Bonnie Hauser, the president of Orange County Voice, sheds light on Orange County Commissioners’ budget deliberations. Here’s what she has to say about the commissioners’ season finale:
On Tuesday, the BoCC will approve increased taxes and fees for 2013-14. On top of Chapel Hill’s 2 cent tax increase, the county will add 2 cents for CHCCS and increase a few fees. That’s in addition to the new transit tax and fee and last year’s sales tax increase for schools and economic development. To make the numbers work, including keeping the schools whole, the county dipped into reserves – again. (Chapel Hill did the same). To the commissioners, this is not a tax increase – but it’s clearly a trajectory that’s not sustainable.
The commissioners will formally approve the increases on Tuesday as part of their 1,000-page agenda, the last meeting before summer break. The consent agenda rushes to spend $1.6 million to retrofit geothermal HVAC to the county offices and $1.5 million on a new meeting room for the commissioners. Plus, despite public opposition, a late item on the massive agenda recommends awarding a contract to design a new community center in Cedar Grove. Originally planned as a generous 10,000-square-foot $2 million facility, the project has ballooned to cost $3 million to $5 million – without question or explanation. Rather than wait and clarify the issues and requirements, the county wants to plow ahead. So much for public process and transparency.
To the commissioners’ credit, they did delay an unexpected $8 million project to build yet another county campus at Blackwood farm. Instigated by Commissioner Gordon, the county also is working on a space plan for its campuses in Hillsborough, Chapel Hill and other facilities. (Apparently the meeting room couldn’t wait.)
As the commissioners prepare for summer break, wouldn’t it be better if they kept it simple and made sure loose ends were tied up? Shouldn’t they check in and see whether the county is ready to close the landfill in a couple of weeks? Or take a few minutes to reflect on issues that were raised during weeks of budget deliberations? If they are worried about future taxes, why not ask for the facts so that they can anticipate future critical needs and revenue growth and the progress of the taxpayer’s investment in economic development? Wouldn’t that be more productive than whining about state cuts and future tax increases? Such actions would improve my confidence that fiscal policy was managed – and not a reaction to fabricated political crises.
We spend a lot a time on this blog bantering about policies and outcomes. Is there interest in a real discussion about fiscal sustainability? I’ll start by agreeing that growing and diversifying the tax base will help – but it will take time for the economic development plans to get traction. Economic development directors Dwight Bassett (Chapel Hill) and Steve Brantley (Orange County) are doing a great job – but it’s a big change.
For me, the fiscal hole is too big to grow out of. Our local fiscal cliff is looming in the form of needed police and fire stations, transportation, school building repairs and other essential items. Plus, we still haven’t figured out what to do with our trash. One path to change is a close look at redundancy and costs and new ways of delivering services using technology and cooperation. There are others.
The real challenge is planning for and investing in the future – rather than continuing to showcase outdated ideas, services and policies.
Do you care?
– Bonnie Hauser