CHTC To Revamp Priority Budgeting Process

CHAPEL HILL- As the Chapel Hill Town Council looks ahead to this year’s budget battles, members say they want to revamp the priority budgeting process.

When the Town Council introduced priority-based budgeting last January it was heralded as a new tool to help match the town’s spending with community values. But a year later, most council members say they weren’t impressed with the results. Speaking at a work session Monday night,  Council member Jim Ward called the process frustrating.

“It’s been a huge commitment from the town staff to get us somewhere. I don’t see the progress,” said Ward. “I don’t see it impacting our decision-making process.”

Last year’s efforts to rank the town’s goals and programs led to dissatisfaction among some on the council, as high-profile programs like the public library appeared low on the priority list, due to confusion about terminology and the ranking procedure.

And though the Chapel Hill 2020 process helped define resident’s goals for the town, Council member George Cianciolo pointed out it offers little in the way of direction on how to pay for that vision or balance competing priorities.

“What is lacked was the discussion of consequences,” said Cianciolo. “It did say, ‘I want more affordable housing, I want more transit,’ but it didn’t weigh those balances, and I think that is the difficulty we’re faced with.”

Council members have been meeting with Margaret Henderson of the UNC School of Government to identify ways to improve the process. They say they want greater consistency and more transparency in the ranking process.

“I think the big failure of the process so far has been the real lack of understanding about how we got from one place to another,” said Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “I don’t think any of us could clearly explain to anyone how that happened and we’ve got to fix that.”

Town Manager Roger Stancil said he and his staff have heard the Council’s frustrations loud and clear.

“It’s clear to us that the system we tried to create is not satisfying your interests,” said Stancil. “Part of it is simplifying and aligning the words we use so we’re not talking about things using different words. It’s got to be a process that you own and buy into or it is not worth the time.”

The Council will revisit the priority-based budgeting process at its planning retreat later this month.

CHTC Agrees To Trade Town Land For Affordable Rentals

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council voted Monday to move ahead with a plan to build affordable rental housing on town-owned land.

Town Council members say a project that will use low-income tax credits to build 170 affordable rentals on town property is a chance for Chapel Hill to help those being priced out of workforce housing.

“What I believe this is, is an investment in the character of Chapel Hill,” said Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison. “What it gives us is a step forward in diversity of housing that we really are at a loss to make otherwise.”

The council voted 7-1 last night to sell 8.5 acres of land next to the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery to DHIC, Inc, a Raleigh-based developer specializing in affordable rentals.

DHIC President Gregg Warren said he’s been unable to build in Chapel Hill due in part to high land costs. To make the project feasible, the council agreed to sell the land for $100, despite the assessed value of $2 million. In return, DHIC will apply for state tax credits to subsidize housing for those making a range of incomes, including seniors, low-wage workers, the disabled and those transitioning from homelessness.

However not everyone was pleased with the deal.

Council member Matt Czajkowski said he couldn’t support a plan that gave away $2 million dollars worth of town assets outside of the annual budget process, especially as the town is looking to fund the Rogers Road sewer project later this spring.

“We have multiple other looming financial demands,” said Czajkowski. “Paramount among those demands is funding Rogers Road. In my view, and I guess the mayor and I disagree on this, this is what priority budgeting is all about.”

But Council member Sally Greene, who co-chaired the Mayor’s Committee on Affordable Rental Housing, urged her peers to take advantage of this new opportunity.

“There is really a high public purpose in this, and yes, it is nothing we’ve ever done before, but as we know we’re in a different climate than we were ten years ago, and we need to be thinking creatively,” said Greene. “We need to explore and if possible execute plans like this when they come available for us.”

The council was under a deadline to sign a letter of intent to commit to the project to allow DHIC to proceed with the application process for state tax credits. Warren said the process is competitive, as only one in four proposals is approved.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt reminded the council and audience that Monday’s vote is only the first step.

“This vote didn’t create that project- it just allows it to move forward,” said Kleinschmidt. “And we’ll all be anxious to see next August this application be approved, we hope.”

The council will review the project again next spring, as the land will need to be rezoned before May ahead of the project application deadline.

The council also voted 7-1 last night to allocate an additional $860,000 to renovate two-thirds of Town Hall.

The first floor was damaged during this summer’s flooding, but instead of rebuilding just the lower level, Town Manager Roger Stancil recommended reorganizing much of the building to help streamline the permitting process.

“It would be physical evidence of the kind of change that you have asked for in development review and customer focus over the last few years,” Stancil told the council.

Matt Czajkowski cast the lone vote against the project.

In addition, the council unanimously approved a plan to partner with Orange County for recycling pick-up services. The county has been forced by a recent court ruling to change its funding model for the program, leading some in Chapel Hill to consider separating the municipal and county programs.

However, council members said they’d be willing to continue the partnership provided town staffers have a greater role to play in the administration and oversight of the program. The town and county managers will hash out an agreement later this spring.

On Tuesday the council will meet again to consider adoption of the Central West small area plan detailing potential growth around the Martin Luther King Jr., and Estes Drive intersection.

The Central West planning process has drawn fire from some residents of the area, who say citizen input has not been adequately incorporated into the current plan.

Residents opposed to the committee’s plan are likely to present a lower-density plan they say will reduce traffic and preserve surrounding neighborhoods.

The council meets Tuesday at 6 o’clock at the Southern Human Service Center on Homestead Road.

You can read the full agenda here:

Local Residents Clash Over Budgeting Priorities For 2013

CHAPEL HILL- As budget season kicks into high gear, local and state officials are working to determine what services make up the local area’s top priorities—but the local community is sharply divided on which of those entities should come first.

“There’s a level of service we want to maintain, be it libraries, recycling pick-up, or affordable housing,” says community member Greg Bell. “It will be sad to watch the gradual dismantling of those services. Even though the General Assembly is going to force a lot of unfounded mandates on us, we need to do our best to hold on and try to get through this.”

Since the beginning of this year, Chapel Hill Town Council members have been focusing on a process known as priority budgeting, where they will concentrate their funding and where they will consider making cuts. According to local resident Bonnie Hauser, three particular services are at the top of the list of entities that need the most attention in Chapel Hill and throughout Orange County—but she adds that at the same time, local government officials should limit the amount of funding that they put into any one of them.

“I don’t know how to choose between public safety, schools, or libraries,” she says. “Certainly we want them all, but I don’t understand why our services have to be so much more expensive than everyone else’s.”

And Amanda Scherle who’s resided in North Carolina for almost six years, also says the Orange County area doesn’t always have to outdo surrounding communities.

“Every year it just feels like we need to take more money away from this and that, and it’s never about how we can more efficiently do that,” she says. “Maybe we don’t need three libraries, maybe we can make do with two libraries, and that kind of thing.”

As far as libraries are concerned, one major expense over the past several years has been the newly renovated Chapel Hill Public Library. The facility finally had its grand opening earlier this spring after budget cuts postponed the process several times over the past decade. But the project’s financial burden still hasn’t completely been erased—the financial burden still hasn’t been completely erased. Out of the $700,000 from the town budget that was projected for the new library, about $350,000 still has to be implemented into the library’s operating budget cost.

Another recent focus has been emergency services. In recent months, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County have also all been focused on improving the efficiency of EMS resources. Hauser says it’s an ideal opportunity to save money through cooperation.

“The county needs about a dozen or so new ambulance substations,” she says. “They can build separate ones for nearly a million dollars each, or they can co-locate them with the fire stations and save a lot of money. But it takes cooperation between the towns and the county to start coming to those decisions.”

And according to local resident Jeff Danner, cooperation will be essential over the next few months as town officials begin discussing potential tax increases to offset budget shortfalls—even if it means that some town and county members are paying for services that they don’t often use.

“Different people find different things to be vital, and we need to accept that,” he says. “A community is not an a la carte proposition.”

But even so, community member Lee Heavlin says before local elected officials approve any hikes, they also need to consider the area’s affordability.

“It’s going to displace the people who cannot afford to be here,” he says. “You want to bring people to your community and have a true dynamic of all kinds of people with all kinds of talents that will help you grow. Today, we’re seeing people leave, and we need to stop that.”

These comments and many more were made during part one of the Bottom Line panel in the 2013 WCHL Chapel Hill – Carrboro – Orange County Community Forum.