NC House defunds fire protection

No discussion of UNC's role in our community is complete without addressing the topic of fiscal equity. There are many way in which the University affects us financially, both positive and negative, and the town's provision of fire services to the campus is just one of the most obvious examples.

So it's pretty disappointing to hear that the NC House budget fails to fund the municipalities that provide fire fighting to state institutions!

While funding for fire protection for state-owned properties - a request that was included in Chapel Hill's legislative agenda - made it into the governor's budget and N.C. Senate's proposed budget for 2005-06, it was left out of the House budget...

"In Chapel Hill, our fire chief said that we need 18 new firefighters in order to be able to provide the level of service that is necessary," [Mayor Kevin Foy] said.

Foy noted that though the University is putting millions of dollars into construction projects, no extra funds are being allotted to support fire protection.
- Daily Tarheel, 7/7/05

Verla is clearly on our side, but if you know any other house reps, you may want to drop them a line.


This is tough. How do we know who was agin it and who was for it, if it "wasn't included"? Was there a vote for or against?

The politics of the capital baffle me, in fact, it all appears to be a smoke and mirrors game.

For instance, if the town, University, Governor, and Senate want this funding - then it will probably be added in committee, right? But, the House says no, why?
Another example, Medicaid cuts. The people, Governor, and House do not want to see the Medicaid cuts, but the Senate (ALL OF THE SENATE, INCLUDING OUR SENATOR) vote for a Medicaid cut. It appears that these cuts will not be made in the final analysis, so why?

Is it all just bull? Do they get together and say, The Senate will propose extra education spending but no Medicaid spending and The House will propose Medicaid spending but no education increases. Then, we'll get together in a committee, say we did the best we could, and underfund everything. Next election cycle, "Democrats" get to say they proposed increases in education, and opposed medicaid cuts, while at the same time saying they proposed decreasing government spending on the same programs.

It's so topsy-turvy that I've confused myself.

More info on this is available at Our story ran two days before the DTH's and I'm quite sure the DTH folks didn't even know about this until they read about it in our paper.

Key paragraphs:

The senior member of Orange County's legislative delegation, House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, said it dropped out after members of the House Appropriations Committee voiced philosophical objections to the request.

"The nature of the [argument] would be that having a university in your town confers a whole lot of benefits, in addition to the burdens, one of which is increased fire protection cost," Hackney said.

Yes, Ray, DTH reporters are incompetent and incapable of figuring out things on their own. You figured us out.

Though to be fair, you might be right -- kids are busy in the summer, it's a weekly paper, the people who are covering the legislature are new at it ...

But hey, no harm, no foul. I just wonder why Ruby posted our story and not yours. ;)

what was left out was a requested INCREASE in funding. Funding would continue at last year's level.

There's a simple test for the contention reported by Hackney. Compare our property tax rates to the rest of the state. If they are less than average then we can be presumed to be gaining those "whole lot of benefits." If they are higher, then we are not and the state ought to fork over for the cost of providing its agency with fire protection.

I agree this issue is a problem, but wanted to respond to this line from the DTH article (by the way, Tar Heel is two words--so Daily Tar Heel. Didn't you all get that hammered into your brain in freshman orientation?!):

"Foy noted that though the University is putting millions of dollars into construction projects, no extra funds are being allotted to support fire protection."

The big construction projects on campus are bond-funded, and it's my understanding that this money couldn't be used for other things, like fire protection.

Only some of the new buildings are bond-funded. Most of the bond projects are for renovation or infrastructure.

Receiving a press release on the issue kind of negates any argument to be made about "sniffing out a story." We are a weekly, we are students but we can read from press releases and cover the state house, too, Ray. I was a little disappointed that a "seasoned" journalist would make such a snide and inaccurate comment.

To cover two points made above:

1. You can't compare tax rates without analyzing how the money is being spent. If our higher taxes can be shown to subsidize UNC, then Dan's point is valid. But if our tax dollars are going to, say, higher per student education expenditures, or to more public art, then there are too many variables in the equation to say we are better or worse off with UNC in our town. (But I'm thinking better, or we'd be...what?...Roxboro was one previous comparison, I think.)

2. It doesn't matter if construction is funded by bonds or not. They both potentially burn the same. Who pays for protecting them? I believe Foy was saying, if you build more, you need to budget more for fire protection. Not from bonds, but in the yearly budget.

In the end, I agree with Foy. UNC is a vital asset to this community. But it is also one that does not pay property taxes. As they build more buildings, the need for fire protection goes up. Providing funding for fire protection is only fair. Another alternative, and one that is used for police protection, would be to tell UNC to provide their own fire department.

I don't know the answers to this so I am asking anyone who might know....

Is there an equation of how much fire protection is needed vs. population/structures, etc.? Are there required minimums/maximums?

Fire/Police/Emergency staff/equipment are priorities of the common good.

As a side note...I have to give props to ALL CHFD that I've met. They are a friendly, engaging group of public service people.

It wasn't clear to me that Mayor Foy was referring to new construction specifically. Indeed, some of the renovations and other infrastructure updates could potentially reduce the need for fire protection--or at least not increase the need.

The new construction is another issue of course.

Then again, one could argue that the reason the houses in Greenwood (among other neighborhoods) are regularly listed for about a million dollars is because of their proximity to the university--and thus the university's presence is raising tax rates which brings in more tax revenue to the town. I guess the bigger picture here is that I'm not sure how anyone can suggest what this town would be like without the university. I would think that even the most anti-UNC amongst this group would acknowledge that this town would likely not exist without the school.

It is frustrating though, not to get taxes from the biggest landowner. It could be worse. In Swain County (which has the dubious honor of being called the poorest in the state), 85% of the land is federally owned, mostly national forest and national park. Swain does get some money to offset that, but it's not equivalent to the lost tax revenues.

Joan, I have never met nor heard of anyone in Chapel Hill who is "anti-UNC." There are some Duke fans but they usually restrict their antipathy to the sports arena.

I don't get how the fact that the presence of the university can attract some people who can afford the taxes that subsidize its services addresses this issue. There are many in Chapel Hill for whom it is difficult to contribute to that subsidy (not all live on Greenwood Road). But, even if you agree that the well-to-do ought to pay higher taxes in support of education, tricking a few of them into living in a high tax community strikes me as a rather round about way to accomplish it.

Dan, my point was more precisely that it seems difficult to calculate the actual cost vs. benefits of the university. It's too integral to the community. I'm not sure where I advocated for "tricking" people into living in high tax communities.

As for anti-UNC sentiments: many people who post regularly here at OP express strong vitrol towards the university. Perhaps I was being too flippant in calling this attitude "anti-UNC."

To be clear, my take is that if the university's growth is a substantial factor in the need for increased services in town, then certainly the state should contribute to the payment of those services. But again, it's not clear how all these factors can be broken down.

I would be willing to guess that Chapel Hill gets more state tax revenue per capita than any other community in the state, and that complaining about UNC and fire protection might be perceived as one of the wealthiest and most subsidized by the state communities complaining when it gets more than its' fair share in the first place.

I'm not saying I completely agree with that argument, but I could see it being made.

Oy. Ryan and I have swapped emails on this and are cool, but a little clarification is in order. At least from the CHH's standpoint, this was not a matter of reacting to a press release.

Our editor, Neil Offen, has made a point recently of encouraging, nay requiring reporters to "update" stories from earlier in the year to track new developments and get them into print. I first wrote about the fire money back in February and with both houses of the General Assembly having turned in their budgets, it was a good time to revisit the matter.

I checked all three versions of the budget (Easley's, the Senate's and the House's) on June 24 (a Friday) to see if the added fire money made it in to each. This was not particularly easy because the $1 million is buried in the proposed allocations to the State Budget Office. But at length, it became apparent that I wasn't finding it in the the House budget because it just wasn't there. At that point, I checked in with Rob Shapard (who covers Chapel Hill) to see if he wanted to write the story himself. He was willing to let me run with it, so I did.

I started making calls early the following week and got Hackney on the line the morning of June 28 (the Tuesday). Foy and I played phone tag and wound up swapping question and answer via voicemail. I wrote and turned in the story the afternoon of June 29, and then promptly left the office for an extended Fourth of July holiday.

The story could have been written a day earlier but was delayed because of more pressing matters (the Umstead Act revision and the Chatham Wal-Mart). Neil then elected to run it at the end of the cycle of holiday papers, which is the typical fate of a story that isn't quite big enough to be a lead during a three-day holiday.

In the meantime, Foy and his assistant, Emily Dickens, decided to put out a press release on the subject. It arrived in my email at 5:06 pm on Thursday, June 30 -- a full day after my story was written and filed. I read the contents of the news release (by remote email) but elected not to make any changes to my story in response.

Despite all this, we still got the story into print two days in advance of anyone else -- and then suffered the annoyance of Ruby's crediting the DTH version as everyone can see above. This didn't sit well with me because of all the hoohah earlier this year about how the local coverage of the CHH/H-S was going to fall off because of the new ownership. We've been kicking the competition all around the block lately (Faison's gubernatorial ambitions, the Umstead Act revisions, the Wal-Mart) and it would be nice if the same people who were so quick to criticize actually noticed what's going on.

What I've noticed lately and wish I had said before your last post is that the Herald is doing more indepth reporting which to me is a very good thing. As a result, I'm not going to other resources as often. I hadn't noticed the followups lately but that's a function of my poor memory.

"...Chapel Hill gets more state tax revenue per capita than any other community in the state..."

Chris, what are you basing this on? Can you explain what types of revenues are going to Chapel Hill that are over and above other cities? Are you including salaries paid to UNC employees? If you are, I'm not sure how that computes as to me paying for fire protection of UNC. If I'm not a UNC employee, then what benefits am I getting that I should pay for this type of thing? If I am a UNC employee, why should I rebate some of my income back to my employer?

The Herald had an editorial yesterday that had all the numbers correct:
The General Assembly sets the state payment each year, and there's no automatic adjustment for inflation or the impact on services of new state construction.

Last year, the state distributed $3.8 million to fire departments, with Chapel Hill receiving $849,000. But the town estimates it costs between $1.4 million and $2.7 million a year for the Fire Department to cover the UNC campus.

Realizing the inequities across the state, Gov. Mike Easley's proposed budget added another $1 million to the fire protections payments. The state Senate's version of the budget also included this higher amount.

The town estimates that, with the higher payments, Chapel Hill would receive another $221,000 a year, for a total of about $1.07 million ? still less than it costs the town to provide the service.

Yes, as Ray points out, he and I have discussed this and are cool. Additionally, I told him how I thought the Herald had kicked all the area newspapers' butts in recent weeks (though I must point out that this trend coincides with us going to a weekly for the summer).
I respond back only because I think it would be interesting to generate a discussion on where people go for their news around here, in this area with so many diverse and different media. I am organizing a series of reader's forums for the fall that will be led by a group of citizens who will include Mayor Kevin Foy, Chamber of Commerce President Aaron Nelson and Student Body President Seth Dearmin, among others. We will discuss how The Herald, News & Observer/Chapel Hill News, DTH, Independent and other papers interact in terms of coverage but I would like to hear more about it in a forum like OP. Ruby, maybe a post would be in order? I think all would benefit from hearing this discussion since the papers are so different yet still remain direct competitors.

I will echo that the Herald has really improved lately. A lot less muckraking, and they've consistently scooped the N&O on the Sapikowski case.

The N&O did have a few pieces on Sapikowski that I haven't seen anywhere else, though. The coverage overall has been pretty great from all sides.

Now y'all know why the DTH hits news stands late every once in a while -- we spend all our time talking about things like these. ;)

Please remember that UNC-CH is now only a "state-assisted"
university, with far more money rolling in from the NIH, NSF,
private gifts, tuition and health-care fees, than from the legislature. If we accept the notion
that the funder of a building bears responsibility to
fund its fire protection, than these other funding sources
should raise their overhead payments to fund fire
protection. The same logic applies to road maintenance:
When Manning Drive degenerates because of hospital construction, who should rebuild the road?

Since taxpayer dollars pay the 'overhead' expenses (% varies by funder) that pay the university back for the grant activity, it seems like at least a % of that % should go to town supported infrastructure--fire protection is an important overhead expense. This is an instance, where I think the university needs to step up and volunteer to shoulder at least part of the expense. Although the fact that they are going to have to turn over all their fine receipts to the schools is just going to cause more financial hardships for them, so I don't expect any voluntarily payments to the town anytime soon. Does anyone know if the UNC-CH fines go the to CHCCS and Orange County schools or does all that money go to the state for their determination of distribution?

Joe, it may be appropriate to look to future capital projects to include funds for maintentance and support or for the university's G&A claim on grants to include funds for fire protection etc. But that does not refute the fact that, in the absence of such arrangements, the state should pay for fire protection for buildings that it owns.

Your Orange County coverage has been stellar of late. The CHN is on vacation ???

Terri, I think the answer to the fines question is here:

Thanks James.


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