CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council is considering a two-cent property tax rate increase to balance next year’s budget. Half of that would go to fund transit, which makes up about 20 percent of the town’s expenditures.

Many on the council seem to support the plan, but at a budget work session on Monday, Matt Czajkowski pushed back against the idea that fare-free transit should be prepaid by property owners.

“Let’s just be real about what the alternatives are here. Can’t go fare-free? There are fare-collecting systems all over the world. Try Europe, “said Czajkowski. “But oh no, we could never do it because it would cost a million dollars and they don’t take quarters any more. There are different ways to do this but we don’t want to talk about about them.”

Ed Harrison said if the system reverts to charging fares, UNC would likely pull its funding, which makes up almost 60 percent of the transit budget.

“The reason we went fare-free is that the student body at UNC voted for that and the university went along with it,” said Harrison. “The statement from the [transit] partners is that if we stopped fare-free, UNC would pull its funding.”

Chapel Hill Transit expects to lose nearly $900,000 in state funding next year, due in part to service reductions made over the past two years to balance the budget.

Interim Director Brian Litchfield said the transit system, which is jointly funded by Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC, will see some new revenue from a vehicle registration fee that the county levied along with the half-cent transit tax, but he said the majority of the tax proceeds are earmarked for light rail, not bus service.

Chapel Hill Transit is in the process of hiring a consultant to evaluate the system’s long-term financial stability, but the council will need to sign off on next year’s budget long before that study is complete.

Gene Pease said he’s frustrated by the situation.

“We wait too damn long to start this planning. It’s been how many years? Twelve years before a long-term financial plan has been put into place?” asked Pease. “Now we would like to have those alternatives to talk about, but we’re at least a year away from that.”

There was one bright spot in Monday’s budget debate, as Town Manager Roger Stancil told the council that the county’s level of funding for the Chapel Hill Public Library would be increasing to an all-time high of $483,000, enough to slightly increase the library’s operating hours.

Currently the library is open 54 hours a week, down from 68 before the expansion. The council has heard from many residents angry with the service gaps, a sentiment echoed by Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

“Four or five hours on a Saturday is nowhere near anything called best practice anywhere,” said Kleinschmidt. “I’m actually embarrassed that those were the hours that we chose to close, on the day that most people don’t work.”

The recommended budget would fund 58 hours of operation, and once Orange County’s contribution is factored in, that number could rise to 60.5.

But Sally Greene pushed fellow council members to come up with the additional money needed to restore the library to its full 68 hour a week schedule.

“My opinion is that we need to close that gap. It is $181,000. We need to find a way to close the gap to give the new director the hours she needs, the hours the community needs, and not undercut her ability to succeed,” said Greene. “We’re talking about setting the hours for the whole next year, not coming back in three months or six months. We’re setting the library’s hours for the year.”

Lee Storrow wasn’t so sure.

“Its hard to feel confident that moving to 68 is the right thing to do, without feeling like that we’re really considering all the options, not just from where we are, jumping right to 68,” said Storrow.

No decisions were made as the council asked staff to return with more detailed scenarios to consider at a work session on Wednesday.
The council is scheduled to formally adopt the 2013-2014 budget next week.