Fix schools now, or later?

I stopped by the Orange County Commissioners retreat Friday afternoon to hear howNancy Oates commissioners planned to prioritize and pay for expenses on their wish list. As the discussion about whether to put a $125 million bond referendum on the ballot versus what’s called “pay-as-you-go” unfolded, I realized some commissioners took the “retreat” literally.

The county has two ways of paying for big-ticket items: issue a bond, which is like an option to borrow, or allowing the board of commissioners to use its power to shift around priorities and raise taxes if it looks like it won’t have enough money to pay its bills.

Each method has pros and cons. Both require a tax increase. The interest rate on a bond can be locked in, and the length of time to repay it is longer than if the board of commissioners borrowed money without a bond. A longer timeline reduces the pressure on the county to come up with the money to make its annual debt payments, because the payments are lower, but the total interest paid is more. Think of a 30- vs. 15-year mortgage.

Pay-as-you-go enables commissioners to reprioritize expenses and gives them more flexibility on how they will spend their money, unlike a bond, which has to be spent only on what the voters approved. Commissioners get the money faster with pay-as-you-go because they don’t have to wait for voter approval. The interest rate on money borrowed via pay-as-you-go is negligibly higher, about $1,000 per million borrowed, but commissioners can pick and choose what to spend on and may not have to borrow as much. Less debt burden eases the pressure on annual budgets.

All commissioners agreed that spending money on school maintenance is top priority. The state has cut funding for schools, and SAPFO (a law that requires more schools be built as the population of school-age children increases) meant that money was shifted to adding capacity and requests for maintenance were turned down. The county budget does not have school maintenance built into its budget the way it has maintenance for county office buildings covered.

So now we have old schools with mold problems, HVAC systems that break down and, in one instance, flooding problems that made the gym unusable. The sooner the problems are fixed the better. Clearly, pay-as-you-go would be the most expedient route.

But one by one, all commissioners except board chair Earl McKee leaned toward a bond. If voters pass a bond referendum, commissioners can respond to complaints of the resulting tax hike by saying, “We didn’t raise taxes; the voters raised taxes.” Hence, the “retreat” — from accountability, common sense and doing what’s best for our children. A bond would delay school maintenance until after the 2016 election (state law won’t allow bonds on the ballot in odd-year elections). Ironically, the discussion took place in a newly refurbished meeting room that cost taxpayers $1.5 million, money that could have been spent on school repairs.

I left the meeting with renewed respect for McKee. His moral compass is leading in the right direction. If only he can convince his colleagues to follow.
– Nancy Oates

What does quality of life mean to you?

Terri Buckner writes:

In 2013, a couple of European psychologists reviewed the literature in an attempt to define the term “quality of life.” Their conclusion was that it “turn[s] out to be an ambiguous and elusive concept.”

In an editorial in the Chapel Hill News, Travis Crayton and Molly DeMarco claimed “Many of us might have originally chosen to live in Chapel Hill/Carrboro because of the high quality of life, exemplified by a vibrant student life, arts and music scene, and abundance of unique, local businesses.”

CHALT members have staked out their desire to “Protect the quality of life in Chapel Hill’s residential neighborhoods, where we live and raise our children.”

Social science researchers learn in introductory methodology courses to define their terms up front. So I am asking you to share your thoughts. What does ‘quality of life’ mean to you? We know there isn’t a “right” answer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come to a local consensus. If we can construct a shared definition, perhaps it will make conversations about solutions more inclusive, or at least less divisive.

I am posting this same request on OrangePolitics, a blog that targets a different demographic. My plan is to take the contributions and compose a definition and share it in my next Chapel Hill News column. If you are willing to let me use your name (for those who post with their real names) in that article, please include the “You may use my name” at the end of your first post in the thread.
–Terri Buckner

CHALT makes connections

After my children left home, my husband and I thought of downsizing to Nancy OatesHillsborough, where taxes are a little bit lower. But the historic homes were too big, the small homes in a gentrifying section of town needed too much work, and the new homes in the subdivisions north of town left us uninspired.

Knowing that the most successful moves are to someplace not from someplace, we stayed put.

As I sat in traffic last week, first on U.S. 70 into Hillsborough, then on Churton Street, gratitude for our decision almost overrode the frustration of wasting so much time idling my engine as traffic barely moved through light cycle after light cycle. Hillsborough has grown steadily in the past decade, and town leaders apparently didn’t give serious thought to how all those extra cars and trucks on roads that can’t be widened would impinge on residents’ quality of life.

Those of us sensitive to unintended consequences and willing to learn from the mistakes of other towns seem to find one another. Many of us recently organized ourselves into a formal group to share what we’ve observed and learned. We call ourselves Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, or CHALT (admittedly, we don’t have a branding expert among our number), and we held our first educational event on Sunday afternoon at the library.

The response overwhelmed us. We ran out of parking spaces, surveys and Rice Krispies Treats. We had exhibits on five main areas that affect the quality of life of our town: traffic and transit, affordable housing, the environment (including stormwater management), a fiscal analysis of new development projects, and town planning and design. People filled out surveys rating which commercial and residential projects contributed the most to the town and weighed in on what budget items they would reduce spending on. We had forms for people to register to vote, but everyone who stopped by was already a registered voter.

The exhibits sparked many interesting conversations. People could see how each area impacted all the others. When the town adds something in one area, what does it cost the other areas in terms of increased risk of flooding, for instance, or higher property taxes or longer waits for a bus? If the town spends more on servicing new developments, what cuts will it make in the budget, or where will it generate more revenue? What can council members do to shape new developments to ensure that the people who live here benefit and that a development’s impact is worth the cost to taxpayers?

CHALT’s next event will be held 3-5 p.m. on Feb. 19, at the library in Room A. CHALT will host a talk by an affordable housing expert on March 18, 5-7 p.m., at the library. All CHALT programs are free and open to the public.

Learn more at CHALT.org, where you also can sign up to receive a free subscription to our newsletter, emailed direct to your computer.
– Nancy Oates

The price of doing right

Art Pope tried to buy his way into the university and failed. So Pope, the DickNancy Oates Cheney of the McCrory administration, took another tack: He pressed the N.C. General Assembly, which has appointed several Republican cronies to the UNC System Board of Governors, to push out the system president, a man revered for his integrity, wisdom and even-handedness and a Democrat, to make room for Pope to replace him with a puppet who will do Pope’s bidding.

Do I know any of this for a fact? Of course not. But by this time next year, I feel confident I’ll be able to say I called it.

When I heard the news Friday that President Ross had been given a year to clean out his desk and move on, I felt as though darkness had won. When what’s best for the political elite trumps what’s best for the common good, all seems lost.

I fear we’re heading down that path in the development decisions town leaders are making. Residents I talk with resent Town Council and town manager decisions that build housing to attract only wealthy tenants in town temporarily while middle class and working class residents are squeezed out. Residential development costs taxpayers; residential property taxes go up, so even residents who have no mortgage face ever-increasing property taxes.

Town manager Roger Stancil and town economic development officer Dwight Bassett seem to believe growth can continue ad infinitum, that there is no inflection point at which growth switches from being beneficial to becoming detrimental. Such a point exists, but a majority of council members act as though it doesn’t. They ignore the bottom 99 percent on the wealth continuum in favor of the top 1 percent who will benefit from rampant growth.

Who benefits from the private equity deals of Village Plaza Apartments, Timber Hollow and Obey Creek? The investors who put up the money initially, flip the deal and scurry away with their profits, leaving ordinary residents to subsidize those investors through increased property taxes to pay for infrastructure, energy-efficiency rebates, services and increased debt service.

Tom Ross, as president, made some decisions that displeased the Board of Governors, such as restructuring Elizabeth City State University, which has a predominantly non-white student body, to enable it to remain open though the BOG wanted it closed. Ross led with wisdom and heart, doing what was best for society as a whole. Perhaps that cost him his job. But he leaves with the respect of the majority of the people of North Carolina.

Will a majority of council members have the courage to do what’s right for their constituents, even if it means they fall out of favor with the developers who give so generously to their campaigns?
– Nancy Oates

Roj Mahal

On Thursday, town manager Roger Stancil stamped his approval to Village Plaza Nancy OatesApartments, thus setting in motion what one wag refers to as “Roj Mahal.”

Historically, Town Council has had the authority to approve or deny development. But with form-based code rezoning in the Ephesus-Fordham area, Stancil has the final say of what goes up.

Council members who voted for the form-based code Stancil recommended perhaps are beginning to see how poorly it serves the town’s interest, and they may rue that they did not insist on incentives in line with town residents’ values when they had the chance. Density bonuses could have been used to encourage affordable housing and energy efficiency. Instead, Stancil has put forth that council approve paying rebates to developers who build to energy-efficiency standards.

The financials for Ephesus-Fordham seem to be falling short, too. The town borrowed $10 million through a Synthetic Tax Increment Financing deal, putting up Town Hall as collateral. The $10 million would be spent on renovations to Town Hall and infrastructure to mitigate the extra traffic and stormwater runoff that development in Ephesus-Fordham would bring. The money was to be repaid through the additional property tax revenue that would come in from the increased value of property in Ephesus-Fordham.

But a couple days before Stancil approved Village Plaza Apartments, council was informed that the assessed value of the project originally expected to be $54 million had dropped to $45 million. So, the expected tax revenue to repay the loan plummets by nearly 20 percent in this initial project, and we still have to pay out rebates if the developer follows energy-efficiency standards. And we won’t get any affordable housing out of the deal.

Town Council, in approving the Ephesus-Fordham rezoning, had hoped to get more office/retail space that would be revenue positive for the town (cost less in services than comes in through property tax). But what it’s getting in Ephesus-Fordham and several other places in town is only revenue-negative residential construction.

Village Plaza Apartments: 95 percent residential. The Graduate: 100 percent residential. A proposal for Central West: 100 percent residential. The Edge: at least 75 percent residential. Carolina Square, which council thought would be half office/retail and half residential: 62 percent residential after Stancil approved an increase in residential and the developer took advantage of a loophole in the town’s Land Use Management Ordinance that allows building less than approved, in this case, less office/retail.

Council members need to get as incensed about this as their constituents are. Council has the authority to re-craft form-based code to make it work for the town before developers apply to build other projects. And council members need to look over Stancil’s shoulder to make sure he does not undercut their intentions.
– Nancy Oates

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

Parks ahead? Slow down

So many Orange County commissioners may show up for a tour of potential park Nancy Oatessites on Millhouse Road and Twin Creeks on New Year’s Eve that the photo op has been deemed a special commissioners’ meeting. If a majority of commissioners attend an event, state law considers it an official meeting and must give the public notice.

Scheduling the tour before the year changes over, and coming on the heels of the announcement of $150,000 allocated for a soft opening for Blackwood Farm Park, a 152-acre parcel off New Hope Church Road between N.C. 86 and I-40, makes the tour feel almost like a deadline or at least a line drawn in the sand.

The request for the tour apparently came from some town advisory board members who wanted to see what land the county already owned and had designated for parks. The Millhouse Road parcels are near the proposed waste transfer station and where developers have applied for a special use permit to build the mixed-use subdivision of The Edge.

I was one of a few dozen people who sent a letter to county commissioners last month asking that they delay approving the outdated master plan for parks due to the more pressing need of repairing schools. The commissioners approved the plan, but County Commissioners Vice Chair Bernadette Pelissier assured us that the approval did not commit the county to spending the money as outlined in the plan, and that public input would be solicited before any money would be spent. The county has no serious money budgeted for parks on Millhouse Road or Twin Creeks for at least four more years.

While $150,000 won’t go far toward the big-ticket repairs the schools need, I was hoping for some reassurance that falling-down schools won’t be used as hostages for a bond referendum.

The county must wait until an even-year election, 2016, before asking voters to approve a bond referendum that would allow commissioners to borrow upwards of $100 million to spend as they see fit and that taxpayers would have to repay. I fear that commissioners won’t begin repairing schools now because adding “school repairs” to the reasons for wanting to borrow money will make the bond referendum hard for voters to turn down. Kind of like photos of sad-eyed, raggedy-dressed children that charities use on their solicitation materials.

The decades-old parks plan needs updating to reflect residents’ interest in including bikeways, in partnering with OWASA to make use of the thousands of acres it owns that could be used for parks, and in communicating with towns and other counties to find out what type of recreation spaces are missing. Careful planning could ensure that we aren’t duplicating services. And that will leave more money for school repairs sooner.

The tour starts at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 31, at the former Julia Blackwood House, 6823 Millhouse Road. The event is free and open to the public, without reservation.
– Nancy Oates

Burned by Burns?

Such generosity we Orange County taxpayers show. Why, just look at the salary Nancy Oatesand benefits package we are paying County School Superintendent Del Burns — an annual rate of nearly $300,000. Add up his base pay, health coverage, a monthly car allowance of $250 and another $50 a month toward his cell phone, and we are paying Burns $24,621 a month. That generous, some might say exorbitant, pay is for working only three-quarters time. His contract grants him five paid vacation days every month.

Burns is not the highest-paid county schools superintendent in North Carolina. But those who receive comparable pay oversee school systems with three to eight times the number of students in Orange County. And his peers likely work full time.

What makes Burns worth a compensation package that equals the salary of the president of the United States? According to county school board chair Steve Halkiotis: “He has brought a level of professionalism in our operations and systems that was much needed. … He has rejuvenated the staff.”

Sounds like a basic part of the job description to me.

Certainly teachers, who make in the $30,000 to $60,000 range, need some shoring up after the dissing they got by the General Assembly and governor during this past election year. Will seeing the riches showered on their boss have a trickle-down effect on their morale?

Orange County has extra money in its pockets this year, due to a combination of higher sales tax revenue from the recovering economy and higher property taxes that come from valuations made before the real estate market crashed. But that doesn’t mean we should spend like drunken sailors.

The Orange County schools have some serious problems of failing buildings and failing students. We need to give careful consideration to how to spend to maximize the benefit to the community. Paying someone to stay in a job he doesn’t want does not seem the right path.

Burns’ contract is for five months only. Apparently he was so ready to leave the job before the end of the school year that his devotion had to be bought. An employee who is only there for the money likely is not fully engaged. The county would have been better off appointing an interim superintendent who really wants the job.
– Nancy Oates

Urban renewal

Don heard that a store in Burlington sold Cheerwine with real sugar, not Nancy Oateshigh-fructose corn syrup, and always one to encourage a healthy lifestyle, I went with him to search. I’d never been to Burlington beyond the outlet stores that used to flourish off the interstate until Tanger Mall lured them away. As we drove past the empty shopping centers toward downtown where the big-box stores and apartment complexes squeezed out the modest neighborhoods of this former mill town, I thought, “This could be Chapel Hill in 30 years.”

Burlington’s town council surely didn’t intentionally approve away any charm the town might have had. Elected officials likely did what our Town Council members are doing: approve projects that bring in more property tax revenue than currently exists for the site, without thought to how the development works with the community now and in the future.

Years ago, the people who lived in Burlington worked in Burlington. Though the mills closed, outlet stores remained, and residents found work in retail. But once Tanger siphoned off the outlet stores and Alamance Center drew the national chains, Burlington retail clerks had to commute out of town to work. Sales tax revenue dropped along with property tax revenue, and Burlington had to take what commercial development it could get.

A healthy town needs to gear development for the people who work there. Chapel Hill is lucky that the town’s main employers — the state-run university and the state-run hospital — are unlikely to go out of business. Still, I have yet to hear a Chapel Hill council member ask who will live in the spate of luxury apartment buildings it has approved recently.

Some will draw students now renting in Durham. Cram enough students in a two- or three-bedroom apartment renting for about $2,000 a month, and it becomes affordable. But who are these mythical “professional” singles and couples we hear about clamoring to rent in Chapel Hill?

Crunch the numbers: To pay $1,800 to $2,400 a month in rent, the tenant must make $65,000 to $85,000 a year. That salary range might fit a tenure-track professor who plans to put down roots and likely wants to own a home, or a full professor in Arts & Sciences who already owns a home and sees renting as a waste of money, or a senior nurse or administrator who may have a family and won’t give up a house in Mebane to stuff the spouse and children in an apartment just to ease the commute.

The developer of The Edge mentioned recruiting a grocery store, an odd choice given that there is a mega-grocery store less than a quarter-mile away, yet that same developer won’t consider a grocery store at 123 West Franklin (not after the SUP was granted, anyway).

Developers don’t seem to be thinking about what would serve the community. All the more important that council members have a vision and shape development they can be proud of long after they’ve retired out of town.
– Nancy Oates

Council must govern

Form-based code — it’s everywhere in Chapel Hill these days. First, Town Nancy OatesCouncil approved it for 190 acres in the Ephesus-Fordham area. Currently, Northwood Ravin is trying to get the same liberties offered by form-based code, though it hasn’t used the highly charged term, in its proposed mixed-use development The Edge, at the corner of Eubanks Road and N.C. 86. And in between, town manager Roger Stancil slipped form-based code benefits past council’s notice by allowing Northwood Ravin to convert 40,000 square feet of commercial space at 123 West Franklin into residential apartments.

Not only is Stancil turning revenue-positive space into revenue-negative — commercial property generally yields more in property tax revenue to the town that it costs to provide services, whereas residential property costs more in services than it pays in taxes — but he gave his approval without giving Town Council a chance to weigh in.

Northwood Ravin reportedly asked for the office/retail to be reclassified as multifamily residential space because of less than expected pre-leasing interest. Tepid interest in renting office/retail space signals low demand. So why not entice prospective tenants by lowering the rent?

Isn’t that the “market force” theory we’ve been hearing from Dwight Bassett, the town’s economic development officer, and Aaron Nelson, head of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, anytime a council member presses for affordable housing amidst the deluge of applications for luxury apartments? Build more apartments and the oversupply will temper demand, which in turn will push down rents, Bassett and Nelson say. But when a perceived oversupply of office/commercial space arises, Stancil’s response is to shift the burden to taxpayers to protect the developer’s profit.

The economic environment hasn’t changed since council approved 123 West. But the municipal regulatory environment has. In approving form-based code, council “gave away the store,” as Jim Ward said, by giving up inducements for developers to contribute to affordable housing and good stewardship of environmental resources.

At the Nov. 24 council meeting, Stancil’s staff presented a plan to incentivize developers to build green and improve energy efficiency. Matt Czajkowski pointed out that not only were the rebates the town would pay developers coming from the revenue the town had planned to use to repay the bond, but developers would have provided all of those environment-friendly things free in exchange for greater density had the town written those requirements into the form-based code in the first place.

And now East West Partners perhaps wants a piece of that deal for its building in Ephesus-Fordham. East West has twice delayed the next step in the process, maybe to qualify for the town’s energy-efficiency rebate.

Town Council has the authority to rein in Stancil’s cowboy antics. And council members have the smarts and the professional expertise to recognize when they’re getting snookered and taxpayers are being taken advantage of. We elected them to do the hard work of protecting the interests of the community. It’s time for them to do so.
– Nancy Oates