Orange County Commissioners Move Forward with $125 Million Bond

The Orange County Board of Commissioners took another step toward issuing the largest bond in county history Tuesday night.

The board unanimously approved a motion to move forward with a bond that would be worth $125 million. The commissioners decided that $120 million of the bond will go toward repairing school buildings in the county and $5 million will go to affordable housing. When the bond was originally discussed, all of the money was expected to go to the schools. But, due to public outcry for funding for affordable housing, some commissioners changed their mind, including Chair Earl McKee.

“I’m one of the folks that originally thought, ‘schools only,’ because the needs of the schools were so great,” he says. “But I think that, possibly along with some other commissioners, we realized that schools and affordable housing do go together.

“They actually compliment one another.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA member Jill Simon told the board the issues of affordable housing and the school repairs are interrelated.

“I also want to add that at Frank Porter Graham there are almost 50 percent of families who are in economically fragile situations,” she says. “And so that’s a really good example of how I am not asking for the money for the schools to be against money for housing.

“Our families and buildings need help in both situations.”

Commissioner Barry Jacobs said he thought it was important to include both issues in the bond.

“I would like to suggest that we think of this bond package as the Goldilocks bond,” he says, “and that we’re trying to get it to be just right. I think it’s important that we get it to be just right. And I think that it’s important that it be as inclusive as we can possibly make it.”

Jacobs, along with commissioners Penny Rich and Mark Dorosin, pushed to raise the total of the bond to $130 million in order to give another $5 million to affordable housing, but lost the vote. Dorosin said he thinks $10 million should be committed to see the affordable housing progress the commissioners want.

“I think it’s critical both politically and legislatively to have that money in the bond,” he says.

To go along with the bond, the board also unanimously approved a change in the budget allocation for affordable housing and school repair. The board agreed to commit at least $1 million out of the budget each year for the next five years to both issues.

The board will have to formally introduce the bond to the public before April. Once the bond is introduced, the commissioners must have a separate meeting to take public comment before they can vote on whether to put the bond on the ballot.

$125M Bond Package Back In BOCC Spotlight

Orange County Commissioners on Thursday will discuss a proposed bond referendum that could total $125 million dollars.

If voters approve the ballot measure slated for November 2016, it would be the largest bond package in the county’s history.

The board voted 4-2 in April to use that money for school repairs and renovations, instead of splitting the funds between schools, parks, affordable housing and other projects.

The Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems have estimated they need as much as $300 million to fully fix aging schools and expand capacity throughout the two districts.

Still, critics, including several commissioners, say the county needs to focus spending on affordable housing as well as school repair.

The board will hear Thursday from the county’s financial advisers on the potential impact of a $125 million dollar bond, as well as other scenarios totaling as much as $135 million.

Commissioners say they want your input on the bond proposal too. They’ll take public comment next Tuesday at 7 o’clock in the Southern Human Services Center at Homestead Road. You can also submit comments online:

For Thursday’s agenda, click here.

OC Commissioners to Meet With Both School Boards in Hillsborough

The Orange County Board of Commissioners meets tonight with the school boards for Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County, in a joint meeting at the Whitted Meeting Facility in Hillsborough.

One of the agenda items for the special meeting will be an update on efforts to pay a living wage to all county and CHCCS district employees.

Effective July 1 of this year, 95 seasonal and temporary county employees received a living-wage increase from $10.97 an hour to $12.76 an hour, as directed by the County Commissioners’ budget for Fiscal Year 2014-15.

The Orange County Board of Education has not yet adopted its budget for the current fiscal year. That’s scheduled to happen from mid-to-late October.

According to a county schools report from the previous school year, non-licensed substitute teachers in Orange County were making $10 per hour for a seven-and-a-half hour workday.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese reported that a recent three-percent bonus for school employees, made possible by the support of the county, followed 15 years in which the average annual pay increase was a mere 1.8 percent.

In a letter to County Manager Bonnie Hammersley, LoFrese wrote that CHCCS would like to continue paying employees enough to keep up with inflation.

As WCHL recently reported, some employees of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system receive regular food assistance from the Inter-Faith Council Food Pantry in Carrboro.

Tonight’s joint meeting between County Commissioners and the two school systems takes place at 7 o’clock at the Richard Whitted Meeting Facility, located at 300 Tryon Street in Hillsborough.

OC Approves 2-Cent Property Tax Hike

Orange County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a $200 million dollar budget that includes a 2-cent property tax rate increase.

The property tax rate for next year will be 87.8 cents per $100 dollars of assessed value, the first increase in five years.

The additional revenue will go to support education, as both school districts are braced for funding cuts from the state that will likely translate to a reduction in teaching assistants.

The chairs of both the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school boards came before Commissioners to thank them for the increase.

Orange County Schools Chair Donna Coffey said the additional local money is not a windfall for the district, merely a patch at best.

“There’s still a great bit of uncertainty coming out of Raleigh and the budget hasn’t been finalized,” said Coffey. “At the very least I think we’re going to face more cuts, which will mean a lot less funding from Raleigh.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chair Jamezetta Bedford agreed.

“We don’t know what the state is going to do but it won’t be good,” said Bedford. “Our TA allotment is also the most critical piece that could be cut, well over 50 positions in the State Senate proposed budget. So this increase in taxes really will help us.”

Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs reminded the audience that the two school districts have seen a combined loss of $42 million in state funding in the past five years.

The 2014-2015 county budget goes in to effect July 1. Legislators are still hashing out the final version of the state budget.

County Commissioners Reverse Course On Rural Recycling Vote

County Commissioners did an abrupt about-face Thursday night, reversing a vote on rural recycling funding in response to criticism from the Chapel Hill Town Council.

“The message that we need to send to the towns tonight is that, in fact, we do want to be their partners, we do want to work with them,” said Commissioner Alice Gordon.

On Tuesday, the board voted to spend $728,000 from the solid waste reserve fund to pay for rural recycling pick-up for the next fiscal year.

But on Wednesday, Chapel Hill Town Council members argued the majority of the money in the solid waste reserve fund was contributed by the towns, making it unfair to subsidize recycling pick-up for county residents while asking the towns to levy a $59 dollar fee on urban households for the same service.

In a rare move, the board revisited the issue at a work session Thursday and voted unanimously to fund both rural and urban programs from the solid waste fund, a move that will cost the county more than $2 million.

The solid waste reserve fund is set aside to pay for post-closure costs at the Orange County Landfill. The county is legally responsible for the site for the next three decades.

Commissioner Penny Rich said she’d like to see the towns find a way to help replenish that fund now that the county is no longer collecting landfill tipping fees.

“If we are going to take the $2 million dollars out of the reserves, we include the towns in the conversation about how we can build that back up, because right now we don’t have a way of doing that,” said Rich.

To figure out a funding plan for the future and solve ongoing questions about how to deal with solid waste and recycling, the board voted Tuesday to create a multi-jurisdictional task force chaired by a County Commissioner.

The board will appoint its representatives to the Solid Waste Advisory Group on June 17.

Chapel Hill Balks At BoCC Funding Plan For Recycling Pick-Up

At a budget work session on Wednesday, Chapel Hill Town Council members sounded off about a vote the night before by Orange County Commissioners to fund rural curbside recycling out of reserve funds, while asking the towns to levy a $59 per household fee for the same service.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the move jeopardizes future collaboration with the county on solid waste and recycling.

“You know, we made a decision two or three months ago that we were all in it together,” said Kleinschmidt. “I think we did that with the hope that, by this point, we were actually going to be in lockstep, that we were going to have a county-wide plan to move forward. But we don’t.”

Council members argued the majority of the money in the solid waste reserve fund was contributed by the towns, making it particularly unfair to subsidize recycling pick-up for county residents while charging urban households.

In light of Tuesday’s vote, some Council members said they won’t agree to levy the town recycling fee when the budget comes up for approval next week.

Instead, the Council is asking Commissioners to consider funding both rural and urban recycling pick-up for next year from the solid waste reserve fund.

While this would drop the county’s $3 million dollar post- closure landfill contingency fund down to $1 million, Town Manager Roger Stancil told the Council that’s not their problem.

“At this point it’s totally the county’s issue,” said Stancil. “So they would have to find a way to pay for that liability.”

Chapel Hill officials last year investigated the costs of hiring private contractors to handle trash and recycling pick-up, but Council members agreed to try to maintain a fifteen-year partnership with the county in hopes of furthering the community’s solid waste reduction goals.

Town and county officials were drafting an interlocal agreement to spell out how that might work, but Stancil told the Council that process ground to a halt recently, as county leaders threw their support behind a task force instead.

Commissioners voted to create that task force on Tuesday, stipulating that a Commissioner would act as chair and inviting Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and UNC to participate, along with five residents.

Council member Jim Ward has worked with Orange County on solid waste issues in the past, but this time, he called the process flawed.

“This committee that I’m just hearing about, we had no input on that. This is totally unacceptable to me, the process and the outcome,” said Ward. “The outcome isn’t any surprise because of the process that they’re using.”

In response to lobbying from town leaders, County Commissioners will reopen the issue at Thursday’s work session, and likely vote on a new funding plan.

BoCC Looks To Task Force For Solid Waste And Recycling Solutions

HILLSBOROUGH- After months of debate, Orange County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve spending $728,000 from the solid waste reserve fund to pay for rural curbside recycling pick-up for one year.

While board members agreed it was preferable to raising the property tax rate to cover the cost of the program next year, some, including Mark Dorosin, argued it might be time to reconsider the county’s reliance on fees.

“I’m happy to support [this] option tonight, but I think it’s a very, very, bad, dangerous precedent to start talking about funding services based on who uses them,” said Dorosin. “Once you start talking about everything is a fee for services, you really undermine the idea of a community.”

The county was forced to find a new funding model after a court ruling called into question the county’s ability to levy the fee that supported the program. The board scrapped two alternate funding models in April before opting for Tuesday’s stopgap measure.

Town and county officials are moving towards an interlocal agreement on solid waste, but no agreement has yet been reached on how to equitably fund the recycling program, how the governments should share any future facilities like a waste transfer station, or where such a facility might go.

In an effort to tackle those questions, Commissioners voted 5-2 to create a Solid Waste Advisory Group of residents and elected officials to sort out short and long-term goals for cooperation. Commissioner Penny Rich was one of those who favored a wide scope for the task force.

“This is not a group just to find out what we’re doing with recycling, this group is to really explore what we’re going to do,” said Rich. “I mean, we need a solid waste plan, we need to make that we move into the future and not have this discussion every single year.”

The board will appoint Commissioners on June 17 and solicit representation from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and UNC as well as five members of the public. Commissioners hope to receive a report from the newly-formed task force at next fall’s Assembly of Governments. In the meantime, the board will review a draft interlocal agreement on June 17.

Local Electeds React To State Senate Budget

The North Carolina General Assembly is meeting in “short session” this year – but there’s been no shortness of controversy.

At the center of debate last week was the budget proposal released by State Senate Republicans, which includes more than $400 million for a significant hike in teacher salaries – but that raise comes (among other things) at the expense of massive cuts to teacher assistants in grades 2 and 3.

Already facing a multi-million-dollar shortfall, officials at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools say the Senate’s proposal would likely force the district to make even more cuts than they were initially planning – unless they can persuade County Commissioners to dig even deeper into the pool of local money. (Fully funding the budget requests of both the county’s districts would almost certainly necessitate a tax increase, though, which County Commissioners and county staff have been reluctant to impose.)

Meanwhile – though it hasn’t received as much media attention – local municipalities across the state are also contending with the repeal of a business privilege tax, which the AP reports could cost municipalities a total of $62 million statewide. Governor Pat McCrory signed the repeal on Thursday.

With those and other issues in mind, WCHL’s Aaron Keck invited Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board member James Barrett to the studio on Thursday, for a pair of conversations about the local impact of recent actions at the NCGA.

Mark Kleinschmidt:

James Barrett:

Hundreds Call On BoCC To Spend More On Schools

The Southern Human Services Center was awash in a sea of crimson Thursday night as more than 300 parents and teachers wearing red for education turned out to the budget public hearing to ask Orange County Commissioners to fully fund both school systems.

“We’re tired of seeing our kids’ education become a political chew toy. We’re tired of teachers not making a living wage,” said Jeff Hall, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA Council. “We’re tired of hearing that next year is the year we do something, next year we’ll raise revenue or cut costs, next year we’ll fix old or overcrowded schools. There isn’t ‘next year.’ We’re insisting, we’re demanding, frankly, we’re begging you to fully fund our schools.”

Hall was one of forty speakers who addressed the board before a standing-room-only crowd. Outside the boardroom, the building was filled to capacity, with supporters standing shoulder to shoulder lining the hallways. Still more waited on the lawn after the fire marshal was forced to turn them away.

The county manager’s proposed $195 million dollar budget for 2014-2015 does include more money for Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools than last year, but the plan falls short of what each district requested.

The Orange County school board requested an additional $2.9 million dollars next year, while the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board asked for an additional $3.9 million.

Under the county’s current budget plan, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools could lose 22 teaching assistants. Kim Talikoff is a fourth grade teacher at Estes Hills Elementary. She told commissioners teaching assistants are vital to the success of her students.

“I will not be able to compensate for what I am about to lose if we don’t act now to fully fund TAs,” said Talikoff. “So I ask you please, provide the funding we need to make our shared objectives possible. Please put TAs in every classroom.”

The recently released state Senate budget proposal also has education supporters on edge, as funding for teaching assistants would be cut in half, resulting in the loss of 57 teaching assistants in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system. Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese told commissioners the Senate plan would more than double the district’s budget gap.

“In the current scenario, we would need to make reductions of over six million dollars to balance our budget,” said LoFrese. “We felt that it was important for commissioners to know this, and know that both school districts will be under a tremendous amount of pressure. We reiterate our request for your strong continued support and increased funding.”

To increase school funding, commissioners have the option of raising the countywide property tax rate, raising the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district tax, or dipping into the county’s fund balance. The manager’s plan already calls for $8.5 million worth of fund balance money to balance the budget.

Board Chair Barry Jacobs reminded the crowd that Orange County elected officials have long supported public education. He thanked the parents, teachers and students in the audience for their advocacy.

“Unlike the North Carolina Legislature, we actually want to hear from the public,” said Jacobs, to much applause.

The board will discuss the budget at a work session on Thursday, June 5. The final budget is scheduled to be adopted June 17.

Schools Request Increased Budget From Orange County

The North Carolina Legislature has received a lot of criticism for its cuts to public education, adding pressure to the local government’s efforts to support its schools.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro city school board has requested $3.8 million in local money, including $750,000 more in renovations.

If the county manager does not meet their budget request, CHCCS will have a $2.7 million shortfall, leading to “first round proposed reductions” in gifted specialists positions and central office staff members.

An additional two million in cuts affects the students more directly, through reductions in media assistance in schools, high school theatre classes, elementary teacher assistants and more gifted specialists.

Jeff Hall, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro PTA council, says it is important for the commissioners to pick up the slack in funding caused by changes in the state budget, a job that needs to be done quickly and creatively.

“I have a third grader who is identified as gifted,” Hall said. I don’t want to see her lose a gifted specialist in her school that will meet her needs and help her develop as a child. There is nothing on this list (of cuts) that is okay.”

Governor Pat McCrory’s new $21 billion proposed budget includes $263 million towards increasing teachers pay in upcoming years, an amount many educators, like Culbreth Middle School teacher, Chuck Hennessee, find unrealistic.

“In a Republican legislature who has thus far not worked with (McCrory), they are not going to approve more taxes in order to get the budget that they need,” Hennessee said. “Is (McCrory) truly ignorant of what the real state of education in our state is?”

With many North Carolina teachers working multiple jobs and applying for public assistance, it is a clear indication of a lack in public education, even here in Orange County.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said he fears the repercussions of that lack.

“Not meeting this funding request is going to have a direct impact on classroom and services provided to kids.”

The board of County Commissioners proposed budget includes a total $92.3 million in school spending, a $3 million increase in last year’s amount. The board will have to balance this delicate weight in order to best fund both districts, even with the budget increases. The Orange County school board is requesting $1.96 million more from the commissioners, a 5.7 percent increase.

“I believe in the (Orange County Commissioners) ability to find a way to fully fund both Orange County schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools for the upcoming year and we need them to do that now more than ever,” Hall said.

County commissioners will host two public hearings on the budget on May 22 and 29. The final budget will be adopted by June 17.