are still hashing out the final version of the state budget.


On School Funding, BOCC Faces Tough Choices

Tonight at 7:00, the Orange County Board of Commissioners holds a work session (at the Southern Human Services Center) to continue discussing next year’s fiscal budget – including, perhaps most notably, the question of funding for Orange County’s two school districts.

The current proposal (with no property tax increase) includes a $2.9 million combined increase in spending for Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools – but the two districts face a combined shortfall of around $7 million. Local officials are also watching the budget debate in Raleigh, where legislators are considering at least one proposal that would eliminate funding for teaching assistants in grades 2 and 3 (among other things).

Many local residents have called on county commissioners to raise the county’s property tax rate to fully fund the school districts’ budget requests, but county officials have been reluctant to raise a rate that’s already relatively high (fifth-highest of North Carolina’s 100 counties).

Click here for budget and tax-rate information, from an earlier board meeting agenda.

With all of that (and more) in mind, WCHL’s Aaron Keck sat down on Tuesday with County Commissioner Penny Rich, who’s also a parent in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district.

Listen to their conversation.



Schools, County In Limbo Awaiting NCGA Budget

Local leaders don’t yet know what the final state budget will look like, but they all agree- things are likely to get worse, not better.

“It would be a disaster, I think, to cut $6 million dollars from our budget,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member Mike Kelley. “It would just be a completely different community.”

Kelley and other officials from Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools came before Orange County Commissioners on Thursday to detail how state cuts could adversely impact education.

The proposed senate spending plan will take a bigger bite out of local budgets, costing Orange County Schools an extra $2 million and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools an extra $3.6 million on top of the district’s $2.7 million dollar shortfall.

The plan also calls for increasing teacher pay by cutting teaching assistants. County schools would lose 35 positions, city schools would lose 57.

The state House has not yet released its budget proposal, but with legislators promising to wrap up the short session before school ends next week, county leaders say they’re in a position to make last minute changes to the local budget if necessary. Still, they say they can’t possibly afford to undo all the damage school officials are bracing for.

“We can fill holes but we can’t fill craters,” said Board Chair Barry Jacobs. “So I would be surprised if we can address all of the cuts that y’all have just described.”

Looking ahead, Commissioners, including Penny Rich, said it might be time to revisit the county goals for school funding.

“We keep saying this year is different than every other year, but I think this year is the beginning of what it’s going to be like,” said Rich. “So we do need to change the process, because, perhaps we can put a band-aid on it this year, but what happens in year two, three and four?”

County Commissioners will hold two budget work sessions next week before adopting the 2014-2015 budget on June 17.


Chapel Hill Balks At BoCC Funding Plan For Recycling Pick-Up

At a budget work session on Wednesday, Chapel Hill Town Council members sounded off about a vote the night before by Orange County Commissioners to fund rural curbside recycling out of reserve funds, while asking the towns to levy a $59 per household fee for the same service.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the move jeopardizes future collaboration with the county on solid waste and recycling.

“You know, we made a decision two or three months ago that we were all in it together,” said Kleinschmidt. “I think we did that with the hope that, by this point, we were actually going to be in lockstep, that we were going to have a county-wide plan to move forward. But we don’t.”

Council members argued the majority of the money in the solid waste reserve fund was contributed by the towns, making it particularly unfair to subsidize recycling pick-up for county residents while charging urban households.

In light of Tuesday’s vote, some Council members said they won’t agree to levy the town recycling fee when the budget comes up for approval next week.

Instead, the Council is asking Commissioners to consider funding both rural and urban recycling pick-up for next year from the solid waste reserve fund.

While this would drop the county’s $3 million dollar post- closure landfill contingency fund down to $1 million, Town Manager Roger Stancil told the Council that’s not their problem.

“At this point it’s totally the county’s issue,” said Stancil. “So they would have to find a way to pay for that liability.”

Chapel Hill officials last year investigated the costs of hiring private contractors to handle trash and recycling pick-up, but Council members agreed to try to maintain a fifteen-year partnership with the county in hopes of furthering the community’s solid waste reduction goals.

Town and county officials were drafting an interlocal agreement to spell out how that might work, but Stancil told the Council that process ground to a halt recently, as county leaders threw their support behind a task force instead.

Commissioners voted to create that task force on Tuesday, stipulating that a Commissioner would act as chair and inviting Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and UNC to participate, along with five residents.

Council member Jim Ward has worked with Orange County on solid waste issues in the past, but this time, he called the process flawed.

“This committee that I’m just hearing about, we had no input on that. This is totally unacceptable to me, the process and the outcome,” said Ward. “The outcome isn’t any surprise because of the process that they’re using.”

In response to lobbying from town leaders, County Commissioners will reopen the issue at Thursday’s work session, and likely vote on a new funding plan.


BoCC Looks To Task Force For Solid Waste And Recycling Solutions

HILLSBOROUGH- After months of debate, Orange County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve spending $728,000 from the solid waste reserve fund to pay for rural curbside recycling pick-up for one year.

While board members agreed it was preferable to raising the property tax rate to cover the cost of the program next year, some, including Mark Dorosin, argued it might be time to reconsider the county’s reliance on fees.

“I’m happy to support [this] option tonight, but I think it’s a very, very, bad, dangerous precedent to start talking about funding services based on who uses them,” said Dorosin. “Once you start talking about everything is a fee for services, you really undermine the idea of a community.”

The county was forced to find a new funding model after a court ruling called into question the county’s ability to levy the fee that supported the program. The board scrapped two alternate funding models in April before opting for Tuesday’s stopgap measure.

Town and county officials are moving towards an interlocal agreement on solid waste, but no agreement has yet been reached on how to equitably fund the recycling program, how the governments should share any future facilities like a waste transfer station, or where such a facility might go.

In an effort to tackle those questions, Commissioners voted 5-2 to create a Solid Waste Advisory Group of residents and elected officials to sort out short and long-term goals for cooperation. Commissioner Penny Rich was one of those who favored a wide scope for the task force.

“This is not a group just to find out what we’re doing with recycling, this group is to really explore what we’re going to do,” said Rich. “I mean, we need a solid waste plan, we need to make that we move into the future and not have this discussion every single year.”

The board will appoint Commissioners on June 17 and solicit representation from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and UNC as well as five members of the public. Commissioners hope to receive a report from the newly-formed task force at next fall’s Assembly of Governments. In the meantime, the board will review a draft interlocal agreement on June 17.


Commissioners Cautiously Interested In Ephesus-Fordham Financing

“Reserved enthusiastic support” is how Chair Barry Jacobs characterized the Board of County Commissioners’ approach to helping Chapel Hill finance the Ephesus-Fordham revitalization plan.

“We’re not here to judge the project; the project has been approved,” said Jacobs, speaking at a work session on Thursday. “We’re going to try to address our concerns and hopefully make this a strong partnership.”

The Chapel Hill Town Council approved rezoning for nearly 190 acres last Monday in a bid to spur redevelopment near the Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard intersection. The Council will likely approve a plan later this spring to spend $10 million to build new roads and improve infrastructure in the region.

The debt will be paid using the increased tax revenue from new growth, but in order to pay down the debt sooner, Chapel Hill officials are asking Commissioners to chip in fifty percent of either the annual debt payment or the incremental tax revenue. Payment would be capped at $400,000 a year, for a total of approximately $7 million.

Chapel Hill’s Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer said while the town could finance the project alone, Orange County’s participation would put the project on more sound financial footing.

“If the county does not participate it will certainly make our financing weaker in terms of our funds capacity to pay back,” said Pennoyer. “If the county does not participate, we will try to move forward with it based on what we have.”

While the board expressed interest in the plan, commissioners worried the town had not adequately anticipated the impact new residential growth would have on schools. With 300 to 450 additional students estimated in the area, Jacobs said finding a nearby school site would be key.

“We’re going to be essentially generating enough students to at least populate half an elementary school, and the nearest elementary school is one of the older, smaller elementary schools,” said Jacobs.”So if we’re being realistic, however much it is going to cost, we need a site. If there’s a site it makes it way more feasible for us.”

Commissioners also questioned the affordability of the new housing in the area, as the newly-adopted form-based code prevents the town from mandating developers provide affordable housing options.

Though some on the board sought to debate the merits of the plan, Vice Chair Earl McKee pointed out that as of last Monday’s vote, it’s a done deal.

“The increased expenses to the county are going to be there, the increased revenue to the county is going to be there, regardless of whether we participate,” said McKee. “Whether we participate, for me, will depend on trying to work with our partner towns.”

Jacobs told Chapel Hill representatives that the board will need more information about schools, housing and the district’s stormwater plan. He said board members likely won’t be ready to make a funding commitment after the board’s summer recess.


BoCC Faces “Basket Of Bad Options” To Fund Rural Curbside Recycling Program

After deciding last month not to decide on a long-term option for funding rural curbside recycling pick-up, Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday wrangled with the question of how to keep the program going in the short term.

“We have to choose from a basket of bad options, and whether we choose the worst bad option or a little bit better bad option, we’re going to choose a bad option for this next year,” said Vice-Chair Earl McKee.

The board on April 15 did not opt for either a solid waste service district tax or a subscription service to pay for recycling pick-up for 13,700 homes in unincorporated Orange County.

Now, Commissioners are considering how to come up with $630,000 to fund the service for the next year. Possible options include drawing from the solid waste reserve fund, raising the property tax rate, or increasing household fees to cover the full operating costs of the solid waste convenience centers, which would then free up other funding for recycling pick-up.

Although the County Manager recommended using reserve funds, some on the board, including Bernadette Pelissier, worried town residents would be unfairly subsidizing rural services.

“Actually, the towns would be paying three times,” said Pelissier. “They’re paying from reserves, they’re paying from the general fund for the convenience centers, and then they’re paying the recycling fee in the town.”

But Interim County Manager Michael Talbert said at this point, there are no ideal solutions.

“Just to be clear, we know it is not equitable. None of the options are equitable,” said Talbert. “I don’t know how to say it any other way, none of them are equitable. They all benefit one portion of the population more than the other.”

The board will likely pick from a menu of options at a meeting on June 3. Also on June 3, commissioners will revisit a draft of a preliminary interlocal agreement between the towns and county to govern how solid waste and recycling will be handled in the future.


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.