As Chapel Hill Town Council members move closer to approving next year’s budget, some are wondering if it might be time to raise revenue through a property tax rate increase.
Road repair, affordable housing, capital needs and debt capacity are just some of the priorities Council members are looking to balance this budget season.
At a work session on Monday, Council members suggested a one or two cent property tax rate increase might make it possible to restore funding for road repair that was cut during the recession, or finance more affordable housing initiatives.
Though that increase might generate between $755,000 and $1.5 million, the revenue wouldn’t begin to address the estimated $160 million in capital needs facing the town, including demand for new police and fire stations, as well as parks and bikeway improvements.
Council member Matt Czajkowski suggested that if some of that additional revenue were diverted to the town’s debt management fund, it could allow the town to borrow money for capital investment projects sooner than the current 2017 projection.
While Council members didn’t balk at the concept of a second property tax rate increase in two years, they couldn’t agree on how, exactly, that money should be allocated.
In order to hash out those details, the Council will continue its budget work session at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the Chapel Hill Public Library. The final version of the 2014-2015 budget will be adopted next Monday.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/chapel-hill-town-council-eyes-property-tax-rate-increase/
Stefan Klakovitch, with the group Friends of Bolin Creek, came before the Chapel Hill Town Council on Wednesday to ask the town to take action to clean up a coal ash dump recently discovered under the Chapel Hill Police Department Headquarters adjacent to Bolin Creek.
“As with many other landfills in the State of North Carolina, this landfill is totally unregulated, unlined, and contains known hazardous substances including heavy metals that have leached out into the environment and will continue to do so until the dump is removed,” said Klakovitch.
The site was used as a dumping ground for coal ash in the 1960s and 70s, before the town purchased it in 1980 to build the police station at 828 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
An engineering consultant hired by the town last year reported high levels of arsenic, barium, chromium and lead in groundwater samples from one of two testing wells, as well as elevated levels of barium in soil samples across the site.
The Friends of Bolin Creek say they are concerned that the town is not currently planning to clean up the coal ash dump and they worry contaminants will leach in to the creek if the dump remains in place.
But in a letter to the Town Council, officials from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) say the recent findings have been misconstrued.
They say there’s no evidence contamination has spread to the surface waters of the creek and called for repeated sampling to confirm if heavy metals have in fact leached into the groundwater.
The town will be required to submit a remediation plan to the state once the investigation is complete, but Klakovitch and others question DENR’s approach, saying the regulatory agency has lost credibility following the Dan River Coal Ash spill in February.
“We need to do more than just what will merely satisfy DENR, whose reputation on coal ash has been discredited on a national level,” said Klakovitch.
Still, town staffers stress the investigation has just begun, arguing it is too soon to determine what should be done with the site. In the meantime, the town has installed silt fencing above Bolin Creek to keep the coal ash out the water and security fencing to keep out the public.
DENR officials will provide recommendations to the council when review of the latest round of testing is complete.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/activists-call-council-action-coal-ash-dump/
Nearly a dozen housing advocates turned out to Monday night’s public hearing to ask the Chapel Hill Town Council to designate one penny of the current tax rate to support affordable housing.
“When those of us who provide and advocate for affordable housing consider the quarter cent on the tax rate that the manager’s budget proposes, we can’t help but feel it’s insignificance in meeting the needs of this community,” said Susan Levy, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Orange County and chair of the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition. “Currently the town spends less that one percent of its budget to fund affordable housing programs, including running the public housing program. Surely it is time to increase that commitment.”
The manager’s recommended budget already includes $188,750 for housing initiatives, but supporters of the penny plan say that’s not enough and many on the council agree.
To get the total dollar amount closer to the goal of $755,000, Council member Donna Bell suggested diverting an additional $400,000 initially set aside for paying down the town’s post-employment healthcare liability.
“I do not think this is a long-range plan or a sustainable plan, but I would like to use those funds, in addition to the quarter cent that we already have budgeted,” said Bell. “That would bring us up to about 80 percent of what we originally wanted. I think that I would feel good about that level of commitment from the Council as far as funding for affordable housing this year.”
The Council will consider the budget proposal in detail at work sessions scheduled for June 2 and 4. Next year’s budget will likely be formally adopted June 9.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/council-advocates-want-boost-budget-affordable-housing/
“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.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/commissioners-cautiously-interested-ephesus-fordham-financing/
Chapel Hill Transit Director Brian Litchfield told the Chapel Hill Town Council on Wednesday it’s getting harder to maintain the agency’s aging fleet of buses.
“Back in 2007, the odds of you being on a bus that would break down while you were riding it were fairly small,” said Litchfield. “The odds today are pretty good.”
Transit officials estimate at least 42 buses need to be replaced. Thirty-seven of those are a model that hasn’t been manufactured since 2003, meaning requires more labor hours are required to maintain those vehicles and replacement parts are increasingly difficult to locate.
In the past, Chapel Hill Transit was able to draw down grant money to buy new vehicles. But federal earmarks have disappeared and state funding has dropped $1 million since 2010, leaving the transit partners scrambling to find new funding sources.
Litchfield said proceeds from the half-cent sales tax levied to support the Orange County Bus and Rail Plan will help. Chapel Hill Transit will collect $1.1 million in revenues from the tax, $180,000 of which will go to finance new three new buses.
“We have so many vehicles that need to be replaced that we have to do something, so there is some financing in there to do that,” said Litchfield.
The proposed transit budget for the next fiscal year totals $20.5 million, of which $13.5 million are local dollars. Carrboro will spend $1.4 million, Chapel Hill will spend $4.2 million, and UNC will contribute $7.7 million.
Litchfield says the partners are still working to finalize a long-term plan for sustainable transit funding which will be presented to the town in the fall.
The Council will consider Chapel Hill Transit’s funding request as part of the larger budget negotiations. A work session on next year’s budget is scheduled for Monday.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/new-buses-top-list-chapel-hill-transit-budget-needs/
The Chapel Hill Town Council took a series of votes Monday night to adopt a new type of zoning known as form-based code and apply it to a large swath of land surrounding the Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard intersection.
Council member George Cianciolo sided with the majority in supporting the plan.
“I do believe that this will be successful for Chapel Hill,” Cianciolo told the crowd of more that one hundred who turned out for the third public hearing on the proposal. “That’s what I was elected to do, use my best judgement.”
The Council voted 8-1 to adopt the new form-based code into the town land use plan, and 6-9 to apply it to the majority of the 190 acre Ephesus-Fordham focus area. Ed Harrison, Matt Czajkowski and Jim Ward voted against the rezonings.
The plan calls for the town to reconfigure the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard, extend Elliot Road and create new mixed-use zones that allow three to seven stories of commercial and residential development.
Supporters say it will encourage new business growth in the area while also addressing long-standing flooding problems and traffic jams.
However, opponents have raised doubts about the efficacy of the stormwater management plan and questioned the cost and timing of the redevelopment proposal. Council member Czajkowski sided with critics of the plan.
“There’s no evidence that it will achieve the original goals, including stormwater, including traffic mitigation, including increasing commercial tax revenue towards the town,” said Czajkowski.
Council member Ward opposed the plan because he said switching from a Special Use Permit approval process to form-based code means the Council will lose the chance to negotiate with developers for affordable housing and energy efficient design.
“Sounds like the rest of the Council is ready to give away the store in terms of the one thing that we have, and that’s the ability to offer greater density as an incentive,” said Ward. “It baffles me.”
Using form-based code, the Council sets parameters for development including building height, setbacks and parking guidelines for each zone, but once these are in place, individual developers will not need to bring their projects before the council if they meet the established criteria. Instead, projects will be reviewed by the Town Manager and the Community Design Commission. Council members expressed interest in reviewing the first projects that come forward under the new guidelines, but they will not be able to ask developers for concessions.
Mayor pro Tem Sally Greene proposed holding off on rezoning four parcels of land along Elliot Road from East Franklin Street to Fordham Boulevard while staffers investigate the possibility of offering density bonuses for developers who build affordable housing.
“What I’m talking about is a proposal that would change properties 1, 2, 3 and 4 from WX 5 to WX 2, as in two stories permitted by right with a density bonus of five stories in exchange for 10 percent affordable housing,” said Greene.
The Council backed her proposal, leaving the land as-is for now.
In addition, the Council voted unanimously to rezone 8.5 acres on Legion Road so that nonprofit developer DHIC can apply for low-income tax credits to subsidize a proposed affordable rental housing project on the site. The town is partnering with DHIC on the project, but some backers worried the rezoning might not happen before Friday’s deadline to apply for tax credits.
While the zoning is now in place, the town is still in the process of figuring out how to pay for the $10 million dollars worth of infrastructure improvements. To that end, the town is asking Orange County to help pay down the town’s debt by contributing a portion of the increased tax revenues the redevelopment is expected to generate.
County commissioners will consider that plan on Thursday night.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/chapel-hill-town-council-approves-ephesus-fordham-renewal-plan/
Members of the Chapel Hill Town Council sat down with developers from Grubb Properties on Monday to hash out the details of a plan to revitalize one of the town’s oldest commercial centers, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.
The Glen Lennox redevelopment plan would add new roads and new housing at the interior of the 70 acre site and office and retail space along Fordham Boulevard and Raleigh Road.
The Town Council is negotiating a development agreement to govern the build-out of the plan during the next two decades. At Monday’s work session, Council members focused on traffic mitigation, design features and the fiscal impact of the plan.
The Council also heard a novel proposal to retain affordable rental housing during and after redevelopment.
Clay Grubb, of Grubb Properties, suggested a program aimed at keeping long-term residents. Renters who have lived in Glen Lennox for five years or more would be eligible to have future rent hikes limited to no more than the increase of the Consumer Price Index. This would apply to 15 percent of the rentals throughout the entire property.
Though there are still issues of contention, Council members voiced approval for the plan and signaled they are almost ready to put it to a vote.
And while development plans for other focus areas such as Obey Creek and Ephesus-Fordham have become mired in controversy in recent months, the members of the public who spoke at the work session seemed to embrace the Glen Lennox plan with open arms.
One current resident called it “a blessing,” telling the council the plan should be “the gold standard” for other developers.
The development agreement will undergo another review by town staffers before a public hearing and council vote in June.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/council-readies-june-vote-glen-lennox-plan/
Chapel Hill leaders hope a new and improved bike plan will convince more residents to ride instead of drive.
Chapel Hill boasts one of the highest rates of bicycling commuters in the state, second only to Carrboro. But town planner Garrett Davis said there are many who want to ride, yet don’t.
“A 2013 community survey question asks 2,000-plus people in Chapel Hill, ‘do you feel safe cycling in the town limits?’ Fifty-three percent said ‘no,’” Davis told the Town Council.
On Monday more than a dozen cyclists rolled out to support the town’s draft bike plan, which calls for improved infrastructure and policy changes to promote all types of cycling throughout Chapel Hill.
Davis said the first step would be to focus on ten short-term priority areas.
“It contains some low-cost options that could make some real impacts. It’s not just widening roads in the short-term,” said Davis. “The short-term network has real safety benefits on streets downtown like Rosemary Street.”
Other priority areas include Estes Drive, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Raleigh Road, and portions of Franklin Street.
The ten project list is estimated to cost approximately $16.5 million over the next decade. Planners say that total would need to include at least $9 million in state and federal money to make the projects feasible.
Cyclists came before the council with praise for the plan, which would add bike lanes, side paths and greenways. Jason Merrill is the owner of Back Alley Bikes. He told the council that prior to moving to Chapel Hill, he had never felt welcome on his preferred mode of transit.
“I started a family here, we bought a house here, I started a business here, all because I felt welcome here,” said Merrill. “As the recommendations of this bike plan become realities in the coming years, a message to potential future residents will be painted right on the street in white lines, that there’s a place for you here, you belong here, you’re home.”
Council members were largely supportive of the plan.
“The biking community in this town is incredible, the number of hours they volunteer, the effort they are putting forth,” said Maria Palmer. “In fact, I got myself a bicycle this week.”
The town is accepting further public comment to refine the proposal. The Council will vote on the plan in June.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/residents-roll-support-chapel-hill-bike-plan/
CHAPEL HILL – Orange County has seen a great deal of recent political turnover, with a newer, younger generation of legislators and community leaders emerging to replace the old.
But how do those new leaders navigate the political realm? How do they make a difference, in institutions still dominated by older legislators and older ways?
“I walk in, first of all, as a student – a student of the game,” says newly appointed State House Representative Graig Meyer. “How am I going to play this game? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to align myself with? Who do I need to emulate? Who do I need to stay away from?”
First-term Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils agrees, adding that finding one’s place involves not only the need to learn how to play the game – but also the chance to elevate the discourse.
“One of the things that I found myself doing – while not intending, necessarily, to do it – was to come to the role with a kind of posture of wanting to demonstrate how to disagree well,” he says. “I think that, in itself, has value.”
Other young or first-term legislators agree that ‘being the new guy’ also offers a rare opportunity to shake things up.
“I think all of us who are new elected officials have one opportunity, which is to really see how things have been done and to ask questions about why,” says first-term County Commissioner Mark Dorosin. “Why do you do something like this? Why is it like this? And maybe that’s the right way to do it, but you have the opportunity to say, ‘Explain it to me – and in doing so, explain it to the constituents.'”
Fellow first-termer Renee Price agrees. “If I have to say something that’s going to ruffle somebody’s feathers, I’m sorry,” she says. “Well, no, I’m not sorry, really.”
And first-term Chapel Hill Town Council member Maria Palmer says she can also take advantage of her status as a demographic outsider as well.
“I’m an immigrant,” she says, “so sometimes I can say things that other people are too embarrassed or have been told all their lives you can’t say in polite company.”
Palmer, Price, Dorosin and Seils all occupy seats on elected boards that serve Orange County alone – so all four can say their own values adhere fairly closely to those of their fellow board members.
Not so Meyer, a Democrat in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. “I just drove back from Raleigh,” he says, “and I was in an education policy hearing…(and) most of the people in the General Assembly don’t know a darn thing about education. And I cannot believe they’re making some of the decisions that they’re making.”
Among other things, he says, those decisions include a continued reluctance to raise teacher pay – and, on Thursday, a task force recommendation to eliminate the Common Core standards.
Those moves and others have left him frustrated, Meyer says – and it can be no less frustrating for new and young officials seeking to make change in Chapel Hill. But despite the frustration, Meyer says it’s possible to be hopeful for the future, simply by looking back to the recent past.
“On the days that I’m mad and angry – and today sitting in chambers was one of the worst days that I’ve had – I tend to think about Terry Sanford and Bill Friday,” he says. “Those gentlemen came out of World War II together…and they decided that they were going to fight racial segregation and build the prosperity of this state based on having a strong public education system.
“And there is no reason why today’s leaders shouldn’t be able to come together around the same goal of building our long-term prosperity on a well-educated populace and the ability to stand up against the continued existence of institutionalized racism and other forms of inequity.”
And it’s that hope that sustains local leaders – young and old and newcomer and veteran alike – as they continue to push for change.
“Change is hard,” says Dorosin. “It’s very frustrating. But, you know, every day you start to push the rock up the hill – and you hope that today, it gets all the way to the top.”
And in the end, Renee Price says, that activism pays off in its impact on people.
“There’s something very interesting that happens, I think every single time I’ve had a meeting (where) I’ve been frustrated,” she says. “The next day someone will call me up, or they’ll see me in the grocery store, and they’ll just say ‘thank you.’
“And you know…it makes it worth it.”
Dorosin, Price, Meyer, Seils and Palmer made those comments in the “Tomorrow’s Newsmakers” panel of the 2014 WCHL Community Forum.http://chapelboro.com/news/2014-community-forum/new-young-leaders-learning-disagree-well/
With town and county officials looking to collaborate on solid waste disposal and recycling, there’s increasing interest in changing the way individuals and institutions handle trash in Orange County.
County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier says it’s time to seriously consider a pay-as-you-throw system that charges households based on how much waste each generates.
“We know, from a psychological point of view, that paying for something makes people think about it,” says Pelissier. “Just like we got increased water conservation by having the tiered rates. People are now conscious that it’s a precious resource. What we have in our trash cans or recycling bins, that’s a precious resource as well, so we have to frame it very differently.”
Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade agrees. He says Carrboro is already investigating the feasibility of such a system, with an eye to rewarding residents who reduce their trash output.
“Personally, I’m interested in not just an individual, per-household pay-as-you-throw system- there’s some concern in the Town of Carrboro about the regressive quality of that,” says Slade. “There’s an opportunity, I feel, at the neighborhood level to incentivize the neighborhood to reduce its trash, then credit the neighborhood for it to use through participatory budgeting at the neighborhood scale.”
Though critics of pay-as-you-throw argue it can disproportionally impact low-income households, Orange County Solid Waste Planner Blair Pollock says some elderly residents might actually benefit from the change.
“The predominant low-income family in our county is elderly and lives alone or has a small household,” says Pollock. “So people, like my mom, who live in this county benefit from pay-as-you throw. One could easily flip that argument on its head.”
Switching to a pay-as-you-throw system is part of a larger question of how the local governments can handle solid waste in a socially and environmentally just manner.
Now that the Eubanks Road landfill has closed, the towns and county are trucking trash to a waste transfer station in Durham. That trash ultimately ends up at a landfill in Sampson County.
Board of Commissioners candidate Mark Marcoplos visited the landfill to see firsthand the impact that has on the surrounding neighborhood. He says the largely low-income African-American community is suffering from the burden of Orange County’s trash.
“We’re in this situation where we’re patting ourselves on the back for finally providing social justice to the Rogers Road community and we’re actually affecting a community even worse over the horizon in Sampson County, so this is an issue we have to address,” says Marcoplos.
While some are pushing for the construction of a waste transfer station near Chapel Hill, Town Council member Jim Ward says ultimately, local governments will need to find a more permanent solution.
“I do think that if we go forward and see the need for a landfill, and I think there is one, I think it’s incumbent on us to put it in our own backyard and not be oblivious to it being transported to some impoverished neighborhood in Eastern North Carolina or Southern Virginia or wherever this stuff goes,” says Ward.
Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee says all stakeholders need to get together to come up with short and long-term solutions.
“I think that we’re going to need to look at this entire discussion of what we’re going to do with our trash, how we’re going to handle recycling, and we need to look at it in a comprehensive manner along with the towns.”
But once local governments work out a plan, McKee says they’ll need the political will to stick to it.
“I think its finally going to break down to having to devise a plan, then have the backbone to stand by that plan and put it into effect.”
The towns and county are in the process of hashing out a new interlocal agreement on solid waste. County commissioners will get their first look at the draft agreement on May 13.
Pelissier, Slade, Pollock, Ward, Marcoplos and McKee made those comments during the “Environment” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum. You can listen to the full forum here.http://chapelboro.com/news/2014-community-forum/time-pay-throw-trash-plan/