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.


Hauser, McKee Lead In Fundraising For BoCC Races

With less than a week to go until the May primary, Bonnie Hauser and Earl McKee have raised and spent more than their competitors in the race for two seats on the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

First-time candidate Bonnie Hauser is challenging incumbent Barry Jacobs for an At-Large seat on the Board of Commissioners. According to first quarter campaign finance reports, Hauser has raised $12,314 and spent $10,269, while Jacobs has raised $8,991 and spent $4,431.

In the race for the District 2 seat representing Hillsborough and rural Orange County, incumbent Earl McKee has raised and spent nearly double that of challenger Mark Marcoplos.

McKee brought in $10,848 in the last four months and spent $5,662, while Marcoplos has raised $3,948 and spent approximately $2,800.

All the candidates are Democrats with no Republican challengers, meaning both the At-large and District 2 races will be decided in next week’s primary. Early voting is currently underway now until Saturday. The primary election is Tuesday, May 6.


New And Young Leaders Learning To “Disagree Well”

CHAPEL HILL – Orange County has seen a great deal of recent political turnover, with a newer, younger generation of legislators and community leaders emerging to replace the old.

But how do those new leaders navigate the political realm? How do they make a difference, in institutions still dominated by older legislators and older ways?

“I walk in, first of all, as a student – a student of the game,” says newly appointed State House Representative Graig Meyer. “How am I going to play this game? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to align myself with? Who do I need to emulate? Who do I need to stay away from?”

First-term Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils agrees, adding that finding one’s place involves not only the need to learn how to play the game – but also the chance to elevate the discourse.

“One of the things that I found myself doing – while not intending, necessarily, to do it – was to come to the role with a kind of posture of wanting to demonstrate how to disagree well,” he says. “I think that, in itself, has value.”

Other young or first-term legislators agree that ‘being the new guy’ also offers a rare opportunity to shake things up.

“I think all of us who are new elected officials have one opportunity, which is to really see how things have been done and to ask questions about why,” says first-term County Commissioner Mark Dorosin. “Why do you do something like this? Why is it like this? And maybe that’s the right way to do it, but you have the opportunity to say, ‘Explain it to me – and in doing so, explain it to the constituents.'”

Fellow first-termer Renee Price agrees. “If I have to say something that’s going to ruffle somebody’s feathers, I’m sorry,” she says. “Well, no, I’m not sorry, really.”

And first-term Chapel Hill Town Council member Maria Palmer says she can also take advantage of her status as a demographic outsider as well.

“I’m an immigrant,” she says, “so sometimes I can say things that other people are too embarrassed or have been told all their lives you can’t say in polite company.”

Palmer, Price, Dorosin and Seils all occupy seats on elected boards that serve Orange County alone – so all four can say their own values adhere fairly closely to those of their fellow board members.

Not so Meyer, a Democrat in the Republican-dominated General Assembly. “I just drove back from Raleigh,” he says, “and I was in an education policy hearing…(and) most of the people in the General Assembly don’t know a darn thing about education. And I cannot believe they’re making some of the decisions that they’re making.”

Among other things, he says, those decisions include a continued reluctance to raise teacher pay – and, on Thursday, a task force recommendation to eliminate the Common Core standards.

Those moves and others have left him frustrated, Meyer says – and it can be no less frustrating for new and young officials seeking to make change in Chapel Hill. But despite the frustration, Meyer says it’s possible to be hopeful for the future, simply by looking back to the recent past.

“On the days that I’m mad and angry – and today sitting in chambers was one of the worst days that I’ve had – I tend to think about Terry Sanford and Bill Friday,” he says. “Those gentlemen came out of World War II together…and they decided that they were going to fight racial segregation and build the prosperity of this state based on having a strong public education system.

“And there is no reason why today’s leaders shouldn’t be able to come together around the same goal of building our long-term prosperity on a well-educated populace and the ability to stand up against the continued existence of institutionalized racism and other forms of inequity.”

And it’s that hope that sustains local leaders – young and old and newcomer and veteran alike – as they continue to push for change.

“Change is hard,” says Dorosin. “It’s very frustrating. But, you know, every day you start to push the rock up the hill – and you hope that today, it gets all the way to the top.”

And in the end, Renee Price says, that activism pays off in its impact on people.

“There’s something very interesting that happens, I think every single time I’ve had a meeting (where) I’ve been frustrated,” she says. “The next day someone will call me up, or they’ll see me in the grocery store, and they’ll just say ‘thank you.’

“And you know…it makes it worth it.”

Dorosin, Price, Meyer, Seils and Palmer made those comments in the “Tomorrow’s Newsmakers” panel of the 2014 WCHL Community Forum.


It Is Time For A Pay-As-You-Throw Trash Plan?

With town and county officials looking to collaborate on solid waste disposal and recycling, there’s increasing interest in changing the way individuals and institutions handle trash in Orange County.

County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier says it’s time to seriously consider a pay-as-you-throw system that charges households based on how much waste each generates.

“We know, from a psychological point of view, that paying for something makes people think about it,” says Pelissier. “Just like we got increased water conservation by having the tiered rates. People are now conscious that it’s a precious resource. What we have in our trash cans or recycling bins, that’s a precious resource as well, so we have to frame it very differently.”

Carrboro Alderman Sammy Slade agrees. He says Carrboro is already investigating the feasibility of such a system, with an eye to rewarding residents who reduce their trash output.

“Personally, I’m interested in not just an individual, per-household pay-as-you-throw system- there’s some concern in the Town of Carrboro about the regressive quality of that,” says Slade. “There’s an opportunity, I feel, at the neighborhood level to incentivize the neighborhood to reduce its trash, then credit the neighborhood for it to use through participatory budgeting at the neighborhood scale.”

Though critics of pay-as-you-throw argue it can disproportionally impact low-income households, Orange County Solid Waste Planner Blair Pollock says some elderly residents might actually benefit from the change.

“The predominant low-income family in our county is elderly and lives alone or has a small household,” says Pollock. “So people, like my mom, who live in this county benefit from pay-as-you throw. One could easily flip that argument on its head.”

Switching to a pay-as-you-throw system is part of a larger question of how the local governments can handle solid waste in a socially and environmentally just manner.

Now that the Eubanks Road landfill has closed, the towns and county are trucking trash to a waste transfer station in Durham. That trash ultimately ends up at a landfill in Sampson County.

Board of Commissioners candidate Mark Marcoplos visited the landfill to see firsthand the impact that has on the surrounding neighborhood. He says the largely low-income African-American community is suffering from the burden of Orange County’s trash.

“We’re in this situation where we’re patting ourselves on the back for finally providing social justice to the Rogers Road community and we’re actually affecting a community even worse over the horizon in Sampson County, so this is an issue we have to address,” says Marcoplos.

While some are pushing for the construction of a waste transfer station near Chapel Hill, Town Council member Jim Ward says ultimately, local governments will need to find a more permanent solution.

“I do think that if we go forward and see the need for a landfill, and I think there is one, I think it’s incumbent on us to put it in our own backyard and not be oblivious to it being transported to some impoverished neighborhood in Eastern North Carolina or Southern Virginia or wherever this stuff goes,” says Ward.

Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee says all stakeholders need to get together to come up with short and long-term solutions.

“I think that we’re going to need to look at this entire discussion of what we’re going to do with our trash, how we’re going to handle recycling, and we need to look at it in a comprehensive manner along with the towns.”

But once local governments work out a plan, McKee says they’ll need the political will to stick to it.

“I think its finally going to break down to having to devise a plan, then have the backbone to stand by that plan and put it into effect.”

The towns and county are in the process of hashing out a new interlocal agreement on solid waste. County commissioners will get their first look at the draft agreement on May 13.

Pelissier, Slade, Pollock, Ward, Marcoplos and McKee made those comments during the “Environment” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum. You can listen to the full forum here.


BoCC Seeks Revised Cost Estimate For Southern Branch Library

Story originally posted April 11, 2014, 5:02 p.m.

As Orange County Commissioners eyed their five-year spending plan at a work session on Thursday, Chair Barry Jacobs said it’s time for the board to vote on the specifics of the Southern Branch Library.

“We’re talking about $8.2 million dollars and I don’t think that’s a realistic number for what we’re envisioning as a library,” said Jacobs. “I don’t know why we keep using that number.”

The 2014-19 recommended  Capital Investment Plan outlines $1.1 million to be spent on planning in the next two years, and $7,775,000 to build and open the branch by 2017, but Jacobs argued those numbers represent a size and style of library that the board has not endorsed.

“If we’re not going to build a 20,000 square foot library, then we don’t need to fund one,” said Jacobs. “If we have to vote, then we should put it on a regular agenda and vote on whether this board of commissioners thinks we’re building a 20,000 square foot library. Because it was not driven by this board, it was driven by staff. It’s just not realistic.”

Currently, county officials are in the process of vetting an 18,000 square foot site in Carrboro, at the yet-to-be-built Brewer Lane mixed-use project. Although this is the only site under consideration, the board has not settled on a location for the branch, and is actively soliciting input from the public.

County Manager Michael Talbert said the $8 million dollar figure represents a place-holder in the budget that will be revised by the end of the fiscal year.

“This is the best number we have at this point. The board has not revisited this issue since it was originally introduced about three years ago,” said Talbert. “We’re continuing this in light of not having anything better. By this June we may be in a position to improve on this. If the Carrboro location we’re investigating works out, we can come back to you and adjust these numbers.”

Jacobs said once the cost projections are revised, that will free up other money in the county’s spending plan. The board will hear the results of the county’s investigation and the public outreach effort at a work session on May 13.


Town Council Seeks County Buy-In For Ephesus-Fordham Plan

When it comes to financing the Ephesus-Fordham renewal plan, Chapel Hill leaders say they have a unique investment opportunity to offer Orange County Commissioners, if they act fast.

“We’re letting you in on a really good thing,” said Council Member Maria Palmer, at Thursday’s joint meeting of the Chapel Hill Town Council and the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“I’ve heard that before and it doesn’t always work out so good,” replied Commissioner Mark Dorosin.

“What you guys need to keep in mind is the cost of not doing it right,” Palmer countered.

Council members hope Commissioners will sign on to the financing plan for the Ephesus-Fordham revitalization project, which calls for $10 million dollars worth of road and infrastructure improvements to the Ephesus Church-Fordham Boulevard intersection, as well as the rezoning of 190 acres to spur economic development nearby.

The improvements would be financed using Chapel Hill Town Hall as collateral, and paid off with the increased tax revenue expected to come with residential and commercial growth in the area.

But Chapel Hill’s Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer said there’s a lag between the time the town will reap the rewards of the investment and when the bills come due. He said paying down the debt will cost the town an estimated $800,000 each year, but the additional revenue won’t match that until 2030.

“That’s one of the things that we’re trying to solve for, is that gap between the town’s tax increment and our expected debt service cost,” said Pennoyer.

The town is asking the county to chip in by donating a portion of the county’s tax revenue from the redevelopment to help pay that annual debt service, a contribution of up to $400,000 each year.

Although the town has money in its debt management fund that could cover the shortfall, Pennoyer told the board Orange County’s participation in the project is vital.

“Our ability to do it would be marginal. It would be much tighter,” said Pennoyer. “The county’s participation creates the strength of a partnership that basically is a very strong, marketable debt structure. It creates a synergy there that makes it work a whole lot better, but if the town needed to do this on our own, we may be able to squeak by.”

Commissioners questioned the phasing of the plan, which anticipates mostly residential growth in the short-term and commercial development in later years.

County leaders also questioned the impact the project would have on school enrollment. Orange County Interim Manager Michael Talbert said adding 1,000 apartments would cost the county an additional $1 million each year in school funding and likely accelerate the need for new schools.

“That could also put pressure on our building capacity and may move future schools that were maybe five or ten years out up in the schedule,” said Talbert.

Commissioners expressed cautious enthusiasm about the Ephesus-Fordham project, but Chair Barry Jacobs said the board needs to know more before committing to the plan.

“It’s clear that y’all are excited, and as partners, that makes us at least somewhat excited, but I think we need to do our due diligence from our perspective,” said Jacobs.

The Chapel Hill Town Council is looking to vote on the rezoning portion of the plan in mid-April, but the financing would not need to be in place until June.

County Commissioners will discuss the plan at a future work session yet to be scheduled. The Town Council will meet with Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district administrators on April 9 to discuss the project’s impact on enrollment.


Orange Commissioners Seek Input on Recycling

HILLSBOROUGH – Thursday night, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to conduct two more public hearings on a contentious recycling issue in Orange County.

Orange County Solid Waste Management Director Gayle Wilson told Commissioners Thursday that a proposed tax for expanded curbside recycling would not hit residents too hard in the wallet, compared to past fees for the service.

“At this rate, a property valued at $250,000 would pay about $37.50,” Wilson said. “Those properties that are currently located within our service area used to pay $38, so it’s fairly close.”

Wilson broke down the preliminary cost estimate for a proposed service district that would add about 8,000 parcels to the existing 13,750 households, with residents that had been paying a fee for curbside recycling.

That was until a court ruled in December 2012 that the county has no authority to tack the fees onto property tax bills.

Wilson reported that the estimated cost to implement expanded curbside service is $630.000, or about 1.5 cents per $100 of property value.

It’s meeting with some resistance from people that live in rural areas, where gravel driveways can extend the length of a road sometimes. That’s a long way to push the roll carts that would have to be purchased and distributed.

Early in Thursday night’s discussion, Commissioner Earl McKee expressed skepticism about the plan, after reading in the report that only 57 percent of people who paid the fee set out their recycling at the curb regularly.

“My point is that there were multiple thousands of people that were paying the 3R curbside fee that were not using the service,” McKee said. “They either were not recycling, or they were taking it to the convenience center.”

Solid waste convenience centers, such as those in Efland and Hillsborough, are a popular choice than curbside recycling for some rural residents.

That constituency was well-represented at Thursday night’s meeting in Hillsborough, where several citizens spoke out against the proposed service district, and just one citizen spoke in favor of it.

That brought Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier to conclude that the county failed to advertise to the public that recycling would be on the meeting agenda Thursday evening. If it had, more of those in favor of the tax district may have shown up.

“Part of the problem that we face is that there isn’t really good data on some of the things we’re considering,” Pelissier said, “because it sends up being opinions – people’s opinions or perceptions about what may happen, what has happened, and why, etc.”

On February 4, the Board will decide on the dates and locations of two more public hearings about recycling. Commissioners say they want more information from staff on alternatives to the district tax, including funding the program voluntarily through a subscription service or drawing from the general fund.


Long-time OC Commissioner Alice Gordon Won’t Seek Re-Election

ORANGE COUNTY – Long-time Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon announced Thursday that she does not intend to seek another term in office.

“I thought it was time,” she says. “I had really accomplished most of what I set out to do…so I made my announcement in time to give other people a chance to consider running.”

Listen to Aaron Keck’s interview with Alice Gordon on the WCHL Thursday Afternoon News.

Listen to Aaron Keck’s interview with Alice Gordon on the WCHL Thursday Afternoon News.

Gordon has served on the Board of County Commissioners since 1990; she’s stepping down after six terms and 24 years in office.

She says of all her accomplishments, she’s proudest of her work on education and the environment.

“I think the Lands Legacy program–which has protected over 3,000 acres of the county’s most important natural and cultural resources–is probably my most important accomplishment,” she says. “Because it’ll be enduring, and because people can enjoy those lands.”

In addition to her work on the Board, Gordon also served as chair of the Triangle Transit Board of Trustees, as well as chair of the policy board of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the regional transportation planning organization for the western part of the Triangle area.

The filing period begins in February for candidates interested in filling Gordon’s seat on the Board; the Democratic and Republican primaries will take place in May.

Gordon offers this advice for her future successor, whoever that should be: “Be passionate about what you believe, have core values and try to follow those values when you get on the Board…you really have to focus to accomplish anything, because it takes a long time.”

In an official statement released Thursday, Gordon said: “I have had the honor and privilege of being a county commissioner for more than twenty years, and I wish to thank the residents of Orange County for their confidence and trust in electing me six times. I believe that we have made great progress in addressing the goals I set out to accomplish when I first ran for office.”

But of course Gordon still has one year left to serve on her final term—so although she won’t be on the Board in 2015, she says she’s not going anywhere right away.

“We have a lot of challenges,” she says. “So I’m not done yet.”