Chapel Hill Town Council Tackles Library Funding

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council faces mounting pressure to increase library funding, but that’s just one of many tough choices this budget season.

John Morris was one of a dozen residents who came out on Monday to ask the Chapel Hill Town Council to increase funding for the newly expanded library.

“The people who are hurt most by the cut in hours are not any special interest group, or the Chapel Hill elite, whoever that might be,” said Morris. “The people who are hurt most are parents with children, families who work long hours, and those who don’t have the money to buy their own books and computers. That’s who we’re standing up for.”

Morris presented the council with a petition signed by more than 850 library patrons, all calling for the library to stay open 68 hours a week.

Since the expansion project was completed last month, library hours have been cut to 54 hours a week. Town Manager Roger Stancil’s recommended budget offers an extra $100,000 for additional staffing to bring that number up to 58 hours a week, but many say that’s not enough.

Council member Jim Ward said he wants to find an extra quarter million to restore the library to its full schedule.

“I want to start that conversation about changing the numbers right now, and I am supportive of fully funding the library hours,” said Ward. “To me, as evidenced by 2020, evidenced by the emails that we’ve gotten, evidenced by the people who came this evening to talk to us- that’s the old-fashioned version of priority-based budgeting.”

But others on the council didn’t see it that way. Lee Storrow said he’d prefer an incremental increase, with input from the new library director.

“I feel that it may not be the most responsible decision for us to jump from where we are now to 68 [hours] without the knowledge and the wisdom of a couple of months of operation under our new library director, who might have some expertise that I know I don’t have,” said Storrow.

Library Director Susan Brown starts work this week, at a time when the issue of library hours has become a lightening rod for resident concerns about how to balance a tight budget.

After four years without a property tax increase and seven without a transit fund increase, Roger Stancil says the budget gaps are unavoidable. He’s recommending a two-cent property tax rate hike to be split between Chapel Hill Transit and other big ticket items like library funding and solid waste disposal.

This year is the first time the council has undertaken priority budgeting, a ranking process meant to better align town spending with community values.

But budget staffers say it was only partially implemented throughout the planning process, and some on the council don’t see that it’s made any difference.

Matt Czajkowski said the current budget method doesn’t help the council when it comes to making tough choices.

“In the budget is a proposed two percent increase for [town] employees. Which of the library supporters would like us to see us reduce our raise to the employees so that we can fund the library?” asked Czajkowski. “That’s priority budgeting.”

Monday’s public hearing was just the beginning of the budget negotiation process. Looking ahead, Donna Bell reminded her peers to focus on the bigger picture.

“I just want to see if we could bring it back out, because I don’t want it to feel like this is a conversation about if we want to have the library funded or not have the library funded,” said Bell. “How do we do all the things that we want to do?”

The council will hold a work session on employee compensation and heath benefits at the library this Wednesday, and discuss the future of Chapel Hill Transit at a work session scheduled for June 3. The final budget will likely be adopted on June 10.

Chapel Hill Town Council Ponders Funding For Park Plan

CHAPEL HILL- At Monday’s public hearing, the Chapel Hill Town Council got a look at a draft of the new Parks and Recreation master plan. The plan calls for just under $50 million in capital spending, including $12 million for park renovations, $11 million to develop new parks, $10 million for greenways and $22 million for recreation facilities and a cultural arts center.
But Derek Williams, a consultant hired to help draft the plan, told the council those are long-term goals.

“I don’t think anyone really expects that all of these improvements will be made in ten years,” said Williams. “The most important thing is to have a plan and a map, and then to work your way down that plan and use that map to get where you’re trying to go.”

Town Manager Roger Stancil said it will be several years before the town could issue debt to pay for park improvements without having to raise property taxes.

“Without a tax increase for the debt service fund, the debt capacity is relatively limited,” said Stancil. “The first year would be 2016-17 when we have capacity in the debt service fund to be able to incur debt without some sort of tax increase.”

With that in mind, council members said they want to find innovative ways to fund the plan, perhaps by partnering with the school system, nonprofits and other local governments.

“We need to continue to explore partnering with Carrboro with Parks and Rec facilities,” said Jim Ward. “People in Carrboro use our facilities and vice versa. We need to get through the hurdles that keep us from being more fully integrated with each other.

Donna Bell suggested offering naming opportunities on town facilities as a way to raise money.

“There was discussion if we could use that sort of model for some of the facility-building we want to do around Chapel Hill, especially around sporting events or outdoor facilities,” said Bell.

The council also took public comment on a plan to expand the town’s greenways, with an eye to creating alternate transportation corridors.

Jason Merril, owner of Back Alley Bikes, told the council that great greenways are part of what makes Chapel Hill special.

“One of the things that I love about living in Chapel Hill is that what a lot of people would consider recreation- being active and being outside- is integrated into my daily life, by design,” said Merril.

Both the Parks and Greenway recommendations will return to the council in April once staff has developed long-term funding plans.

Development Goals Top Town Council’s List For Priority Budgeting

CHAPEL HILL- Chapel Hill leaders took their first stab on Wednesday at setting goals to guide the new priority budgeting process, but the experience left some town council members scratching their heads.

Business Management Director Ken Pennoyer told the town council that after four years of slow growth, or no growth, Chapel Hill has run out of short term solutions to long term budget problems. The answer, he said, lies in tailoring spending to support programs, not departments.

“The concept is to manage for the long term based on shared community vision, to prioritize the services that we provide so we can make sure the funds, in a time of scarce funds, are going to our highest priority services,” said Pennoyer.

To kick start the priority budgeting process, council members were asked to rank 25 broad policy goals. The resulting list will guide decisions about where to concentrate funding and where some cuts might be made.

But some felt the goals were too vague and amorphous.

“I think we need to know what these things mean, because I don’t know the difference between, for instance, ‘manages and mitigates factors that impact environmental quality,’ versus ‘promotes and regulates a clean, orderly and ecologically balanced community,’ versus ‘controls and abates threats to the environment,’” said council member Jim Ward. “That seems to me, at least superficially, to be three different ways of saying the same thing.”

Despite confusion over the wording of the policy goals, a clear pattern emerged from theballot process. Managing town growth ranks at the top of the list of council concerns. Three of the four development goals were ranked as high priorities, specifically, long-range planning, infrastructure investment and economic development. . By contrast, only one of the four environmental protection goals made the cut.

Traffic management, transit, community policing and prudent fiscal planning also ranked as high priorities.

But council member Matt Czajkowski, a long-time proponent of priority budgeting, said he’s not confident this step moves the council any closer to making tough decisions.

“We are so lost in words. The purpose is to incorporate great big concepts, but they’re so vague at the end of the day, for a lot of them it is hard to distill what they really mean,” said Czajkowski. “And to me the hard part is going to be priority budgeting things like raises, healthcare, library, et cetera. Very tangible things.”

Council member Laurin Easthom noted that this is only the first time the council has taken this approach, and she said the process is likely to change along the way.

“It is, for the town of Chapel Hill, an experimental approach, so I don’t know how much weight you could give to our first undertaking,” said Easthom. “We’ll see how it all plays out.”

The council is set to discuss the specific goals as well as the overall process at a planning retreat scheduled for early February.

Town Council Talking Budget At Wed Work Session

CHAPEL HILL – The Chapel Hill Town Council will identify budget priorities at a work session on Wednesday.

Click here for the Council’s Wednesday agenda.

In a memo to the council, Town Manager Roger Stancil notes that the economic recovery is not moving fast enough to meet the town’s needs. He says revenues have only just returned to the levels seen in 2008, while expenses have continued to rise.

To cope with ongoing shortfalls, the town will make the shift this year to priority budgeting.

That process gets underway this week when council members will vote by anonymous ballot to rank key goals and objectives. Staffers will then compare these goals with town programs and projects to identify where funding is needed most and where reductions can be made.

The budget work session starts at 6 o’clock Wednesday at the Town Operations Center on Millhouse Road in Public Works Building Two.

Not-so-Savvy Spending

The Chapel Hill Town Council (CHTC) has banned the use of all types of cell phones by drivers: both the handheld and the hands-free as of June 1.  If you’re a regular Chapelboro reader, you probably know this.  What you might not realize is what it may cost you and I’m not talking about the $25 fine.  

Here’s the scoop:  this ban will end up in court and the town will have to pay to defend it and council members knew that and decided to spend our tax dollars (and/or staff time- which we also fund) doing so.  

I keep hearing about priority-based budgeting, that we’ll have to make tough choices about what to fund, that our already high taxes will have to go up….  and now, this little expected expenditure.  Really people?  This is your priority?  

In a terrifically thorough discussion of the likely court arguments, WCHL News Director Aaron Keck and Legal Analyst Hampton Dellinger explain why this ban may be unenforceable.  There’s even an opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office saying so and guess what?  That opinion was available to the CHTC before members voted. 

I too have seen drivers oblivious to all else but their phones, weaving and dawdling their way through traffic.  Somehow I know they’re on the phone because they are using one of their hands to hold the device instead of the steering wheel.  “Both hands on the wheel,” my driver’s ed. teacher told me.  

So if hands-free devices are also being banned, I bet the phone lines are jammed at Performance Automall to make appointments to remove car radios (perish the thought!).  Also, the Chapel Hill Town Council must be moving some priority budgeting over to childcare because I certainly can’t be talking to my child in the backseat; that’s a hands-free conversation too.  Also, inventors must be furiously working on patented devices to detect chewing gum and Chapstick that may also be illegal to use inside my vehicle.  

I’m not advocating distracted, unsafe driving; I’m saying that each driver is licensed and is required to pay attention.  Once we get beyond the rule of both hands on the wheel, we’d have to start regulating daydreams, laughter, rubbernecking and dozens of other hands-free distractions that happen to all of us at some point when we’re driving.  While I think this is impossible, as is the upcoming ban, I think the bigger problem is a question of those darn priorities.  

I submit that all elected officials need to look at the biggest possible picture when making decisions and voting on laws, plans, bans, etc.  This ban reeks of being voted on in the abstract, in a world where taxes and budgets and residents in need are on the periphery.  It’s nice to take a utopian stand but only when we live in Utopia.  

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