Moving past the horse race

In national politics, we often criticize the mainstream media for covering the "horse race" between candidates instead of the issues. Do voters really need to know how much money someone has or do they need to know which candidate's health plan with help their family the most? In reflecting on OP's discussion of this year's election, I find it a little more horse-race oriented than I would like, although there is also a great deal of substantive and useful commentary.

While there are legitimate reasons to discuss things like endorsements and fundraising - as a measure of a candidate's support from various informed constituencies, for example - I believe we should also balance this with information about the platforms and experiences of the various candidates. One of the reasons this has been challenging this year is that many candidates all seem to be saying the same thing. This is always a bit of a problem around here - I mean, who doesn't support local businesses, affordable housing, and stream protection? The worst race for this is the school board where every candidate wants to help all kids be the best they can, etc.

Another part of the problem is the question of trust. When we don't trust a candidate, it's obviously harder to believe their words of committment. I think this trust is strongly connected to how we experience Orange County and certain people and interest groups here. For example, from my 16+ years as an activist in and around Chapel Hill, I have gotten to know the leaders of many local organizations and I have also had the opportunity to serve on boards and committees with many elected leaders. This experience leads me to be inclined to trust many of those I have worked with (but not all!). Along the same lines, most of you have candidates you already liked or disliked before the campaigns even began. These opinions have been informed by your neighbors, colleagues, and friends, as well as by your own personal experiences.

I tend to agree with the cognitive scientist George Lakoff who says that when we receive new information that does not fit into the frame or worldview through which we understand things, we tend to reject that information. I know I do this, and I see many of you doing this as well. (If you experience reality with no frames, then kudos on your enlightenment.) So it gets kind of boring and even grating as we argue about people that I doubt we are ever going to agree on. I'm not opposed to healthy debate, but sometimes we need to agree to disagree. I much prefer to do this openly and without malice.

I have this feeling that recent past elections have brought more open questions to the table. There were challengers to get to know, issues to learn about. This year feels more like a referendum on how we're doing. Either you generally like how your local government is being run or you don't. Some challengers have been clear in positioning themselves as alternatives, a few have presented themselves as a new face but with pretty similar values, and some walk the line depending on the audience.

So, what do you think? Am I just missing out on the nuances because I haven't spent enough time going to forums and reading candidates' web sites? Do you think that voters have been able to develop a fairly accurate picture of what the candidates represent? If not, what else do they need to know?


I agree that there are a lot of incumbents running this year - five of five in Chapel Hill and three of four in Carrboro. It doesn't leave a lot of room for new faces - especially ones who do not fundamentally disagree with the general direction of local government.

Some have tried to suggest that this leads to some sort of conspiracy in the formulation of group endorsements, but I think the truth is that many of the local interest groups and newspapers believe that we have very good local government already - not perfect at all, but very good. And I tend to agree with that latter perspective.

And I agree with you in the main, Mark. But how different would things be if the local media had the resources and inclination to do what newspapers have historically done?

I still am struck by Cam Hill's words in his last election about the media not doing thier job and he not doing it for them.

The bottom line to all of this is very vew people in my opinion will bother to vote. Yes, part of that is that there are those who are satisfied with whatever the outcome is, but there are also those who feel it no longer matters so why should they bother.

Sometimes when things look broken to people, they actually are and the outcome is "broken" people.

Maybe, Fred, but I think we'll see about the same turnout that we usually do - which is to say low. I think people who stay home do so because they think there is not much that needs fixing (although I am not saying they are right about that).

On the one hand it is hard to organize several thousand people to participate in any activity, but on the other hand - and I say this from first hand experience - it is by no means impossible.

If a candidate is motivated enough and has sufficiently meritorious & compatible ideas, it is just not that hard to get elected in towns as small as ours. It won't always happen the first time a person runs - or even necessarily the second.

As someone noted recently on another thread, Joe Herzenberg ran and lost in 1979, 1981 and 1985, before he finally won in 1987. He had gumption and it paid off - eventually. And in retrospect, notwithstanding his being rejected by Chapel Hill voters three times, Joe is fondly remembered by many, many people in this area.

I think there has been a good deal of disagreement among some of the candidates this year but that it hasn't been framed in such a way that the general public understands it. The most basic disagreement is about growth. Do we continue approving residential development which we all know doesn't pay for itself and adds to the growing unaffordability of the community? What are the tools available for reducing the growth in residential development if that is the choice?

The candidates have raised the issue of growth both directly and indirectly. But they haven't expressed those issues in sufficient detail to differentiate their positions from those of the incumbents. And the incumbents don't offer explanations in sufficient detail to help challengers and the general electorate understand the legal/technical barriers facing town government.

I don't fault either the challengers or the incumbents for this incomplete dialogue on the issues. The public forums limit each candidate to 2 minutes and let every candidate answer every question, and the local media is too underfunded to support investigative reporters.

"Do we continue approving residential development which we all know doesn't pay for itself and adds to the growing unaffordability of the community?"

Terri, What I don't understand (and maybe you or someone else has the answer) is why Durham, with all the retail it has (No Hope Commons, Patterson Place, Northgate, Streets at Southpoint, American Tobacco, etc.) still has a higher tax rate than Chapel Hill. Unless I'm missing something, the CH tax rate is 52.2 cents per 100 dollars and Durham's is 61.80 cents per 100 dollars. I realize that our overall tax rate is higher (167.55 vs 145.20) probably in part because of the higher rate we pay for our schools, but it still seems like Durham, with the tremendous amount of retail they have both allowed and encouraged, would have a lower tax rate.

Can anyone explain this to me?

Can anyone explain this to me?

What are the median home prices in each?

Speaking only for myself, I don't support growing an economy on stand alone retail like those you mention (except for American Tobacco). Retail is undependable as a revenue source in that the towns never know when they will get their portion of the sales tax. Second, it promotes an over-consumerist lifestyle which I despise. Third, shopping centers are ugly and environmentally destructive.

There are lots of commercial options other than retail. What was the last office building built in Chapel Hill (other than those contracted for by UNC Hospitals)?

As for the tax rate, if you're going to compare Chapel Hill or Carrboro to other communities, you have to include the school tax since other communities have their schools tax integrated into their town/county tax.

Here is a link to the Durham County tax rates

Here are Orange County Tax Rates:

In the chart Orange County tax rates are expressed as cost per dollar, while Durham County are expressed as cost per hundred dollars.

If I read the charts right, here are the tax rates per hundred dollars valuation for the following. These include county and city taxes. It is true looking at the Durham chart that the Durham tax rate per hundred is lower than the Chapel Hill tax rate, but the Orange County tax rate is much higher than the Durham County tax rate.

Durham city resident: $1.452 per hundred
Chapel Hill city resident: $1.6755 per hundred
Carrboro city resident: $1.8072 per hundred

Housing prices in Durham are lower on a square foot basis (i.e. the same house in Durham per square foot is going to be cheaper to buy than the same house in Chapel Hill or Carrboro). I don't know how that flows through to actual tax assessments, but one would expect a similar house in Durham to have both a lower valuation and a lower rate compared to a similar house in Chapel Hill

Let me correct one typo above. I meant to write that the Chapel Hill city tax rate is lower than the Durham city tax rate.

Having posted the above, and having lived in both Chapel Hill and Durham, i think you have be very careful in just comparing tax rates. Chapel Hill and Durham are very different communities with different histories and demographics.

One thing I think Durham has done well though is attracting commercial development and the American Tobacco project is terrific. Durham also really seems to be on the verge of a downtown renaissance. A lot of the old buildings are being converted and renovated, the new farmer's market plaza is awesome, etc.

"but one would expect a similar house in Durham to have both a lower valuation and a lower rate compared to a similar house in Chapel Hill"

I'd probably agree to that. But the house in Durham wouldn't have the same quality of schools, it wouldn't have the same quality of public transit, etc. If it did have the level of schools and services we have in CH/C would the rate still be that much lower?

That's the question I'm trying to find an answer for: Given all the retail (and office) development that Durham has gotten over the last 5 years, there hasn't seemed to be either an appreciable increase in the quality of services or quality of life or an appreciable decrease in their tax rate. So what benefit has (does) Durham get from this type of development?

I would love to see ALL the candidates set up blogs on their websites and write about the issues and their ideas and concerns.

Especially the School Board (I find that the hardest choice to make and considering I have a school age child that disturbs me).

Someone should double-check me on this, but I believe that Orange County does a reassessment for tax purposes more frequently than Durham does, so Durham's rate would be based on an older, and likely, lower valuation making the tax rate higher.

I also find it interesting that OP participants take as a given that Durham schools are of lesser quality than CHCCS/Orange County schools. There's nothing to discuss if you go by test scores, but plenty if you look at other areas. As with many things, it depends on what you want out of your schools and will vary student by student, family by family.

Linda C.

I think you're correct regarding the tax revaluations. I believe that Orange County had it's last one in 2004 and Durham had it's last one in 2001. They're having another right now. But all of that new construction in Durham should have gone on the tax rolls after they had their certificates of occupancy so the tax rates might go down in Durham but I'll bet that any decrease occurs primarily at the expense of the older residences that occupy land that is becoming increasingly more valuable (that sounds familiar, doesn't it?).

Regarding schools, you're right that Durham schools provide different services and training that the CHCCS/Orange County schools might not provide but test scores are obviously something that people migrating into this area appear to value highly and are willing to pay more to have access to.

The statement that residential growth does not pay for itself greatly oversimplifies the issue. There is plenty of material on how compact, mixed-use development has significantly lower municipal costs than conventional suburban development.

Todd Littman's Understanding Smart Growth Savings is a great place to start. (PDF)

In short, the per-unit municipal impact on town budgets is significantly lower for denser, urban housing than it is for large-lot, single family detached housing.

Second, the idea that adding housing units to the town decreases affordability of housing is a red herring. This argument has been made before based on the idea that new, higher-end housing introduces higher cost-per-square foot comps that raise the assessment value of all homes, thus raising the taxes of all homes, and subsequently jeopardizing the ability of low-income or fixed-income elderly households to live in their homes.

Well, the big problem with this argument is that even if we never build another unit in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, the sale of existing units would still produce the same effect: higher valued comps as homes appreciate and are sold. The only way to stop this process is to END the sale of homes in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, which is of course, impossible.

Which brings us to the law of supply and demand. Many people wish to live in southern Orange County, and the availability of new housing stock is limited. The tighter the limits there are on infill development, the faster the limited supply of existing housing stock appreciates in value.

The dilemma that Chapel Hill and Carrboro face is the need for the towns to become more skilled at saying where and how growth SHOULD occur so that we get high-quality, low-impact infill development that contains a greater commercial component to take the heat off the residential tax base, while at the same time adding to and diversifying both the market-rate and OCHLT-style housing stock to cool the demand-side pressure on Southern Orange County's limited housing supply.

To tie back to the original thread, the growth dilemma as outlined above is complex. I think it would be easier for citizens to make clearer distinctions among the candidates if we heard more of HOW they plan to achieve things, which goes beyond telling us what they are FOR. I think candidate websites are a better source than forums to get into this type of detail.

My point about housing prices is that services are provided roughly in proportion to the number of households. In a market where houses cost more, more taxes can be generated with a lower tax rate.

As Joe C pointed out a while back, for each town and the county, there is a break even point where a house of a given value pays for itself.

I think you would find that the break even point is lower for the towns than the county, and as a result, growth in the towns typically helps the town coffers and hurts the county coffers (for all residents in the county), primarily because the town taxes do not fund schools and the county can't annex anyone to get bailed out of financial crises. I may try to dig up a comment I posted to Orange Chat on this. I have not seen the break even values published for any town or the county itself in OC.

The effects of growth is something that has been largely ignored in this election. Ie - Growth has been mentioned, but not with much substance.

Before we compare tax rates here to there, also check out
the mandatory fees. It's been an old political saw that to
be able to say at election time, "I lowered your taxes",
the city councils indeed lower them but institute mandatory fees
as a substitute. Charlotte was the poster child for this, and
here we now do this for solid waste and stormwater.
There is a small material change, for the fees have a
different distribution on the people than the taxes do,
but by-and-large, it's a political gimmick that has always
disappointed me.


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