CHTC Approves Budget With Two-Cent Tax Hike

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council signed off on next year’s budget on Monday night, voting to raise the property tax rate for the first time in four years.

The approved $94 million dollar spending plan balances the budget by raising the property tax rate by two cents, to 51.4 cents per $100 of value.

Though the vote was unanimous, it didn’t pass without criticism.

“We will drive a few of those neediest among us out of Chapel Hill when we pass this budget. That’s just for sure,” said council member Matt Czajkowski. “Every time we raise taxes, for whatever good purpose, we make it harder and harder for people of modest means, or even above modest means, to live here.”

Nonetheless, Czajkowski praised the town manager for bringing forward a well-balanced budget.

Half of the property tax rate increase will go to fund the transit system. The other half will go to the town’s General Fund, to be used to pay for increased library hours and the cost of hauling trash to a transfer station in Durham.

This is the first time since 2008 that the council has voted to raise the property tax rate, and, as council member Ed Harrison pointed out, the first time in nine years that the transit fund rate has increased.

“The system costs 60 percent more to fund that it did nine years ago, with 40 percent more riders,” said Harrison.

The $54 million dollar General Fund budget includes an additional $244,000 in library funding to keep the library open 64 hours a week. The newly expanded facility had been cut down to 54 hours when it reopened this spring due to the building’s higher operating expenses.

The budget also includes a two percent pay raise for town employees and covers a four percent increase in health care costs.

Looking ahead to next year, Town Manager Roger Stancil says the council will need to consider long-term solutions for the town’s solid waste disposal, as well as the financial stability of the transit system. He advised that it might be time to start planning a bond referendum to take to voters.

“You also have some pretty significant improvements in parks and recreation and greenways facilities that are worn out and need to be replaced,” said Stancil. “So we need to start talking about what are the ways we would replace those facilities and how would we plan for a future bond referendum.”

Though the council set the town’s tax rate last night, next year’s county’s tax rate is still up in the air. Commissioners have indicated they don’t plan to increase the countywide property tax, but they may opt to raise the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district tax as well as the Chapel Hill Fire District tax.

The county will adopt its budget on June 18.

Chapel Hill Town Council Tackles Library Funding

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council faces mounting pressure to increase library funding, but that’s just one of many tough choices this budget season.

John Morris was one of a dozen residents who came out on Monday to ask the Chapel Hill Town Council to increase funding for the newly expanded library.

“The people who are hurt most by the cut in hours are not any special interest group, or the Chapel Hill elite, whoever that might be,” said Morris. “The people who are hurt most are parents with children, families who work long hours, and those who don’t have the money to buy their own books and computers. That’s who we’re standing up for.”

Morris presented the council with a petition signed by more than 850 library patrons, all calling for the library to stay open 68 hours a week.

Since the expansion project was completed last month, library hours have been cut to 54 hours a week. Town Manager Roger Stancil’s recommended budget offers an extra $100,000 for additional staffing to bring that number up to 58 hours a week, but many say that’s not enough.

Council member Jim Ward said he wants to find an extra quarter million to restore the library to its full schedule.

“I want to start that conversation about changing the numbers right now, and I am supportive of fully funding the library hours,” said Ward. “To me, as evidenced by 2020, evidenced by the emails that we’ve gotten, evidenced by the people who came this evening to talk to us- that’s the old-fashioned version of priority-based budgeting.”

But others on the council didn’t see it that way. Lee Storrow said he’d prefer an incremental increase, with input from the new library director.

“I feel that it may not be the most responsible decision for us to jump from where we are now to 68 [hours] without the knowledge and the wisdom of a couple of months of operation under our new library director, who might have some expertise that I know I don’t have,” said Storrow.

Library Director Susan Brown starts work this week, at a time when the issue of library hours has become a lightening rod for resident concerns about how to balance a tight budget.

After four years without a property tax increase and seven without a transit fund increase, Roger Stancil says the budget gaps are unavoidable. He’s recommending a two-cent property tax rate hike to be split between Chapel Hill Transit and other big ticket items like library funding and solid waste disposal.

This year is the first time the council has undertaken priority budgeting, a ranking process meant to better align town spending with community values.

But budget staffers say it was only partially implemented throughout the planning process, and some on the council don’t see that it’s made any difference.

Matt Czajkowski said the current budget method doesn’t help the council when it comes to making tough choices.

“In the budget is a proposed two percent increase for [town] employees. Which of the library supporters would like us to see us reduce our raise to the employees so that we can fund the library?” asked Czajkowski. “That’s priority budgeting.”

Monday’s public hearing was just the beginning of the budget negotiation process. Looking ahead, Donna Bell reminded her peers to focus on the bigger picture.

“I just want to see if we could bring it back out, because I don’t want it to feel like this is a conversation about if we want to have the library funded or not have the library funded,” said Bell. “How do we do all the things that we want to do?”

The council will hold a work session on employee compensation and heath benefits at the library this Wednesday, and discuss the future of Chapel Hill Transit at a work session scheduled for June 3. The final budget will likely be adopted on June 10.

Construction Is Almost Done, But New Library Services May Have To Wait

CHAPEL HILL-The new and improved Chapel Hill Public Library will reopen in the spring, but it’s not clear if the town can afford the full cost of operating the expanded facility.

Interim Library Director Mark Bayles told the town council on Wednesday that when the library reopens in April, it will be more than twice as large as before, spanning an acre and a half with nearly four miles worth of book shelves.

“The new building is, in essence, two libraries under one roof: the main library and a mini-branch,” said Bayles.

To run the 63,000 square foot facility at full capacity will cost an extra $433,000 this year and an additional three quarters of a million each year thereafter.

But the town budget is tight. Council members warned Bayles that the operational costs might be too high to open the library at its full potential.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the community is prepared for the fact that the library will likely have to operate at a reduced level of service.

“I don’t like the idea of saying, ‘Oh the town’s going to cut the library hours,’ but I think there’s a tolerance out there in the community for it,” said Kleinschmidt. “There’s a likelihood in the minds of many people in the community that we would roll out this operation rather than funding it in its entirety on the initial day.”

Though the library will no doubt feature in this spring’s budget negotiations, administrators are looking to the council for guidance now on whether to hire more personnel for the April opening.

The two level structure of the new library adds significantly to the cost of operation, because both floors and entrances will need to be staffed. Although closing the ground level entrance would save $70,000 a year, administrators warn it would leave the lower level understaffed and potentially unsafe. Town Manager Roger Stancil agreed.

“The second exit is a fact,” said Stancil. “If we could go back and redesign it, we might not have that second opening, we might not operate it as two libraries, but those are the facts that we’ve got.”

Nonetheless, council members told Bayles to look for ways to keep costs down, either by cutting hours or reducing circulation. Lee Storrow said the full roll-out of expanded services could take years to fund.

“We know we might have to make some tough decisions about the library that mean growing into the space over the course of months or even years,” said Storrow. “So I’m very comfortable not giving as big of an expansion to the budget as we’re seeing here tonight. I think the community is prepared for that to happen.”

Chapel Hill has been waiting a long time for its new library. The $16 million dollar expansion project was first approved by voters in 2003, but the council delayed it during the economic downturn. Though the building will reopen in just a few months time, it may take longer for the town to fully realize its dream.

Opening Day Collection

By this time next year we’ll either already be enjoying our renovated, updated Chapel Hill Public Library or anxiously awaiting its imminent grand opening.

The new version of our library will be 125% the size of the old and with a huge increase in WiFi space which will draw more users to the new areas for community meetings and public programs.  Our community will also find (click here for link, then click “images” to view floor plan) a classroom/lab for high-tech instruction; programs to advance children’s reading and writing and innovative initiatives for teens.  

The Library is the busiest public library per capita in North Carolina serving approximately 375,000 people annually with an average of 1,085 visitors per day.  The library now checks out about 3,000 books and other items every day or over 1 MILLION each year.  With the increase in space, the library is also expecting an increase in borrowing- of approximately of 30–40%!

So while construction crews are working on the building, the Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation is working to fill that extra space with an extraordinary number of new materials.  The Foundation is hoping to donate enough money to allow the library to purchase about 20,000 books and digital materials, arriving catalogued and shelf-ready for immediate use on opening day.  I can’t think of a more savvy bit of spending.

The good news is that the Foundation (of which I am a board member- LOVE that library!) has already raised half of the $300,000 it will take to buy all those materials.  Thanks to the many generous folks who got us that far.  

The next half is up to you and your friends and neighbors.  Please join the Foundation’s efforts to provide the full Opening Day Collection grant to our wonderful and busy Chapel Hill Public Library.  In order to have the materials ready for the very first visitors, the Foundation will need to complete its gift (with your help) by the end of 2012.  

The library’s temporary location in University Mall continues to maintain high circulation numbers so I know many of you are relishing the idea of the expanded opening day collection.  Please help build it by clicking here and donating to the Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation.

Please share your thoughts about the library and how you’ve enjoyed it or it’s helped you.  Leave a comment below or write to me at