June 2008

There has been much in the news lately about the Carrboro Branch Library, a branch of the Hyconeechee Regional Library System. The Orange County Board of Commissioners approved a budget for 2008-09 that resulted in a reduction of money for temporary personnel and thus a cutback of hours at the Carrboro Branch Library as well as other branches in Orange County.

After fervent outcry from patrons and other interested parties, county staff identified money to cover the cost of personnel, and the original times of operation were reinstated at the library branches (see HERE for a story about a proposed cutback of hours at the Carrboro Branch Library, and HERE for an editorial by Board of Aldermen members Mark Chilton and Dan Coleman).

What had been made apparent these past few weeks is that Carrboro residents are passionate about their library. Persons living in southern Orange County and particularly Carrboro have been lobbying the BOCC for some time for a free-standing library in Carrboro. The financial challenges of such a venture are daunting, to say the least, and are somewhat complicated by the fact that Chapel Hill has a library (built and funded almost entirely by the town, and open to Orange County residents) that sits about a mile from the border of Carrboro.

It is my understanding that the BOCC has allocated 2.7 million in their future Capital Investment Plan for developing a library in Carrboro. This recent publicity about the library will hopefully serve as a catalyst for public officials and citizens to strategize about the financial challenges of a free-standing library in Carrboro, and how we can work toward ultimately reaching this goal, given the forecast of the county and town financial pictures for the years to come.

I have been supporting and advocating for a proposed Carrboro campaign regulation bill as of late. The BOA unanimously presented this to the legislative delegation last year, and we did so again this year. The Senate approved it last summer during the long session, and the bill has been considered by the House this week. I understand the bill may be modified slightly from the Senate version.

Passage of this bill would establish enabling legislation, which would then allow the Board to have a hearing, receive public input, and then consider whether or how to adopt any campaign regulation ordinance. Having this bill passed is the first step toward ultimately crafting an ordinance.

The bill will give Carrboro the authority to limit campaign contributions. Our bill is modeled after a Chapel Hill bill that has been successfully implemented over the past few election cycles. Chapel Hill limits individual contributions to a maximum of $250. This has proved to be a workable number for their elections. Note that the candidate and his/her family members are exempt from such regulations. Public input at the hearing would help us determine what we would do in Carrboro.

I have received inquiries regarding any minimum amount we would consider setting for disclosure. State law now requires the disclosure of all donors over $50 or more, and we think that is adequate. I have also been asked why the bill only applies to in-state donors (as it currently reads, it does not apply to out-of-state donors). The answer is that we did want to include out-of-state donors, and we had it as part of our original bill. Someone at the General Assembly took it out; I was told that it was believed to be in conflict with federal election law. Representative Verla Insko is working to see if this can be resolved definitively so that we can have the bill apply to all donors.

As many of you know, I voluntarily limited my contributions to $100 during my race, and did not accept any PAC money. Several other area candidates did or do so as well. Carrboro races to date have all been fairly low-cost affairs, and this act is a way to memorialize what the practice has been. This is a progressive campaign finance policy, much like the public financing programs at the state level for the appellate judicial races, and much like reform that is needed at the national level.

We passed our 2008-2009 town budget, approximately $18.5 million, at our June 3rd meeting.

Our town property tax rate increased by 3.26 cents, and our tax rate is now 68.63% of $100 assessed value. Town Manager Steve Stewart informed us that (at the current tax rate) town property tax revenue for the next year was projected to only rise 2%, and sales tax revenue was expected to increase just 1%. Inflation is now at 4.1%, and so these figures make for a challenging budget year.

Our tax rate reflects our need to continue to work to increase our commercial tax base. It also reflects our need to continue to be conservative about any decisions we make that result in an increase in the budget. We were presented with a budget this year that not only handled increases that we cannot control (health insurance and gasoline costs, for
example) but one that that also cut or saved in enough areas that we were able to fund through an expansion of the budget two additional police officers, six flushless urinals at the Century Center (the financial payback of which will be realized in six years, and then savings will result), and additional money for the Orange Community Housing and Land Trust. Our CIP initiatives (sidewalks, greenways, street resurfacing, Weaver Street reconstruction, etc.) are also progressing. Otherwise, our budget remained the same as the previous year.

I should note with regard to the additional money for the OCHLT that I voted for an increase of $4,000, not $8,000 (the $8,000 increase was approved 4-3 by the board). I voted this way because the town manager’s recommendation of $4,000 was in line percentage-wise with what neighboring jurisdictions were budgeting, and additionally, although I wholeheartedly support the work of the OCHLT, it is hard for me to justify almost any increase to the budget during these tough financial times.

It looks as though our citizens will be hit heavily in the pocket this upcoming year with Orange County (which includes the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system) raising its tax rate, and the Orange Water and Sewer Authority raising its fees. The reality is that these financial decisions affect the overall tax and financial burden on our citizens more than decisions that we on the BOA make, because they are a much greater piece of the pie.

As such, just as we carefully review and consider ways to be smart with our budget, we must renew our effort to collaborate and brainstorm and work with Orange County, the school board and OWASA, with the goal of making our area a place where we can all continue to afford to live.