Council To Quiz Bidders for Old Chapel Hill Library

With four offers on the table for the former Chapel Hill Public Library at 528 East Franklin Street, Town Council members say they want to make sure the modernist landmark goes to not only the highest bidder, but the buyer who will best fit with the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District.

The town is partnering with Preservation NC to find a buyer who will maintain the character and appearance of the iconic building, but council members say they have questions about who wants to purchase it and why. They also want to see who’s willing to bid higher than the $752,000 asking price.

So far, four serious bidders have come forward.

The first is Chris and Ann Cox, who live across the street from the property and want to see it turned into a Chapel Hill Cultural Center, with rental space for arts groups and private functions.

The second is Jay Miller, who wants the see the building become a nonprofit hub for the area.

Third is Chabad of Chapel Hill, which envisions a community center aimed at students.

Fourth is UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, which would use the space as the headquarters of the Arts and Sciences Foundation.

The lowest bid is the $752,000 minimum from Jay Miller; the highest bid, from UNC, is $1,025,000.

For those offers from tax-exempt nonprofits, Council members say they want the bidders to consider sweetening the deal with payments-in-lieu to make up for lost property tax revenue.

The Council meets with the bidders at a special meeting Monday at 5:30 pm at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road. A final decision on the sale will be made by June 23.

Chapel Hill Approves Budget With 1-Cent Tax Rate Hike

The Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously adopted a $96 million dollar budget on Monday night which includes the second property tax rate increase in two years.

“The budget is balanced with a 1-cent tax increase, restoring the debt fund capacity almost to where it was before the recession started,” said Town Manager Roger Stancil.

With Monday’s vote, the town’s property tax rate rises to 52.4 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value.

Council members decided last week the added penny is needed to help replenish the town’s debt management fund, which will increase the town’s borrowing power by about $10 million before 2017.

Supporters say that will help the town take on big projects like bikeways, parks, and new police and fire stations sooner rather than later. The 2014-2015 budget also includes increased funding for road resurfacing, $400,000 to help finance new buses, and money to hire a youth services coordinator.

In addition, the Council also allocated nearly $700,000 to fund affordable housing initiatives, a move applauded by housing advocates including Habitat for Humanity Director Susan Levy.

“I think all of that who are involved in affordable housing and have been over the years are really heartened by this commitment on your part,” said Levy. “I think it was a bold and a brave thing to do and I just want to say how much we appreciate it.”

Though the budget was approved in just six minutes, Council members assured the public the plan had been fully vetted at a pair of work sessions last week.

“We are not just rubber-stamping a budget here,” said Mayor pro Tem Sally Greene. “We’ve really given this a lot of consideration.”

Chapel Hill has set its tax rate for the next year, but Orange County Commissioners have not yet finalized their budget, which could include an increase in the county-wide property tax rate, or a hike in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools special district tax.

The board will discuss the county budget at a work session Tuesday at 7 o’clock at the Link Government Center in Hillsborough.

County Commissioners Reverse Course On Rural Recycling Vote

County Commissioners did an abrupt about-face Thursday night, reversing a vote on rural recycling funding in response to criticism from the Chapel Hill Town Council.

“The message that we need to send to the towns tonight is that, in fact, we do want to be their partners, we do want to work with them,” said Commissioner Alice Gordon.

On Tuesday, the board voted to spend $728,000 from the solid waste reserve fund to pay for rural recycling pick-up for the next fiscal year.

But on Wednesday, Chapel Hill Town Council members argued the majority of the money in the solid waste reserve fund was contributed by the towns, making it unfair to subsidize recycling pick-up for county residents while asking the towns to levy a $59 dollar fee on urban households for the same service.

In a rare move, the board revisited the issue at a work session Thursday and voted unanimously to fund both rural and urban programs from the solid waste fund, a move that will cost the county more than $2 million.

The solid waste reserve fund is set aside to pay for post-closure costs at the Orange County Landfill. The county is legally responsible for the site for the next three decades.

Commissioner Penny Rich said she’d like to see the towns find a way to help replenish that fund now that the county is no longer collecting landfill tipping fees.

“If we are going to take the $2 million dollars out of the reserves, we include the towns in the conversation about how we can build that back up, because right now we don’t have a way of doing that,” said Rich.

To figure out a funding plan for the future and solve ongoing questions about how to deal with solid waste and recycling, the board voted Tuesday to create a multi-jurisdictional task force chaired by a County Commissioner.

The board will appoint its representatives to the Solid Waste Advisory Group 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.

Town Council To Vote On 1-Cent Property Tax Hike

Chapel Hill Town Council members say a 1-cent property tax rate hike is needed in the coming year to help the town add to its debt capacity and build big projects sooner.

Chapel Hill faces more than $158 million dollars worth of unfunded capital needs, yet the town can’t borrow money until 2017.

With that in mind, Town Council members on Wednesday informally agreed it is time to replenish the town’s debt management fund by raising the property tax rate 1 cent next year, to 52.4 cents per $100 of valuation.

Council member Matt Czajkowski said this will help pay for amenities like parks, greenways and bike paths that town residents want sooner rather than later.

“Those elements, to me, are very significant quality-of-life considerations, what make people feel good about where they live,” said Czajkowski. “For them to be deferred many years into the future I think makes them more of a dream than a reality.”

A penny on the tax rate generates about $755,000 in revenue for the town. Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer told the Council each penny’s worth put into the debt fund translates into approximately $10 million dollars in additional debt capacity.

Other big-ticket items on the capital projects list include a new police station, new fire stations, a waste transfer station and park improvements.

The Council also wrestled with the question of how to raise money to support affordable housing initiatives. Ultimately, Council members settled on a plan that falls just short of the $755,000 funding goal, but doesn’t add to the tax rate.

The Council agreed to delay a solid waste transportation pilot project worth $145,000 and spend $355,000 worth of development fees from the Ephesus-Fordham area in addition to the $188,750 already set aside for affordable housing in next year’s budget.

This is the second property tax rate increase in two years for Chapel Hill residents. Last year, the council approved a 2-cent increase that was split between Chapel Hill Transit, solid waste transportation expenses and the newly expanded public library.

The Council will formally vote to adopt the 2014-2015 budget on Monday.

Chapel Hill Town Council Eyes Property Tax Rate Increase

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.

Activists Call For Council Action On Coal Ash Dump

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.

Image from a July 2013 assessment by Falcon Engineering, Inc

Image from a July 2013 assessment by Falcon Engineering, Inc

“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.

Council And Advocates Want To Boost Budget For Affordable Housing

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.

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.

New Buses Top List Of Chapel Hill Transit Budget Needs

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.