Generous to a fault

Someone needs to cut up Town Council’s credit card.

In recent weeks, our new town manager has been educating council on various aspects of the budget. In our work sessions, he has set the expectation that we will need to authorize a tax increase to cover the cost of all the things we want to provide to residents. Voters already approved a tax increase for a $10 million bond to be used to increase the amount of affordable housing in town. For years, we’ve saved money by patching potholes instead of repaving streets, and the wear is beginning to show. We need to pay for new buses to replace those wearing out and breaking down. And the town manager would like to include a pay raise for town employees.

On top of that, we need to pay for a new municipal services center, deal with the coal ash on the site of the current police station and add another layer to the Wallace Parking Deck on E. Rosemary Street.

So when council was asked to consider contributing to the capital campaigns of various nonprofits — $125,000 in all — I figured the proposal would be tabled for a year. No other municipality makes capital campaign contributions, and with good reason. Towns are not philanthropic organizations.

I was taken aback to see several council members giving a thumbs-up to this idea.

An organization that gives out large grants has a bevy of professional fundraisers, a communications and marketing staff and a long list of deep-pocket donors to provide the source of the money disbursed.

A town has only its beleaguered taxpayers.

Council members routinely bemoan how expensive it is to live in Chapel Hill. But I wonder whether council members (other than myself) have the “lived experience” of sticking to a tight budget personally out of necessity.

We frequently hear from organizations who make financial requests from the town frame their asks as “for the price of a couple of lattes a month, …” perhaps unaware of the number of residents who don’t have room in their budget for gourmet beverages because for the cost of a latte they could prepare dinner for a family of four. (Ask me for my recipes.)

When we talk about wanting Chapel Hill to be “a place for everyone,” we need to remember those in modest income brackets who this past year saw their income taxes go up thousands of dollars to pay for the tax cuts that their wealthier counterparts enjoyed. (Not that I’m bitter; just looking for transparency.)

Though we are well-meaning, we on Town Council have maxed out the discretionary funds of the middle class. When nonprofits look to us for money for their big-ticket items, we could instead give them a list of foundations and grant providers who have the resources our taxpayers can’t provide.

— Nancy Oates

Parents aim to teach board a lesson

To celebrate National Professional Social Work Month this month, a large metropolitan hospital showed its appreciation for its overworked social workers by inviting them to participate in a blood drive organized in their honor.

Rather than treating them to lunch or even a cake, one social worker noted, the hospital “asked us to give our own blood.”

Let’s not give any ideas to the ardent parents out for blood who this past week demanded a recall election for the chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board and two other school board members because the parents disagreed with the way the three voted on an issue.

The school system’s administration had proposed transitioning Glenwood Elementary School to a Mandarin dual-language magnet school. Leading up to the vote last fall, board members Pat Heinrich, whose daughter attends the Mandarin program, and James Barrett advised parents supporting the transition how to be effective in their lobbying efforts. Parents supporting the traditional track cried foul. Though the two were cleared of any ethics violations, tensions remained on the board and among some parents.

At a school board work session in January, Samuels did not call for a vote to support a transparency proposition. The board traditionally votes only at formal meetings.

Samuels, Barrett and Heinrich comprised three of the four votes in favor of the MDL program when it was approved 4-3 in September.

In her resignation letter, Samuels called the accusations “baseless and without foundation,” and said she was stepping down because she had “no desire to be a part of anything that takes the focus away from our students.”

The recall referendum, should the petition get signatures of 10% of registered voters in the district, within 30 days, seems vindictive, given that all three board members are up for re-election in the fall. Barrett had previously announced he would not run again in order to pursue the state superintendent seat. A yes-or-no referendum would cost taxpayers a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Such burn-at-the stake political tactics common at the national level since Donald Trump ran for office have trickled down to the local level, and they are no less noisome here. This could have a chilling effect on good people willing to commit to public service.

The hours are long, and the pay is low for those who hold local elected office. Taking a principled stance against sacred cows invites vicious tweets, whisper campaigns and character assassinations. Last week, angry parents paid for recall campaign signs and placed them along public roads, until they learned of the fines for putting a campaign sign in the public right-of-way earlier than 30 days before early voting opens.

Local politics has reached a new low. The whole recall initiative reeks of white privilege and lacks class. If you would like to put an end to this misguided effort, sign the online petition at:

Stop the bloodletting.

— Nancy Oates

Words matter

For our rehearsal dinner, my husband-to-be and I wanted to serve a carrot cake from a restaurant that was special to us. The restaurant owner gave our contact information to the woman who baked the cakes. The next day her husband called and explained that his wife was an opera singer and baked the cakes on the side. She was preparing to go on tour, so she wouldn’t be able to make our cake, “unless it was an emergency,” he said.

We contemplated what might constitute a carrot cake emergency, and figured we didn’t qualify.

That carrot cake emergency came to mind when I read the proposed Guiding Statements that would inform the Future Land Use Map. No. 8 reads in part: “The Town should preserve and maintain Chapel Hill’s attractive appearance and where necessary, create the quality of design and development the Town desires …”

Where might it not be necessary to boost the quality of design and development? And who decides? Have we just given the nod to the Pretty Police to determine what passes muster and, for those places that don’t, which get extra help?

The brightest red flag came from a sentence slipped into No. 2A: “The town should encourage … development of duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units in some existing single-family neighborhoods.”

If the town were to promote tearing down single-family houses and replacing them with multi-family buildings, homeowners would have a hard time finding buyers.

For most of us who own the place we live, our home is the biggest investment we’ll ever make, and the largest asset in our portfolio. Buying a home is a long-term investment; people expect to stay in it for several years. In Chapel Hill, people buy when their children enter school, and often stay through graduation or beyond.

And when they buy a house, the buy into a community. Would people be willing to pay top dollar for a house if they knew the town intended for the neighborhood to be dismantled, house by house?

Similarly, the town touted securing designation of a large tract of land as an Opportunity Zone, which would give federal tax breaks to commercial investors. Unfortunately, that land is one of the largest middle-class neighborhoods in town and the epitome of a walkable community. The modest single-family houses are within walking distance of two schools, the library, a coffee shop, drugstore, mall, post office and park. Oh, and buses run along the entire perimeter.

Town staff contend that the Opportunity Zone is really just the perimeter. But unless that is made clear in its promotion, expect resale prices of those houses to drop.

Words matter. One person’s opportunity is another’s lost real estate appreciation. Much more dire than a carrot cake emergency.

— Nancy Oates

Ask the neighbors

The road to redevelopment is paved with community meetings, as residents in the Rogers Road area found out, and residents on the southern edge of the Greene Tract wished they’d found out.

At last week’s Town Council meeting, we received an update on staff’s plans to create a zoning overlay for several parcels of land east of Rogers Road and west of the Greene Tract. The sewer line being laid along Rogers Road will make the land attractive to developers. The overlay would define what that redevelopment would look like. For instance: Which sections would be residential, and how dense, and if any parts are to be commercial, what intensity of business activity? Residents have been meeting regularly for months with town staff and a consultant to work through some options.

Residents listed traffic as their No. 1 concern. They could see duplexes and triplexes, but nixed apartment buildings. Home-based businesses were fine, but no destination retail. They wanted to preserve the “village” ambience. No need for any wide streets that would turn the neighborhood into a cut-through. Residents who spoke were clear and passionate about their vision.

Immediately after that, staff asked council to approve a conceptual master plan for the development of 60 acres owned by Orange County and another 104 jointly owned by the county, Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Although council has seen different density plans at Assembly of Governments meetings in recent months, we haven’t had a chance to discuss them, either jointly or separately within our own municipalities.

Most importantly, the public hasn’t had a chance to weigh in.

The Greene Tract is landlocked, except for Purefoy Road leading out from its western edge that goes through the Rogers Road neighborhood to connect to Rogers Road. The conceptual plan on the table has 45 acres of apartment buildings with access only through Rogers Road, and a school along the southern edge that would require seizing private property by eminent domain to build a road to serve it.

Other issues besides the lack of vehicular access have not had a public airing. As density increases, as it will in the Rogers Road overlay, open green space becomes more important to quality of life. The conceptual plan included 4 acres for a park, but a playground and picnic benches don’t have the restorative power of a walk through the woods.

Council approved combining the various plots to make it one parcel jointly owned by all three governments. Next step: Staff will set up some public meetings at which the community can weigh in on what should be done with the land.

— Nancy Oates

When helping hinders

In a recent episode of the TV show The Good Doctor, the main character, an autistic surgeon, wants to minister to his friend who is undergoing chemo. The surgeon tries reading a novel aloud, pushing electrolyte juice, taking his friend’s vitals. The friend, sick and exhausted, tells the surgeon to leave. The rebuffed surgeon shouts, “I’m trying to help you, and you’re not being a compliant patient!”

I wish every nonprofit volunteer, employee or board member would absorb that scene and ponder why we want to help — and what inadvertent burden we place on those we are intent on helping.

Imagine having to live your life relying on the gifts others want to give. Some gifts come with a power imbalance: What the recipient needs or wants is completely the giver’s choice whether to share. Does the recipient feel pressured to show gratitude and make the giver feel good? Or to change his or her behavior to meet the giver’s expectations?

What if the gift is not a good fit, such as building a subsidized apartment building on the edge of town, even though the prospective tenants would prefer to live in a mobile home park in the center of town or in a micro-unit downtown or own their own home?

Instead of gifts that proscribe how someone must live, why not create opportunities that level the playing field?

The original mission of Community Home Trust did just that. Moderate-income folks who had steady income to qualify for a mortgage could buy a house, townhouse or condo at a below-market price in exchange for accepting below-market appreciation, so that the home could stay permanently affordable.

They got a much nicer home than they could afford on the open market, and when they sold, they reaped the equity. CHT says that on average, its homeowners receive $12,000 to $15,000 when they sell, enough for a down payment on a modest house on the open market. They have the opportunity to build wealth through homeownership, just as the rest of us with solid finances do.

Recently some CHT board members proposed shifting toward more subsidized rentals for the low-income. (A couple of years ago, CHT bought an apartment complex in Carrboro that was going belly up and rents those units to people who have housing vouchers. And CHT plans to partner with two other nonprofits to dip a toe into the master leasing business model.)

While many nonprofits in town serve low-income residents, CHT is the only nonprofit serving the moderate-income demographic. Aspiring homeowners earning 60% to 115% of the Area Median Income would be shut out of the Chapel Hill real estate market if not for CHT.

In the TV show, the tension resolved when the surgeon stopped trying to do what made him feel better and simply sat with his friend, which took the pressure off.

The lesson for us? Stop trying to make ourselves feel better at the expense of those who are vulnerable. Sometimes simply creating opportunities that level the playing field is the best help.

— Nancy Oates

Repairing the breach

Did you read the Rev. William J. Barber II’s recent editorial in The Washington Post? If not, take time to read it now — — and you can skip the rest of my blog post. I will simply add underscoring and exclamation points to some of the main points in Barber’s eloquent piece.

Barber takes up the topic of men currently in elected office who have done stupid and hurtful things in the past, such as appearing in black face at fraternity parties, and what they can do to atone for their behavior, now that they know better.

Many people who define themselves as liberals want the men to resign. We certainly don’t want anyone to misconstrue them as role models. But Barber asks: How would it help to erase them from public view and replace them with members of a political party that works to establish policies of white supremacy?

When revelations surface that Democrats have fallen short of the ideals of their party, even when they were young and rash as most of us were, we hesitate to let their behavior go with only mild admonishment. I can see the rationale of people who argue that Democrats should take the high road and boot them out, even though Republicans who have behaved abominably are still installed in higher office — think Bret Kavanaugh and Donald Trump.

Taking the high road would make us feel good about ourselves. But it wouldn’t right the systemic wrongs that led those men in their younger years to think that mocking people of color was funny.

Those once clueless teenagers are now in positions of power. They have the ability to make restitution and use their office to change society for the better. Rather than scapegoating them and removing them from office, hold them accountable to the people most harmed by their actions, Barber says. Use their authority to change the policies and practices that have tamped down people of color, immigrants, women and other marginalized people.

It’s always easier to take umbrage and sign a petition than it is to walk with someone willing to make real change. But if we want to move forward as a society, we must seize the opportunity to work with someone’s remorse and use that repentance to build a better world. That’s meaningful restitution.

— Nancy Oates

Mortgaging Our Transit Future

By Bonnie Hauser

I’m fascinated by the enthusiastic support that many of our elected officials have for Durham Orange Light Rail (DOLRT). County leaders have already committed nearly $2 billion of local sales taxes and fees to the $3.3 billion project and are preparing to commit more. Do they understand the growing risks and concerns surrounding the project, which will burden their constituents for decades?

DOLRT is the last remnant of a 20-year-old plan to connect the Triangle using light rail. The other light rail segments were abandoned years ago. The current plan has regional connections via commuter rail and high-speed bus corridors, but since DOLRT ties up our funds for decades, they’re essentially unfunded.

The latest problems came when Duke and Durham businesses revealed concerns that they’ve been discussing with GoTriangle for years. GoTriangle responded by taking the project underground with a tunnel and underground station along Pettigrew Street. That added unexpected costs and risk, on top of the funding gap of $88 million left for private investors to fill.

Rather than figure this out, a few Durham and Orange elected officials have doubled down. They are justifying exploding DOLRT costs with exaggerated claims about revenue from transit-oriented development (TOD), and ignoring critics who fear they are mortgaging the city’s future. The exaggerations are a convenient distraction from rising costs, declining ridership, slower trains and GoTriangle’s own reports that DOLRT won’t improve congestion or emissions.

While DOLRT economics are crumbling, funding gaps are increasing for Chapel Hill Transit and Orange Public Transit. Critical bus corridors are not funded. There’s not even enough money to provide demand services for our growing senior population. We need to fill these service gaps if we are serious about public transit.

Most recently, in a secret meeting, GoTriangle along with some Durham and Orange officials discussed ways to fill a possible $500+ million gap in new costs for the project. That includes $260 million to cover the new Pettigrew Street tunnel, project contingency and shortfalls/delays in securing private financing. On top of that, the FTA may ask GoTriangle for a plan to access 10% of the project costs to cover unforeseen cost overruns. That’s $250 million more.

GoTriangle needs to fill these funding gaps by April 30 or lose $190 million of state funding. It looks like Orange and Durham taxpayers will be asked to ante up even more money for DOLRT.

Last summer Orange County commissioners asserted that they wouldn’t spend more than $149.5 million for DOLRT, plus their share of interest. Will they keep that promise? What about the debt and operating costs, which are not capped and present additional risks to Orange County? It’s complicated — hopefully they’ll engage independent counsel from Davenport, the firm that’s helped decipher the numbers in the past.

This is not the first time we’ve been in a DOLRT crisis. In 2017, the project changed suddenly and drastically, at great expense. The latest round of issues could have been avoided had GoTriangle been forthcoming about the situation with Duke and Durham business owners. We’re now relying on our county commissioners to stick to their guns, and not risk our schools, services and local economy for a project that has been out of control for some time. They might even use this opportunity to expand transportation services that we truly need.

We’ll know more on February 19 when GoTriangle presents the next version of the DOLRT plan to the Orange County Commissioners.

Bonnie Hauser is a leader in a Durham-Orange Coalition, Affordable Transit for All, which is seeking regional transportation for the Triangle.

Operating at a loss

The old joke goes that a naïve business owner admitted he lost money on each product sale, but said, “I make up for it in volume.”

Chapel Hill town staff are familiar with that business model, and after the Town Council retreat this past weekend, we are, too. We learned that for the past couple of years, town revenue has increased at a rate of 1.7% while town expenses have risen at a rate of 3.4%. To pay our bills, we have had to dip into savings.

We can’t keep that up. Over the next few months, council and staff will work together to craft a budget that enables us to live within our means. We can do that by bringing more money in or by cutting back on what we spend.

In theory, if we increase our tax base, we will have more money to spend on operations and capital expenses such as new fire stations, parks and police headquarters, for instance. Some people — often developers applying for a rezoning to be able to build a luxury apartment building in a neighborhood of single-family houses — say that increasing density and bringing more people to live in a tight space will result in more property tax revenue coming in.

But they gloss over the increase in what the town has to spend to take care of those extra people. We need more buses to transport them, along with more mechanics and drivers, and more money to repair the damage to streets from the stress of more cars, buses, and sanitation and delivery trucks. We need more police officers, firefighters, sanitation staff and camp counselors. We need more recreation space and, as buildings get taller, special fire equipment.

This has played out in town over the past couple of years. Revenue expected in the Blue Hill district has come in at a slower pace than projected. The only new development in that area has been apartments. Town councils have approved some 6,000 apartments in the past few years, and coincidentally, as they are opening up, town operating expenses have outpaced revenue.

We can begin to rebalance the equation by recruiting new businesses. Offices, hotels and stores pay a higher property tax rate than residential, and bring in additional revenue through sales tax and occupancy tax.

We may need to scale back our wish list of capital projects, such as buying a theater or building more parking decks. We may need to look for additional revenue by soliciting more advertising on buses and bus shelters, or increasing various fees.

Town staff are motivated to rebalance our financial situation. After our retreat, council members seem to be, too.

— Nancy Oates

Act Now

If Chancellor Carol Folt needed a swan song, she got it Sunday night at the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Dinner.

Folt, who had long spoken up about her desire to relocate Silent Sam but early on had been tentative about acting on it, had recently come into her own, right before our eyes. Last week, she announced simultaneously that she planned to retire after graduation in May and that it was within her purview to remove the base of the Confederate statue. That night, under cover of construction workers digging trenches for underground cable, she brought in heavy equipment and a crew who whisked away all remaining traces of Silent Sam.

By morning, a grounds crew was filling in the hole and laying sod. A surprised Board of Governors took umbrage and gave her two weeks’ notice.

At a dinner celebrating King’s legacy of simple actions that had profound impact, Folt was something of a hero. As she walked to the lectern, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. In her short remarks, she didn’t mention removing the vestiges of the statue that had caused pain particularly to many African-Americans. But the audience recognized that her actions, done without fanfare though she must have known it would cost her her job, took a moral courage that she had been reluctant to tap into previously.

All of the speakers at the dinner inspired the crowd in one way or another to go forth and do the right thing. Their own lives served as testament. Honorees included UNC’s former vice chancellor of student affairs Winston Crisp, whose social justice initiatives would fill up the page; and Adam Stein, who, with Julius Chambers and others formed the first integrated law firm in the South.

Sonny Kelly performed a moving soliloquy from his show The Talk, which he will showcase at the Historic Playmakers Theater on campus Feb. 14-17, Reginald Hildebrand, a retired professor of African-American studies and history, delivered a passionate and insightful keynote address.

Folt will have other opportunities ahead of her. We do, too. All of us can find occasions to do the right thing, to speak up, to stand firm, to say yes to a more equitable world by saying no to injustice. We can do it now, long before our own swan song.

— Nancy Oates

Flooding and the FLUM

At our Jan. 9 work session, Town Council took up the topic of the Future Land Use Map. Council must approve the FLUM before the Land Use Management Ordinance can be rewritten. Toward the end of the evening, Alisa Duffey Rogers, hired by the town to lead the LUMO rewrite, cajoled us into a game. She had meticulously cut out dozens of tiny pictures of buildings and asked us to stick them on maps of the six corridors of town that staff had determined were ripe for redevelopment.

Those areas are: 1) North MLK Jr. Boulevard, from Homestead Road to north of Carraway Village; 2) South MLK, from Homestead Road to Rosemary Street; 3) North 15-501, from the single-family homes south of Estes Drive to I-40; 4) Downtown, Franklin and Rosemary streets from Henderson Street to Carrboro; 5) N.C. 54 from Fordham Boulevard east to the Durham County border; and 6) two nodes on South 15-501, one just north of Fordham Boulevard and S. Columbia Street, and the other the Southern Village Park-n-Ride.

And we treated it like a game. For 20 minutes we joked and talked and wandered from map to map, sticking our little building stamps and green stars (parks) and red dots (objections) willy-nilly.

Then to my surprise, I saw photos of the completed maps in our Town Council packet as material for a presentation on the FLUM.

Rogers has done an outstanding job of reaching out to the community, collecting some 1,600 comments from residents and others who work, shop and play in town about how they want to see the town grow. To see our game elevated to the level of input as or more important than community feedback was disconcerting.

A petition that will come before us at our Jan. 16 meeting underscores why.

The petition comes from homeowners in the Briarcliff and Ridgefield neighborhoods that in recent years have regularly endured flooding from new construction upstream.

The folks in those neighborhoods are in a bind. FEMA won’t buy any home valued over $250,000. Even if a homeowner were willing to accept $250,000 for a home with a higher tax value, FEMA can’t buy it for below market rate. Homeowners must clean up after every flood to prevent mold from taking root. Flood insurance, as expensive as it is, does not cover health-care treatment for chronic mold exposure.

When we played our game, we didn’t take into consideration topography or traffic or the pressure development would put on creeks that flow through neighborhoods.

We can’t shrug off the impact of flooding and traffic on people who have invested a good portion of their wealth in our town — individual homeowners. Planning for growth is not a game.

— Nancy Oates