UNC Fraud Report To Be Released Wednesday

Orange, Carrboro Leaders Discuss Process of Changes in Rural Buffer

Possible changes in the Rural Buffer sparked some lively conversation between Orange County Commissioners and Carrboro Alderpersons on Thursday night.

“Originally, any development in the rural buffer had to be approved by all three governments,” recalled Orange County Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs. “And that was not going to work. Just imagine. So, I don’t think he want to re-live those kinds of discussions.”

Jacobs recalled how the brand-new Joint Planning Agreement between Orange County, Carrboro and Chapel Hill almost fell apart back in 1987.

Orange County recently proposed amendments to the agreement that would allow “appropriate agricultural support uses” in the Rural Buffer, a low-density residential area comprised of 38,000 acres. It includes the New Hope Creek Basin, the University Lake Watershed, and the Southern Triangle area.

The goal is to generate more farm-related income.

One example cited during Thursday’s meeting at the Southern Human Services Center was the success of Maple View Ice Cream County Store in Hillsborough. Commissioner Earl McKee pointed out that the opening of the store in 2001 has become a boon to neighboring dairy farm business.

But some Carrboro Alderpersons are concerned that too many changes too soon could open the door to more intense development in the area.

“Are we really opening up a can of worms – making more uses that will be competing with farms?” asked Alderperson Sammy Slade.

McKee and fellow Commissioner Bernadette Pelessier said they were unclear about what harm would come to the farming community from the existence of more supporting commercial enterprises.

“I’m just struggling with people’s definitions of ‘commercial,’ for example,” said Pelessier, “because I see farms as commercial. It’s a business. And a lot of the things here are to help support farmers and agri-tours, which, I think, a lot of people in this community have said they do want to have.”

Jacobs suggested that all three staffs and attorneys from each governing body meet to hash things out, rather than the three jurisdictions trying to move separately on the issues.

He offered that perhaps that could be accomplished in time for the Assembly of Governments meeting on Nov. 19.

The Chapel Hill Town Council has yet to discuss proposed changes. That will likely happen at its Nov 10 meeting.


BoCC To Consider Adding Texts, Videos To 911 System

Orange County Commissioners will consider spending $1.5 million dollars to upgrade the 911 emergency response system when the board meets Tuesday.

County officials say its time to update the 911 phone system to accept texts, pictures and videos from callers and emergency responders.

The Next Generation 911 Solution, as it’s being called, will cost the county $22,000 to install and nearly $26,000 in recurring expenses, for a total of $1.5 million over the next five years.

While the monthly rate is significantly more than the county has been paying with its current provider, county staffers say the current provider is not able to offer the new services. Some of the money for the new system will come from the state’s 911 Board Emergency Telephone Fund.

The board will also consider moving forward with plans to expand the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road, now that the Chapel Hill Town Council has approved a Special Use Permit for the site.

The Board of County Commissioners meets at 7 o’clock in the Whitted Meeting Room at 300 West Tryon Street in Hillsborough.

The full agenda is available here: http://www.co.orange.nc.us/occlerks/141007.pdf


OC Commissioners, School Boards Talk Bond Referendum

The Orange County Board of Commissioners met with the two local school boards Tuesday night in Hillsborough to discuss, among other things, moving forward with plans for a 2016 bond referendum.

“We can do things with alternate financing, and we’ve been doing it for a decade now,” said Orange County Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs, near the end Tuesday night’s genial joint meeting between the BoCC and the Boards of Education from Chapel-Hill Carrboro and Orange County.

“But we’re going to go to people, and we’re going to say, ‘Are you with us?’” he continued. “And if they say ‘yes,’ they’ll help us pay for it. That’s about as democratic a way to do it as I know.”

The combined school renovation needs of the two districts make up the bulk of identified projects that could benefit from a bond that may go on the ballot, either in May or November of 2016.

“We have currently, approximately between the county and the school system, about $500 million in projects, you know, that could potentially be on this bond referendum,” said Orange County’s Chief Financial Officer Clarence Grier. “We can’t fully fund all those. Schools alone have $330 million of outstanding deferred maintenance projects – older capital needs projects that need to be addressed.”

At a Commissioners meeting on Sept. 11, 2014, it was decided that the range would be between $100 million to $125 million. Orange County holds a AAA rating, and at current interest rates, Grier calculated the debt service at the lower figure to be 6.1 percent, or 4 cents on the property tax rate.

For $125 million, the debt service would be 4.67 cents on the tax rate.

Grier said borrowing would be staggered in amounts of $40 million, then $35 million, and then a final $35 million, issued biennially over four years.

He said that would make the debt more affordable, and lessen its impact on the budget each year.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese noted that, in his district, 10 school facilities have been identified as potential renovation projects.

LoFrese said that by adding capacity as part of renovations, getting the projects done could actually save some money by delaying school construction.

“If all of our projects were able to move forward, we would be able to pick up 555 seats at the elementary level,” said LoFrese. “That’s nearly an entire elementary school. Chapel Hill High would increase by 105 seats, a total of 660 seats in our school system.”

The total recommended cost for all the projects, said LoFrese, is $160 million. He added that getting all of them done in the next five-to-10 years would delay the cost of building a new elementary school for about 15-to-20 years.

After the meeting, LoFrese told WCHL that one of three schools would likely be prepared for shovel-readiness in 2016 if a bond referendum passed.

“Either Ephesus Elementary School, Seawell Elementary School, or the creation of a pre-K center,” said LoFrese. “Each of those would create a hundred additional seats of student capacity, which would push off the need for Elementary 12 by two years.”

Grier recommended starting the process of educating the public in August 2015, to get the referendum on the ballot in May 2016.

But others at the meeting recommended getting started much sooner, in the process of explaining to voters why taxes may go up again.


School Districts Discuss Cross-District Programs

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County school districts are moving toward sharing educational resources across schools.

In other words, students from one district could take courses in another district.

Members of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, Chapel Hill–Carrboro Board of Education, and Orange County Board of Education discussed the possibility Tuesday night at the Whitted Meeting Facility in Hillsborough.

The two districts have attempted cross-district enrollment in the past but factors like different schedules and travel distances led to low participation.

“I am extremely concerned about . . . equal educational opportunity and access,” said Commissioner Mark Dorosin. He expressed concern over one pubic school offering courses that another public school does not offer. He said schools should make certain courses available over the internet to give students in other schools an opportunity they would not otherwise have.

“I know there’s a multitude of AP courses that are only offered at Chapel Hill High, and that could be made accessible via internet to other students,” said Dorosin.

Members acknowledged that not all courses could be taught remotely. Orange County Board of Education Chair Stephen Halkiotis discussed the agriculture program at Orange County High School.

“There’s a quality group of teachers teaching the program,” he said. “It’s hard to do that online. To get the smell of a barn, to understand weighing a pig, you’ve got to get right in there with your rubber boots where the rubber meets the road or in this case, the rubber meets the pig poop.”

Members from each district agreed to keep the conversation moving forward.


OC Commissioners to Vote on New Solid Waste Truck

Orange County Commissioners will review employee benefits and authorize the purchase of a new truck to haul solid waste when the board meets Tuesday night.

The projected renewal costs for county employee health benefits are expected to rise by 13 percent for the next year, but that increase will likely be paid by the county, not by individual employees.

Commissioners will also consider purchasing a hook lift truck for $193,000 to service the recycling compactors at Walnut Grove Convenience Center, the cardboard compactor at the landfill, and all of the purple rigid plastic roll-off containers at the County’s solid waste convenience centers and recycling drop off sites.

The board meets at 7 p.m. at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road.

You can read the agenda here.


Orange County Moves Closer to New Bus Plan

Orange County is getting closer to forming a plan to expand bus service to central and rural residents over the next five years.

The Board of Commissioners approved the Orange County Bus and Rail Investment Plan back in 2012, and voters approved a half-cent sales tax and vehicle registration fee to fund it.

At Thursday night’s Commissioners meeting, Transportation Planner Brett Martin presented two bus-service options to commissioners. The second option is a response to public comments regarding the initial plan that was presented during four outreach meetings.

Option 2 provides service two days per week to the low-density rural areas of northern and southern Orange County, whereas Option 1 provides service only to rural northern Orange, and that’s only one day a week.

Another difference is that Option 2 provides shorter wait times than Option 1 for midday service on U.S. 70; and offers a fixed-route connection between Mebane, Hillsborough and Efland.

Option 1 offers two things the second option does not: an extended connection to Durham; and the Efland-Hillsborough commuter loop.

The loop would provide peak-period service that links Efland to the Triangle Transit Orange-Durham Express in Hillsborough; and provide a Hillsborough Circulator for commuters in Northern Hillsborough traveling to service jobs in the southern part.

Some commissioners that voiced support for Option 2 also said they liked the loop in Option 1. So a consensus formed around a hybrid plan.

“I realize that Option 2 takes out the Hillsborough-Efland Commuter Loop,” said Commissioner Earl McKee. “I’m not so sure why we can’t eventually build that back in as revenues increase.”

Commissioner Renee Price also expressed support for Option 2. She also made a suggestion about the $12.75 one-way fare charged for the county’s demand-response service.

The service allows county residents to call Orange public Transportation two business days in advance to arrange curb-to-curb service within the county.

She said she hopes the county can come up with something more affordable for the residents most likely to use that service.

“People that need it are folks that probably don’t have money,” said Price. “Otherwise, we’re just allowing them to go to medical appointments, and to the grocery store, and that’s their life.”

Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs directed county staff to draft a resolution that combines Option 2 with the Efland-Hillsborough loop.


OC Commissioners May Go Bigger on Bond Referendum

Orange County Commissioners were briefed on Thursday night about the county’s ability to carry various amounts of debt, as plans to put a big bond package before voters in 2016 begin to take shape.

“If it was the Board’s pleasure to say, ‘Clarence, try to figure out a way to issue $200 million, $250 million,’ we would try to do it,” said Clarence Grier, assistant county manager and chief financial officer for Orange County.

Grier told the Board of Commissioners that whatever amount they may choose to borrow, he would find a way to pitch it to the Local Government Commission for approval.

In his presentation, he listed some reasons to feel confident about debt capacity. Orange County is one of only eight counties in North Carolina with a AAA rating.

Over the past year, Orange County has been talking about the possibility of a bond referendum in 2016.

Two priorities that have been discussed recently – a new $30 million jail in Hillsborough, and Middle School # 5 for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School District – add up to $73 million.

Orange County Schools anticipates the need for an eighth elementary school in fiscal year 2021-22.

Additionally, both school systems need repairs at older facilities.

The county started with $100 million when the discussion about a bond referendum began more than a year ago.

Since then, said Grier, he’s received a lot of communications from interested parties that wish to have their projects included.

One of those, Durham Technical Community College, is asking for an additional building on the Orange County campus.

Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs said that may be premature.

“I don’t think Durham Technical Community College is ready for us to give them money, until we have a strategic plan for their property, and their purposes,” said Jacobs.

Grier told Commissioners that the LGC has already given preliminary approval for $100 million. But he estimated that the county could afford to add at least $25 million to that. And he laid out scenarios for making even bigger amounts feasible.

Perhaps working with a new, higher number that Grier and others will take to the LGC, an advisory task force appointed by the Board of Commissioners will set priorities for a bond package that can be presented to voters.

The referendum will be discussed more at a joint meeting between the commissioners and the school boards for Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro on Sept. 30.


OC Commissioners to Vote on Sharing School Facilities with Public

The Orange County Board of Commissioners return for a meeting tonight at Hillsborough’s Historic Whitted Building to vote on a resolution to approve the use of school facilities for public recreation.

The resolution comes from the Intergovernmental Parks Work group, a 27-member committee with representatives from Orange County and all towns, school systems and park advisory boards, as wells as other park-and-conservation interests.

To date, resolutions to make school facilities more available for public recreational use have been adopted by governing bodies in Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Chapel Hill, as well as the school boards for Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

The Commissioners meeting at the Whitted Building takes place at 7 p.m.

The Richard Whitted Meeting Facility is located at 300 West Tryon Street in Hillsborough.


OC Commissioner Blasts Proposed NCGA Measure on County Taxes

Originally posted 2:22 a.m., July 19, 2014

The North Carolina Senate appears to be serious about a measure that would prohibit counties from calling sales tax referenda for use toward both transportation and education.

Under the proposed bill, counties would have to choose between the two.

“What the General Assembly is discussing is pitting education against transportation,” said Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich. “The problem with that is that transportation is always going to be the loser, because we value education so much in our county.”

On Wednesday, a State Senate Panel approved a bill by voice vote that could prevent Wake County in joining Orange and Durham Counties in using sales taxes to fund public transit.

The proposed measure would allow counties to raise taxes by referendum on a sales tax for either education or transportation, but not both.

The Durham Herald-Sun reported that Republican Sen. Rick Gunn of Alamance said that it would force counties to make a “clear decision on priorities.”

The bill would also cap local sales taxes at 2.5 percent.

Voters in Orange and Durham Counties have elected to raise taxes for both education and transit, and both currently have a 2.75 percent sales taxes in place. They would be exempt from the bill.

But Rich sees trouble ahead when it comes to forming transportation partnerships between counties in the future.

“Wake County has been discussing a transportation tax, and they are part of a group that is Wake, Durham and Chapel Hill to supply public transportation to our groups, and to get people moving, either with light rail or buses,” said Rich.

She also said that the ramifications for Orange County and all North Carolina counties go far beyond immediate consequences. She called the Senate bill another “divide-and-conquer” tactic

“There are big ramifications, because when the General Assembly is taking away the governing power of the county as they’re doing in this bill – and they do it in the first bill, and it gets by – then there’s no telling what they do down the road.

“So even though we say that we don’t have ramifications because we have our sales tax in place, it really is a grab,” she said. “It’s a grab for power.”

The late-session bill was supposed to go to the full Senate for a vote on Thursday, but was delayed until Monday.


OC Commissioners to Raise Taxes by 2 Cents to Pay for Schools

Orange County residents will likely see a two-cent increase in general property tax to help fund schools in the next fiscal year.

On Thursday night, commissioners meeting for a public work session at Southern Human Services Center in Chapel Hill moved to fully fund local school systems, despite some of the back-and-forth admonishments over the past few weeks over funding requests. And they came very close.

The $200.4 million expenditure budget that will be up for a final vote on June 17 includes a General Fund school appropriation of $72.1 million, which equates to $3,571 per pupil in both the Chapel-Hill-Carrboro and Orange County School systems.

Additional funding would amount to $7.1 million – enough to fully fund the Orange County Schools request, and, according to Commissioner Chair Jacobs, get about 90 percent there for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools.

Finding a solution to funding challenges was made a little easier with the news that Orange County’s projected unassigned fund balance for fiscal year 2014-15 is $35.3 million, or 18.8 percent of the general fund expenditure.

According to Orange County’s policy, the unassigned fund balance should be 17 percent of the General Fund. The current fund balance exceeds that goal, by 1.83 percent, and the projected excess amounts to $1.9 million.

On a related note, Interim Manager Michael Talbert informed commissioners that they will see an agenda item next Tuesday that reflects the county’s new Triple-A Rating.

A refinancing of the county’s debt will be proposed, and Talbert said it will save the county $838,000.

“That wasn’t possible three weeks ago, because our Triple-A rating wasn’t here,” said Talbert. “With the Triple-A rating, we’re going to get much better borrowing rates as we go forward with school needs, older school needs, and a potential bond referendum.”

Still, in the here and now, Commissioners needed to decide the matter of raising the general property tax for the first time in six years to help fund schools.

With $1.9 million of excess funds, and the manager’s recommended $2.9 million increase to work with, Commissioners and financial staff started doing the math.

After some discussion, two options came up for a vote. One idea was to raise the general property tax by 1.75 cents and use $1 million from the fund balance excess.

Commissioners Renee Price and Earl McKee supported that option. McKee said that a second proposal – a two-cent tax hike – was a “psychological step” for a lot of people, and it made him uncomfortable.

“We have a lot of people in Orange County that live in modest and lower-income homes, that own these homes, that are living paycheck-to-paycheck, day-to-day” said McKee, “that are having a hard time putting food on the table, much less any of what many of us take for granted, including myself.”

But Commissioner Mark Dorosin reminded everyone that the Orange County budget will already be on the books when the General Assembly budget is passed in coming weeks.

“Give the fact that we know there’s likely to be some more bleak scenario coming out – there are going to be other cuts that are going to have to be made, and tough decisions that will be coming,” said Dorosin. “And I trust the two school boards recognize the reality of that situation. So I’m in favor of the two cents.”

In the end, it was a two-cent tax hike, supplemented by $911,000 from the fund balance, which passed 5-to-2.

Afterward, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella and Board of Education Chair Jamezetta Bedford, who were in the audience, said they were happy with the outcome.

“This is a very positive budget for education in Orange County,” said Bedford. “I’m very pleased.”

Forcella praised the commissioners.

“I think we’re very fortunate to have a Board of County Commissioners who support public education, especially in light of what’s been happening in Raleigh,” said. “So they came through for us, and we are very, very appreciative.”

The Orange County Commissioners will vote on adopting the budget resolution on June 17.