Homeownership, Scholarship, Taxes And Snow Days

Are you thinking about buying a home? Wondering how you can afford it?

Chatham Habitat for Humanity and EmPOWERment are co-hosting a two-part Home Buyer’s Education Workshop in Pittsboro, on Thursday, March 6 and Thursday, March 13 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. You’ll learn tips for shopping for homes and mortgages, how to financially prepare, and how to maintain your home after you’ve bought it.

The workshop takes place at 467 West Street in Pittsboro. It’s free and open to the public; dinner, door prizes and child care will be provided. To RSVP, contact Amanda Stancil at EmPOWERment by calling 967-8779, or Anna Schmalz Rodriguez at Chatham Habitat by calling 542-0794.


Congratulations to Casey Rimland, a medical and doctoral student in the UNC School of Medicine who was recently named as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Created with a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship provides students with a three-year full scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England. Between 80 and 100 Gates Scholarships are awarded annually; Rimland is the second honoree from UNC.

Casey Rimland is originally from Charlotte and graduated from UNC-Charlotte in 2011. She’s also a thyroid cancer survivor, having been diagnosed in her first year of medical school.


To compensate for all the snow days, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board has updated the district’s class schedule for the rest of the school year.

There were three remaining days on the district’s calendar that were set aside as delayed-opening days, but all three have now been changed to regular school days. Those three days are March 13, April 10 and May 8 – all originally delayed opening, but now functioning as regular, full school days. Students should report to school at the regular time.


Congratulations to the AVID students from Smith Middle School, winners of this year’s sixth annual Black History Knowledge Bowl!

The event is sponsored every year by the Mu Omicron Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. It’s a competition between students at Culbreth, McDougle and Smith Middle Schools who participate in the AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination). This year’s Knowledge Bowl took place at Culbreth Middle School on February 22; Smith took first and Culbreth took second.


Results are in for the Town of Chapel Hill’s Community Survey, and the numbers indicate that—for the most part—residents are extremely happy with the town’s services.

More than 90 percent of residents who responded say they’re satisfied with the town’s fire department, library, and trash collection services; more than 80 percent say they’re satisfied with Chapel Hill’s park maintenance and police department. Those numbers are “well above regional and national benchmarks,” according to a release from the Town.

On the down side, residents said they were most concerned with traffic congestion and “how well the Town is preparing for the future,” and also said the Town could do a better job providing affordable housing and “access to quality shopping.”

You can check out the full results at TownOfChapelHill.org/survey.


It’s tax season—and if you need tax forms, the Orange County Public Library is offering select forms for free. Those forms include the 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, Schedule A, Schedule B and Schedule SE.

In addition, the Orange County Department on Aging is offering its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program—VITA for short—which provides free income tax preparation for qualifying individuals with low- to middle-incomes, regardless of age or county of residence.

For more information or to find out if you qualify, visit OrangeCountyNC.gov/aging/VITA.asp.


UNC has received a grant of more than $40 million from the National Institutes of Health, to fund a global clinical trials unit working to treat and prevent the spread of HIV.

The grant will fund five clinical research sites through the year 2021. Three of those sites are located in North Carolina; the other two are located in Africa, in Malawi and Zambia.

UNC received $430 million in external funding for HIV research between 2008 and 2012. The university is ranked as one of the top 10 programs in America for HIV/AIDS research.



NC Senate Delays Final Vote On Tax Overhaul

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – The North Carolina Senate has delayed a final vote on a tax overhaul plan to discuss changes with House members and Gov. Pat McCrory.

Senate Leader Phil Bergerof Eden said Tuesday a scheduled final vote was being put off for talks with McCrory and the House, which already passed its own proposal. The Senate’s plan tentatively passed last week. Berger said the proposal will be scheduled for action Wednesday.

The Senate plan cuts taxes by billions through a gradual repeal of corporate taxes and lower income tax rates. Proponents say it will boost the economy.

Critics have said it is not true tax reform because it doesn’t make major changes to the sales tax code. Others say it will severely hurt state and local public services.


Chatham County Walmart Open For Business

CHATHAM COUNTY – Chapel Hill has its first Wal-Mart up and running, although it’s not actually located in Orange County or even Chapel Hill proper, and won’t provide taxes to the municipality.

The Walmart located just south of Orange County’s Border into Chatham County officially opened it’s doors on Friday.

Chris Smith, who is serving as manager at the new Wal-Mart, says the community’s response has so far been positive.

“It’s a mutual feeling, and everyone’s just happy,” he says.

In March of 2012, Chatham County Manager Charlie Horne announced that a Walmart would come to Chatham County on 15-501, just outside Orange County boundaries. The new project would encompass 150,000 square feet and would include a grocery and pharmacy center.

While many local officials have expressed concerns that the project would keep tax dollars away from Orange County, others have said based on previous local shopping patterns, it might actually help the Orange County economy to thrive.

With the eventual return of UNC students to the area, Smith says he has started to look into ways to adjust for the coming rush.

“We have contacted some of the best Walmarts that have done it, with regards to being near some of the very established universities,” he says.

The new Wal-Mart started its search for employees back in mid-March. Interested applicants can click here.


Local Baker Brings Cookies (And A Message) To Raleigh

These are the cookies Steere delivered. Photo (and caption) via Golden Age Bakery’s Facebook page.

CHAPEL HILL – The NAACP’s “Moral Monday” demonstration drew hundreds to Raleigh again this week to speak out against the bills being passed by the state’s General Assembly–but many other North Carolinians are getting active in other ways, including one small business owner in Chapel Hill who chose a unique way to get her message across.

Sylvia Steere (a friend of the author) is the owner of Golden Age Bakery, a gluten-free bakery she operates out of her Chapel Hill home. Ordinarily she’s trying to sell her cookies, but on Monday she gave them away — 170 of them, in fact — hand-delivering one each to every single legislative office in the State House and Senate.

Her mission? To urge the General Assembly not to pass House Bill 998, the House’s tax-reform plan that will expand the scope of sales taxes while cutting the tax rate on large corporations.

“It will reduce corporate taxes, over the next few years, to completely eliminate them by 2017 — and that’s going to put a lot of the burden on the people that actually consume,” Steere says. “That would be approximately 95 percent of North Carolin(ians) spending more in sales taxes.

“It’s a tax cut for the rich and a tax increase for the poor, and ultimately I don’t consider that good for business, from a small-business standpoint.”

Supporters of the bill say it’s designed to ease the tax burden on businesses — including small businesses — by basing taxes more on consumption. But Steere says a consumption-based tax system wouldn’t be good for her business either.

“If I were a large corporation, I might consider it beneficial,” she says, “but I’m a consumer, and my customers are consumers. And I’d like to not raise prices on ourselves to lower corporate taxes. I feel like it’s the large corporations that could probably afford to spend a little bit more.”

House Bill 998 is not the only tax plan out there: the State Senate is debating several different tax reform proposals, and Governor Pat McCrory has offered his own as well. Each of those plans also include reductions in the corporate tax, though not all of them expand the sales tax as the House bill does.

The General Assembly and Governor McCrory’s office are expected to reach agreement on a final tax plan by the end of the month. While the final plan may not please Steere, she says she’s glad to have spoken out — and she’s hopeful her novel approach might have gotten legislators’ attention.

“It felt very good, actually — just to get out there, see some faces, smile, (and) hand them off,” she says. “They were — in my opinion — very beautifully packaged little thank-you cards, with my note saying why I don’t think they should pass this bill, and a little cookie showing who I am and what my business is doing.”

Steere sells her products online and in local stores, including Southern Season and Foster’s Market.


Lack Of County Property Tax Increase Could Change

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Manager Frank Clifton presented his recommended 2013-2014 budget on Tuesday, and if the board of commissioners approves the plan as written, it would be the fifth year in a row without a property tax rate increase.

Clifton said despite a slow rate of growth, the county is on solid financial footing.

“As dire as some people may want to predict the county’s budget process is this year, we are probably in far better shape than a lot of other counties in this state,” Clifton told the board.

While the $185.9 million dollar spending plan fully funds all current services and provides for school enrollment growth, it does not meet the budget requests submitted by either the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system or the Orange County Schools system, requests that totaled $8 million in additional funding.

“Balancing today’s demands while sustaining the financial capacity to address the challenges of tomorrow requires difficult decisions,” said Clifton. “Fully funding every request, no matter how well intended the support or demand for those requests, is not a practical reality.”

The recommended $87.8 million education budget falls $6 million short of what the school systems asked for, but Chief Financial Officer Clarence Grier said the board does have options if commissioners wish to increase school funding.

“You could propose or approve a property tax increase to address any funding issues not addressed in the recommended budget, or increase the Chapel Hill-Carrboro special district tax in order to address their funding needs,” said Grier. “Also, both school districts have fund balance in excess of the required minimums that could be utilized to fund their needs.”

The board would need to raise the property tax rate 5.5 cents to generate the full $8 million. Raising  the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools special district tax by 5.5 cents would generate an additional $5.6 million for the school system.

The budget proposal includes funding for new EMS and IT personnel and raises the level of county funding to the Chapel Hill Public Library to $483,000 a year.

Grier said the county will likely spend about $3 million on landfill closure costs next year. The budget plan would double the annual household solid waste fees to $20 for urban residents and $40 for rural residents, raise the recycling fee by $10 and institute a new $10 mattress disposal fee.

Commissioners will hold the first of two public hearings on the budget on Thursday. That gets underway at 7 o’clock at the Department of Social Services in Hillsborough.


CH May Hike Prop Taxes This Year; OC And Carrboro May Not

Officials in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County are gearing up for another round of difficult budget talks—and although the economy may be on the rebound, County Manager Frank Clifton says local governments still have no more money to work with than they did five years ago.

“We’re at 2008 levels–and actually the county’s budget in 2008 (was) greater than it is today,” Clifton says. “That’s the reality: the tax base for the county is not much different today than it was in 2008.”

Still, Orange County officials say they’re hopeful they can get through another two-year budget cycle without raising property taxes.

“You have to balance (priorities) out,” says Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon, “but I think going into the budget process, we’re going to try not to raise the general property tax rate.”

And while town governments too are anticipating some difficult budget decisions, officials in Carrboro say they’re also confident they can avoid raising taxes on residents this year.

“Just kind of speaking in generalities, our goal this year is to present a no-tax-increase budget,” says Carrboro Assistant Town Manager Matt Efird. “And the preliminary budget thus far does not include a tax increase.”

But it’s a different story in Chapel Hill, where officials are dealing with a variety of unique budget challenges—and as a result, Town Manager Roger Stancil says a tax increase may be unavoidable this year.

“I apparently used up all the rabbits in my hat sooner than Frank and Matt did,” he says. “But there is a brand new library open, and we have been saying for several years that operating that library at the same level that the community’s used to–that was equivalent to a penny on the tax rate. The community decided to close the landfill and we take our garbage somewhere else–we said from the very beginning, that was (another) penny on the tax rate (in) increased cost, for the Town of Chapel Hill to do that.”

Compounding that, Stancil says, is the possibility of an additional penny tax increase from Chapel Hill Transit as well.

While different local governments are expecting to make different decisions on the question of raising taxes, officials across the board agree that the coming budget talks are going to be difficult. Especially now that municipal governments have already streamlined their operations in previous budget cycles, Chapel Hill Town Council member Laurin Easthom says there’s no such thing as an easy cut.

“The services that we have in Chapel Hill exist because somebody wanted them,” she says. “And they’re useful services. So it makes it really tough on us to decide to chip away or cut–because we know it will affect a certain group, or everyone.”

And Carrboro Alderman Lydia Lavelle says she’s particularly concerned for municipal employees, who’ve gone without pay raises for years.

“We’ve done a good job of stipends or other things the last couple years,” she says, “but as far as cost-of-living (increases)…we’ve been struggling a little bit with the implementation of a living wage.”

Municipal governments will begin their budget discussions later this spring.

Clifton, Easthom, Efird, Gordon, Lavelle, and Stancil made those comments on Thursday during WCHL’s annual Community Forum.

Click here to revisit the entire ten-hour forum.


Necessary Border Crossing

This column was always supposed to be about how and where we spend our money.  Many times I’ve expanded my definition to talk about how public money is spent and the choices made by people paid with public money.  This edition of $avvy $pender, though, is back to the more personal kind of spending, in this case, my own.

This past weekend I was all set up to pack my son’s things to take to a summer program.  I had the staging area set complete with suitcase, the packing list, the permanent marker and clothes and sunscreen and towels strewn about. The Leffler Command Center was up and running!  

Smoothly efficient, I was, and not a little smug with my planning.  

That ended as I got to the bottom of the list where I had glossed over things like towels and sheets knowing we had some to send.  Glaring at me was the following: “a light blanket”.   

I didn’t particularly want to take one from his bed to send, and anyway, those aren’t exactly light and thin for packing.  Okay, I thought, it’s Saturday afternoon, we can run out and get a light cotton blanket.  

No problem, right?  Right, unless I want to shop in the town where I live.  No problem unless I want my sales tax to go to the coffers of the town where I live.  

Now I’m sure many of you will send me the name of an amazingly lovely store (or two) that sells gorgeous blankets.  I’m sure it/they do/does but think about where this blanket is headed: to accompany a 10-year old boy to join several other 10-year old boys.  That’s not the place to send an elegant coverlet. 

Nor did I want logo’d fleece.  Not because of the logo but because fleece is frequently polyester and polyester doesn’t breathe and it’s for a summer program in the South.  

So, I don’t want to run to one of Chapel Hill’s chic boutiques and I don’t want to run to a UNC booster/souvenir store.  I also don’t have time to make several stops just in case I find one.  Where do I go?  Sadly, fellow taxpayers, I went to Durham.  And so did my money.  

What is so wrong with having enough of a range of retail establishments in our town that we don’t have to (a.) use more gas while (b.) adding to the income of another city and county?

There’s clearly something wrong with it that I don’t understand.  And while I don’t understand it, I probably will end up paying higher taxes.  And while I don’t understand it, town services may decline.  Someone, please explain to me why it seems sustainability applies only to Chapel Hill’s beautiful natural world and not also to keeping the town a vibrant and dynamic place.  

Next summer, when I’ve forgotten something on that list (and I will, because I’m aging!), please let there be some leadership in this town that allows for a mixed environment that serves the interests and needs of all its residents. 

I’m not the first to tell the story of running to Durham to spend money.  The exciting food scene there is also a draw to many of my friends.  Please leave a comment below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com to tell me how you think town leaders should do the impossible: attempt to please everyone!


Chapel Hill is Hemorrhaging Tax Dollars

It’s official! Walmart is coming to town!

Well, not our town, but Chatham County, just over the line. And to the victor go all the spoils. Walmart has announced it will build a huge 148,500 square foot store on the 15-501 commercial corridor near Smith Level Road and hire 300 employees.

Walmart cash registers will soon be ringing and Chatham County will rake in the sales tax dollars. Then the property tax will begin to roll in.

Meanwhile, traffic will beat a path across Chapel Hill roads to the Walmart store just a stone’s throw away. More lost business for local merchants.

All this sound familiar? Déjà vu!

First, there was New Hope Commons along with several other commercial developments that went to Durham. The proposed Obey Creek mixed-use complex in Chapel Hill fell through because of town restrictions.

Long in the planning process, projects such as Aydan Court and Charterwood have met similar fates though Charterwood may be revived.

Chapel Hill is hemorrhaging tax dollars and there’s no end in sight.

Let’s hope Town Council gets its act together soon before Chapel Hill becomes the sole enclave of the rich and well-to-do.


Framework for Change

A few weeks back I wrote about how a presentation from Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil had made it crystal clear that services would go down, taxes would go up or we could add to our tax base.  With that in mind I attended a presentation Tuesday evening on “Retail, Housing, and Economic Development in Chapel Hill” by the town’s economic development officer, Dwight Bassett.

The presentation was filled with information on our expensive cost per acre (highest by far in the Triangle at $175,067), our comparative tax base (lowest at 16%) and the market opportunities available to the town over the next several years.
Statistics are not a language in which I’m fluent so hats off to Mr. Bassett for making this comprehensible to me and also for making it interesting.  During the Q&A session following the presentation, someone referenced these comparisons and asked the fair question of (paraphrasing here) “But do we want to look like those other places?”
I found the answer in the drawings shown of the Downtown Framework and Action Plan (go almost to the end of the pdf linked to here).  In it, I saw a walkable, enjoyable, sociable space with greater access than there is now- no matter your preferred mode of transportation.  By creating more cross streets between Franklin and Rosemary, the town maximizes high ticket street frontage for developers (tax base help) while creating an approachable downtown with shorter blocks, more green space and likely drawing more places we all want and need to go. All this and a reduced dependence on residential property taxes?  Sounds good to me.
To go back to that question of whether we have to give up our character in order to be more fiscally strong, I say the Downtown Framework shows us we don’t.  We can maximize what’s available and still feel like the Southern Part of Heaven.
Where does this plan stand?  From a town press release: “The Downtown Framework remains a draft plan as work has continued to refine it and the Town Manager placed a hold on it as issues related to Northside and Pine Knolls were worked on.”
The only negative takeaway from the presentation came during that Q&A session:  Despite two entreaties that each person should ask only one question to allow for as much participation as possible, some people did not comply.  The town has gone to great lengths to make this a participatory process; let’s not stand in each other’s way.
Finally, a big thank you to the 2020 leadership for organizing so many of these educational presentations.  Chapel Hill has everything it needs to write and build a bright future.  
Do you have a vision for Chapel Hill’s future?  Please share it by participating in the 2020 Comprehensive Planning Process.  Thoughts on the post above?  Leave them below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com

Just Ask us Local Folks

I have been mulling my next topic for days… between my previous columns about college football distress locally as compared with the devastating allegations at Penn State, a Congressional Super Committee seemingly as entrenched in its opposition as the NBA and its players, and, of course, this week’s elections.
Well, it seems I can group 2 of the 3 and leave Penn State for others to dissect, discuss and probably be disgusted by.  I can’t really leave it totally alone but I promise to be brief.  If these charges are true, someone tell me how the safety of a child is less important than football?  
Thanks for joining me for that detour of rage and now I’ll return to my usually composed self.  
So, it seems that the anti-tax forces so well-represented in Washington these days didn’t make it to our local party on election day.  Orange County passed a tax increase and so did neighboring Durham.  And most of those who voted are not millionaires.  
So, when a plan for job creation gets shot down because of a less-than-1% tax increase on those at the tippy-top of our economic ladder I search for the disconnect. On one hand we have local communities pitching in to grow jobs and better our schools and on the other we have national politicians speaking for a very small number of people nationally and deciding to NOT ask them to kick in.  
Aren’t we in tough times?  Don’t we need to create jobs, fix our infrastructure, lessen our dependence on traditional energy?  If we could just call all the millionaires and ask that, instead of donating to a PAC or a candidate, they take that same amount and agree to pay it in taxes, we’d be able to pay for President Obama’s American Jobs Act.
I’m far from an economist so I’m not going to attempt to weigh in on the aspects of this particular bill but folks, don’t we need to do SOMETHING?  Isn’t this a decent place to start?  We are stuck, barely moving, with people hurting.  If our community can reach down for that extra quarter cent, why can’t everyone?  Our community voted that the tax increase was needed.  If we got all americans, even the very rich ones, to the polls to vote to pay a bit more to move the economy out of stasis, I bet it would pass.  Don’t you?
Instead we continue with gridlock with Republicans dug in on no additional revenue (taxes) and Democrats not willing to sacrifice on entitlements.  Tell these partisans that small communities are voting to make a difference and they must find a way to meet each other halfway.  
That Super Committee has a November 23rd deadline to agree on a deficit reduction package.  If they can’t do it, maybe we should schedule a special election and decide it ourselves.  After all, if the North Carolina legislature can ask us to vote in May on a constitutional ban on same sex marriage when it’s already illegal, it seems that a referendum on helping the economy should at least be worth a vote.

I know I’ve mixed sales tax with income tax to make my point. But taxes are taxes and I believe asking local folks just might work.  Agree, disagree?  Leave a comment below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com .