New Year’s resolutions

My family won’t let me forget the time I passed up a chance to go to the movies Nancy Oatesso I could observe a Planning Commission meeting instead. Truth be told, the board meeting held greater promise of drama. But I got the message, and one of my New Year’s resolutions is to not put town business before family.

But somebody apparently has to keep close watch on our elected officials and town staff.

It never ceases to amaze me when I watch Town Council meetings how so many curious minds can coast through discussions without asking key questions. To a one, our Town Council members are smart, well-educated and professionally accomplished. Yet far too often those on the dais take what’s presented to them at face value, and when some council members do ask probing questions, their colleagues tend to respond dismissively, sometimes rudely so.

We need all of our council members to hold to the fire the toes of developers and town staff in particular to gather all of the information council needs to ensure that the decisions council makes are in the best interest of the people who live here.

How do the ramifications of one decision affect other decisions? All new development increases traffic, so what can be done, how much will it cost, and how will neighborhoods be affected by new routes drivers create to avoid an expected traffic snarl? Are we choking off access to the town by overdeveloping every entrance (think Obey Creek, Glen Lennox, Ephesus-Fordham and The Edge)? What impact will making room for chain stores and raising rents have on local retailers? Can our existing stormwater system handle the extra runoff? Where will the throngs flocking to our “destination” venues park? How will all of this growth affect housing prices, school overcrowding and taxes?

Town staff, too, need someone nipping at their heels. Too many times we’ve seen Town Council members give a directive to staff or request information, which staff then forget to follow or fill. Or, after council painstakingly hammers out a special use permit, the town manager undercuts council goals by approving modifications that decrease office/retail and parking and increase residential.

It’s a daunting task. So I’ll begin with my other New Year’s resolution: Ask more questions.
– Nancy Oates

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9 Comments

  1. Bonnie

     /  January 5, 2015

    Thanks for writing this Nancy. It’s a problem with the county too, It often seems like the staff is running th e show and many of the commissioners mostly approve their plans and then drum up the money to pay for it.

    Citizens that ask too many questions, risk being marginalzed ( “don’t confuse us with the facts”). It shouldn’t be that difficult to be a citizen,

    Maybe I’m too optimistic but I believe that more people are asking better questions,

  2. David

     /  January 5, 2015

    Chapel Hill residents would be well served if our elected officials followed the example of the late Raleigh City Councilman Thomas Crowder (see link below). If more of our Council members were like Crowder, Nancy wouldn’t need to be so vigilant on our behalf and could spend her time writing about less weighty issues.

    http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/raleighs-visionary-city-councilman-announces-his-impending-departure/Content?oid=4237950

  3. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  January 6, 2015

    The article asks Town Council to hold staff’s and developers’ toes to the fire, when council members tell citizens that it is they who work for town staff.

    It is town staff that took the measure of renaming Planning and Inspections “Development Services,” and senior planners are now called “Development Coordinators.” Mark Kleinschmidt and Roger Stancil opted to make these gestures so as to make the town appear build-friendly, although builders complain that the town takes for more time than anywhere else (and time=money when you have to wait all day for Development Services) to accomplish an inspection. And please note: the Chapel Hill inspection system does not send this information to Orange County which prepares the tax bills for Chapel Hill. Value-adding improvements going back 15 years have often been lost in the inspection system. The town has done a good job convincing citizens that “it must build up the tax base,” but then doesn’t communicate the build-up to the entity that prepares the tax bills, for the Town of CH, and Orange County and CHCCSchool district as well.

    Why is this the case, people?

  4. DOM

     /  January 6, 2015

    Ms. Fulghieri

    “…the Chapel Hill inspection system does not send this information to Orange County which prepares the tax bills for Chapel Hill. Value-adding improvements going back 15 years have often been lost in the inspection system.”

    Wouldn’t this be like Facebook and Google providing peoples’ private data with the CIA? Too much information-sharing between large entities is not healthy for taxpayers and other living creatures.

  5. Nancy

     /  January 6, 2015

    It’s not at all like that, DOM. The only way the county would know about a property improvement in Chapel Hill is if town inspections sent that permit information to the tax assessors in Hillsborough. The county relies on the town for that information. A couple years ago, the county purchased new software and offered to pay the bulk of the price if Chapel Hill would adopt the same software system so that town and county could share property information easily. Chapel Hill decided to get a different system. So the county sends an employee to Chapel Hill every week to manually go through Chapel Hill’s notebook of permits to pull the information for tax assessments. Last year I looked at the county tax records for 3 houses for sale in Northside. None of the 3 had updated renovation information, including a new 5-bedroom house that had replaced a small teardown. The county had it valued as if there were no house on the property.

  6. many

     /  January 7, 2015

    DOM, really?Aren’t you more worried about an NSA Candy Gram? https://nsa.gov1.info/dni/ When did you work for the government?

    Nancy, Deborah
    What has always bothered me is that when ever I have done my own or had work done, the final inspections can take several phone calls and weeks to schedule and complete.

    The general contractor has to schedule separate inspections for each area (plumbing, electrical, site etc.)

    To speed things, one should be able to call a single number and all final inspections for that job should be automatically scheduled on the same or concurrent days. This would reduce the need to issue temporary COs and shorten the inspections process with a minimum effort.

  7. Anita Badrock

     /  January 7, 2015

    Ok,here are a few questions I would like to ask. Does information on proposed capital projects (e.g new buildings, etc or acquisitions(ex: land for parks) include information on expected repairs, maintenance and “carrying costs?” Does the local budget include annual savings to pay for capital improvements or repairs to public assets like parks, buildings, or other infrastructure? Do we have a maintenance schedule/plan and maintenance fund for our buildings like Town Hall, the police station, or the fire stations–things like painting, replacing carpeting or roofs? It seems it would be much easier to save a little each year for these items rather than find the funds needed all at one time in a particular year. It’s a pay as you go system so that current residents/property owners who enjoy and benefit from these assets today help pay to maintain them long term. It seems that this calculation would help our community plan for these expenses so we could keep town assets in good condition AND have the funds available to pay for needed maintenance when it comes due.

    Maybe we do this already and I just haven’t paid attention, but if not, I would like to propose that we do that.

  8. many

     /  January 7, 2015

    Anita, In the previous thread, both Terri and Bonnie seemed to agree that the school maintenance is not a budget line item. I do not know this to be true. It is not in the CapEx budget as a specific line item, nor is there anything set aside for longer term maintenance, but as you observe there is and awful lot that looks like maintenance in there.
    http://www.co.orange.nc.us/finance/documents/capital_plan/2014-19/1419_approved_cip.pdf

    Typically new facilities, expansions etc. are part of CapEx, but new roofs, HVAC repair, asbestos tile removal, window replacement are more maintenance and thus part of an OpEx budget.

    Many times, in a corporate budget expenses structure is arraigned to facilitate tax treatment, but that is not the case with government. Sometimes a certain dollar threshold is set for expenses so as to smooth cash flow…..not sure if this is the case here.

    I agree with you that this should be done much more rigorously and clearly annotated/communicated. Based on the linked document it is pretty well impossible to tell what is going on.

  9. Bonnie

     /  January 7, 2015

    Anita

    I can’t speak for the towns, but the county does not anticipate maintenance for schools. The commissioners argue that the schools don’t ask, the schools argue that they can’t afford it. It’s partly because the county includes capital in its arbitrary target of spending 49% of taxes on schools. Mathematically, capital costs will eat into the percent and schools are systematically underfunded.

    As you suggest, the county should allocate a percent each year for schools. Instead they spend excessively on offices, parks, convenience centers and other items, and use schools to justify tax increases. The maintenance problem is not new.

    If you look at the budgets, you’ll see that the county has included many new projects for the maintenance of the Sportsplex and the county’s own facilities. Personally I’d like to see all the school projects and the county projects in one plan. Its hard to imagine how upgrades to the Sportsplex, Southern Human Services and the Revere Road building are given priority over keeping schools open and In good repair,

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