OP Live Candidate Forum: County Commissioners

Good evening. I’m really looking forward to this. Hope you are.Tonight we have several candidates for commissioner with us.If you’re not a candidate or a political junkie this election is kind of complicated.There are two candidates for one seat in District 2 and three candidates for two seats in District 1. And there’s one candidate for one at-large seat. Got all that? Groovy.Let’s get going.

Hello everyone.

How Are Ya?

Hello to all the participants.

Good evening.

Looking forward to hearing what questions people have for county commissioner candidates.

You’ve been in a lot of forums and talked to a lot of voters. What’s the mood of the electorate? What are people interested in? What kind of changes do they want to see?

Voters are talking about solid waste and specifically about Rogers Road. They are talking about the transit tax, the transit plan and about taxes and economic development. But I think they are also looking to the county commissioners for vision and leadership, both among elected bodies and for the residents of the county as a whole. 


I believe that most people are satisfied with the job the current BOCC is doing.  I have not heard substantial demands for any changes.

The electorate is engaged. They are still feeling cautious about the finances of the County and are concerned about their personal finances as well, including property taxes. There is a focus on Economic Development particularly the way in which we approach the Econ. Dev. districts. The electorate wants us to grow in a way that is environmentally conscious and that reflects the values of the County. They want to see stronger cooperation between the County and the municipalities and would like to see the focus shift to building bridges and having conversations early rather than allowing disagreements to grow and create wedges between municipal and County governments.

The big concern is economic development. How can Orange County progress and still maintain its values re the environment.  People also are concerned about the budget, our financial state, because people still are unemployed, underemployed and losing homes.   Maintaining excellence in education also is concern considering the budgert shortfalls. Third, the closing of the landfill and what to do with our solid waste.

I have not heard too much about the Orange County Board of Commissioners.  The issues I hear the most about are taxes and transit. There is a lot of concern about Amendament 1 and funding for local programs by the state.

I'm hearing people's concerns about amendment 1, and the state of NC politics.  People are concerned about growth in our district, the high property taxes, transit issues, and maintaining funding for schools. Mostly I'm hearing questions and concerns.  People want to know how we will deal with all these issues.  People are concerned about high tax rates (property and sales), and want to know how the county will handle this.   Another thing I hear a lot about is planning for economic growth, and wanting to know what actions the county is taking to address this.  

 I earlier mentioned that residents are concerned about taxes.  I would like us to do a better job of having citizens understand how the taxes are used and also what we are doing to increase economic development and our non-residential tax base.  It will require a concerted effort between the towns and the county.

Among the changes that people want: open and honest government.  People want to be heard and their values respected.  We need better collaboration with other local governments, organizations and agencies--and more public-private partnerships.  And thirdly, better fiscal accountability.

It’s budget season and one of your top jobs as commissioner will be to try to balance a lot of needs with scarce funds. What guides your thinking on the county budget?

The role of the county commissioners is much more than just minding the pocketbook. Budgets have values. Our spending decisions must reflect those core principles that define our sense of community: social justice, equity, and community inclusion. The organizing around Amendment One is a reminder that people in this community care about issues larger than themselves. We must tap that same spirit in making our local funding decisions. A specific example would be funding the mitigation needed in Rogers Road: water and sewer and cleanup of hazardous waste dumpsites. 

Our first priority is to fund mandated services.  Emergency services, schools, and our Social Services responsibilities must be maintained. Secondary services such as recreationand open space conservation can only be funded as additional resources are available.  Spending on economic developement now will make these decisions easier in the future.

The safety and welfare of County residents and maintaining the quality of our school systems should be the main focus in a time of tightening budgets. Often the programs that are the first to be cut are the programs that are most needed in an economic downturn (i.e. the consolidation of the dental clinics). We need to be mindful of the needs of all Orange County citizens regardless of income level. The strength of our school systems is a source of pride and helps us to draw the talent we need to support our economic development goals. We must prioritize schools even in a time of tight budgets.

We have to balance the revenues we know we have against the requests we get.  We have both capital and operating budgets.  We have outstanding debt.  We try to maintain a 15% fund balance to cover emergencies.  The schools and all departments present their budget requests to us.  We look at this information and try to best determine a prioritization based on timing (for instance, which projects need to happen now, which have matching grant funding, which can wait).  My highest priority is preserving the social services safety net, and making sure our schools have sufficient funding to provide quality education to our children.  We currenlty have many needs, a good bond rating, and we do a 10 year capital needs projection.  All this helps put projects and services into perspective when planning not just for this year, but for the future (i.e. our 10 year capital plan).  We always have to make tough decisions, and we try to leverage the money we have to make the effective use of it we can, for the most citizens.  

We have to remember first and foremost that when taking into account the services that are mandated by federal and state statute and education, there is little flexibility in the services we provide.  Although the level of county funding for education is not mandated, quality educatuion is a value shared across the county.  Some of the services that are not mandatory are ones that I doubt Orange County residents do not want - for example the senior centers. The proponents of each service category are always advocating to increase funding for their service.  What I realize is that we must be strategic and emphasize discretionary funding for the services which are most needed by the residents while recognizing that many of the services are interrelated.  For example, at-risk children who come to school wihout proper nutrition and other essential services won't learn well.  Therefore, in looking at education we must also consider how we ensure that at-risk children come to school ready to learn.  This is just one example.At present, we know that there are some defiencies in our emergency services.  Safety and security is one of the most essential services and I will consider that in looking at our budget.   Throughout the past few years, I have advocated for mainting the funding for safety net services.  When there is an economic downturn, it is our responsibility to ensure the basic welare of everyone.

An analysis of the fiscal status, common sense and needs of the community will help guide me in budget process.  I will listen to the people, to what the community has to say re their specific needs.  The County also has staff well-versed in finance and I would solicit their advice and expertise.  Yet, we have to maintain our schools, promote economic development, protect the environment and help assure social services are provided to those in need in our community.

Candidates, please respond by clicking the reply button next to the question or response to which you are replying. This will allow readers to better understand what you are talking about, and also prevents the chance that you will lose your comment-in-progress when the page refreshes every two minutes.We are moving replies as needed, but would greatly appreciate your help in this matter. Thank you. 

One of the concerns I’ve heard for years is that the county and its municipalities need to do a better job of working together. The library funding issue in Chapel Hill and the ill-fated library siting choice in Carrboro stand out as examples. What will you do to to improve cooperation and coordination with the towns?

There must be greater substantive collaboration and cooperation between the county and the municipal governments in development both effective county and municipal policies that serve our collective goals and recognize the interconnected issues being addressed by various county and town agencies. It is worth noting that no current member ofthe BOCC has ever served as a municipal elected official. 

The conversation needs to start earlier, especially with contentious issues such as the libraries. There has been a pattern of letting problems go on for years rather than having uncomfortable conversations to resolve the issues. The delay makes the problem worse.  Regarding the Chapel Hill Library, we finally came to an agreement between the Town and the County, and one reason I am running for BOCC is to ensure that it is seen through. The Carrboro Library is another story.  Carrboro does not want the type of library that the BOCC has discussed siting there. Carrboro wants a small branch that is accessible by foot, bike and public transportation.  In other words, Carrboro wants a library that reflects its values.  This disconnect is why that conversation has fallen flat. In addition to having conversations earlier at the elected official level, the staff must communicate and cooperate more effectively.

Collaboration is one element of my platform.  We desparately need to work better with our local town governments.  People, the general public, lose out when governments are suing each other.  We need to "play well with others."

As county commissioner, I will pursue regular joint meetings.  One of the first goals will be to determine a common or shared vision for the entire county.  Then, we will have a basis to move forward, to make progress toward sustainability.

The regular joint meetings we have with each municipality have already proven to be a great opportunity for each board to gain greater insight into the perspectives of the other.

A necessary first step would be to inform town residents of all the services that the County provides them.  As the County has begun to reflect the interests of all its residents,  the needs of the municipalites must be seen in a broader context.  Cooperation and coordination with the towns remains an important goal of County government and is critical to the success of our efforts.

The recent dissention over a southwest branch library and the disjointed decision making on solid waste are examples where better communication earlier in the process would have produced outcomes with greater community support. Those areas (such as solid waste) where the county has the ultimate decision-making role should be considered a hierarchy of responsibility, which encourages collaboration and synthesis in decision making, and not a heirarchy of authority. I will use my experience as an alderman and a community advocate to encourage cooperation among elected officials and among residents.  

I might add that I have good working relationships with various members of our local town boards, and I hope to continue those relationships for the good of the county.

I think the fiscal challenges faced by both the municipalities and the county have created more tensions in the last few years.   We also have to recognize that we represent different sets of responsibilities and it is unreasonable to expect that we would always agree.  Disagreement does not mean that we are not collaborating and working together.  When the media and citizens highlight the disagreements, the other areas of cooperation are sometimes forgotten.  Let's remember that Orange County and Chapel Hill have cooperated on parks, for example.  Let's remember that we have some recent positive experiences in collaborative economic development efforts.  Let's remember that the Board of Commissioners is working collaboratively with all the municipalities on the Orange County transit plan which will provide transit to various areas of the county. Collaboration means good faith negotiation and I think that we reached a good agreement with Chapel Hill regarding funding.  We took a step back regarding a library in Carrboro and asked Carrboro for input on our draft criteria for choosing a Southweat branch of a library.  It is important that we talk to each other and listen to each other and made the decisions we think best to serve the consituents we serve.  As a county commissioner, I need to ensure that we take into account the entire county. I will continue to discuss issues with my colleagues in the municipalities.  This is how we learn what each other's assumptions, needs and perspectives are.  This is how we work towards finding solutions which we can all accept and may differ from our initial viewpoints. One thing I have learned from the library situation is that we must always have a written agreement that all parties have signed onto.  Without such agreements, different individuals have different expectations, even within a particular elected board.  We need to ensure that all our cooperative efforts and collaborate are clear to all of us.  

It's true!   We haven't done a very good job in the past, as county commissioners, of communicating with the towns.  We have four towns in our county, and we have made a conscious effort in the last couple of years to meet with the towns individually, and discuss issues that are coming before both of us.  An important step is being more proactive in our discussions, to meet to plan about upcoming issues, rather than dealing with them after they have become problems.   The Chair of the BOCC is now meeting with the mayors more regularly to make sure information is shared between the jurisdictions.  No one is quite sure about the library funding history, and why the funding support remained static for so long.   In the last few years, we have increased the library funding, and we have moved to a more proactive approach, which has helped in our communctions, for instance,  in developing a plan for sharing resources (books, etc between libraries).  For the southwest branch library, we are trying to work with the town of Carrboro to find a site that serves the most people in the southwest part of the county.   We currently have two small branches, and would like to consolidate into one larger facility, which would be more efficient and be able provide more services.  We remain committed to working with Carrboro, to find the best possible spot.   In general, we do not have to remain trapped in our previous history of poor communications between towns and the county over issues like this.   Instead we will have more opportunities to work collaboratively, especially in such areas as economic development and services for our mutual citizens. 

Are you for the transit tax? How important is it to our transit strategy? If you're for it, what will it take to sell it to the voters?

Yes. If we are serious about moving Economic Development forward in Orange County, we must have a 21st Century transit system in place. We must make sure that we have the proper infrastructure and that adequate public transit is accessible to ensure the success of new businesses. Chape Hill's LUMO relies heavily on public transportation to support Economic Development countywide. To convince county residents that they will benefit, we need to educate citizens that even if they never board a bus or train, they benefit from public transit with $4 in economic activity generated from every $1 invested in public transportation (American Public Transportation Association study). We also need to make sure that citizens understand that the transit plan is not just light rail, but includes Bus Rapid Transit, the Amtrak station in Hillsborough and the necessary feeder buses.

It has been questioned by the County Commissioners whether this should be on the ballot at all. I feel strongly that this is a decision that should be made by the citizens and that it should be placed on the ballot regardless of any individual Commissioner's feelings.

Yes, I am for the transit tax and will support it. I am hopeful that the transit tax will be on the ballot and approved in November and disappointed it is not scheduled for a vote in May. The transit plan must be presented in context with other issues facing the county. The tax is critical to an overall strategy in that it will allow us to leverage state and federal funding.

Thus far, the commissioners have let the question of who will use the services eclipse important public education about the collective value for our entire community of a comprehensive transit plan, including reduced traffic congestion, less dependence on fossil fuels, and connecting otherwise isolated residents and communities to jobs and service. In addition, insufficient attention has been paid to promoting how transit oriented residential and commercial development and redevelopment can create new opportunities for mixed income, mixed use neighborhoods and help reduce sprawl.

Talking about transit as if it only matter to people who ride it is like suggesting education should only matter to people with kids in schools.  

Ultimately, the plan should include the range of mass transit options (local and regional rail and bus, on-demand services, paratransit) that will most effectively facilitate the use and development of public transportation.

Even though I am wholeheartedly in favor on the transit tax, it is the voters who will decide.  I want to make sure the voters have the opportunity to decide.The transit tax is of utmost importance to our transit strategy.  There is no other funding source that would allow us to develop the transit infrastructure for the future.  Even if we don't receive the federal and state matching monies for light rail, we will be able to substantially increase transit.  Keep in mind that the state faces enormous projected deficits just to maintain the road and transit infrastructure we now have. I think that there are many voters out there already who want to vote for the transit sales tax.  This has been discussed for many years and endorsed by a number of groups to date, the Sierra Club, the Orange County Democratic Party, student groups and Friends of Durham Orange Transit.  For those who are not familiar with the plan, I will work actively with these groups and any other interested parties to educate the citizens about the need for and advantages of transit.  I will personally reach out to groups.  We need to let citizens know that transit is important to air quality, quality of life, mobility for lower-income individuals, and focusing growth in the urban areas where all the other important infrastructure exists.  We need to ensure that residents of all areas of the county are provided the information about the transit plan.I will advocate for the transit advocates to hold open houses in different areas of the county in order that citizens have the opportunity to hear about the plan and have their questions answered (all this AFTER we vote on a plan which is still in draft form).

We also need to let the public know that the transit plan is one which can change over time as needs are identified and/or as our sales tax revenue increases with economic development. For example, we know that the aging population is increasing.  Let's make sure that we address thier needs as we made modifications to bus routes.

I have not been convinced that the transit plan presented benefits all of Orange County residents in a way that justifies imposing a 1/2 cent sales tax on everyone.  I believe that public mass transit is an important component of our transportation future, but I'm concerned that the current plan, with its emphasis on light rail, commits too many of our limited resources to a technology that limits our options.  Light rail requires very dense development for its support and the opportunities within Orange County for that kind of development are limited.  I would prefer Bus Rapid Transit as our immediate alternative because its flexibility allows it to adapt to changing conditions and  its lower cost provides us with options for more service in more areas of the county.

Yes, I am for the transit tax being on the ballot.  We need improved transit for all of our citizens.  For both those traveling into as well as out of the towns and the county.  Currently 27,000 people commute out of Orange county each day for jobs, and 24,000 come in for work, services, or education.   This plan calls for increased bus hours and for light rail or some other means of rapid transit.  The county and the towns do not have enough in their general funds to support increasing transit services.   The transit sales tax will provide the needed revenues to expand our services and plan for future growth--whether it is light rail, bus rapid transit or commuter lines. The commissioners are working to establish long term commitments with Durham and the TTA regarding transit plans and funding.   We are gathering citizen input, and listening to the municipalities' needs, working with our neighbors to finalize the best overall plan, before putting this issue before the voters.   It's a complicated issue, and we need to make it as clear as possible for the voters to understand it.    We will need to work with our muncipalities, civic groups, and other organizations to educate the public about this issue.  There will need to be publicity and outreach.  I worked on the 1/4 cent sales tax to get it passed, and I am willing to work on this important transit tax as well.  Our population will continue to grow, as will the number of people commuting in and out of our county.  It is critical for us to develop at this time a long term transit plan that will work and that we can secure funding for. 

With the rise in gas prices, the need to reduce emissions, and the desire for greater mobility, mass transit has a significant role to play in the future of Orange County.  I believe that we should be moving forward with that concept. Buses--including bus rapid transit and smart buses-- and more bus hours will be a great improvement.  

Train service also can mean progress to Orange County.  Chapel Hill/Carrboro wants light rail, and Hillsborough wants a train platform or station.  These additions will promote economic development.  The train station in Hillsborough has the potential of making Hillsborough and its surrounding areas more of a destination--i.e., for the tourism industry.

The issue for many constituents is the financial plan for the transit. How can we be sure of its sustainability?  When I asked a representative about ridership fare, we were told that, at the moment, there would be no fare charged to riders. The universities, for example, would subidize.  

Another concern is the additional tax on top of the 1/4 cent sales tax.  People in our county still are hurting from the national financial crisis. The exclusions are insufficient for many families. 

Thus, we still have questions and concerns that need to be addressed before the transit tax can gain widespread acceptance--particularly for residents living in the rural areas.  We need the answers and then begin to educate the community of the benefits of mass transit, the benefits that they will realize.

The voters will decide.

As you know, the schools in this state took a big hit in the recent state budget. What will you do as commissioner to mitigate the impact of these and potential future cuts here in Orange County?

One issue we need to be on top of is Charter schools.  When the Lee Charter school was recently approved, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools lost 4.5 million dollars. In the middle of an economic downturn, we cannot afford to have this funding taken away from our public schools. That goes against everything we know about making our schools better. We also need to make sure that each student, regardless of school system, is treated equally in terms of funding so that every Orange County child has an equal opportunity for a top notch education. We need to figure out a way to make this happen. Finally, we need to ensure that SAPFO is not ignored, as economic development should support our schools.  We cannot build, build, build without investing some of the proceeds into our school systems.

In response to Penny's comment about SAPFO, we need to remember that Mebane is experiencing a lot of growth and is not part of SAPFO.  The BOCC plans to reach out once again to Mebane on this issue.  If we have to build a school when we face our debt limit, we face extraordinary challenges for operational funding.

Throught the last few years of budget cuts, we did mitigate the impact by not decreasing the per capita operational budgets of the schools.  We also dedicated half of the quarter-cent sales tax to capital needs for the schools.  As we increase our non-residential tax base, we are providing a steady source of supplemental capital income for the schools, which we hope will grow over time. All of us need to actively work with the General Assembly to restore the use of lottery funds, restore operational expenses, to the schools and elect representatives who will support funding for education.  We have not yet seen the proposed county budget and it is difficult to say what other specific actions are to be taken at this point in time.  

As a parent of three children in the public schools I know that continued support for core school programs is vital. The BOCC should look for ways to promote collaboration between the two districts that may serve students more effectively (shared programmatic opportunities) as well as save money through better pooling of resources and negotiations with contractors. The county must also take a forceful position against the legislative attacks on public education. That means advocating through our legislators and opposing charter schools, which drain resources from the traditional public schools, rarely serve a diverse student population, and have a segregative effect on the schools from which they draw students.

Orange County dedicates nearly 50% of its budget to funding the public schools.  With the other demands on county resources, it is unlikely that the percentage will grow.  Therefore, we need to continue our efforts to increase the overall level of revenue available to fund all county obligations.  We can only do this with a sustained commitment to creating opportunities for businesses to locate and grow in our county.  We must also encourage our residents to advocate with their state representatives for restoration of the state funding that has historically provided supprot for public education.

Our county has always funded schools at one of the highest levels in the state.   After serving on the CHCCS school board for four years, I have first hand knowledge of the funding it takes to educate children.  The state has drastically reduced funding to our schools, including withdrawing expected lottery funding.  We have attempted to mitigate decreased state funding by planning ahead, and raising funds.  For instance half of the 1/4 cent sales tax revenues are designated to support the schools.   We have remained committed in our support of capital improvement program funding for the schools, even putting them ahead of some county projects.  We meet with the schools leadership teams on a regular basis and talk about funding levels, so that we can plan ahead.   Most counties in NC have suffered major cutbacks to school funding at the county level, while in Orange County because our planning and communications, we have been able to maintain a high level of funding for the school systems.    We have worked hard fiscally.  For instance our director of finance has worked with the schools, and we have been able to refinance outstanding school debt to allow for more funding to be available for future projects.   I remain committed to education and funding it as the highest level possible.  It is critical to developing our workforce and new leaders.  I believe our county has a bright future for education.  

Public education is our of our greatest assets, and unfortunately,
the legislators with the greater power in Raleigh have taken action to
devalue our school systems.  We do indeed need to continue to support
our state legislators in their efforts to restore funding for public
schools.  As for mitigating the adverse impacts, I would propose
more cooperation and collaboration among local stakeholders, more
partnerships with nonprofit organizations to maintain excellence in our
public school classrooms.  We care about our children and we can work
together to assure necessary services to our students, our rising
stars.  Again, I would continue to lobby our state legislators for funding that belongs to our children, their teachers and school staff.



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