Here’s what rural community advocate Bonnie Hauser has to say about Town Council’s proposal to annex some neighborhoods on the southern edge of town:
After a year of deliberation, the County’s Emergency Services Workgroup recommended forming a new fire service district in the area just south of town off Mount Carmel Church Road. The workgroup recommended that Chapel Hill provide fire protection in exchange for a fire tax. Had council members said yes, the town would have enjoyed a windfall of nearly $300,000 in tax revenue for services that it now provides for free. Rather than take the money and run, Town Council decided to explore annexation – using fire protection as the carrot.
Of course, annexation raises nearly a million dollars in town taxes – but there are offsetting costs for services and infrastructure for a community that has shown no interest in them. These neighborhoods handle their own sidewalks, streetlights and garbage collection and are quite happy with the responsive service from the county sheriff. They already pay for Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools. The annexation discussion wasn’t new. It’s just that the citizens weren’t interested. Maybe they didn’t see much benefit for the 49.5 cent tax increase.
Sound complicated? It is, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s what’s going on.
The area in question is in the ETJ and part of a fire protection district known as the Southern Triangle. Today, fire protection service is provided by the North Chatham fire department with mutual aid from Chapel Hill. Mutual aid is a win-win where Chapel Hill and Chatham fire departments help each other out in the event of fire. Today, all the taxes go to North Chatham, even though in the northern part of the fire district, the Chapel Hill Fire Department is usually the first on the scene.
Except for the tax equity, the system worked fine until the N.C. Department of Insurance decided that the neighbors could no longer get credit for Chapel Hill’s response. In this northern area of the fire district, fire insurance premiums doubled or tripled, and some policies were cancelled.
So after a year of discussion among county leaders, the fire chiefs from Chapel Hill and North Chatham, and members of the community, the county asked council to create a new fire service district for the northern end of the district. Chapel Hill would control the tax rate.
There were no questions when town staff proposed a fire tax of 15 cents per $100 of property valuation, even though it’s double the fire tax paid to North Chatham. It works because the tax increase is offset by a reduction in homeowner’s insurance premiums. It’s a true win-win for the town, North Chatham, the county and residents. An unusual case of turf-free decision-making – until council members got their hands on it.
Nothing’s happened yet – and maybe council will see the light. After all, annexation is no longer their right, and it’s going to be difficult to make the case to the citizens. Bigger may be better, but after costs, maybe not so much. Plus, it’s all a distraction from pressing issues, including 2020, economic development and affordable housing. Let’s not forget the public service benefit of fixing fire protection and insurance for everyone – including the town.
Hopefully, council will quickly decide to take the money and run. Isn’t that better than holding the neighbors hostage?
– Bonnie Hauser