Keeping up with Ames

We’re doomed, Melissa Cain, executive director of the library foundation, told council members Monday night, if you don’t vote to expand the library.

And as seven of the nine council members listed their reasons for voting to sell bonds that would put town residents $20.41 million further in debt, I gleaned from their comments that we are, indeed, doomed.

Doomed to become a town that reveres appearances as its No. 1 value.

Doomed to become a citizenry that wants only the wealthiest among its members.

Doomed to become a community that believes only the people who take on the responsibility of raising the next generation should pay for schools.

Doomed to become a village that races to keep up with the Joneses, in the form of Ames, Iowa, and Manhattan, Kansas.

Do we want to be a premier town? was Cain’s rallying cry. And seven council members – Gene Pease, Penny Rich, Ed Harrison, Sally Greene, Mark Kleinschmidt, Jim Ward and Donna Bell – picked up the banner and carried on the charge.

Have you lost your job and your unemployment’s run out? Not our problem, they said.

Have kids in college (where even in a deep recession costs rise as financial aid shrinks) and business is declining? Tough luck for you, they said.

Living on a fixed income with ever-increasing medical costs while insurance companies pare down what they’ll reimburse? We don’t care, they said.

Working for a town that declines to give its employee raises the past two years and expects them to absorb higher medical insurance costs, while its elite council members vote to give themselves benefits for life? So move to Mebane, the seven council members said.

Only council members Laurin Easthom and Matt Czajkowski had the backbone to stand up for their less wealthy constituents and for good fiscal sense by voting to delay putting taxpayers further in debt.

Easthom recommended selling enough bonds now to cover roads and sidewalks and parks and recreation needs, but waiting to see what the economy does before plunging the town into $16.4 million more debt for the library expansion. Last week the town insisted that 140 West Franklin would proceed on schedule with breaking ground in June. This week, town manager Roger Stancil admitted the start date has been pushed back to September. Yet in his budget, he figures in tax revenue from the high-rise as if it would be completed on schedule.

Czajkowski cited the storm clouds gathering on the horizon: The county may change its sales tax distribution, leaving the town in the lurch; council members have ignored the many residents who stated emphatically they could not afford to pay more taxes; council declined to test a library card fee for county residents two years ago that would have tested the impact of that option on revenue.

Taking the town all the way up to its debt ceiling as the number of home foreclosures and unemployment rate increase locally and developments expected to increase town revenue stall, all while expenses – such as the decaying police department building – loom near is a foolish fiscal choice.

But what does that matter if we risk an unfavorable comparison to Ames, Iowa?

Yes, we’re doomed.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Runner

     /  June 8, 2010

    I’m done people.

    The Chapel Hill that Southerrn Living Magazine used to fawn over is long gone. It’s been replaced with a UNC sponsored, and locally encouraged, petrie dish of sociology experiments and government lagresse.

    I will no longer beat my head against the wall on this web site or even care about any public matter facing our local government. I will now retreat into the woodwork and quietly slip away.

  2. Bill

     /  June 8, 2010

    Don’t forget to pay your taxes on time!

  3. You write, “Doomed to become a community that believes only the people who take on the responsibility of raising the next generation should pay for schools.” I can’t parse that. Okay, I can parse it, but I don’t know what you mean.

    As someone becoming more fixed income soon, I sure wish we could do something about the Mark Zimmermans in the community who prevent me from paying some of my property taxes when we sell our house.

  4. Terri Buckner

     /  June 8, 2010

    What do the “Mark Zimmermans in the community” have to do with you paying property taxes, George?

  5. Nancy Oates

     /  June 8, 2010

    George — Donna Bell, in voting for selling the bonds, equated people who don’t want to take on the debt for a new library with people who don’t have children and grumble about having to pay school taxes. I think most people understand that, whether or not you have children, it is in the entire community’s best interest to take care of the next generation, the generation that will be making decisions for the community when we are at the fixed-income stage. A new library would benefit us as a community, and in 2003, when the economy was brighter, I voted for it. But now the economy is different, and I don’t think it’s right to take our debt limit to the max when other major expenses are looming. We’re setting ourselves up to increase our taxes at a time when many people in town, despite what some of the wealthy council members believe, are really worried about meeting their financial responsibilities.

  6. Steve

     /  June 8, 2010

    This is actually the best news I’ve heard in quite some time. Here’s why:

    1. We now have incontrovertible proof that the elected are out of step with the electorate, and to a great degree. This is fertile political ground for putting Republicans on the Council. Matt C., the DINO, is only a baby step. I can’t wait!

    2. Those of us who don’t pay taxes in Chapel Hill but live nearby will benefit more, pro rata, than those who do. Thanks, Chapel Hill!

    3. This action indeed makes living in Chapel Hill more-or-less permanently more costly. Meaning: more wealthy people move in as less wealthy move (or are pushed) out. And, wealthy people have a tendency to tilt Right, politically.

    Probably unwittingly, the Town Council just took another step towards restoring political balance. ‘Progressives’ too soon forget they will one day run out of other people’s money to spend. It may take time, but, eventually, tyrants fall.

  7. Ouch Steve! I happen to think living within ones means is a very liberal concept and though I can understand your trail of logic, I suggest that it is folks who hold with that philosophy who will eventually prevail.

    Kudos to Laurin and Matt for sticking to their guns. The Library is an overwhelming popular community asset so I can also understand the pressure they must have felt to push forward despite the obvious fiscal problems.

    In the end, expanding the Library is a discretionary budget item. So is going forward with the Lot #5 deal. The fact that Lot $$$5 is still on the table and that the bonds got the go ahead says quite a bit about the majority of this Council.

  8. WJ

     /  June 8, 2010

    Is this vote not reflective of how the majority of Chapel Hill voters voted in the Mayor and Council elections? I don’t remember the exact platforms of the all the winning candidates, but my (feeble) recollection is that Matt C was the only (?) one running on fiscal prudence that won. I don’t see how this vote is not directly in step with the voters?

    Besides, according to the recent proposed budget, over the next 5 years it is increased spending in the General Fund (22%, see pg 10) and the Transit Fund (27%, see pg 13) that will lead to an estimated 17.8 cents increase in property taxes (see pg 6). For those of you with $300K valued homes, that would be an increase of $534 per year (ONLY a $1.46 per day, that’s cheap right?)

    Steve: What I have seen of surveys is that households making over $75K were split pretty evenly between McCain and Obama (, with a definite Obama advantage in the over $200K category. Given that quite a few people live off the taxes from others (UNC workers) in the voting public of Chapel Hill, and I would bet Chapel Hill is not going to start tilting conservative in my lifetime.

    Ms. Oates: You wrote “Taking the town all the way up to its debt ceiling..”. Statute wise, Chapel Hill has a total debt limit of around $553M according to page 110 of the proposed budget. If you were referring to a different debt limit, please ignore the preceding.


  9. Amen, Will. This is not the time to be spending money we don’t have. Because the only way we’ll pay for it is with higher taxes. And who exactly has free money in their personal budget to pay for those higher taxes. I was going to buy an annual pass to see movies at the Varsity over the next year, but I suppose I shouldn’t do that until I see my tax bill. That’s the kind of impact this decision has, but this council has never been long on thinking through decisions.

  10. Frank

     /  June 8, 2010

    I’m glad it was passed. Libraries need to stay a high priority in Chapel Hill. It’s one of the things that sets Chapel Hill apart from every other town. I agree with the comments “if you can’t afford it, live in Mebane”. Not every town needs to be el cheap-o. There are plenty of cheap places to live. Those of us who really truly value living in Chapel Hill will continue to pay the bills, and enjoy our time here. Those who don’t think it’s worth it can leave. People screaming for low taxes have many, MANY more options than those of us who value a high level of social services.

    And, as I’ve said earlier, if we’re going to have to borrow money to fund the library anyway, now’s the time to do it. It’s the smart thing to do (financially). Interest rates can’t get any lower than they already are.

  11. Bill

     /  June 8, 2010

    Thanks, Frank- for those who have lived here 50 years and are being driven out by higher taxes, I am sure they appreciate your elitist snobbish opinion.

    Maybe you should offer to help the poor folks to move, it is the liberal thing to do!

  12. Frank, this isn’t about low taxes for low tax sake, this is about spending priorities, fiscal prudence, maintaining a healthy level of diversity within our community and a bit of common human decency as Bill underlined.

    I have met folks that moved here or were born here long ago. They bought modest homes in modest neighborhoods. They gave decades of service to this community – building up and paying for the infrastructure you and I treasure. And their reward, as you put it Frank, is to be shown the door. “Thanks for all the years, but don’t let the door hit you on the way out…”

    On the flip-side, there are the young families I’ve met with one or both parents who work in Chapel Hill but can’t afford to live here. They would like to live in the community they are building on our behalf but for many we’ve already slammed the door in their face. As you put it Frank, “if you’re not rich enough, too damn bad.”

    Maybe Frank we should change Chapel Hill’s name to Chapel Hilton Head in honor of another “great American” community that was happy in displacing their extant culture, happy to import their labor force, happy to gate out folks that don’t have the bucks to make a go of it there.

    Now I know that some folks get all hot-n-bothered when long term residents wind up the old way back machine but Chapel Hill used to be different. When Chapel Hill was creating its rep as a music hotbed, it was no coincidence that artists and musicians could find decent, relatively inexpensive places to live and work. Now we have to import our musicians – pay them to perform on the street corners in some kind of ersatz pantomime of what used to be.

    Northside exists because many who toiled in the bowels of UNC for low wages could get their foot in the door, own a home, raise a family, set roots down. This community was comprised of families that paid their dues. Now there is money to be made and their community is on the chopping block.

    My wife and I got our start in what used to be (and is now to some extent) another blue collar Chapel Hill neighborhood. We lived in the back of a house for over 6 years saving up for a home in Chapel Hill. We managed to buy one in the mid-90’s at a time when it was possible for young middle class families to “bootstrap” themselves into a permanent Chapel Hill home. That day is passing as we push to replace affordable housing like that along Longview with row after row of McMansions or approve luxury condo developments like Hillsborough 425 which is displacing the Townhouse Apts.

    I’ve also know how some folks respond to these changes. They argue people should be happy living in the few, small affordable apartments/condos carved out as a condition of approving the luxury developments. They argue that if you want to live in Chapel Hill and can’t afford a detached home (a horrific abomination!) then you should be satisfied raising your kids in a modern-day rabbit warren.

    They also argue, as you have so eloquently Frank, that some people just aren’t meant to live here – essentially they aren’t good enough or deserving enough of a place in this community (except maybe to come here daily to clean our messes up, fill in the potholes, nurse our children or fight our fires).

  13. Linda Convissor

     /  June 8, 2010

    I confess to not having watched the Council discussion – can someone enlighten me as to the reference to Ames and Manhattan? I just spent three days in Iowa – two of them in Ames and I’m curious as to how we were compared. If I remember right, I drove by the new library in their downtown, but it looked smaller than our existing library. Ames is almost exactly the same population as CH (but w/o a Carrboro) and Iowa State about the same size as UNC but not sure where you’d take the connection beyond that. Their power plant made the Cogen Facility look like the Taj Mahal.

  14. Runner

     /  June 8, 2010


    You post from 10:23pm was probably your best and most heartfelt one I’ve ever read. I wish you the best of luck in you continued fight for practical solutions for Chapel Hill.

  15. Frank

     /  June 9, 2010

    Will, we’re talking about building a larger public library. Public libraries exist so that everybody, of every income level, can have access to information. They’re the great equalizer. Without a robust public library, those poorest members of our community would be the most hurt by not having access to information of all kinds. Right now, everybody in Chapel Hill can take a FREE bus to get to one of the best FREE public libraries in the area. I think that’s pretty darned generous, considering the wealthiest in our community are the least likely to benefit from either the FREE library or the FREE bus system.

    NOT upgrading the library is selfish and short sighted. NOT upgrading the library hurts to poorest, while cutting the tax bills of the wealthiest property owners the most.

    As a town, we can control what we do with our public services. As a town, we can’t control the supply and demand of housing in this area.

    If you come up with some actual, practical suggestions to back your noble sounding speech, I’d love to hear them. Until then, as somebody lucky enough to (barely) be able to afford to own property in town, I’ll happily pay my taxes, and be grateful that I live in Chapel Hill.

  16. I truly don’t understand what is wrong with the library today. It appears to be fully functional as it is. It already supports great usage (highest per capita). The complaints about how we “need” a better one sound like Yogi Berra — nobody goes there anymore because it is too crowded. The new plans include definite luxury items — a gift shop and coffee bar. Those are not “needs”. Finding a new place for the IFC shelter because they are getting kicked out of their existing building is a “need”. Building a police station when it falls down (hopefully before) is a “need”. This library expansion is a desire. And the ability to understand the difference is what I expect from my council members.

    Frank, we already have a “robust library”. My family uses it on a regular basis. Where is the demonstrated “need” for an even better one? Because you can’t have everything you want.

  17. Frank, land use policy IS under the control of the Town. Most major developments brought before Council over the last 6 years have required SUPs. Council has used that leverage to extract concessions – like a %15 affordable housing component (which is actually turned into cash more often than USABLE family-friendly square footage). Land use and tax policy are two of a wide range of ways a community actually does control the availability of housing.

  18. WJ

     /  June 9, 2010

    To Citizen Will: I must echo “Runner”s comment about that being a very good post. Thank you for that.

    Frank: The bus and library are not free. Sure, they are no charge at the point of service, but even if you use a larger font size AND capital letters that won’t change the fact that the drivers, gas, librarians, electricity, etc. all cost money and our collective taxes pay for it.

    Are you saying that the current library is not “robust” cause I think it is a pretty decent library right now? And can you provide any sort of backup how not spending $16M on the library would measurably hurt the poor? If the key consideration is to spend $16M helping the poor, wouldn’t the poor be better off getting free laptops and high speed internet?

    Finally, you mention that you can barely afford to own property now. Then at some point, I imagine this increase in services that come from increased taxes will get too much for even you? Would that be $1000 more in taxes, $5000, $10000, $20000?

  19. Runner

     /  June 9, 2010

    Speaking of spending choices…

    Since the Chapel Hill Government and the University are so generous with their money, there is a small industry growing in Chapel Hill and Orange County offering so-called support for the needy or at-risk population.

    Some of these programs are worthy of support and some are not. The unworthy programs don’t result in measurable benefits for the needy.

    A lot of time, these unworthy programs are just poorly designed experiments that give local students volunteer hour credits or support someone’s resume’ as a community leader.

    I would like to see an accounting of tax money used to support these non-govermental aid programs.

  20. Frank

     /  June 9, 2010

    “The bus and library are not free.”

    I was responding to Will’s suggestion that higher taxes make it harder for the poorest to live here. Taxes are higher for property owners, which doesn’t include much of the middle to lower class in Chapel Hill. Sure, some does trickle down into rent, but we have some really unusually great public services designed to serve the poorer among us. Because the town can’t mandate the real estate market, the best we, as a town can do, is to offer services that make it a comfortable place to live for the less fortunate. The library is a great equalizer for many, many people who don’t have access to computers, the Internet, or any kind of academic resources.

    Handing out computers and Internet connections doesn’t work on a lot of levels, but the most important thing to remember is that a library is much, much more than an Internet connection. The Net is just one tool that a person, if they know what they’re doing, can use to help improve the lives of themselves and their families. It’s certainly not a cure-all, as any educator will tell you.

    “Would that be $1000 more in taxes, $5000, $10000, $20000?”

    Those kinds of numbers aren’t even on my radar. I live very modestly. But, no, I’m not going to shed a tear for somebody who has a five figure tax bill to begin with. They’re already better off than most people. That’s like complaining that it costs too much to buy gas for a Hummer. Hey, if you can afford the Hummer, you can afford the gas.

    Taxes are high-ish in Chapel Hill, but I’m still more than happy to pay them. Libraries, public transportation, and public education isn’t free. Those who live in town who either doesn’t see the benefit from these taxpayer-funded services, or doesn’t care to pay into them for other people to benefit, should pick one of the several thousand other municipalities in NC and leave Chapel Hill to the few of us who do value our local government infrastructure.

    If my property taxes have to go up to pay for the library, well, so be it. I’ll pay it and not bitch about it. I choose to live here. If I don’t like it, I can leave. I don’t, however, feel that we, as a town, have a fiduciary or moral duty to keep taxes at the same rate for any extended period of time while the cost of everything else increases.

  21. Runner

     /  June 9, 2010

    Wow Frank, you arguments are as solid as Orange County’s sales tax revenue.

    Don’t wory your pretty little head about paying more taxes, because you will. This government hasn’t said no to any spending request in 9 years.

    Go take a nice walk through the town operations center and experience this group’s inability to learn need from want.

  22. Bill

     /  June 9, 2010

    Frank’s taxes will eventually go up until (s)he cannot live here any more. Then the shoe will be on the other foot.

    My favorite blunder is “affordable housing”. That, my friends is a real joke.

  23. Nancy Oates

     /  June 15, 2010

    Linda — The reference to Manhattan, Kansas, and Ames, Iowa, was from the staff presenter who compared Chapel Hill to both those towns, which have much larger libraries than Chapel Hill’s.
    WJ — I took my information on the debt ceiling from Roger Stancil who, in his initial budget presentation, admitted the town would not be able to borrow any more money for the next several years if all the bonds were sold.
    Terri — George’s reference to the Mark Zimmermans of the community is that Zimmerman has been vocally opposed to the real estate transfer tax, an idea that was floated a few years ago that would require property owners to pay a tax (designated for schools, as I recall) upon selling their property. Many people called it an “exit tax.” Personally, I liked the idea. If you have to pay more to support the schools, it makes sense to pay it when you have a chunk of money, from the equity in your home, than having to juggle every year to figure out how to pay this year’s tax increase. And it reaps a benefit from those who are in the community only briefly but still long enough to profit from what was at that time a strong real estate market.