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County Commissioners Plan $125 Million Bond For School Repairs

In a 4-2 vote on Tuesday, Orange County Commissioners indicated that next year’s bond referendum will focus solely on school repairs.

“What is the overriding and overarching need in Orange County? In my opinion, that overarching need is schools,” said Board Chair Earl McKee.

He and the majority of commissioners favored a $125 million dollar bond package that would go to fund school repairs and renovations, instead of a proposal to split 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.

While all commissioners agreed they are committed to funding school needs, Barry Jacobs and Penny Rich opposed a single-item bond package, saying other county needs should be addressed as well.

Jacobs suggested the county should poll residents about their funding priorities, a notion that the majority of the board ignored.

“My comment, since it’s obvious what the majority of the board thinks, is addressed to the residents of Orange County. I think this decision shortchanges you,” said Jacobs. “There’s no reason to be afraid to hear what your opinions are. I think you’re discriminating enough to be able to differentiate what your opinions are and be able to tell elected officials. I think a mono-chromatic bond is a bad idea.”

Commissioner Mia Burroughs argued the discussion of funding an affordable housing initiative was premature.

“I had entertained for some period of time that maybe we’d like to do something about housing, but I don’t think we have a gelled idea, that idea hasn’t cooked enough to be able to do that in this format,” said Burroughs.

Though some on the board suggested future bonds might be used for affordable housing, Rich countered that Orange County residents would not look kindly on multiple bond referendums down the road.

“I think at some point our citizens will get bond fatigue,” said Rich. “I think we’ll have bond fatigue after the Chapel Hill [bond] and then moving into this bond. So, the idea that we could always have another bond, I think that’s not something that would go well with our citizens.”

Chapel Hill voters will see a $40 million bond package on the 2015 municipal ballot. Orange County’s will appear on the ballot in 2016. If voters approve the countywide referendum next year, it will add slightly less than five cents to the property tax rate.

Commissioners will meet with school officials next week.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/county-commissioners-plan-125-million-bond-for-school-repairs/

School and County Leaders Consider $100M Bond Referendum

CHAPEL HILL- Years of deferred maintenance are taking a toll on local schools, leaving county and school officials scrambling to figure out how to foot the bill.

“We have to have a different communication with the citizens. We cannot even afford this. We don’t have enough money to do this,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Vice-Chair Jamezetta Bedford, speaking Thursday at a joint meeting of school board members and county commissioners. “The idea that we want new things and we want this new park or whatever, when we can’t afford to maintain what we already have is very worrisome.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school budget allocates $20 million in the next decade to repair aging facilities, but a recent evaluation of the district’s oldest schools school revealed that repairing or replacing those facilities could cost as much as $170 million.

Orange County School administrators are still in the process of inspecting that district’s schools. Initial estimates for renovation range between $20 million and $68 million, but school officials say those numbers are likely to rise as many of the county’s oldest schools are in the Orange County system.

Members of the two school boards and county commissioners came together Thursday to discuss a potential bond package to take to voters, possibly as early as November of 2014.

County commissioners are considering a $100 million dollar bond referendum to pay for a new county jail and a fifth middle school for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system, but that plan doesn’t yet include any projects to repair aging schools.

And with the jail and the middle school estimated to cost about $76 million, that leaves just $24 million to address what school officials say is a $230 million dollar problem.

County leaders hope to break ground on a new jail in the next four years, but Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board Chair Michelle Brownstein said the school systems can’t wait that long.

“My anticipation is that as more details come out about both Orange County schools and Chapel Hill schools, about the level of need at those schools, there’s going to be a greater sense of urgency,” said Brownstein. “There’s going to need to be evidence that we’re coming up with a plan. I don’t think it is reasonable to think that we’re going to be able to wait until 2016 to address our county’s school needs.”

The need for a new jail is also pressing, not only because the county jail is consistently overcrowded, but because the board recently signed a land lease with the state that mandates the county start construction within five years. Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs said failure to do so would invalidate the lease.

“If we haven’t done what we need to by that time then we’re just out of luck,” said Jacobs.

Nonetheless, County Manager Mike Talbert warned commissioners their options may be limited.

“Right now, outstanding debt is $190 million dollars. You’re looking at proposals that would nearly double that in a fairly short period of time. There are going to be limitations,” said Talbert. “Our debt has to grow in proportion to our budget and to our population. There are very much limits on what we can do.”

Veteran Orange County school board member and former county commissioner Stephen Halkiotis said he’s worked on three bond referendums over the years. He told the assembled leaders not to get too worried this early in the process.

“It always starts this way, so don’t get flabbergasted, don’t get upset,” said Halkiotis. “The first reach is real high. Then you realize you can only get certain fruit from the tree. Then you get real practical.”

Commissioners will discuss the feasibility of a possible bond package at their October 8 work session.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/school-and-county-leaders-consider-100m-bond-referendum/