Orange Commissioners Eye 2016 Bond Referendum For School Repairs

Orange County Commissioners say a possible $125 million dollar bond package may be the best way to fund repairs for aging schools.

“I don’t see an option on the needs of the schools,” said Board Chair Earl McKee, speaking at a planning retreat on Friday. “I don’t think we’ve got an option. We’ve got schools that are 50 or 60 years old.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County school systems have compiled a list of capital projects totaling more than $330 million dollars to repair or replace outdated facilities and expand some schools to add capacity.

Commissioners on Friday moved closer to putting a bond referendum on the ballot that would partially fund those repairs, though the board did not formally vote at the retreat.

The proposed $125 million dollar bond package would be the largest in Orange County history, and the first since voters approved a $75 million dollar package back in 2001.

Commissioners and staffers discussed the pros and cons of using pay-as-you go funding for the repairs instead, but Commissioner Barry Jacobs said a successful bond package would represent voter support and a firm commitment from the board.

“If we’ve already told the voters, ‘this is what we want you to do’ and they say ‘yes’, then you’ve made a different level of commitment,” said Jacobs. “In a way you box yourself in, but in a way you hopefully have some more buy-in than would normally be the case.”

Deputy Finance Director Paul Laughton told the board both funding methods would likely result in a tax rate hike, as there’s not enough projected growth in revenues to cover the debt service on either type of borrowing.

Laughton estimated the bond package would ultimately translate to a 4.6 cent increase on the property tax rate, to be spread out over the course of several years.

While Commissioners indicated they’re almost ready to move forward with planning for the referendum, some expressed concern that Chapel Hill voters in particular might not warm to the idea, as the town is considering its own bond referendum in 2015.

Commissioner Renee Price said she’s worried about voter fatigue.

“There could be so much confusion. We either win or we all lose,” said Price. “I just wanted to throw that out there, that I really think we should get all players at the table on this.”

Commissioners said if they do go ahead, they want more collaboration and support from both school districts.

“The relationship should be more than just, ‘we need this money,’ ‘we’ll give you that money,’ and here’s how we’re going to figure it out,” said Commissioner Mark Dorosin. “Obviously there are two separate elected bodies and they have separate responsibilities, but there should be more engagement on that.”

The scheduling of any future bond package would be constrained by a recent decision from the legislature to limit county referendums to even-numbered years. Commissioners are leaning toward a November referendum, because, as Board of Elections Director Tracy Reams pointed out, the 2016 primary season could get complicated.

“The North Carolina presidential primary is all dependent on the South Carolina primary,” said Reams. “If they hold theirs prior to March 15, we have to follow and hold ours a week after theirs. So we could feasibly have a February 16 possible presidential preference primary, then we will hold all the other primaries on May 3.”

Though Commissioners say schools would be the primary funding focus, the bond package would likely also include money for affordable housing projects and possibly parks.

Following a formal vote to move forward with referendum planning in February, Commissioners will likely convene a task force of residents and elected officials to work out exactly what goes on the ballot in November 2016.

Blue Recycling Roll Carts Set To Roll Out In Orange County

The Orange County Board of Commissioners last week approved the purchase of 7,600 recycling roll carts at a cost of $444,144. Chapel Hill and Carrboro received 90 gallon carts to replace the smaller bins earlier this year.

“I’m very supportive of this and I think that the people in the county, the 7,000 people that want their roll-out carts are going to be thrilled,” said Commissioner Penny Rich.

The county’s rural recycling program serves only a fraction of the residents of unincorporated Orange, about 13,700 households. Others take their trash and recycling to one of the five solid waste convenience centers around the county.

When commissioners first debated purchasing the roll carts for county residents, some residents objected, saying their long driveways and lack of curbs made the carts hard to use.

Gayle Wilson, director of Orange County Solid Waste, told the board slightly more than half of the current customers requested roll carts. He asked the board to authorize the purchase of additional carts in case others changed their minds.

“It is expected that once we start distributing the carts, people will decide that they do want a cart rather than continue to use their bins, or they may have not responded previously and saw a nice, shiny new bin at their neighbors and they call up and they want one,” said Wilson.

Commissioners approved it by a 6-1 vote with Chair Earl McKee opposing. While the purchase had broad support on the board, some, including Commissioner Barry Jacobs, worried it might be short-sighted, coming at time when the towns and county are working on a long-term plan for solid waste.

“Considering that the Solid Waste Advisory Group is looking at the methods for funding curbside or roadside pickup, is this not putting the carts before the horse?”

Jacobs serves on the Solid Waste Advisory Group (SWAG), an intergovernmental work group tasked with identifying a county-wide solution to handle trash and recycling as well as a means to fund it. He and fellow SWAG member Rich told board members the work group will present a slate of proposals for funding recycling pick-up in the spring of 2015.

In the meantime, the new blue carts will roll out in January to 7,000 Orange county residents.

BoCC Votes To Help Migrant Children

Orange County Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to welcome unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America, and to ensure child refugees have access to legal protection and public education.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates that as many as 69,000 unaccompanied minors have sought to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in the past year and a half.

1,490 children have been relocated to North Carolina to stay with family or caregivers while awaiting deportation hearings.

“These wonderful families who have taken in these children pay taxes everyday, so don’t let the people who are saying they’re not taxpayers sway your support of this issue,” said Doris Brunson, Chair of Orange County’s Human Rights Commission.

The board’s resolution affirms the right of immigrant children to seek public education and calls on the federal government to provide legal representation at hearings.

ACLU spokesperson Sarah Preston told commissioners the lack of legal support for children is of great concern.

“We think its is patently unfair that the government pays for a trained prosecutor to advocate for the deportation of a child who came here fleeing violence while the child is forced to defend him or herself in court,” said Preston.

The board also voted to forward the resolution to other commissioners across the state.

“I think it is not only important for us in Orange County to reaffirm our commitment to justice and equal treatment, to the constitutional principles outlined in this resolution, but to stake out a strong position for our other colleagues across the state, as well as our colleagues in Orange County, that they should do the same,” said Commissioner Mark Dorosin.

This resolution is similar to one passed by Carrboro Aldermen last month. The Chapel Hill Town Council is likely to follow suit in the coming weeks.

BoCC Commends Elected Officials, Welcomes New Members, Extends Chapel Hill’s ETJ

On Monday night in Hillsborough, the Orange County Board of Commissioners formalized big changes in leadership.

The board commended three former elected officials for their service: County Commissioner Alice Gordon, Register of Deeds Deborah Brooks and Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass.

“Whereas Commissioner Gordon has proven to be a dedicated and effective public servant who, as she said on the campaign trail, ‘does her homework’ including combing through every agenda item with keen focus on detail,” said Commissioner Barry Jacobs, reading an official resolution.

After 24 years in office, Alice Gordon chose not to run for reelection. While on the board, Gordon prioritized education and environmental stewardship. In a speech at Monday’s meeting, Gordon gave special emphasis to global climate change.

“I hope the county will do everything possible to address this challenge,” Gordon said. “As a matter of fact, it’s not only the greatest environmental issue, it’s the greatest issue that we probably face in Orange County, the United States and across the world.”

After 39 years of working in the Register of Deeds office, Deborah Brooks was elected as the official Register of Deeds in 2010.

“Whereas Register Brooks truly represents starting at the bottom and working to the top,” read Commissioner Earl McKee.

Former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton defeated Brooks for this position in November. Brooks was the first Orange County Register of Deeds to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

And Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass chose not to run for reelection after serving as sheriff of Orange County for 32 years. He also served as a Chapel Hill police officer.

“Whereas Sheriff Pendergrass joined the Chapel Hill Police Department in 1957, and Sheriff Pendergrass has served the people of Orange County in a law enforcement capacity for 57 years,” read  Commissioner Renee Price.

Charles Blackwood is Orange County’s new sheriff. Blackwood served as Major of Operations under Pendergrass.

Barry Jacobs and Earl McKee were officially sworn in to office. Jacobs, the former chair, had to move over from the center seat. Members selected McKee as the new chair of the board. Members voted in Bernadette Pelissier to replace McKee as the vice chair.

McKee talked about the sluggish pace of progress to compensate residents in the historically black, low-to-moderate-income Rogers Road neighborhood in Chapel Hill. This is the site of the county’s landfill for 40 years before the landfill closed in 2013.

“I would like to say that even though it seems like we’re moving like a heard of turtles, we are moving,” said McKee.

Mia Burroughs, who took Gordon’s seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners after being sworn in, made her first vote on the board concerning a request that paves the way for sewer services in the Rogers Road neighborhood.

“It feels as though I’ve cheated really because there are those of you who have been working on this for decades,” said Burrroughs. “I just want to let you know that I’m delighted to be able to support this when the time comes to vote on it.”

The board voted unanimously to approve Chapel Hill’s request to extend its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) to include 1,000 additional acres. This area contains part of the Rogers Road neighborhood. The approval allows Chapel Hill to contribute funds to sewer services in the neighborhood.

Commissioners To Update Orange County’s Park Plan

County Commissioners will consider adopting the 2013 Master Parks Plan when the board meets on Tuesday.

This will be the first major update of the County’s parks and recreation plan since 1988.

The plan lists the $2.3 million dollar Blackwood Farm Park outside of Hillsborough as a top priority, along with River Park and a new $6 million dollar athletic facility on Millhouse Road north of Chapel Hill.

The board will also likely authorize the transfer of ownership of the new Buckhorn-Mebane water and sewer utility infrastructure to the City of Mebane.

The project was completed this fall using $5.1 million in revenue from the county’s quarter-cent sales tax to support economic development. It will bring water and sewer service to the Buckhorn-Mebane economic development district, where Japanese candy-maker Morinaga is building its first American factory.

The City of Mebane will provide sewer and water service to the area.

County Commissioners meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road. You can get the full agenda here.

Burroughs To Join Orange County Board of Commissioners

Democrat Mia Burroughs becomes the newest member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners after beating Republican Gary Kahn with 76 percent of the vote.

Burroughs won with 37,184 votes, while Kahn took in 11,694.
Burroughs has served on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board since 2007, but she says now she’s ready to dig into countywide issues.
Burroughs will represent District 1, covering Chapel Hill and Carrboro. She’ll join Earl McKee and Barry Jacobs who won re-election to the District 2 and At Large seats on the board. They were each running unopposed.
There were no surprises in the majority of the local races on the ballot Tuesday, as most were decided in the May Democratic Primary.
Mark Chilton was elected Register of Deeds with 40,000 votes. After beating incumbent Deborah Brooks in the primary, he was running unopposed in the General Election.
Similarly, Charles Blackwood faced no opposition in the race for Orange County Sherriff. He won a second primary in July against challenger David Caldwell.
Blackwood received 43,900 votes in Tuesday’s election. He will replace Lindy Pendergrass, who has served as sheriff since 1982.

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.