Chapel Hill/Carrboro Merger: Column in CHH

A guest column by Michelle Lewis was published in the Chapel hill Herald today promoting the merger of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, a position that I have advocated for many years.  But this column articulated that position particularly well. 

I am including a pointer to the column but one needs to be registered with the Herald Web Site to read it.  I have e-mailed Ms. Lewis to get her permission to post the full text in this entry.

In today's economic climate a merger makes more sense than ever.



...merging the CHC/OC school systems wasn't contentious enough.  :)  It's an interesting thought experiment, but I doubt there is much political will for such a proposition.  Logistics aside, I don't think many folks in either town are willing to give up a chunk of their unique identities.  The column's author does bring up a number of good opportunities to think about increased cooperation, which is something we could all do well to consider.

Merger is perpetual column fodder and has been mused over for decades.One thing I've noticed over the years is that people in Carrboro rarely propose the idea. (One look at the state of each downtown will tell you why.) Hilliard Caldwell once famously said that he wouldn't mind the town merging as long as they called the result 'Carrboro.' 

I'm open to it, but I think Kevin should propose his terms of surrender before I comment further.Seriously though, we do have a lot of combined services already including traffic control, busses, housing and some others.  We look at possible service combinations regularly including at least one such opportunity earlier this year.However, as for merger, I only ever hear that proposed by Chapel Hill folks.  Likewise I hear folks say "No one even knows where the town line is" - but again such comments only ever come from Chapel Hill residents, or so it seems.I reject categorically my friend Roscoe's suggestion that planning/development approval should be combined.  Carrboro's approach to development regulation and planning is different than Chapel Hill's.  I don't have a problem with Chapel Hill's approach, but it is not for Carrboro, in my opinion.

Durham City Councilman Howard Clement (appoited in 1983 and elected each election since 1985) says he will make a Durham County-Durham City merger a campaign issue in the 2009 election.

......Mark Chilton, I know you'll enjoy this discussion.The merger idea makes too much sense to happen; of course the name would be CHAPEL HILL- carrboro, right? :>)I think selected duplicate services would be a great starting point: police, fire and parks & recreation........library?  And a start could be made on development/permit services (planning, inspections) with adoption of a common comprehensive plan (although we might have to shoot 2 or 3 hundred folks in both towns first).Let the fun begin!

"of course the name would be Chapel Hill - carrboro"No I'm thinking Chapelboro

That didn't last long, though. Two years later, after Julian Shakespeare Carr bought the economic heart of Venable (the cotton mill) the town magically changed its name from "Venable" to "Carrboro." The town agreed to change its name in exchange for Carr's agreement to provide electricity to the town. In effect, Carr bought naming rights to the town. Kind of like Qualcomm Stadium.

Well, it wasn't exactly magic, Representative George Pickard introduced a bill in the Extra Session of 1913 to change the name of the town, that bill was enacted.

Here are the statutes on point for a formal mechanism to study either merger or consolidation of services:

 Two or more cities that are contiguous or that lie within a continuous boundary may create a commission to study the consolidation of the cities or of one or more functions and services of the cities.

Dave, please do post Ms. Lewis's column if she grants permission.  This business of registering on the Herald-Sun website is a perpetually irritating hurdle.  Like Jason, I'm on record many times campaigning for increased cooperation between Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  Much cooperation does take place under the radar, however, and rather than banging my head against beaurocratic walls I've let the issue drop lately.  I don't like to see any encouragement of rivalry or competition between the towns. That seems to be lessening also; but I would fight hard against a merger.  It would end up being called Chapel Hill.  

See if the printer-friendly version can be pulled up without registering:

Fred, thanks but still the same endless registration loop.  Let's see if Dave gets a response from the columnist and succeeds in posting the piece here in its entirety.  - c. 

Michelle has posted a response that has to be moderated before we see it.  Basically, she has asked the CHH editor for permission since she just can't do it on her own.

Anyone can register on OP and post unmoderated comments. It's simply a matter of taking about 2 minutes to do it.I recommend Michelle and other anonymous commenters read our FAQ including this:

Can't post her column on her own.  Registering is not what she was referring to.

Sorry, I misunderstood your point. She had already posted the content by the time I saw your comment, and now I see she has registered. Yay!

I'm sure that like me, you all grabbed your copies of the Institute of Government's 1987 Merger Study before commenting here. In case yours was mis-shelved, among other conclusions, the study found that there would be "a net savings for merger of less than $100,000."A few years ago, we asked our staff for a preliminary report on the possibility of merging fire departments. This seemed timely given that Carrboro was about to begin planning our new fire station. The staff reported that implementation costs for such a merger would be over $1 million and it was not clear that there would be significant savings subsequently.It is odd that it is usually Chapel Hil folks who raise this issue (though Michelle Lewis herself is not one). Common sense would suggest that, if a lower tax rate town merges with a higher tax rate town, there's a good chance the former's rates would rise. It is noteworthy that this thread was initiated by Dave Richter who prefers not to live in Carrboro based on an article by Michelle Lewis who (apparently) prefers not to live in Chapel Hill. I suspect that many among the thousands who do chose to live in one municipality or the other have good reasons for their choice. I know for a certainty that lots of Carrboroans have a fierce affection for their town. Sharing services to save costs or gain efficiencies is fine with them. And, as Mark points out, we do share services and look for opportunities to do more. But merging the towns? That would be a non-starter for many, even if Chapel Hill did agree to the name Carrboro.

I know for a certainty that lots of Carrboroans have a fierce affection for their town.

I feel the fierce dedication to keeping the identity of Carrboro separate, and I don't even live in Carrboro! By the way, is someone who lives in Carrboro a Carrboroan? I thought they were Carrborators.James Coley

Dan, my decision to move out of Carrboro was a financial one.  Actually neither Carrboro or Chapel Hill are very retired/fixed income friendly.  The move to Pittsboro has proven for me to be the right financial one.  However, if the cost of living in the Chapelboro town limits were ever to moderate I would consider moving back.Other than tax rates, a Carrboro address or an Chapel Hill address makes little difference to me as a place to live.  I do believe that the difference of identities is a little over blown.  But then identity exists in the eyes of the individual. For the most part the two towns and the set of values that are advertised are far more alike than different.  I think Carrbonians like to think of their town as a little more esoteric, eccentric or artsy/fartsy. As far as the 1987 study, where can one find it? What makes it credible?  Who asked for and funded it? Who authored the study?

I'd be interested in the link to the 1987 Study.  It's hard to believe that a merger of Carrboro and Chapel Hill would only save $100,000 a year.  Given that the Carrboro Town Manager's salary is $150,000 and the Chapel Hill Town Manager's salary is $160,000, one would think there would be at least $100,000 in savings by just having one Town Manager instead of two.  Same goes for the Fire Department Chiefs, the Police Chiefs, etc.   If there just one Town Manager, one Fire Department Chief, and one Police Chief between the two towns, the savings would be at least $225,000.  If the various other town departments were merge, there must be another good $300,000 to $400,000 in savings.  And that's just the beginning.  Carrboro's budget is $18 million, right?  Hard to believe that $17.9 million of that would be needed by the merged governments after they merge the departments and eliminate duplicative jobs.So it would, indeed, be good to look at the study and see if its conclusions are still relevant.Michelle Lewis  

All -- I have e-mailed Chapel Hill Herald editor Neil Offen to see if the column can be reprinted on  The decision is the Herald's to make, not mine.  I'll let you know what I hear from Neil.

 Michelle Lewis 

BTW -- Dan is right, I do not live in Chapel Hill.  I live just south of Chapel Hill in Orange County. 

What made me think about writing the column is the issue about who should finance the expansion of the Chapel Hill Public Library.  Many Chapel Hill residents feel they shouldn't bear the whole financial burden of expanding the library because 40% of the library's users are not Chapel Hill residents.  Many of the users are Carrboro residents.  When I was researching this issue, I learned that Carrboro recently had approached Orange County about financing the building a good-size library in Carrboro.  Clearly Orange County is not going to give millions to Chapel Hill for its library AND millions to Carrboro for a library.  As a result, the citizens of both towns are worse off because we really do need a bigger library to serve Chapel Hill-Carrboro residents.  This led me to wondering about whether it still makes sense -- purely from a $$$ point of view -- to keep Carrboro and Chapel Hill as separate towns.


While I take your point, I think it should be clarified that Carrboro has not asked the County to give the Town funds for a library.  The proposal (called for in the County Library Plan) is for a southern branch of the Orange Co. Library.

Here it is:

Michelle Lewis: A Carrboro-Chapel Hill merger?



Guest columnist
The Herald-Sun
Nov 25, 2008

Rough economic times are essential for many reasons, but one reason is that lean times help us more easily spot economic inefficiencies and costly luxuries. Luxuries take many forms. It's a luxury, for example, to live in a small town with a full-service government. This results in unduly high taxes.

Chapel Hill, at 19.8 square miles, has approximately 54,000 residents. Carrboro, at a mere 6.4 square miles, has barely 17,000 residents. Despite its small size, Carrboro has its own government and all the fixed and variable costs that go along with it.

Fixed expenses include government buildings, fleets of service vehicles (police, fire, public works) and equipment for rendering services. Variable expenses include employee salaries (elected officials, town manager and town staff). But because these expenses are incurred to serve a very small population, the cost is spread out over a very small tax base. For example, the $150,645 salary of Carrboro's town manager is spread out over a much smaller tax base than the $160,666 salary of Chapel Hill's town manager.

The result of spreading these expenses out over a smaller tax base is that Carrboro's property tax rate is 18 percent higher than Chapel Hill's. Carrboro residents may find that having a separate town government for just 17,000 people is a luxury they can no longer afford.

Carrboro's town officials have been trying to reduce the residential property tax burden by increasing the commercial tax base. Yet when you have only 6.4 square miles within which to work, it's hard to accomplish without creating intense commercial development and very tall buildings. Even if Carrboro is successful in increasing its commercial tax base (particularly difficult in the current economy), it may not be the panacea for which they are hoping. Residents of Carrboro must be wondering the same thing -- i.e., "Is increasing the commercial tax base a long-term fix or is something more basic needed?"

Remember a couple years ago when Carrboro annexed several subdivisions and those residents begged to be annexed, instead, by Chapel Hill? It was in no small part due to the significant difference in property tax rates.

What could be done to reduce the residential tax burden other than increasing the density of Carrboro's commercial sector? Well, Carrboro could merge into Chapel Hill. I know this sounds kind of stunning, but it's been considered before.

Sometimes it's been considered as a wholesale merger, but more recently it's been considered here and there as a partial merger. In the mid-1980s and again in 2006, town officials explored the possibility of merging the Carrboro and Chapel Hill fire departments. The stations are less than two miles apart and have a significant amount of overlap.

Significant overlap also exists with respect to other departments and services, including the public libraries. Carrboro -- which has a small library -- recently asked Orange County for millions of dollars to build a large library. And Chapel Hill -- whose library is used heavily by Carrboro residents -- has asked Orange County to contribute millions of dollars to expand the Chapel Hill Public Library.

You can imagine what some of the commissioners are saying -- i.e., it doesn't make sense to give money to both of you when you are located so close to each other and Carrboro is so small. So what has been the result? The expansion of the Chapel Hill Public Library is on hold and Carrboro's dream of its own significant library is still just a dream.

There are solid economic (i.e., cost-saving) reasons to merge Carrboro into Chapel Hill. But a merger would mean the loss of Carrboro's separate identity and its name.

Yet Carrboro has not always been Carrboro. When the area was first settled in 1882, it was known as West End. West End was renamed Venable, in honor of then-UNC president Francis Venable, when it was incorporated in 1911.

That didn't last long, though. Two years later, after Julian Shakespeare Carr bought the economic heart of Venable (the cotton mill) the town magically changed its name from "Venable" to "Carrboro." The town agreed to change its name in exchange for Carr's agreement to provide electricity to the town. In effect, Carr bought naming rights to the town. Kind of like Qualcomm Stadium.

Even if Carrboro residents are willing to give up their name, though, I understand that their sense of being "different" than "Chapel Hill folks" is still something with which they might not be willing to part. But one day the luxury of feeling different may have to succumb to the reality that boutique governments are just too expensive.

If that day has come, then Carrboro citizens should petition the town to study the cost savings a merger would produce. I expect the savings would be considerable.

Michelle Lewis is a Chapel Hill resident who has been an international attorney, and a director of political campaigns Readers can contact her at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

 What is the non-student population of Chapel Hill?(also "barely" 17,000 residents-- what's with the "barely" in that sentence?  You would think we were the smallest little village in the whole state- just barely here at all!)If UNC were to disappear off the face of the earth tomorrow- say a sort of tarheel rapture event- how  many Chapel Hill permanent residents would be left?(I can dream, can't I?) 

But if Carrboro merged with Chapel Hill, I really might have to move to Canada.

I thought many of the newest residents of Carrboro didn't want to be part of Carrboro because they felt more affinity with Chapel Hill. Which goes against a big part of this argument.Is this really all about the library and library money? Even if the towns did merge, you could still make an argument for locating another library in Carrboro, near downtown, which would be far easier to reach by public transportation than the CHPL.Another big problem with this argument is that it's essentially an argument for downsizing: add more work to Chapel Hill workers, fire the Carrboro administrators, and save a few bucks while putting more people out of work. Well, that's not a very Carrboro thing to do, is it?  

I hesitate to post but this thread has been very enticing.  First let me say if there are significant savings to be made by merging then it seems to make sense to me but Joan’s argument above gives me pause.  However, it is blatantly clear to me that there is no political will, among those who have political will, for a merger.  I have lived in this community for 28 years and have two relevant observations.  First, Chapel Hill and Carrboro are already one town, one community with two governments and two administrations.  Many people I know use facilities in both towns, including me.  Second, the thought that merger would cause areas in this community to give up their individual identities does not seem well founded to me.  Brooklyn merged with New York City a long time ago and it has certainly maintained its identity. Call it my problem if you’d like but I am disturbed by the chauvinism in this discussion.    Jim Rabinowitz

Somebody yesterday (Dan?) noted that Carrboroans are "fiercely" protective of their cultural identity.  The Paris of the Piedmont simply cannot be absorbed into a larger municipality.  I'm going with our Planning Dept's estimated cost of merging.  Anyone who thinks it's inflated is looking for excuses to merge, of which very few can be made.  The library issue doesn't cut it.  Combining governments would create havoc -- costly havoc and distress in both Town Halls, one of which (idea!) could be converted into a library.  That and a couple of million dollars... oh, don't get me started.  I want my own Town Manager and my own Police Chief and my own Aldermen and my own fire trucks and my own town history.   After all my crusading for more cooperation, I feel like a little kid who can't share her toys. Wah! 

Oh lord, Jim, now I've branded myself as a chauvinist.  Such a label would have served me well as a candidate a few years ago ("community organizer" clearly wasn't good enough).  I rather like the sound of it now.  It'll help me in household discussions, and certainly in any further public discussion of town merger! 

I can't remember where I learned it, but it has always seemd to make sense to me that local representation works best for communities up to around 5000 voters. Carrboro has been a great example of this. Candidates can reach all the voters, thus ensuring the best election results. This is an efficiency that would be lost in a merger. 

Mark, that sounds like a basic lesson in Public Administration.  (My former husband had a PhD in that.  He was also a Deutscher, so I picked up a lot of PA and German during that era.  Gesundheit!)  Anyway, yes; Carrboro is a great example of that hypothesis, which probably did get proven and published somewhere.  If this merger discussion ever gets more than hypothetical, we may have to dig up that reference.  Ms. Lewis has succeeded in getting a few people riled up. 

From my last glance at my property tax bill, most my taxes go to the schools, which makes me very happy. Aside from the schools, I know I'm paying for the costs of any town. Police, fire, street repair. And since Carrboro is smaller and fire trucks cost what they cost, a larger percentage of my dollars are going to the fire truck as a homeowner in Carrboro than when I was a homeowner in Chapel Hill.  But when it comes to the discretionary tax dollars, Carrboro over the last twenty years put money in different places than Chapel Hill. We have great community spaces. I really love The Farmer's Market and the Town Commons.  When I stopped being a student and I lived in Chapel Hill, I felt like there was no commons. I might have felt differently if we'd bought a house near Umstead, but there wasn't one available at the time. I couldn't afford to buy in one of the neighborhoods with a homeowner's association that created and maintained a park and clubhouse privately. I felt like there were UNC events, but not really town events.  I am one of the few people who is agnostic about the library. I don't mind using the Chapel Hill Library (or finding a way to fund it more equitably) but I can see why people out in White Cross would prefer a Southern Orange Library and I would support that as well.

Did y'all graduate from UNC-Carrboro?

The last four years I lived in Chapel Hill, I could see Carrboro from my window ...

I live in Carrboro but I can't get out of my driveway without going into Chapel Hill.

How about a proposal that would make UNCCH - and all of its associated properties, interests and "domains" -  a separate town?  They could continue to refer to themselves as Chapel Hill.  Then it would truly be a "university town."Now if all of the rest of you- beyond U-town limits-  would like to become a part of Carrboro, maybe that proposal could get some real traction.I'm especially fond of West Franklin Street- already seems like an extension of Carrboro anyway.And apparently we all already share a library.We could give new Chapel Hill the main drag on Franklin- between Raleigh and Columbia. Just turn the whole strip into an extension of campus. (They could pay for their own street parties.)  And all of those underutilized buildings will be fully occupied with student-focused businesses and expensive housing projects for students and alumni (oh wait...)Now what to do with the rest of the county...   Want to be a part of Carrboro too?  I really like the area around Piedmont Feed & Garden where I buy my pet food.  Is that White Cross?Would that give us a respectable population count, Michelle?   Anyone care to crunch the numbers?  I'm sure Carrboro would  be good stewards of the outer limits of its expanded town-  and its farms.  We need local livestock and produce.  We thrive on it.We'll keep our density and population growth downtown-- except for the occasional New Urban Development Project (we can't resist them, it seems).And we'll only congregate (dance - sing - play) in mutually agreed upon open spaces specifically set aside for such gatherings.  We could call them protected area recreational communities- or PARCs.levity, please!Happy Thanksgiving everyone (are there wild turkeys in southern Orange?) ~ this post heavily edited to avoid pissing off Mark Marcopolos or Fred Black.

Just kidding - I'm never really angry (I really should use more emoticons to keep from being misunderstood. But, in my defense, there are some overly-sensitive posters here...), especially now that Fred & I agree that UNC should heed its own consultants work and re-locate Horace Williams air traffic to RDU. Then Fred and his deserving neighbors get their overall feng shui improved by ousting the anxiety-producing in-town airport & our rural area can continue to provide clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, star-gazing, natural beauty, and local food for the rest of you all, our synergistically-linked urban neighbors.

"Now if all of the rest of you- beyond U-town limits- would like to become a part of Carrboro, maybe that proposal could get some real traction."We love just the way you are, Carrboro. Apparently, all you need is a transfer station and an airport. :)"Now what to do with the rest of the county... Want to be a part of Carrboro too? I really like the area around Piedmont Feed & Garden where I buy my pet food. Is that White Cross?"Technically, I think that is Orange Grove, but close enough. No thanks, see above."I'm sure Carrboro would be good stewards of the outer limits of its expanded town- and its farms. We need local livestock and produce. We thrive on it."Right. We are very happy you are our customers and we really like your business. We don't like your taxes and prefer the elbow room that urban development is at odds with. You are welcome to visit as long as you behave yourselves. :)Happy Thanksgiving everyone (are there wild turkeys in southern Orange?)And you. Yes, there are wild turkeys out here. Including myself, I count five.

We love just the way you are, Carrboro. Apparently, all you need is a transfer station and an airport. :)

that's it, a four level downtown Carrboro. First level, retail. Second level, residence (very green, live close to where you work). Third level, transfer station (minimal distance to transport the trash). Fourth level, airport. The trash could be flown out.

Gerry, you are a visionary! Your thinking is just what we need! Back to the topic at hand: one of the big arguments I heard against renaming now-MLK Blvd was the huge cost of doing so--not just in road signs, but also for individual businesses who'd have to re-print reams of paper, letterhead, business cards, etc. Assuming that merged towns would have a new name (or be one bigger Chapel Hill), the same argument could made on an even grander scale. And what about the university? The University of North Carolina at ChapelboroThe University of North Carolina at Carr HillThe University of North Carolina in the Town Formerly Known as Chapel Hill (UNC-TFKACH) Yeah, as someone (Jim?) commented, I can't see the political will for this amongst the people who'd need to have it.  

FWIW, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the official name of the college, but Urbana and Champaign are separate municipalities.  The official legal name of NC State is North Carolina State University at Raleigh.


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