Local Governments Ending 2014 With Much on Their Plates

This past week was a busy one for people working in local governments all across Orange County.

It’s that time of year elected officials take a fresh look at interlocal agreements. But pressing development issues are crowding agendas as well.

“We’re kind of at this sweet spot in time, where different agreements we have with other governments are coming up for renewal,” said Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

That’s Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. By his own account, he logged about 50 hours of mayor time last week, in what is counted as his part-time job. He’s also an attorney with Tin, Fulton, Walker & Owen.

Elected officials and Chapel Hill’s town staff still have a lot of issues to iron out when it comes to development plans for Ephesus-Fordham, Obey Creek and The Edge.

“The development pressures on town are as high as they’ve ever been,” said Kleinschmidt, “so there’s a lot of stuff for the Council to be reviewing.”

And Chapel Hill can look forward to some serious renegotiations between the town and county early next year, regarding county contributions to the Chapel Hill Library.

Those have more than doubled over the past couple of years, in an effort to reflect the high number of county users of Chapel Hill’s library.

Right now, the county is kicking in around $580,000, and the mayor said he hopes that contributions will remain close to that level.

Residents of Orange County are in the unusual position of having two separate library systems. The county is set to open a library branch under its auspices in Carrboro in 2017, and as Kleinschmidt told WCHL earlier this week: “There’s the rub.”

This past Wednesday, The Chapel Hill Town Council joined The Carrboro Board of Aldermen and the Hillsborough Board of Commissioners for an Assembly of Governments meeting in Hillsborough.

Proposed changes to the 37,000-acre Rural buffer surrounding Chapel Hill and Carrboro inspired a lot of discussion at that meeting.

Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle has also been unusually busy in her second job lately.

In addition to chairing her own Board meeting on Tuesday and attending the Assembly of Governments meeting the next night, she began with week by speaking to the Chapel Hill Town Council at that meeting on Monday.

Lavelle said it’s just that time of year.

“Over the last several years, it just seems that way,” she said. “September, October, early November – they’re just crazy.”


Commissioners To Update Orange County’s Park Plan

County Commissioners will consider adopting the 2013 Master Parks Plan when the board meets on Tuesday.

This will be the first major update of the County’s parks and recreation plan since 1988.

The plan lists the $2.3 million dollar Blackwood Farm Park outside of Hillsborough as a top priority, along with River Park and a new $6 million dollar athletic facility on Millhouse Road north of Chapel Hill.

The board will also likely authorize the transfer of ownership of the new Buckhorn-Mebane water and sewer utility infrastructure to the City of Mebane.

The project was completed this fall using $5.1 million in revenue from the county’s quarter-cent sales tax to support economic development. It will bring water and sewer service to the Buckhorn-Mebane economic development district, where Japanese candy-maker Morinaga is building its first American factory.

The City of Mebane will provide sewer and water service to the area.

County Commissioners meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road. You can get the full agenda here.


BoCC Candidates Talk Budgets And School Repairs

Budgeting and education are two of the top issues in the race for a District 1 seat, as Republican Gary Kahn and Democrat Mia Burroughs are vying to represent Chapel Hill and Carrboro on the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

Burroughs is a long-time member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School board. She says addressing the county’s growing poverty problem would be one of her main priorities if elected. Kahn says he’d look to tighten up the county budget wherever possible.

Both school districts are facing major renovations to repair aging facilities, at a time when state funding for education is being cut. County leaders are eyeing a possible bond referendum to pay for the repairs, a move Burroughs says she’d support. By contrast, Kahn says he thinks it’s up to the school systems to fund the renovations.

WCHL’s Aaron Keck hosted a live forum for the candidates. You can listen to the full forum here.

Part 1:

Part 2:

The District 1 race is the only contested Orange County seat this election. Though Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs and District 2 representative Earl McKee are up for re-election, they are not facing any challengers.

Early voting is underway now until 1 pm Saturday. Election Day is November 4.


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.