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Orange County Commissioner Candidates Talk Trash And Taxes

CARRBORO- It’s been five years since Orange County residents have seen a property tax increase, but the question of when the rate might rise was on the minds of voters at last week’s county commissioner candidate forum hosted by the Orange County Democratic Women.

Barry Jacobs is seeking his fifth term on the board representing the county at-large. He told the audience that despite recent efforts to trim the budget, future tax increases might be necessary to fund what he called Orange County values.

“Schools are expensive,” said Jacobs. “People in Orange County want quality public education, we raise taxes to pay for the schools. We don’t apologize for it. Not everybody likes it.”

Challenger Bonnie Hauser said she’d try to avoid a tax increase by re-prioritizing county spending.

“In the short term I’d work to re-prioritize our spending to meet the needs of our schools and avoid raising taxes,” said Hauser. “To me, that means funding schools first and cut or delay funding to government facilities and non-essentials to free up capital and revenue.”

Incumbent Earl McKee faces Mark Marcoplos for the District 2 seat representing Hillsborough and rural Orange County. McKee said he hopes to hold the line on property taxes for at least one more year.

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you all that we’re not going to raise taxes this year, or that we will never raise taxes again. Everybody knows I will be telling a bald-faced lie if I do that,” said McKee. “But I will work to try to find areas where we can do reductions, areas where we can wring a few more dollars out of different funds.”

Marcoplos said recent boards have been judicious in their budget decisions, a trend he’d continue if elected.

“I can’t think of anybody who has wildly raised taxes or wildly slashed taxes,” said Marcoplos. “It’s a process that has been done reasonably in the confines of the realities of the day, and I would be in that tradition.”

The future of recycling and solid waste disposal was also a hot topic, as the county is currently trying to find a new funding model for curbside recycling pick-up, while also searching for a long-term solution for solid waste disposal now that the landfill has closed. Marcoplos said he’d make solid waste a top priority.

“One of my key goals as a commissioner will be to work towards that comprehensive end-game,” said Marcoplos. “We need a [waste] transfer station in Orange County and we need a recycling station right next to it which will simplify the picking up of trash and recycling.”

McKee agreed, saying his thinking on the issue has evolved during his time on the board.

“I’m going to be quite honest with you, I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” said McKee. “I don’t know what the best way is, but I’m coming to the conclusion that we need to step back and look at this in a holistic way. We need to put it in a task force, to hire a consultant, which is something I opposed in 2010.”

Hauser said she’d like to see greater cooperation between the towns and county to reduce waste at schools and other institutional facilities, with an eye to regional solutions in the future.

“I’m disappointed that two years after deciding to close the landfill we still don’t have a plan for solid waste and recycling,” said Hauser. “In the short term, I’d like to focus on an interim plan to reduce waste that includes an inter-local agreement with the towns.”

Jacobs said the county is on the verge of signing a five-year contract with Hillsborough, Carrboro and Chapel Hill to collaborate on recycling services, but that going forward, locating a site for new solid waste facilities will be a challenge.

“One of our problems has been, especially recently, the towns have not wanted to work with us; they weren’t sure they wanted to have an agreement,” said Jacobs. “We’re about to sign a five-year agreement with the towns and the basis of doing planning going forward is, how do we do, in a cost-effective and socially just way, solid waste in Orange County?”

All four candidates are Democrats and there are no Republican challengers, meaning the race will be decided in the May 6 Primary.  The candidates will meet again to discuss the issues at a forum hosted by the Orange/Chatham Sierra Club at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday at Carrboro Town Hall.

CHCCS Facing $45 Million In Unfunded School Repairs

CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board approved a 10-year spending plan on Thursday totaling $16.8 million, but members acknowledged the Capital Investment Plan does not include an estimated $87 million in unfunded needs, including $45 million worth of basic repairs to the district’s 10 oldest schools.

William Mullin, Executive Director of School Facilities, told the board that $45 million would bring the aging schools up to current safety and accessibility standards, but would not increase student capacity.

Without modifying existing schools to add room for more students, administrators estimate the district will need a new elementary and middle school by 2020, at a projected cost of $80 million.

Mullin told commissioners the district is receiving about $800,000 annually from the quarter cent sales tax approved by voters in 2011. Half of that is earmarked for technology needs, the rest for repairing older schools. While that will add up approximately $8.8 million by 2024, Mullin said it is not nearly enough to address the district’s needs.

The school board will discuss aging facilities and school capacity at its planning retreat on Tuesday. Administrators will present the capital plan to the Board of County Commissioners later this month.

Commissioners Nix Orange County Fair Plan

HILLSBOROUGH- Local food, crafts, music, an agricultural expo and a midway- these were some of the plans laid out by a work group that spent the last six months exploring the idea of hosting an Orange County Fair.

But commissioners voted 4-3 on Thursday to put those plans on ice, citing concerns about cost.

“Sure it would be fun, it’s a great idea. But it costs too much right now,” said Commissioner Alice Gordon. “That’s why I’m having a problem with it.”

Gordon, along with Bernadette Pelissier, Penny Rich, and Earl McKee argued the potential $189,000 price tag to plan the event was too high, despite assurances from the workgroup that the fair would likely break even.

The work group proposed a two-day event in the spring of 2015 at the Blackwood Farm between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.

The group estimated funding would come from event partners, corporate sponsors, local governments and donations, but Commissioner Pelissier questioned if the committee’s budget was realistic.

Commissioner McKee said the county can’t afford to take on new projects at a time when schools are relying on more local dollars to compensate for state funding cuts.

“Part of our responsibilities is to make hard decisions. Every good idea does not have to be moved forward,” said McKee. “I’m not saying this is a bad idea, it probably is a good idea, if there were not other considerations for me that were not overriding considerations and education overrides everything.”

Commissioners Mark Dorosin, Barry Jacobs and Renee Price supported the fair concept, saying it would build community through out the county. Dorosin says he’s been hearing from people interested in the fair idea since he first suggested in during his 2012 campaign.

“Why I believe this is important is that there is not something that is for the entire county, and that is what this would be,” said Dorosin. “Everything about this is to focus on the local, to celebrate it, to highlight it, and also to show it off beyond the county.”

Former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton and current Board candidate Mark Marcoplos also spoke in favor of the plan. Marcoplos urged commissioners not to get hung up on the logistics early in the process.

“I’m definitely pro-fair, I think it’s a great idea,” said Marcoplos. “It would be a great celebration of the county’s business, its agriculture, its history, its culture, its dance and music. It would be plain fun, and I think that’s a hard thing to measure.”

Nonetheless, the board voted not to continue planning efforts or hire a consultant to vet the workgroup’s plans. While the current plan was scuttled on Thursday, the board could revisit the topic of future funding for a county fair during the budget planning process later this spring.

BoCC Eyes Older Schools For Bond Referendum

HILLSBOROUGH- Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday signaled they may be willing to shift the focus of a proposed $100 million bond referendum.

In a prior discussion, the board talked about getting voter approval to finance a new jail, and a fifth middle school for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system. Those two projects alone total $73 million.

But school board members from both the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County districts say aging schools are badly in need of repair, and fixing those could cost as much as $230 million.

Commissioner Mark Dorosin said he’d like some guarantee from district officials that renovating older schools would increase student capacity, delaying the need for new buildings.

“I think if we’re going to put any money into the renovation of these older schools, which is much needed, I think we should demand that any renovation increase capacity, whether it’s in the middle school or the elementary school,” said Dorosin. “Whatever those plans are, that money should have as an additional benefit that it is going to push out the next elementary school, the next middle school, the next high school, whatever it is.”

If voters approve a $100 million dollar bond package, Assistant County Manager Clarence Grier told the board that could mean raising the tax rate by 4.18 cents for the next 20 years to cover the $6.7 million annual debt payments.

In order to get the referendum on the ballot for the November 2014 election, the school boards and commissioners must come up with a list of priorities by early June.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro administrators have already completed a detailed assessment of the district’s older buildings, while Orange County school officials have a study underway. County Commissioners will discuss the timing of the possible bond package at a meeting later this fall.

BOCC Budget: More For Schools and Public Safety

CHAPEL HILL- For the fifth year in a row, Orange County Commissioners approved a budget that does not include a countywide property tax rate increase.

The $187 million dollar spending plan adopted on Tuesday increases school funding by $102 dollars per pupil and raises the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax by two cents to help open the new Northside Elementary.

With $91 million dollars going to the county’s two school districts, County Manager Frank Clifton said it’s clear where the board’s priorities lie.

“Nobody can question that our number one priority is education,” said Clifton. “If you compare Orange County to the majority of counties in our state […] you won’t find anyone that comes close.”

Clifton also commended commissioners for their commitment to improving the county’s emergency response times by allocating funding for EMS equipment, technology upgrades and new personnel.

“This board has stepped up in the matter of public safety like no other board in the county’s past history,” said Clifton. “I think the good news is that the people of Orange County will see a much better response from the county going forward.”

The board also approved a five-year Capital Investment Plan that includes money for a science wing at Culbreth Middle School, an auxiliary gym at Cedar Ridge High School, and renovations to the Whitted building to create a meeting space for local governments.

With the final budget formally adopted, the board of commissioners will go on hiatus for the summer and resume regular meetings in September.

CHCCS: Tough Choices Despite Increased Funding

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners dug into reserve funds and decided to raise the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax rate this week, all to find more money to help local schools weather the cuts proposed in the state budget.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member James Barrett says the county budget will help cover some significant funding gaps.

“I think what this does is it gives us some money to cover those mandatory items and basically keep the level of service about where it is now, which is down from what it was several years ago, based on state cuts in particular,” said Barrett. “It’s not where we want it to be, but we live with it this year.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro officials were worried that the county manager’s recommended budget fell $4.6 million shy of what they asked for, leaving the district without the money to open the new Northside Elementary.

The decision to raise the school district tax by two cents will generate the $2 million needed for Northside. Commissioners also allocated $1 million in reserve funds to the district, leaving $1.6 million of the school system’s budget request unfunded.

Barrett says school board members will have to weigh some tough choices as the budget process continues.

“We talked about some of the trade-offs that we might have to make, whether that be teaching assistants, which is what the state is proposing, or freezing salaries or increasing class sizes. The board will continue to talk about it as we get final numbers and we’ll make some decisions about what’s most important to us.”

Budget proposals in the legislature would cut funding for teaching assistants in second and third grade classrooms. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools could lose as many as 37 teaching assistants, or spend up to $1.3 million to retain those positions.

The state’s push to lift the cap on class size could also take a bite out of the local budget, if district leaders decide to pay for additional teachers to improve the student to teacher ratio.

School officials had hoped to offer all staff a $500 bonus since the state budget is not likely to include a pay raise, but that money could be reallocated to cover other shorfalls.

In one piece of good news for the district, county leaders agreed to spend $600,000 in the next fiscal year and approximately $4.3 million over the next three years to build a six classroom science wing at Culbreth Middle School.

Although county commissioners were not able to fully fund the school board’s request, Barrett says next year’s budget represents a compromise.

“It’s certainly a challenge and I’m glad that the commissioners were willing to step forward with some funding and some new revenues. I wish that we’d gotten more for our kids but I understand the constraints they’re under and I’m glad we reached some sort of middle ground.”

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School board last week asked administrators to return with a full list of possible reductions to consider. The school board will schedule a special work session to discuss the state and local budget sometime in July, ahead of the formal vote to adopt the budget on July 18.

Tax Hike For CHCCS District; OC Prop Tax Unchanged

CHAPEL HILL-Orange County Commissioners signaled on Thursday that they will hold the line on property taxes, though the CHCCS special district tax will go up.

The board won’t formally adopt the $187 million dollar budget until next week, but commissioners made it clear they want to keep the countywide property tax rate unchanged while still spending more money on public schools.

Looking ahead, some said that won’t be sustainable in the future.

“We have to keep in mind that this might be the last year that we’re going to go without raising taxes,” said Commissioner Penny Rich. “I’m not the kind of person who loves to raise taxes, but there’s a certain level of services that we expect in Orange County, and we can’t go year after year, especially with the school systems, and not raise taxes.”

The ad valorem tax rate will stay at 85.8 cents per $100 of assessed value for the fifth year in a row.

Last month, parents, teachers and administrators from both the Orange County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools districts came out in droves to beg the board for more money to cover anticipated cuts at the state level.

In response, county commissioners dug into reserve funds to find $1.6 million in extra school funding, raising the per pupil allocation by $81 dollars for both school districts and generating approximately $1.6 million for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and $650,000 for Orange County Schools.

But that money is still not enough to open Chapel Hill’s new Northside Elementary. Commissioners agreed to raise the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax by two cents to generate approximately $2 million for the new school. The new rate will be 20.84 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Commissioners also allocated $49,000 in additional funding for a host of nonprofit organizations, and set aside a quarter of a million for something they dubbed the Social Justice Fund, a reserve account to help lessen the sting of state cuts to social programs.

“In a way it’s a commitment that this is something we consider important,” said Board Chair Barry Jacobs. “I think we all agree there are depredations being done to the social safety net. We want to try to address them and we know can’t address them all.”

The board will vote to formally adopt the budget for Fiscal Year 2013-2014 at a meeting on Tuesday, June 18.

BoCC Eyes CHCCS District Tax, Not Property Tax, For School Funding

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners signaled on Thursday that they’re looking for more money to fund public schools, but they stopped short of supporting a countywide property tax rate increase.

“As much as I believe in a strong school system, raising the taxes, personally I believe we have to really have to take a deep look at that, because the rate of poverty is increasing so dramatically in Orange County,” said Renee Price.

In the past two weeks, dozens of residents have  come out to public hearings to ask commissioners to allocate more money for the school systems.

But some commissioners worried that those who can’t afford a tax increase have not had a voice in the debate. Penny Rich said she’s been hearing from residents who did not feel comfortable speaking out on the issue.

“They are very passionate about schools but they just can’t afford any more taxes,” said Rich. “We can make the schools better by raising taxes, but they won’t be part of it, they would have to move.”

Commissioners did indicate they might be willing to increase the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax to help raise the $2 million needed to open the new Northside Elementary.

“We do have a precedent for opening schools in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools on the district tax, so I think as we’re balancing all these different needs, we shouldn’t discount that as a possibility,” said Alice Gordon.

A two-cent increase of the district tax would generate $2 million dollars, while a five-and-a-half cent increase would be needed to fully fund the school board’s budget request.

The manager’s recommended budget falls between $3 million to $8 million dollars short of what the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school boards had asked for, but Board Chair Barry Jacobs noted that the manager’s budget actually increases school spending by about $2.4 million over last year, and he said this year’s funding debate is par for the course.

“I don’t think anybody should take umbrage if we don’t fully fund what the schools request, because they know that no matter what they ask for we can never fully fund it,” said Jacobs.

Officials from both school systems are concerned about state budget proposals that would eliminate funding for teaching assistants in second and third grades.

If approved, the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro districts stand to lose a combined total of 70 teaching assistants. School board representatives estimated it would cost approximately $2.3 million dollars in local money to save those positions.

While the board agreed to keep looking for more school funding, Bernadette Pelissier warned that the county’s resources are limited.

“On the one hand, I say we have to do as much as possible for the schools. On the other hand, we can’t always fill in all the gaps that we have from the federal and state level,” said Pelissier.

Commissioners will continue their deliberations at a series of work sessions next week, with an eye toward formally adopting the budget on June 18.

Parents Lobby BoCC For School Funding

CHAPEL HILL- For the second time in two weeks, parents and teachers raised their voices to ask Orange County Commissioners to raise more money for schools.

Nearly a hundred residents turned out for Thursday’s public hearing on next year’s  county budget and the vast majority called for a tax increase to fund both school systems.

“I’m here tonight, with many others, to ask you to do what it takes to fund the school districts at their requested amounts,” said Margaret Samuels. “I would support an increase in the county tax and the special district tax to support both school districts.”

“I’m a property owner, a taxpayer, a father and a citizen,” said Hunter Pendleton. “I’m anxious to pay more taxes.”

“My parents said they’re willing to pay more in taxes so the schools will have enough money to keep things going the way they are now,” said third-grader Calvin Hinkle.

“I honestly would be disappointed if I open my tax bill in September and I don’t see a tax increase in it that fully funds our schools,” said James Easthom.

The manager’s budget recommendation covers operational expenses and enrollment growth but it does not fully fund the requests from either school board.

To generate the $8.8 million in additional funding the school boards are asking for, commissioners would need to raise the county-wide property tax by 5.5 cents per hundred dollars of value. Alternately, commissioners could increase the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax by the same amount to generate 5.7 million for that school system alone.

Commissioners have not raised the property tax rate in four years. Victoria Templeton reminded the crowd that school budgets have been shrinking during that time.

“Initially the cuts were used to improve efficiencies, but now we’ve gone beyond efficiencies and we’ve gone beyond waste and we’re now cutting essential programs,” said Templeton.

All parties agreed that the funding shortfalls are made worse by state and federal budget cuts. Commissioner Mark Dorosin urged the audience to make their voices heard next week at the Mega Moral Monday protest at the General Assembly.

“It is incredibly important, as you all said so eloquently tonight, to understand that while we’ll do what we can, the real struggle is much bigger than what’s happening in the county,” said Dorosin. “It’s happening statewide.”

The commissioners will take up budget negotiations at a work session on June 6.

OC Parents Plead For School Funding: “I’ll Pay More”

HILLSBOROUGH- More than a hundred parents, teachers and children squeezed into Thursday’s public hearing on the county budget, while others spilled out into the hallway at the Department of Social Services, waiting for their chance to beg the board of commissioners to spend more on schools.

“We’re not asking you for more advantages for our children or more programs for our children,” said Mindy Morton, co-chair of the Smith Middle School Improvement Team. “We just want enough money so that we can keep it the way it is. So please make that a priority and fund our schools.”

Nearly three dozen speakers addressed the board, with most warning of dire consequences if Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools lose funding for teaching assistants.

Many acknowledged that the proposal to cut more than 4,000 teaching assistant positions statewide comes from state legislators, not county commissioners, but time and again the speakers said it’s up to the county to bridge the funding gap.

“If the state legislators de-fund thousands of teaching assistant positions, local school districts across North Carolina will be dealt a very raw deal,” said Julie Tucker, parent of a student at Grady Brown Elementary. “We cannot pass that raw deal on to our children. Not in Orange County.”

At issue is the county manager’s recommended budget for next year. While it covers the operational cost for both school systems and accounts for growth projections, it falls about $6 million dollars short of fully funding the requests put forward by the school boards.

The recommended budget does not include a property tax increase or an increase in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax, but several speakers said they would be willing to pay more.

“It is really important that we get what we need,” said Laura Pittman. “I’m a single parent and I’m willing to pay more. I’m willing to put more dollars in your coffers so I can have the education for my kids that they need.”

The board would need to raise the property tax rate by 5.5 cents per $100 of valuation to fully fund both school systems.

Commissioners made no comment at the public hearing, but at a work session just afterwards, they signaled they would be willing to invest in capital projects for each district in the next fiscal year, building a science wing for Culbreth Middle School and an auxiliary gym for Cedar Ridge High School.

A second public hearing on the budget will be held on 7 o’clock next Thursday at the Southern Human Services Center on Homestead Road. The board will begin deliberations on the budget June 6.