Orange Commissioners Ready to Sue Over Senate Bill 2

The Orange County Board of Commissioners committed this week to opposing a Republican bill in the General Assembly that would allow magistrates and other state employees to opt out of serving same-sex couples.

That opposition may include going to court.

“The only check on this legislature, apparently, is litigation,” said Orange County Commissioner Mark Dorosin.

At Tuesday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Dorosin introduced a resolution in response to Senate Bill 2, which passed 32-16 on Feb. 25, and now awaits a vote in the House.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham is behind Senate Bill 2, which he describes as a protection of religious beliefs.

“This legislation will exempt certain state officials from having to fulfill their statutory obligations to either perform [weddings] or provide marriage licenses for same-sex couples,” said Dorosin. “and so, I would like to petition the board this evening to adopt a resolution declaring our opposition to this discriminatory legislation.”

Citing Orange County’s dedication to upholding the civil rights of all residents, as well as recent rulings the U.S. Supreme Court and The U.S. Court of Appeals, Dorosin resolved that the Board of Commissioners urge the General Assembly to reject any legislation that excuses government employees or agents from performing their sworn duties.

He didn’t end there.

“Be it further resolved that if this discriminatory legislation should pass, the Orange County Board of Commissioners directs the county manager and the county attorney to collaborate with other governmental entities and community partners to directly participate in any litigation seeking to challenge such legislation.”

Commissioners Chair Earl McKee that such a petition would normally take between two-to-four weeks to come to a vote. But the timeliness of the issue, said McKee, demanded swift action.

Dorosin’s motion was quickly seconded, and the vote came quickly, too.

“I think it is important to state that we are willing to stick our necks out, and go to court on this,” said Commissioner Penny Rich.

The resolution passed 7-0.

Reached later by WCHL, Dorosin said he hasn’t spoken yet to commissioners from other counties to discuss plans for litigation if the bill passes the House, and Gov. Pat McCrory signs it into law.

But Dorosin, a civil rights lawyer, said that the feeling among a community of civil rights advocates is that it definitely will happen, if necessary.

“I think that there will likely be a coalition of advocates coming together,” said Dorosin.

BoCC Talks Living Wage for Orange County Contractors

In the future, Orange County may require certain contractors to pay their employees a “living wage.”

Employers in North Carolina have to pay workers at least $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage. The minimum wage for Orange County government employees is $12.76.

“From my perspective it’s better to pay a wage people can live on rather than end up paying it through the back door, through social services,” said Earl McKee, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, in an interview.

The county contracts out construction projects, solid waste collection and internet services, among other things.

In 2013 the North Carolina General Assembly limited the authority of counties and cities to regulate a minimum wage for contractors. A county can’t write minimum wage requirements into contracts for which it solicits bids.

The county could set the minimum wage for certain types of contracts: construction contracts less than $30,000 and service contracts in any amount so long as the county did not choose to solicit bids.

At Tuesday night’s board meeting, county commissioners and staff wrestled with questions about how to require contractors to pay a higher minimum wage. One question is how create an enforceable living wage policy.

“You can require auditing of a company’s records,” said County Attorney John Roberts at the board meeting. “Somebody’s got to audit those records though. That’s staff time.”

A few jurisdictions in North Carolina, including Asheville, require certain contractors to pay a specified minimum wage. These may serve as models for Orange County.

“Some of these places with ordinances actually have an appeal provision,” said Roberts. “They’ve established this right for people . . . they can appeal to the county manager and say, ‘Company X did not pay me my full salary as required by your ordinance.’”

County officials agreed to keep working through details to enact a living wage policy for contractors.

BoCC Votes to Fund Childcare From Social Justice Fund

At Tuesday night’s meeting in Chapel Hill, the Orange County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to fund childcare for low-income families.

“Well I’ll make the motion that we transfer $350,000 from the social justice fund to the Department of Social Services for childcare and to allow DSS to utilize any funds within its budget to pay costs for childcare,” said Board Vice-Chair Bernadette Pelissier.

Working parents who meet income requirements may apply for childcare support through the Orange County Department of Social Services. Households must make less than twice the federal poverty level to qualify. The federal poverty level is $23,850 for a four-person household.

State actions this year resulted in a $700,000 loss to the Orange County Department of Social Services. The state also made changes in income eligibility for childcare services. Money from the county’s  social justice fund will help cover childcare for some families who would not have been covered otherwise.

Nancy Coston, director of the Orange County Department of Social Services, said people currently getting childcare support will be kept on at least through June 30, 2015.

Coston spoke about how childcare helps families. “It helps working families know their children are safe so they can go to work,” said Coston. “But it also keeps kids in an area where they can be developing appropriately.”

Also, the department will clear the waiting list for childcare services because many on the list are no longer available and the long list slows the process.

“We know that when we do clear the waiting list, we do generate interest in childcare because a lot of people do get very discouraged about the waiting list and just don’t bother to put their names on,” said Coston.

After the transfer, $100,000 will be left in the county’s social justice fund.

Alice Gordon Retires from the BoCC After 24 Years

“The moment we’ve dreaded for years has arrived. This time, we’re going to have to solve a case . . . ourselves.”

That’s “Commissioner Gordon,” played by actor Neil Hamilton, on the 1960s TV series Batman.

After 24 years of Batman jokes, the real Commissioner Gordon, Alice Gordon, is retiring Monday from the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“I feel like the goals that I set my sights on when I first started as a commissioner have largely come to fruition,” said Gordon.

In her 24 years on the board, Gordon made education and environmental preservation her priorities.

Gordon helped start a program that protects wildlife habitat, farmland, watershed riparian buffers, and historic sites through purchases and conservation easements. The Lands Legacy Program has preserved more than 3,000 acres since it launched fifteen years ago.

She also helped to create a new department, the Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation, which focuses on conserving and managing the natural and cultural resources in Orange County.

Gordon holds a PhD in Psychology from Stanford University with a concentration in children’s language development. She said this background helps her understand what is important in public education.

“Education takes almost half of our budget,” said Gordon. “So it’s really important to get that right.”

She pushed renovation of older public schools and construction of new facilities.

“Just recently we had a project I promoted, the science wing at Culbreth Middle School. That was a long-term goal of mine,” said Gordon. “Actually there’s going to be a ribbon cutting coming up on December 11.”

Gordon also played a leadership role in region-wide transportation planning. The 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan won a national award.

She received other awards and honors, including recognition as a “town treasure” from the Chapel Hill Historical Society.

Gordon said she will stay actively involved in local government as a citizen.

Gordon will step down and Mia Burroughs will fill her seat Monday. The commissioners’ public meeting is at the Whitted Meeting Facility in Hillsborough at 7 pm with a reception at 6 pm.

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:

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.