Know the numbers

Orange County’s annual budget for 2014 is around $220 million. Chapel Hill’s is Nancy Oatesabout $95 million. Owasa’s is another $43.5 million. Add those up – $358.5 million, even without Carrboro and Hillsborough – and divide by 365 (the number of days in a year), and you come up with the startling fact that our local governments are spending nearly $1 million a day.

Our local elected leaders have the authority to decide what that money gets spent on. But we, as taxpayers, provide the funds. Like bankers asked to approve and underwrite a loan, taxpayers should understand how our governments are spending our money and why. So we need at least one elected official on each government decision-making board who really understands numbers.

That’s why I’m so tickled to learn that Bonnie Hauser has announced her candidacy for Orange County commissioner. Bonnie has an MBA and was a partner in one of the top consulting firms in the world. She also has spent the past decade helping a variety of community organizations in the county enhance their success – and she has done it without pay.

Matt Czajkowski provides financial insight to Town Council. A CFO with an MBA, he knows the questions to ask when town staff strew about terms like “synthetic TIF” and “two-thirds bonds” and “debt capacity.” When handed a 324-page budget proposal (as Chapel Hill’s was for 2013-14), he knows what pages to scrutinize and which to fan through.

Hauser, at PricewaterhouseCoopers, specialized in cost restructuring, working with organizations to simplify their operations. To do that, she had to learn the business and its customers, values and goals. She had to ask hard questions and work with decision-makers to overcome obstacles and find solutions, which often involved a culture change.

Upon retiring early to Orange County 10 years ago, Hauser has committed herself to working for the betterment of the community. She cut her teeth on UNC’s airport and learned her way around our governments on Rogers Road, OWASA logging and a host of other complex and contentious issues. When fresh ideas get caught in stale rhetoric, she has had the patience to work through differences. And she loves data.

She proved her mettle recently when the county Emergency Management Services proposed spending millions to build a dozen EMS substations to improve response times to emergencies. Hauser brought commissioners and fire chiefs together to talk about the problem. Even the School of Government weighed in. The work group scrapped the building plans in favor of investing in technology and communications, and moved ambulances out of parking lots and into fire stations throughout the county. It sounds simple, but it was profound, because our towns and county rarely share anything.

The filing period for county commissioner begins Feb. 10 and closes at noon on Feb. 28. Commissioners will be elected in the May 6 primary. Hauser is running against Barry Jacobs for the At-Large seat. Mia Burroughs is running for the District 1 seat; Mark Marcopolis is running in District 2.
– Nancy Oates

Money, money, money

I read over the agenda for tonight’s Town Council meeting and feltNancy Oates the way I often feel when I pick up the mail this time of year – everyone wants my money.

Over the past few months, council has heard about some wonderful plans to make our town a better place. And now it comes down to what we can afford and how we’re going to pay for it. The agenda for Monday night’s meeting ranges from proposed expenditures (the Parks and Greenways plan and solar development projects on municipal land) to obligations we’ve committed to (curbside recycling contract) and bills we’ve already racked up (Town Hall renovations).

And though it’s not on the agenda, bear in mind we have not yet nailed down how we will meet our moral obligation of about $4 million to provide water and sewer service to the Rogers Road neighborhood.

During the agenda item about financing the renovation of Town Hall and infrastructure and other improvements to the Ephesus Church-Fordham Road area, expect to keep your Investopedia page open. You’ll undoubtedly hear about TIFs (Tax Increment Financing) and synthetic TIFs, a funding scheme Ken Pennoyer used in Durham to pay for the large parking decks near the American Tobacco Complex.

I’ve been reading up on these alternative funding sources to see whether I could use any of them to convince my banker to lend me money for small-scale investment property, but I suspect these options aren’t available to commoners. Our role, as taxpayers, is simply to provide the financial backing, in the form of higher taxes, should the revenue not come in as bountifully as hoped.

It’s a familiar feeling.
– Nancy Oates

Be our guest

Business investors have figured it out before some of the rest of us: Chapel Hill is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live here.

When Town Council meets next on Wednesday (the regular Monday night meeting has been shifted due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday), members will consider a new upscale hotel proposed for a 1.7-acre parcel next to The Ballet School, on1609 E. Franklin St. The developer, HPW Properties, has proposed a five-story, 110-bed hotel.

In October, council approved a 112-room hotel on the edge of Southern Village. And in recent years we’ve welcomed the arrival of Aloft, near 54 East; The Franklin Hotel downtown; The Siena, a little farther east on Franklin. And all of those are in addition to The Sheraton, The Carolina Inn, Courtyard Marriott, Chapel Hill University Inn, Days Inn, Quality Inn and Residence Inn.

HPW Properties assured the Community Design Commission that a demand for another upscale hotel existed in Chapel Hill. If that’s the case, what brings people to Chapel Hill to spend the night? Sporting events on campus and the occasional wedding, but other than that?

And more important, are those hotel guests riding our buses and using our library for free?
– Nancy Oates

Who’s the boss?

A while back, someone I know made a disparaging comment to a Town Council member about town manager Roger Stancil. The council member responded sharply, “Don’t talk about my boss that way.”

Pause while you think about what’s wrong with that statement.

Not long ago, I gossiped to another council member about the other council member’s defense of Stancil. I waited for that council member to do a double take. Nothing.

Here’s what I was waiting for: Recognition that Town Council is the town manager’s boss, not the other way around, and by extension, council has authority over staff who report to Stancil.

All this came to mind as I read a listserv discussion of the staff recommendation to grant carte blanche approval to Obey Creek before hearing the advisory committee’s report and recommendation. Obey Creek comes back before council tonight for a vote on how to proceed. The committee would like more impact data (traffic, stormwater and area economy) and a draft concept plan. Council itself voted last March that the final step in Phase 1 required an approved concept plan, but the developer won’t budge on any changes to the original plan that sparked widespread community uproar. (The success of the plan requires heavy customer traffic, yet the site is limited by a traffic bottleneck – a bridge that can’t be widened.)

Likely no one in the town Planning Department has to get to and from work via the James Taylor Bridge, so what do they care?

Why I care is because of the town’s double-speak. CH2020 principals have been used to justify form-based zoning (see: “carte blanche development”), yet conveniently ignores the CH2020 goal of community input. The Compass advisory committee has put in many, many hours over the past six months or so, all without compensation, to make this community more viable and desirable. Obey Creek developer Roger Perry is a heck of a charming guy. But town staff members swooning over his charisma to the point they dismiss community expertise is no way to run a town.

Somebody needs to remember who’s boss. Let’s hope Town Council members step up and show the balanced leadership we believed they could deliver when we elected them.
– Nancy Oates

Tenant cap could tap down rents

UNC student Kylee Wooten has the proper mindset to succeed as a first-year associate in a big-city law firm: a willing slave mentality that all but welcomes abuse. I gleaned this from an essay she wrote pleading for the town to raise the occupancy cap on the number of unrelated people who can live together in a house. Limiting the number of tenants to four per household, as town ordinance does, poses a hardship on students she says.

“If the price of rent cannot fall,” she writes, “then the maximum occupancy should rise.”

But the price of rent can fall, and the town enforcing its ordinance ultimately puts pressure on landlords to lower rents.

Some Town Council members – Donna Bell and George Cianciolo, among them – believe that building more apartment complexes will lower rents. But I challenge you to find a desirable city where that philosophy works. Sally Greene understands that “it’s more complicated than that,” as she replied to Cianciolo after he’d posited his theory at a candidates forum last fall.

Taxes and development costs factor in. But the single most important factor in determining price is the depth and breadth of the pool of tenants willing to pay high rents. Shrink that pool, and rents will decrease as well.

Landlords claim that students will pay about $800 per bedroom, and that’s how they set the rent on their properties. Students approach the transaction by looking at the price of the rental unit and calculating how many roommates they need to squeeze in to make the rent affordable.

Recently the town has stepped up enforcement of its no-more-than-four ordinance, fining landlords $100 per day per infraction, plus another $500 per day per violation of each state law that kicks in when more than five unrelated tenants share a unit. And the town is making property owners tear down makeshift walls that subdivide rooms into a greater number of private sleeping spaces.

The town’s motivation is to protect students’ safety, said police attorney Matt Sullivan, the interim executive director of planning and sustainability during the current reorganization of the town’s Planning and Inspections departments. Many of the overstuffed houses don’t have enough smoke alarms, exit lighting or sufficient egress from illegal bedrooms, which could spell tragedy if a fire breaks out. The crackdown also protects neighborhoods from excessive trash, cars and loud parties that create a public nuisance.

A side effect of enforcing tenant limits is market pressure to lower rents. A landlord renting a four-bedroom house for $3,200 a month ($800 a bedroom) used to be able to fill it with eight students willing to pay $400 each. But as landlord and tenants realize that the four-tenant maximum will be enforced, landlords will have to compete for the smaller number of students willing to pay $800 apiece. Rather than let their properties stay empty while waiting for a tenant with deep pockets, landlords will lower rents, unhappily, of course, but some money is better than none, in the long run.

As I follow my daughter’s search for off-campus housing, I’ve been taken aback by the pervasiveness of landlords taking advantage of students. I appreciate the town’s enforcement efforts to discourage untenable living condition and to promote affordable rentals.
– Nancy Oates

We did what this year?

What a ride 2013 turned out to be. Yet despite the ups and downs, we moved forward.

We began the year with Town Council members choosing Sally Greene over 10 other well-qualified and diverse candidates to fill the seat Penny Rich vacated a couple months before. In the November election this year, Greene was elected by vox populi, along with incumbent Ed Harrison and two new faces – George Cianciolo and Maria Palmer – after Lauren Easthom and Gene Pease declined to re-up.

In February, 123 West Franklin redevelopment of University Square won approval and brokered itself a bargain in payment-in-lieu for affordable housing. Originally, developer Cousins Properties offered a $60,000 payment-in-lieu for its mixed-use project expected to cost $80 million to $100 million to build. Many on council thought that figure was ridiculously low, and when then-Chancellor Holden Thorp suggested $250,000, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt jumped at it. Jim Ward, who had been thinking $1 million, was not pleased, but still voted for the deal. The next morning, commercial tenants began scouting out other places in town to move to; the owners of Butternut Squash have filed a lawsuit, alleging that they had been promised the opportunity to return after the redevelopment, but the developers reneged after the café owners had turned down at least one offer to sell.

Council approved the 194-unit, 600-bed Bicycle Apartments in the Franklin-Rosemary Historic District at the end of February. Immediately the developers parked the Bicycle and changed its name to The Lux at Central Park, marketing the complex as an upscale party venue for students.

In March, homeowners in the Extraterritorial Jurisdiction bought their way into Chapel Hill’s fire district to reduce their homeowner’s insurance premiums, having rejected the opportunity to be annexed into the town proper. That same month, council voted to charge for parking in park-and-ride lots.

In April, the renovated library reopened. Downtown, condo owners began moving into 140 West.

The skies opened up the last day of June and flooded out many low-income neighborhoods, and Town Hall along with them. The Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing buckled down to work seriously. During renovations later in the fall, town staff proposed an upgrade to Town Hall facilities that would make life easier for developers to get their building permits.

Council ended the year with a flurry of votes: reconfiguring and slimming down its advisory boards; agreeing to sell more than $2 million of cemetery land to Raleigh affordable housing developer DHIC for $100 in return for building affordable rental apartments; and approving a plan for Central West that incorporates almost everything the Steering Committee asked for.

With the decks more or less cleared, we have much to look forward to in 2014, beginning with whether or when to approve a development agreement for Obey Creek and the unfolding of the Ephesus-Fordham small area plan.

Happy New Year!
– Nancy Oates

Annual lights tour

I never got around to putting up our Christmas lights this year, save for a lighted tree that opens like an umbrella. You know the kind – the Who’s in Whoville have them. This year I had time to either decorate the house or shop for presents, and I believe my family will appreciate that I gave the latter higher priority. But I know I’m not the only one who thrills at discovering a new lights display or treks to see traditional favorites. So I’m left with a niggling feeling of not having done my part.

Fortunately, many of my neighbors picked up my slack, so the first stop of our annual holiday lights tour was my own neighborhood, Old Forest Creek, off Piney Mountain Road. The entrance to the neighborhood is the best – a tiered extravaganza that makes the challenging terrain of some of our steep yards worth it this time of year. Continue around the circle, and peek into some of the cul-de-sacs, and you’ll be rewarded with blinking, flashing, multicolored and classic white lights. When it comes to seasonal decorating, our neighborhood expresses a wide range of tastes and styles.

Next, we cruised through the neighborhoods of council members who live in the north end of town and observed that they, too, relied on their neighbors for festivity. Jim Ward’s Ironwoods neighborhood boasts a particularly lively display on Ironwoods Drive near Bolton Place. Maria Palmer’s North Forest Hills neighborhood had precious few lights, though the drive along Piney Mountain Road to get there offers some splashes of color.

George Cianciolo’s Sweeten Creek neighborhood took the prize. A house at the corner of Sweeten Creek and Amesbury could pose for a calendar with its classic white lights and Moravian star. Several homes in the neighborhood echo the white lights theme: two at the end of the Toynbee and Landing cul-de-sacs are iced in white lights, and a house on the corner of Silver Glade and Silver Creek drips with white icicles. A home on Silver Creek near Palmyra must belong to a fly-fisherman, judging from the ice-blue lights strung all the way through the branches of a very tall tree.

Traveling along Sweeten Creek toward Sunrise Road, we slowed to take in the colors in the 3800 block. And just before reaching Sunrise, we stopped at my favorite, a tree exploding in ruby-red lights. I look forward to it every year and appreciate all Chapel Hillians who make the effort to give the rest of us such rich gifts this time of year.

Happy holidays to all.
– Nancy Oates

Random consequences

More than a thousand students waited outside the Dean Dome in a cold, steady rain for hours Saturday afternoon for a chance to watch the UNC-Kentucky men’s basketball game. But their sacrifice was for naught due to a new practice called “randomization” that the Dean Dome ticket office put into play recently. The intent is to discourage students from camping out overnight to get tickets to popular games – no Krzyzewskiville antics to distract students from exams at Carolina. The unintended consequence was to alienate a devoted fan base, not to mention give young people a painful dose of the unfairness of life.

Here’s how the ticket office’s randomization works: The office announces a time before the game when one of its representatives will draw a number; fans wanting a spot in the free (well, prepaid by student activity fees) student section have to be in line before that time, and everyone is given a numbered wristband. Once the random number is drawn, everyone with a lower number has to go to the end of the line.

On Saturday, hundreds of students stood shivering in the rain by 2 p.m. for the randomization that was to take place at 2:30. Instead, the number – 468 – wasn’t draw until 3:45, at which time the first 467 students had to go to the end of the line. They continued waiting in the rain, which was pounding at times, for the gates to open. None of the first 467 fans got in, because all the spots had been filled by students who had not waited in line as long.

The students weren’t big donors – they weren’t donors at all, given that what they paid for the chance to see the game was mandatory, part of their tuition bill. While they waited in line outside the 27-year-old building that people with plenty of money want to tear down to replace with an arena that has room for luxury boxes for the really big-money guys, students learned the lesson that if they were inclined to pursue a career passion that would not pay truckloads of money, they would spend the rest of their lives at the back of some line or other, taking their chances on whether their effort would pay off.

That’s a lesson most of us would prefer our children not have to learn – or the citizens of our town, for that matter. With town advisory boards, CH2020, steering committees, task forces and, most recently, the Obey Creek Compass Committee, we want citizens to donate their time, creativity and strongest brainpower to shape our town to be the best it can be. We don’t want Town Council or town staff to dismiss that effort and intellect and send it to the back of the line, perhaps never even let it inside.

Obey Creek Compass Committee meets for the last time tonight, 6:30 p.m. at the library, to finalize its recommendations. Let’s hope council gets to hear them and staff gives them full consideration.
– Nancy Oates

Parade of new businesses

The Holiday Parade marches down Franklin Street this Saturday, starting at 10 a.m. in front of the post office. Here’s a list of businesses along the parade route that are new in the past year, and some that have closed:

Top This! opened in the former Jack Sprat Café spot. Insomnia Cookies opened where Clothes Hound had been. A Waffle House opened where YoFrutt used to be.

Tomato Jake’s left after less than a year in the space that had been Franklin Street Pizza & Pasta for years. Korchipi, a Korean fusion restaurant, took over the spot and within a few months was bought out by another Korean restaurateur, who changed the name to Chopsticks & More.

Pepper’s Pizza closed after 26 years. Owner Pepper Harvey said shorter lunch breaks on campus and new dining options offered by Aramark on campus ate into his business.

Carolina Pride closed. CVS Drugstore opened in the former Bank of America space.

Businesses began fleeing University Square once the Town Council approved the redevelopment of the lot to be known as 123 West Franklin. Glee Kids, William Travis Jewelry, Cynthia’s Tailor Shop and Chapel Hill Barber Shop all scouted out places at University Mall. Franklin Street Yoga moved to The Courtyard. The Eye Care Center moved across the street to 140 West. Ken’s Quickie Mart and Butternut Squash Café closed, as did 35 Chinese restaurant. Time Out got its lease extended until February. The fate of Peacock Alley, Fine Feathers and Kidzu Children’s Museum is up in the air.

140 West opened and began booking retail tenants. Lime Fresh Mexican Grill and Gigi’s Cupcakes were the first to open.

Tom Cat’s II massage parlor closed. Next door, Trilussa la Trattoria closed, too (we don’t believe there was a connection), and Mozzarella took over the tiny dining space.

Mellow Mushroom opened, with a new outdoor wall mural by Michael Brown, particularly satisfying given that Lantern owner Andrea Reusing painted over a Michael Brown mural on the side of her restaurant across the street, turning it into a solid black wall when she expanded into the space next door. Black fit better with the new décor, she said.

Kildaire’s Irish Pub closed and was succeeded by Fitzgerald’s Irish Pub.

Kipos Greek Taverna and Kalamaki Greek Street Food, the two latest George Bakatsias eateries, opened in The Courtyard.

The Chocolate Door closed; Al’s Burger Shack moved into the space.

Hampton Inn & Suites opened in Carrboro and welcomed its first retail tenant in ground-floor storefront space: Cameron Gallery, formerly of U Mall. Nice Price Books closed. A 500-space parking deck opened. Fireplace Editions moved to Chapel Hill, off Eubanks Road.

Plan to shop your way along the route. Local merchants appreciate your business.
– Nancy Oates

An end, and a new beginning

Compromise, a concept not usually synonymous with Town Council, ruled the day during the approval of a plan for Central West. Council members did so many things right during last Tuesday’s meeting that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Town staff set the stage by reconfiguring the room to allow increased occupancy of 130; unfortunately the bleak weather and perhaps a defeatist attitude kept some community members away. And council members raised the 2-minute time limit per community member comment to 3 minutes, though most commenters already had only a 2-minute speech prepared. Dr. Arthur Finn voiced concerns that council members had already made up their minds about a plan for Central West well before the meeting began and were only humoring people as they had in previous development issues in which council discussion didn’t reflect that community comment had been absorbed.

Perhaps that pricked the conscience of council members, or information revealed in the Central West Steering Committee report did. In any case, what followed was the most fulsome discussion by council members I’ve seen in a long time.

And it ended in council approving a compromise version of a plan for Central West redevelopment that melded the steering committee recommendation with key points of the alternative plan proposed by community members.

Gene Pease, at his last public hearing before his term ends, was taken aback that the Central West redevelopment would be revenue neutral. The whole point of redevelopment was to bring in more tax revenue to relieve the pressure on residential property taxpayers. To ask town residents to make quality-of-life sacrifices without benefit of property tax relief missed the point, he said in so many words. Jim Ward agreed, going so far as to say that council wouldn’t be interested in reviewing any redevelopment plans that weren’t revenue positive.

Many on council expressed concern about deleterious effects of increased traffic, stormwater damage and stress on the schools without any revenue benefit. Ed Harrison suggested incorporating the Planning Board’s recommendations into the steering committee plan, thereby requiring studies for traffic and stormwater runoff, preserving the tree canopy requirements and providing a justification for redevelopment. And that’s what council approved, unanimously.

What really did my heart good was the quality of the discussion. There were at times strong disagreement among council members, but I didn’t hear a single snide remark, derisive snort or dismissive interruption. Newly elected council members Maria Palmer and George Cianciolo were in the audience. I hope they took notice.
– Nancy Oates