Chapel Hill Town Council Urges State Leaders To Expand Medicaid

The Chapel Hill Town Council is urging North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and the General Assembly to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid in the state to those who are uninsured. This coming after the Republican-controlled state legislature decided last year to reject the federally-funded extension offered under the Affordable Care Act.

Bill Murray, of the nonprofit group Health Care for all NC, brought the resolution before the Council Monday night, asking them for support. He said it was his mission to publicize the need for expanding Medicaid.

“I believe that health care is a right. We have come to the point in our nation’s history where I think most people see it as a right, but we do not have that in existence. What we have in reality is inequality. Health care for those who can afford, very little for those who can’t,” Murray said.

The Council unanimously adopted the resolution at Monday evening’s meeting. Council members Lee Storrow and Matt Czajkowski were not present for the vote.

Council member Maria Palmer urged Murray and others advocating for health care expansion to keep their efforts going.

“I think that personally, I am offended, deeply offended that our representatives in Raleigh think so little of the health of the folks they serve,” Palmer said.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the law would have provided federal funding to expand Medicaid to all North Carolinians earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level. It places the burden of cost on the federal government for the first three years. After that, the state would pay 10 percent of the cost.

The N.C. Department of Health & Human Services estimated that accepting Medicaid expansion would have extended insurance coverage to more than 500,000 North Carolinians and saved the state approximately $65 million over 10 years.

“Nothing that our State Legislature has put up as an excuse for turning down the Medicaid expansion holds water. It really doesn’t,”  Murray said.

McCrory has stated that Medicaid reform is one of his top priorities for 2014, but also argued that it is flawed system and shouldn’t be expanded until changes have been implemented.

Dr. Gustavo Montana, a professor of Radiation Oncology at Duke University,  joined Murray Monday to back for the expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina.

Montana said has met many suffering people who cannot access health care because of financial difficulties.

“There is no logical, no reason whatsoever, for the state to refuse to accept funds to expand Medicaid,” he said.

Chapel Hill resident Bert Gurganus said to the Council that the less fortunate are often forgotten in our area due to the predominantly affluent demographic in Orange County.

“These people don’t make much money. The threshold for having a single person get on Medicaid is $14,500. If you think about it, a person who is working at $7.00 an hour part-time would have to work over two thousand hours. That is 40 hours a week and 50 weeks a year in order to be eligible for Medicaid. I think that is a shame,” Gurganus said.

The N.C Institute of Medicine estimated that more than 16 percent of Orange County residents under age 65, or more than 22,000 people, were uninsured as of 2010-11, as cited in the resolution.

Carol Edmonds, who also spoke to the Council, is a documentary filmmaker currently producing a piece on state lawmaker’s decision not to expand Medicaid. She said she has encountered many North Carolinians who living without health care or are struggling to pay for it.

“The people who I have interviewed are selling their homes to pay their medical bills,” she said. “They are moving into shelters so that they can get meds and access to doctors. They are delaying treatments and are risking infections because they have the “High Risk” plan through the state, which requires a $5,000 deductible. These people cannot afford to pay for the treatments that they need.”

Murray shared that in November of 2013, Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich proposed a similar resolution advocating for expansive access to health care, which was adopted by the Board of Commissioners.

UNC Students Petition CH Housing Ordinance

A petition is circulating among UNC students and town residents this week that seeks to overturn a Chapel Hill ordinance which bans more than four unrelated individuals from living in the same residence.

Outgoing UNC Student Body President Christy Lambden, who is advocating for people to sign the petition on Facebook, said that many students have never heard of this ordinance. He said many are being fined high fees, and some have been evicted.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said a discussion concerning the ordinance is not on the Council’s agenda at this time, but added that a petition is one way to get it on the agenda.

“What I would like, though, is to use it as an opportunity to have a broader conversation around student housing and student experience in our neighborhoods,” Kleinschmidt said.

Kleinschmidt said he has heard that petitioners will likely bring the matter before the Council during Monday’s business meeting, at which point it will be referred to town staff.

“The Council I think will hesitate to repeal this ordinance unless they can be assured that these unneighborly kinds of behaviors can be addressed effectively another way,” he said.

In December, town officials said they were stepping up enforcement of the policy in response to complaints from residents.

The ordinance was enacted years ago to address noise complaints, trash issues and vehicles parking illegally in the street, clogging the roads.

“About 10 years ago, I asked the Council to think about how effective this policy was,” Kleinschmidt said. “I actually asked the Council to repeal it back when I was a Council Member. I did that so it would force a conversation.”

The ordinance imposes a $100-per-day fine for the first offense, with penalties going up to $500 per day for subsequent violations. Those fines are actually imposed on the owner of the house, but students have complained that the burden is falling on the renters.

Kleinschmidt said landlords are supposed to help educate their tenants about the ordinance and its penalties, though it doesn’t always happen.

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.

Town Council Warms To Senior Housing Plan On Homestead

CHAPEL HILL- The third time might be the charm for developers looking to build a new subdivision on nearly 18 acres at 2209 Homestead Road across from Weaver Dairy Road Extension.

Ed Bacome of Epcon Communities told the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday he wants to build 65 single-family homes aimed at empty-nesters.

“We are proposing to create what we believe are America’s best ‘Boomer Homes,’” said Bacome.

In 2010 and again in 2011, developers made a pitch to bring student housing to the site, but each time met with stiff resistance from neighbors and the Town Council, who worried the projects would be too dense and too loud for the largely residential area.

This new plan, called Courtyards of Homestead, was warmly received by the council, as members commended the developer for offering moderately-priced homes to the town’s aging population.

“It’s to me, very refreshing to have a developer here who’s not pitching us on dense student housing plopped down next to a neighborhood where nobody can argue that the two could ever really coexist,” said Council member Matt Czajkowski.

The main sticking point for Council members was the developers’ initial reluctance to commit to building affordable housing on the site, instead offering payment-in-lieu to subsidize affordable housing elsewhere. Council member Lee Storrow told Bacome that’s not what the town needs.

“I would be challenged to think of a payment-in-lieu that would large enough that I would find compelling,” said Storrow.

Council members also pushed for greater connectivity to make sure residents could walk to nearby facilities like the Seymour Senior Center and the Homestead Road Aquatic Center.

However, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt challenged the idea that the homes would be sold to retirees rather than families with school-aged children.

“I don’t see how you’re able to get these sold to people of 50, 55 or older, if you don’t actually have an age restriction” said Kleinschmidt.

No formal plan has been submitted to the town yet. The developer will review the Council’s comments before deciding whether to move ahead with the project.

The Edge Developers Seek Help With Road Improvements

CHAPEL HILL-Adam Golden is the vice president of development for Northwood Ravin, the company that’s been planning the Edge project for more than a year. He came before the Chapel Hill Town Council this week to ask the town to help pay for the $3.5 million dollars worth of road improvements needed to widen Eubanks Road.

“Please consider participating in these road improvements to fix an existing condition that is already in trouble,” said Golden. “Enable the Edge to move forward. Open the northern edge of town for economic development opportunity.”

The Edge is a 54-acre site on Eubanks Road next to the town’s Park and Ride lot. Golden says the proposed project would be pedestrian and transit-oriented, with a mix of retail, residential and office space. But he told the council it can’t happen without help.

“Our firm can absorb some of the costs associated with The Edge, but we cannot absorb all of the costs associated with some of this background improvement that’s required,” said Golden.

Town officials and representatives from NC DOT agree that to support the proposed development, Eubanks Road needs to be widened with new turn lanes and bike lanes.

The developer is planning to submit a formal application soon, but council members said they couldn’t offer any guarantees that the town would contribute to the road improvements. Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the council would be willing to listen but could not make a commitment.

“There is no way that the Council can provide you assurance today or this week that the end of those discussions is going to be affirmative and that you’re going to have that level of participation that you seek,” said Kleinschmidt.

Golden said his company would likely abandon the project if the town decides not to chip in. “If we can’t get help with the improvements, we may be left with a project that’s not feasible.”

Council members agreed to refer the matter to staff for a report, but warned Golden they would not likely have a reply any time soon.

For Sale: One Chapel Hill Library, Slightly Used

CHAPEL HILL- Town Council members say it might be time to hand over a Chapel Hill landmark to a new owner.

“We can’t just hold on to things for nostalgia’s sake,” said Maria Palmer, talking about the building at 523 East Franklin that formerly housed the Chapel Hill Public Library.

Although it’s a striking example of modernist architecture and a repository of town history, the main floor of the building has been largely empty since 2010, as the town lacks the funds needed to perform extensive maintenance on the aging structure.

With that in mind, the Council voted unanimously last night to partner with Preservation North Carolina to identify potential buyers for the site.

The property at 523 East Franklin is under a conservation easement, meaning any new owner would be prohibited from demolishing the building or altering its appearance. Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the right buyer would respect the property’s unique history.

“I think the value there is that the building itself stays, we preserve its architecture and its place,  and we find someone that can take care of it,” said Kleinschmidt.

Council members were less comfortable with the concept of selling the Old Town Hall building at the corner of Columbia and West Rosemary streets.

“For that building I think I’m going to have a really hard time, even with a preservation easement, even with working with Preservation North Carolina, in giving up a public building like that smack-dab in the middle of our downtown,” said Lee Storrow.

The Old Town Hall was constructed in 1938 and has been listed on the National Register for Historic Places since 1990. It is currently occupied by the IFC for use as a Men’s Shelter and a Community Kitchen. Once the IFC relocates to a new building on Homestead Road, the town must decide what to do with the property. Staffers estimate it would cost at least $2.5 million to renovate the space for municipal use.

But Council members balked at the idea of selling it, instead suggesting a range of possible uses including a grocery store, an innovation hub or a non-profit center.

By a unanimous vote, the Council asked the town manager to explore all possible options for the Old Town Hall building. Mayor Kleinschmidt stressed that neither property would be changing hands right away.

“I hope everybody knows, that’s not a commitment to sell. That’s authorization to talk.”

CHTC Sets Priorities For 2014 And Beyond

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council met with the town’s senior management team this weekend to prioritize policy goals based on the Chapel Hill 2020 comprehensive plan.

Council members agreed on the need for more affordable housing, new youth initiatives, a sustainable funding model for Chapel Hill Transit and a long-term solid waste solution.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said within 18 months the Council will be ready to decide what to do with the town’s trash.

“The staff really wants this decision made,” said Kleinschmidt. “There are on-going conversations with Orange County, with Carrboro and with the City of Durham about how we can cooperate. Now, maybe all those jurisdictions don’t come together, but there’s some secret match of jurisdictions that can come together to provide those solutions. We don’t know what that’s going to be yet.”

Currently the town pays to haul trash to Durham since the Orange County landfill has closed, but staffers say the town should explore the possibility of building and operating a waste transfer station on town-owned land, a project that could cost $5.1 million.

One of the biggest challenges facing the town is the need to replace or upgrade town facilities and infrastructure.

Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer laid out more than $100 million dollars in capital needs to be financed over the next two decades, including a new police station, four fire stations and completion of the parks master plan.

“We have a fairly significant wish list and needs list of projects that we need to accomplish within the next twenty years, so balancing that is a difficult challenge,” said Pennoyer.

The Council will consider planning for a $20 million bond referendum to go on the ballot in 2017.

In addition, Council members discussed the need for increased economic development, enhanced code enforcement and a town-wide stormwater master plan.

The new policy goals will guide the Town Manager as he crafts next year’s spending plan. Budget negotiations will begin later this spring.

More Solar Energy Projects Could Be Coming To Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL – We might see more solar energy projects being developed in Chapel Hill over the next several years, which could prove to be a lucrative investment for the Town.

The Chapel Hill Town Council said at a meeting Monday evening that it is on board to explore solar energy projects on town-owned facilities.

Town staff said Chapel Hill is not eligible for state and federal grant money in this area, so it’s not feasible for the town to pursue these projects alone. However, private groups could propose partnerships and lease agreements to put solar panels on town property.

John Richardson, Chapel Hill’s Sustainability Officer, said North Carolina is number two in the country for solar installations, trailing behind California. He said potential investors have taken notice of the Tar Heel State.

The pace of developer investment in solar initiatives is also expected to increase in 2014.

“It is becoming pretty clear that North Carolina is becoming a national leader for solar installations,” Richardson said. “One explanation is the fact that a lot of these are supported by a good tax credit structure.”

How It Works

An investor group would request to lease an underutilized municipal space, such as a rooftop. The Council would then approve a 20-year lease to the owner group, and it would install the solar panels, Richardson explained.

“You have no revenue or cash flow through the first six years, but as soon as that ownership flips, you then see greater revenue potential, greater cash flow from that because you then have access at that point; you have access and control of the electricity,” Richardson said.

Under the “Host-To-Own’ Model, after about five to seven years, the lease contract would allow the Town to buy back the solar installation equipment. The Town could eventually take ownership, and at that point it would have access to the benefits of solar generation.

“That would be in one of two forms: either as an offset—so if you had a solar installation on the roof of a building, of course the building has an existing electricity demand— you can offset that demand through solar generation. Or, you could potentially sell that electricity generation back to the grid.”

The “Host-To-Own” Model was used at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market through partnerships with the Carrboro Solar Community Initiative, a handful of local investors, and the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy, or AIRE.

Town staff have begun a feasibility study for the “Host-To-Own” model and how it could work in Chapel Hill. They are working with AIRE as a consultant and will receive feedback from the study in February.

Homestead Aquatic Center and Other Projects

The Homestead Aquatic Center is also being considered as a potential solar energy site. Richardson said it was designed for solar panel use with an appropriate roof design that faces southward.

It is estimated that the Aquatic Center could produce 100 kilowatts of power, which power would about 10 to 20 homes for one year. Installing the solar energy panels would cost about $350,000.

Richardson said his department is exploring the idea of installing a solar panel structure above the Transit Facilities Parking Lot. It estimated that it could generate 1.1 megawatts of electricity, which would power 150-200 homes for one year.

This idea sparked the approval of Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

“If you see that and don’t go, ‘Wow!’ I don’t know what is going on in your head right now,” Kleinschmidt said. “The whole idea that we could take an asset like that, which is just collecting oil drippings from buses, and turn it into something that is generating energy at that level is just astounding.”

With the Council’s approval, Town Manager Roger Stancil has been authorized to further investigate solar energy options, as well as potential investors and project sites.

CH Town Council Moves Forward With OC Recycling Partnership

CHAPEL HILL – The Chapel Hill Town Council is cautiously moving forward with the proposed plan to partner with Orange County to provide weekly curbside recycling pick-up in town. Council members disagreed at a meeting Monday over how much leverage Chapel Hill would lose to the County if an inter-local agreement were entered into too quickly.

The Town is working on a June 30th deadline to renew or find another avenue for recycling services, which are currently provided by the County.

The County is on the fast track to award a contract outlining an independent firm to provide the recycling services for Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough.

“I think that it is not inappropriate for the Council to make a statement effectively which is we are not willing to just outright support what you [the County] are doing in the absence of any rule guidance on the inter-local agreement,” said Council Member Matt Czajkowski.

Czajkowski asked town staff to prepare a report of where the County stands on the tentative inter-local agreement. He said he desired more clarification on what administrative fees the County will be charging.

“And we still don’t have the information from the County about what that incremental cost will be,” he said. “Even though I presume that they will be a good partner as well, they haven’t really given us much indication that they are capable of being a good partner.”

Council member Jim Ward encouraged moving forward with support for the tentative partnership plan, given the County’s investment in roll-out carts to provide the recycling services.

“As we approach the 30th of June, our leverage actually increases.  The county has already spent some version of $1 million dollars for these carts. They want this to work. As we move forward, they want these really to work. We need to be their partner,” Ward said.

Wendy Simmons, Solid Waste Services Manager for Chapel Hill, said that it is anticipated that County Commissioners will enter into a contract with an independent firm during a Board meeting on February 4.

Town staff recommended that the Council consider favoring a partnership with the County which stipulates that the Town has the ability to add provisions in the contract allowing the Council to change the frequency of recycling services as needed.

The firms that have submitted bids include Republic Services of North Carolina, TFC Recycling, Unity of the Carolinas, and Waste Industries.

The County’s recommendation was for a weekly collection, which conforms to current pick-up schedules, but will come at a higher cost.

The Town received a low bid of $3.68 monthly per unit for weekly pick-up, and a low bid of $2.44 for bi-weekly services. Town staff anticipated that the County will move forward with the lowest bid.

In comparison, the County’s current contract cost for weekly curbside recycling service is $3.73 per unit.

Council member Lee Storrow added that the Council could  consider several options in the future, including a “pay as you throw” option.

“My recycling bin is full every time I put it out, so even having a bi-weekly can would be appealing, but starting out with weekly makes sense,” Storrow said.

Simmons said that the County is expected to opt for weekly collection service with roll carts which would be offered beginning in June.

When a firm is decided upon, she said the contract will most likely be for five-years, with an option for one additional five-year term.

Once the inter-local agreement is formulated, it would then be returned to the Council for a formal vote.

Town Council Wary Of East Franklin Hotel Plan

CHAPEL HILL- A plan for a new hotel on East Franklin Street met with opposition from residents and the Chapel Hill Town Council last week

Anthony Carey is the general manager at the Siena Hotel on the corner of East Franklin and Estes Drive. He told the Council he’s skeptical about a plan to build a new upscale hotel less than half a mile down the road.

“We currently do not have an urgent need for hotel rooms,” said Carey. “Between July 1 of last year and December 31, how many times was the Aloft, Siena, Sheraton, Franklin, Carolina Inn, Residence Inn and Courtyard sold out harmoniously? Zero.”

The concept was introduced to the Town Council at a public hearing last week. No formal plan has been submitted to the town, but developers heard an earful from neighbors critical of their proposal to build a five-story, 110-room hotel on less than two acres along East Franklin Street.

Dr. Terry Vance runs a psychotherapy practice across the street from the site. She said a new hotel would pose a threat to her business.

“The increased traffic and the noise of building a hotel would make our practice impossible,” said Vance. “We depend on listening, quiet and privacy.”

Residents in the nearby Coker Hills neighborhood also voiced concerns about noise, light pollution and traffic.

When the time came for the Council to offer feedback, members were similarly unimpressed. Lee Storrow told developers he was not excited about the plan.

“We have an approved hotel in the southern part of town that’s likely to break ground very soon, we have approved a rough concept that would, in the future, lead to a hotel across from Carolina North, and there’s discussions about ones in Ephesus-Fordham,” said Storrow. “So I don’t think this concept make sense at this space. I think we’re just moving around people who are in other hotels and I don’t think that has the benefit of expanding our market or tax base the way we want it to.”

Developers must now decide whether to formally apply for a rezoning and special use permit, or shelve the hotel plan in favor of a new idea.