A Bright Idea

Forgive me for the title.  I do love a pun but when it’s particularly apt, well, I just can’t resist.

This post is about some of the work being done by the Town of Chapel Hill to cut costs during this difficult budget time.  But, as explained by Energy Management Specialist Brian Callaway, it’s cost-cutting in a way most of us won’t necessarily notice.

Callaway works in the town’s Office of Sustainability and he’s been working on various projects where cutting costs doesn’t mean simple and overt maneuvers like turning down the thermostat; rather he searches for ways of using new technologies (or old ones in new and different ways) to stretch the town’s energy budget. 

Aside from the budgetary benefit, which I’ll outline in a moment, you may have already experienced the first large scale change in our public facilities if you park in the Wallace Deck.  The lights there are always on and in May of last year, the town switched the stairwell bulbs to LED’s, which use less energy but also give off a crisp, white light.  While the LED bulbs cost more to buy, they last longer so replacement cost is down, as is the maintenance cost because they need to be replaced less often.  Callaway says the town is on track to be paid back for this investment within seven years thanks to that savings.  And, if we do notice the difference, it will be the better quality of light.  

Not all of his work is that glamorous because some of what Callaway does is review the energy bills for the town’s various facilities and optimize the available rate structures to suit the facilities’ needs.  This is more necessary now than ever before not only because of budgetary constraints but because the price of energy is rising and the town’s consumption has been increasing also.  Those are two arrows pointing in the wrong direction and if Callaway can’t change their direction, perhaps he can slow their rate or even nudge their trajectory a bit. 

Where else can we expect sustainable, energy-efficient change?  Certainly, we’ll see more switching of outdoor lighting around town facilities and inside some as well, including the Aquatics Center.  The town is also investigating the feasibility of battery-operated electric buses.  I got instantly excited at the prospect of buses practically gliding along our streets but Callaway brought me back to reality reminding me that switching the town’s bus fleet wouldn’t just be expensive in the initial equipment cost.  The town’s transit infrastructure would have to change to provide upkeep and maintenance of vastly different vehicles.  

There’s another project being studied that might have just the right kind of trickle down effect (apologies to all economists everywhere): the town is trying to find a way to support solar investment for residents.  Stay tuned for details on that.

I’m about to sound like an old fogey (sp?) with my conclusion.  What I found to be the brightest hope out of my conversation with Brian Callaway, was his own energy and enthusiasm for his work.  He is personally invested in it and passionate about it in ways that will benefit us as taxpayers and human beings.  It’s bright lights like his that offer the hope of a luminous future. 

Do you know any bright lights working on ideas for our future?  I’d like to know about them so please share below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com.  Also, leave a comment with any energy-saving ideas large or small.


Necessary Border Crossing

This column was always supposed to be about how and where we spend our money.  Many times I’ve expanded my definition to talk about how public money is spent and the choices made by people paid with public money.  This edition of $avvy $pender, though, is back to the more personal kind of spending, in this case, my own.

This past weekend I was all set up to pack my son’s things to take to a summer program.  I had the staging area set complete with suitcase, the packing list, the permanent marker and clothes and sunscreen and towels strewn about. The Leffler Command Center was up and running!  

Smoothly efficient, I was, and not a little smug with my planning.  

That ended as I got to the bottom of the list where I had glossed over things like towels and sheets knowing we had some to send.  Glaring at me was the following: “a light blanket”.   

I didn’t particularly want to take one from his bed to send, and anyway, those aren’t exactly light and thin for packing.  Okay, I thought, it’s Saturday afternoon, we can run out and get a light cotton blanket.  

No problem, right?  Right, unless I want to shop in the town where I live.  No problem unless I want my sales tax to go to the coffers of the town where I live.  

Now I’m sure many of you will send me the name of an amazingly lovely store (or two) that sells gorgeous blankets.  I’m sure it/they do/does but think about where this blanket is headed: to accompany a 10-year old boy to join several other 10-year old boys.  That’s not the place to send an elegant coverlet. 

Nor did I want logo’d fleece.  Not because of the logo but because fleece is frequently polyester and polyester doesn’t breathe and it’s for a summer program in the South.  

So, I don’t want to run to one of Chapel Hill’s chic boutiques and I don’t want to run to a UNC booster/souvenir store.  I also don’t have time to make several stops just in case I find one.  Where do I go?  Sadly, fellow taxpayers, I went to Durham.  And so did my money.  

What is so wrong with having enough of a range of retail establishments in our town that we don’t have to (a.) use more gas while (b.) adding to the income of another city and county?

There’s clearly something wrong with it that I don’t understand.  And while I don’t understand it, I probably will end up paying higher taxes.  And while I don’t understand it, town services may decline.  Someone, please explain to me why it seems sustainability applies only to Chapel Hill’s beautiful natural world and not also to keeping the town a vibrant and dynamic place.  

Next summer, when I’ve forgotten something on that list (and I will, because I’m aging!), please let there be some leadership in this town that allows for a mixed environment that serves the interests and needs of all its residents. 

I’m not the first to tell the story of running to Durham to spend money.  The exciting food scene there is also a draw to many of my friends.  Please leave a comment below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com to tell me how you think town leaders should do the impossible: attempt to please everyone!


Why Chapel Hill is Lucky


     I’ve had so much to say over the past few weeks that I’ve found myself virtually (!) tongue-tied.  
      I couldn’t seem to focus my thoughts about so many less-than-savvy spenders:  the staffer of Kansas Gov. Brownback who decided public time and money should be spent threatening a high school student over a tweet.  Not a gun… a tweet.
     Then there’s the possibility that longterm unemployment benefits will run out on almost 2 million people just after the first of the year if Congress doesn’t authorize an extension.  If those in Washington aren’t going to worry about someone’s rent and food bill, they might think about the added drag on the economy and social services if these are not extended.  Not one member of congress will ever lack for healthcare and I doubt any will lack for food nor shelter.  
     Speaking of Washington, the failure of the so-called congressional supercommittee to reach some kind of compromise toward it’s goal of cutting more than $1 trillion from the federal budget deficit left me more than tongue-tied.  I was and am angry about the intransigence of people we elect.  Beyond the Beltway the country is littered with states where solutions to budgetary problems are being found in the pensions of public workers.  Did you hear any member of the not-so-supercommittee offering up congressional pensions to fill the gap?  I didn’t think so.  
     I was startled out of my virtual silence by the presentation of the fiscal conditions of Chapel Hill, given Thursday evening at the 2020 Comprehensive Plan working session.
     What startled me is not that Chapel Hill and its residents are facing tough choices, but the absolutely adult and respectful way this was conveyed.  The examples above from Kansas to Washington are teeming with disrespect for the electorate and that makes me angry.  In contrast, Town Manager Roger Stancil made it absolutely clear that – in his words- “we are at the crossroads of financial sustainability”.  He approached an informed and engaged population and demonstrated how the town has made it through the recession thus far and why we are coming to a crossroads.  His words again: “Some strategies used to balance the budget are unsustainable”, “we’ve run out of rabbits in the hat; there are no more easy strategies” and very specifically if any of us had missed his point: We “can’t sustain paying for road paving out of bond funds”.  
     To further point out the respect Chapel Hill shows its own, all this took place at a meeting where anyone was welcome to come contribute to the future of the town.  Attendees were sent off to work groups knowing the fiscal future of the town requires at least one of the following options: 
  • Change expectations for services
  • Raise taxes
  • Find new revenue
     I had previously attended a town council work session where council members were given a primer on retail sales leakage out of our county and how the town can prevent future leakage.  Also offered in full detail that night was a critique of the town’s arduous, expensive and capricious development process.  The zoning consultant did not advocate approving everything that came through; rather he said it should start from the town writing a set of development standards.  Standards would allow people looking to invest in the town to understand what was expected from the get-go and not be expensively surprised at various steps in the process.  
     It seems that all my silence has led to some circuitous thinking.  I’ll try to straighten it out:
  • Chapel Hill is engaged in writing its own future at the very time when the economy is requiring that we re-write the rules.  In that sense, we are very lucky.
  • Chapel Hill’s leaders have educated themselves thoroughly about the options and plans for changing the revenue picture and hold the power to do so according to the vision of the residents (thanks to 2020). 
  • We are respected enough to be told of the tough choices.  Not for us the pablum from Washington.  If they were listening, even those who prefer Chapel Hill not change heard this week that it will, one way or another.  The good news?  It’s up to us how it will change.
Tell me what you think by leaving a comment below or by writing to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com