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.


State Funding Cuts Spark Tension

Educators and school administrators all across North Carolina are anxious about the State House budget that’s due this week.

And those in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system are certainly no exceptions.

The State Senate budget that was proposed last week has nerves on edge already, as seen in recent discussions between the district’s Board of Education and the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“I want to encourage you all to continue to do what you’ve done before in terms of continuing to support public education,” said CHCCS Board of Education member Michelle Brownstein, speaking to the Orange County Board of Commissioners last Thursday night.

“And also, to be as creative as you can, in thinking outside the box about how you can do this, because the implications of this are going to be beyond our school system. I mean, I’m even personally looking at jobs to move my family out of the state.”

Her frank admission that even she was considering leaving North Carolina, in a time of harsh school funding cuts from the state, was made during a plea for the best school funding the county could possibly muster.

Brownstein was accompanied by fellow Board of Education member Mike Kelley.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Board of Education were grappling with the future of the Mandarin dual language program. As soon as they were finished talking to Commissioners, Brownstein and Kelley would drive back to Chapel Hill High School and report to fellow board members.

Kelley and Brownstein were third in line to make their case to Commissioners, after Durham Technical Community College and Orange County Schools.

Brownstein told Commissioners she sympathized with the tough spot they were in – having to make decisions before knowing how badly the approved state budget would slash school funding.

She pointed out that the Board of Education made its $3.8 million request based on Governor Pat McCrory’s proposed budget – far in advance of knowing what the North Carolina Senate would propose last week.

Under that proposal, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools would take a $3.6 million hit, on top of a $2.7-million shortfall. And the school system would lose 57 teacher assistants.

State House Speaker Thom Tillis has indicated that the House budget, due this week, would not cut as many teacher assistants statewide as the Senate’s budget, but he hasn’t elaborated.

“It’s not going to be rosier than what the Senate’s done,” said Brownstein. “We’d be fooling ourselves if we think that it is. What we did is to give you our best estimate before we even knew how horrific they were going to be. And they’re even worse.”

She told Commissioners that the CHCCS budget request was not an expansion – it was simply to maintain the status quo.

Mike Kelley made a plea based on traditional Orange County values.

“State government has reduced taxes for our community,” said Mike Kelly. “And we can choose to spend our own money in a way that is consistent with our values, by raising taxes to support schools, and support education of the 20,000 children in the public school system, and other services that are going to be impacted. And I would encourage you to do that.”

Commissioners were not unsympathetic. Chair Barry Jacobs said that while the county can fill holes, it can’t fill craters. He also suggested that in light of what state government is doing, it may be time to re-assess local tax policies.

But Interim County Manager Michael Talbert said it would be very hard to fill the crater being dug by the General Assembly.

“It’s a double whammy,” said Talbert. “The Senate balanced their budget by eliminating positions, and by moving that money, from taking it from positions to teacher raises. So if our board is going to make that whole, you’re talking a substantial tax increase, well over $300 per pupil, if, in fact, the House comes though with a budget that’s a similar nature.”

Back in April, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education voted to request $3.8 million from the county.

That was after Superintendent Tom Forcella had recommended a budget request of $2.8 million. About half of the $900,000 difference would have gone to cutting gifted specialists in schools.

On Thursday night, Commissioners Mark Dorosin and Earl McKee said they wanted to know why they hadn’t seen a list of CHCCS priorities.

And McKee had this to say about the Board of Education’s funding-request methods this year.

“I’m a bit disappointed that the Board [of Education] did not make clear why they did not follow the superintendent’s recommendation, and instead, asked for a higher level of funding” said McKee, “knowing that the county is not flush, and knowing that the county, in the time that I’ve been on the Board [of Commissioners] has not approved full funding requests.”

Jacobs said he felt like the Board of Education had done a little game-playing this time around, which may end up leaving parents in Chapel Hill and Carrboro with the impression that the county had failed to come up with $6 million for schools.

“They’re going to feel like they were cheated,” said Jacobs. “And they were led to that belief by their school board.”

Afterward, Brownstein and Kelly joined the Board of Education meeting in Chapel Hill at its tail end, after about three hours had been spent there with anxious parents discussing the Mandarin dual language issue.

That’s when Board members received a bleak summary of the Commissioners’ discussion.

“I can’t really make a comment about this discussion,” Brownstein told her fellow Board members. “I feel kind of – no pun intended – shell-shocked. This is going to be an abysmal budget. Period. End of story.”

The Orange County Board of Commissioners adopts its budget on June 17.


Cedar Grove Community Center to Get $3M Upgrade

The Orange County Board of Commissioners, by a 4-to-3 vote, has approved a three-million dollar upgrade to the Cedar Grove Community Center.

Supporters on the Board hope the renovations will actually create an incentive for businesses to stay in Orange County.

“Just like people in business try to create brand loyalty, we would create brand loyalty in Orange County.”

That’s Orange County Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs, explaining why he was inclined to support a suggested $3.07 million upgrade to the Cedar Grove Community Center.

At Thursday night’s meeting, Commissioners were presented with two plans. One was dubbed the “base plan” to upgrade the Community Center. The plan included an internet café, two group rooms, a recreation room, a classroom and a park-and-ride shelter.

The $2.36 million price tag was just $113,526 more than had been previously allocated.

The “alternate plan” presented Thursday night cost $3.07 million, and would involve renovating two classroom wings to be suitable for storage and truck access.

One potential user of those spaces would be The Piedmont Agricultural Processing Center, a Hillsborough non-profit that helps new small food businesses get off the ground.

A few Commissioners were wary of spending the extra money, with other priorities such as education to think about.

And some were skeptical of the idea that leasing out the storage spaces to start-up businesses would necessarily keep them in Orange County as they grew.

“I’d also like to just suggest the possibility of doing one wing and not the other,” said Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier, “because I think we’ll have the storage space that we’ll need from other places.”

There were money concerns all across the table, even among Commissioners who seemed inclined to support the alternate plan. Jacobs talked about the possibility of doing it in phases, so that costs could be spread out.

But County Manager Michael Talbert urged commissioners to do it all at once, and do it now, if they were going to do it.

“Our borrowing cost is extremely low,” said Talbert. “The construction cost is not going to get better. It’s going to increase over the next five years as the economy improves.”

The idea of creating business incentives appealed to Commissioner Earl McKee, who said he’s going to be speaking a lot on that subject in months to come.

“I see this as a work in progress, and a way to use this facility, rather than tear this facility down,” said McKee.

The “alternate plan” won the evening, but just barely. The vote was 4-to-3 in favor of the more expensive alternative plan, with Commissioners Penny Rich, Alice Gordon and Pelissier voting no.


Board of Commissioners to Examine More Options to Fund Recycling

Funding options and other issues regarding curbside recycling in Orange County will be hashed out at Thursday night’s meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

It’s not a new topic, of course. It’s been a controversial one since late last year, when the Board began exploring the idea of creating a Solid Waste Tax Service District.

That led to a series of public meetings where citizens from rural areas lined up to speak out against the district plan, which would replace the old 3-R fee that was discontinued due to questions about the county’s legal right to collect the fee.

The Board backed away from the service-district idea at its April 15th meeting, along with the option of a rural curbside subscription service.

The Board is now looking at ways to partner with other jurisdictions to possibly create a county-wide recycling program.

A discussion about how to move forward with that will take place during Thursday’s meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. at the Department of Social Services, located at 113 Mayo Street in Hillsborough.


Jacobs, McKee Win Reelection To BOCC

Incumbents Barry Jacobs and Earl McKee held onto their seats on the Board of County Commissioners, fending off strong challengers by wide margins in Tuesday’s primary election.

In the race for the at-large seat on the Board, Jacobs drew 10,680 votes, 68 percent of all ballots cast. Challenger Bonnie Hauser drew 4,974 votes, or about 32 percent.

The race between Hauser and Jacobs turned highly contentious, with both candidates challenging each other directly at debates and forums. Hauser outraised Jacobs by more than $3,000 and hoped to outpoll the incumbent in Orange County’s northern precincts; in the end, though, Jacobs drew more votes in every precinct but one, Efland.

In the race for the seat representing District 2, incumbent McKee also faced a strong primary challenger, Mark Marcoplos—but McKee too won easily, with 4,041 votes (or 60 percent) to 2,648 for Marcoplos.

In that race, though, there was a clear split between northern and southern Orange County: Marcoplos won all but one of the five precincts located south of Hillsborough, while McKee won all nine of the precincts located north of Hillsborough (as well as the Eno precinct, due east).

While Tuesday’s election was only the Democratic primary, neither Jacobs nor McKee will face a Republican opponent in the November election. The only contested County Commissioner race in November will be for the seat representing District 1, where Democrat Mia Burroughs will face Republican Gary Kahn.


BOCC Candidates McKee, Marcoplos Meet In WCHL Forum: AUDIO

The race for the seat representing District 2 on the Orange County Board of Commissioners this year features two candidates, incumbent Earl McKee and challenger Mark Marcoplos. Both are Democrats.

Early voting is already under way for the May 6 primary. With no Republicans in the race, the winner of the Democratic primary will be unopposed in the November general election.

On Wednesday, WCHL invited McKee and Marcoplos into the studio for an informal candidate forum, hosted by Aaron Keck. During the hour-long forum, the candidates touched on topics ranging from school funding to budget priorities to taxes to solid waste and environmental development.

Listen to Part 1 of the forum, in which Marcoplos and McKee discuss school funding, budget priorities, taxes, and solid waste.

Listen to Part 2 of the forum, in which the candidates talk economic development, affordability, transportation, Rogers Road remediation, and more.


OC Commissioners Nearing Decision On Naming Next County Manager

The Orange County Board of Commissioners is nearing a decision on naming a new county manager.

Barry Jacobs, Chair of the County Commissioners, said the Board will not make an official announcement within the next week, but that they “are on the interstate and can see the exit up ahead.”

“Before we could announce anything, we will have to negotiate a contract, and there are a lot of things that go into it before one would make an announcement. We haven’t even decided completely on the final steps in the process,” Jacobs said.

The Board will hold two closed sessions next week, one on Monday at the Franklin Hotel and another Tuesday at the Siena Hotel.

The purpose of the closed meetings are “to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee,” according to North Carolina law.

The Board has been searching for a permanent county manager since last year when Frank Clifton, who had been in the position since 2009, announced in June that he would step down in September.

Michael Talbert was named interim Orange County Manager. He had previously served as the assistant County Manager since 2011.

Talbert told WCHL News in September that he didn’t plan to apply for permanent position.


Recycling Issue Brings Rural Residents Out for Orange Commissioners Hearing

HILLSBOROUGH – A public hearing on a proposed tax district for recycling pickup in Orange County brought a lot of people out to the Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday night.

Here were just a few of the comments from behind the guest podium:

“I loved Hillsborough in the past, but now I want to take my business and home elsewhere just because we are overtaxed, and I don’t get the benefits.”

“If it is a new tax, shouldn’t we be allowed to vote on it?”

“I find the argument that us rural folk are lazy and won’t recycle without this scheme disingenuous.”

“It’s not a matter so much of the cost. It’s a matter of principle.”

“Never mess with something that’s working. These convenience centers are working. Leave them alone.”

The proposed service district would replace an annual 3-R fee of $38 that was added to property tax bills from 2004 until 2012. That was when the county discontinued the fee over concern about its legality.

The tax district idea has sparked anger among some vocal residents of rural areas.

They contend that they can take care of recycling themselves, by carting it off to convenience centers, as they’ve been doing for a long time.

Some speakers said they don’t want to push big recycling bins down long, winding gravel driveways. Some insisted they don’t want to pay for a service they’re not going to use. And some said they’re already being taxed too much in Orange County.

There were also a few comments in favor of the service district:

“I just want to speak to this idea that people can selectively choose the taxes they want to pay or that they think benefit them. If that was the case in this country, we would not have a functioning society.”

That’s Tom Linden, a resident of the dense suburban Stoneridge neighborhood of unincorporated Orange County. He says that 300 households in his area “need and want” curbside recycling.

Terri Buckner lives on Yorktown Drive in Chapel Hill, in the southern part of the county. She said her neighborhood gets “forgotten a lot” in this discussion.

“We don’t have access to the convenience centers that you all here in the north have,” she said. “So, for me, hauling my recycling to the convenience center is really quite an inconvenience, even though I am paying for your convenience centers.”

Such arguments did not sway rural residents such as Steve Hopper of Efland.

“Those with curbside recycling access – 57 percent are using it,” he said. “In the rural areas without curbside recycling – 50 percent are doing it. That’s a seven percent difference. You’re going to spend how much money for seven percent?”

Commissioners must come up with a one-size-fits-all solution, because State law mandates that a service district must be contiguous. Targeting curbside pickup to those that want it most is not an option.

Mark Marcoplos, who’s running this year against Commissioner Earl McKee for the District 2 seat, spoke at the hearing. He faulted Commissioners for not opting to simply keep the 3-R fee in place.

“This worked very well, until the county lawyer offered his opinion that, based on a case involving Cabarrus County, the county might face a legal challenge on the fee,” said Marcoplos.

He was referring to a decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court in August 2012, which struck down school facility fees in Cabarrus County. Orange County took that as a precedent that invalidated county government fees if they were not approved by the General Assembly.

Bonnie Hauser, who’s running against Chairman Barry Jacobs for his at-large seat, also spoke at the hearing. She said that while she is not a resident of the proposed tax district, she cares about the issue.

“There is no option that I can see that takes me down a path of a service district tax as a fair or equitable solution for the county,” she said.

It was the second of two public hearings about the recycling district. Commissioners could make a decision at the April 15 meeting, to be held at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road in Chapel Hill, starting at 7 p.m.


OC Commissioners Preview: Recycling District Gets Another Public Hearing

Tuesday at 6 p.m., Orange County residents will get another opportunity to present their views to the Board of Commissioners about a proposed Solid Waste Service Tax District for recycling pickup.

The meeting will be the second of two scheduled public hearings to address the issue.

The proposed tax district would replace the annual $38 Rural 2-R Fee that was discontinued after 2012.

The fee had been added to property tax bills for eight years.

In 2012, legal concerns about the fee forced Orange County to come up with new ideas. Last year, interim funding for recycling was provided from landfill reserves.

The Board of Commissioners will soon decide whether there’s enough public support and participation to justify creating a service district for unincorporated areas.

It would mean that residents would be taxed 1.5 cents per every 100 dollars of assessed land value for bi-weekly curbside pickup.

The Orange County Solid Waste Management Department has recommended that Commissioners make a final decision by April 15.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners meets April 1 at 6 p.m. at the Department of Social Services, located at Hillsborough Commons.

You can view the full agenda here.