Category: Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro Town Hall lies in wait for renovation funding

In the past 60 years, buildings have come and gone in Carrboro. New technology has been developed. The population has increased by a factor of 11.

But in that time, the town hall has stood waiting for the same change and development that occurred all around it.

Now, when the building is finally scheduled to be renovated, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen are having second thoughts.

At the February 21 Board of Alderman meeting, town leaders failed to approve a new capital improvements plan, which would fund the $6.2 million needed for renovations to the town hall.

Town leaders expressed concerns about the overall cost of the plan, which they say is significantly higher due to the addition of town infrastructure for the first time this fiscal year.

“It’s is not a surprise because we’ve asked for those things,” Alderman Bethany Chaney said. “But it does give you pause when you realize how much things cost and it’s hard to make choices when we have so many priorities and demands.”

The town hall, which sits at 301 W. Main Street, has been rendered partially unusable due to a failure to meet certain property codes. Chaney said the closure of part of the building means the town staff no longer have adequate space. Chaney also said the current boardroom is too small to accommodate all the people who attend some of the town’s larger public hearings.

The town hall renovations were proposed in this year’s capital improvement plan. The plan lays out what the town needs to spend from the current fiscal year until fiscal year 2021-2022.

The plan also recommends funding an additional $14.3 million in office space above the planned southern branch of Orange County library at 203 S. Greensboro Street. Town manager David Andrews said town leaders are still deliberating about how much additional space they will need.

“(The library) can be built up to as high as five stories per the zoning so we are looking at building some office spaces on top of the library, and going up another two, or three or four floors depending on what our needs are and what we can afford,” Andrews said.

This year’s plan calls for roughly $51 million total in capital spending, $9.7 million of which have already been appropriated. Last year’s plan only requested $49.3 million.

Alderman Jacquelyn Gist said she was alarmed by the cost increase.

“With some of these numbers—well I haven’t been that scared since Trump’s last speech,” Gist said in the meeting.

Gist also expressed concern with the possibility of the town having to raise taxes on residents to fund the capital improvement plan.

Chaney believes that it is likely town residents will see tax increases in the coming years, regardless of whether the town funds the improvement projects.

“The inflationary cost is increasing at a rate that the growth of our current tax base so whether or not we move forward on the projects I’m afraid that we are going to see tax increases in the next two to three years,” Chaney said.

The projects also faced funding challenges, Chaney said, because public buildings don’t generate property taxes, so they can’t be paid for sustainably without other revenue streams.

“When you are trying to build a building you want to have somebody paying for it, through the property taxes or otherwise,” Chaney said.

In previous meetings, Alderman Randee-Haven O’Donnell also expressed concerns about a drop in funding from the state and federal governments, which could affect the town’s ability to fund projects in the capital improvement plan.

“We do not know what tomorrow will bring and where our economy is going,” Alderman Randee-Haven O’Donnell said. “When you overlay that uncertainty on top of basic questions about county funding not to mention North Carolina and the legislature you really have to be careful.”

While the aldermen debate the costs, the town hall still stands on W. Main Street waiting to be fixed.

“All those projects are vital projects. Whether they could be delayed a year, or two or, three—every time we delay a project the costs increase and that’s just increasing the bottom line.” Chaney said.

“It’s just not adequate. Frankly, it’s a little shameful.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro leaders stand up for women’s rights

After teaching for 39 years, Randee Haven-O’Donnell knows there are some things that can make geology, ecology or water chemistry wait for a day.

So when Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools sat empty Wednesday because of the “Day Without Women” protest, she held off on the science, instead deciding to discuss sexism with her seventh and eighth grade Durham Academy students.

“For me, my goal is to be front and center with my students and to say to them, as I did (Wednesday), ‘I am here to be with you and talk about this,’” Haven O’Donnell said.

Haven-O’Donnell, who also serves on Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen, believes that even though students may have missed a day of school, the value of the message was more important than what students would have learned that day.

“I think having this out for the day in the very short run it’s a way to make a statement about women that’s important for children to realize,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “I would submit to you that the most important aspect of learning goes far beyond was it going to be measured by any given test or assessment on any given day.”

At the March 7 Board of Aldermen meeting, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle was greeted with a spontaneous round of applause after she read a proclamation declaring Wednesday to be “Carrboro Women’s Day.” Lavelle said she declared the holiday in solidarity with International Women’s Day, which was held on the same day.

“I think this is (a holiday) I’m going to continue,” Lavelle said.  “There is a great emphasis on it, I think particularly this year with the spirit of the Women’s March. I just felt like it was really important to kind of state that Carrboro stands behind the principles that founded that day.”

A movement based off of the “Day Without Immigrants” protest encouraged women to take the day off from work, wear red and refrain from spending money to support the cause of women on the holiday. Because of a high number of predicted staff absences, Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools declared an optional teacher workday.

Only three school districts in the country were forced to close because of the protests. The closure garnered national attention and was reported by various news outlets including The New York Times. A statement released by school superintendent Jim Causby said the closure was not because of any personal politics, but rather because of a perceived inability to operate the schools properly with the number of staff members absent.

“While Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools values and supports its female employees, the decision to close schools is not a political statement,”  Causby said. “It is entirely about the safety of students and the district’s inability to operate with a high number of staff absences.”

Haven-O’Donnell said even if the school says they didn’t claim to close for political reasons, it is possible that still support the cause.

“The school district does that because they don’t want to be like a weather-vane—depending on what the political mood is you know flip-flopping one way or the other,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “But I think that the school district does not want to be in crisis either.”

Haven O’Donnell believes that Carrboro is the ideal community to support women’s rights because of their recent history of supporting social justice issues. In January, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools proposed raising their living wage rate from $12.75 to $13.16 per hour—well above the $7.25 state minimum wage.

“This is something that Carrboro does,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “You can see it in life with how we support social justice issues, but even more important than that, (you see it) undergirding the platform that supports women—whether it be wages, salaries, equalization, equity, healthcare.”

Lavelle also said she was open to allowing town employees to take the day of in solidarity with the movement.

“I believe our town employees that want to are able to participate and can take time off to do so,” Lavelle said. “I want people to be able to make a point or have their voices heard.”

Though she believes they understand the issues, Haven-O’Donnell said that she was pessimistic about young people’s support for feminism until the past year’s protests of President Donald Trump.

“When I was in Washington there were million people standing around with me energized to resist,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “This is that extension. It’s not going away. It’s overdue. And I think especially middle schoolers, high schoolers respect people who are trying to fight and people who are strengthening their voice—that’s the way kids are.”

Lavelle said that a new energy has been breathed into the community to stand up for women’s rights and other social issues.

“I’ve seen it everywhere I go. People want to get engaged,” Lavelle said.  “They look to local government for it first to start to try to hear what’s going on to try to shape policy statewide and nationally. There’s absolutely a lot of energy. Speaking especially for our area, our towns—we are always energized, but even more so this year.”

Haven O’Donnell said no matter the age or gender, protest is always appropriate when faced with injustice.

“I think peaceful dissent is always appropriate,” Haven-O’Donnell said.

“Passive resistance is not easy. But it’s effective. And sometimes that’s all we’ve got.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Town of Carrboro preempts legal challenge to N.C. body…

Carrboro’s town attorney thinks body camera video should be seen by community leaders.

And he thinks he just might have a way around a new state law that would prohibit such disclosures.

“The statutes say the council of a city runs, or are the corporate officers of the city and that includes the police department. The statutes say that the manager is essentially the chief executive officer and administrator of all personnel in the city,” Town Attorney Nick Herman said in an interview.  “So if you’ve got the police department doing something on tape arguably under the statutes that would empower the manager to be the administrator of the city and he outta be able to see that tape.”

After two years of deliberation and refinement, the Carrboro Board of Alderman passed a measure 4-1 at the Feb. 28 board meeting which would authorize body camera use by the town police department. Body camera video disclosure is governed by N.C. General Statute 132, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2016.

Under the new law, police body and dash camera recordings are no longer part of the public record and only legal representatives of those in the recordings could request to see the footage from a police department. The police department, however, would not be legally required to allow them to view the footage.  If the footage wasn’t handed over to the representative, they could then request the footage from a superior court judge. For any other person who wants access to the footage, they must request access to it in court from a superior court judge.

The Carrboro resolution was developed in a collaboration between the aldermen, the town police department and attorneys for the town, police department and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Upon request from the ACLU, the town implemented measures in the new policy that places the presumption on disclosing all footage unless the police chief has a legitimate reason not to do so.

The aldermen also authorized four new motions to the policy before it passed on Tuesday night including resolutions striking language that reiterated the general statutes excluding the recordings from the public record and adding language allowing the town to read the new policy in ways that could potentially allow their access to any police tapes.

“My position on that is that we are bound by the statute… we cannot bring a facial challenge to it,” Herman said in the meeting. “There is nothing unlawful about the statute itself, its enactment or what it says. What the fight would be potentially is an interpretation of the reach of the statute—what it means. Some of us believe that the statute must be read in light of other statutes that the manager is empowered to do certain things and empower (the alderman) to do certain things. Viewed that way is disclosure or release may be more expansive than just what’s literally stated in this.”

UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government professor Jeff Welty said in a September interview that despite other states passing laws governing body camera footage, North Carolina’s law is unique.

“(Other) states are all over the map,” Welty said. “But one aspect of our law that that’s unique is that I don’t think there is any other state in which there is no way to get access to a recording like this except through a court order.”

Alderman Sammy Slade voted against the policy Tuesday night because he said the state law limits one of the original intentions of body cameras.

“I feel that one of the values that video footage has… is for the public to serve to hold accountable not just the police force but (also) the justice system itself,” Slade said in the meeting.

“A superior court judge is accountable to a larger group of people who vote for him than a Board of Aldermen or an elected body is. Other people participating that have other issues or concerns may not feel the accountability that may happen is as direct”

Alderman Bethany Chaney said that despite objections to the state law she supports the new policy.

“I’m very much in support of this policy,” Chaney said. “I think the two years it’s taken to get here has been appropriate.”

Gov. Pat McCrory said when he signed the law on July 11 that statute is designed to increase transparency.

“This legislation fulfills our commitment to protect our law enforcement and gain public trust by promoting uniformity, clarity and transparency,” McCrory said.

Gov. Roy Cooper opposed the law in his campaign against McCrory, criticizing it as misleading and not transparent.

“Cooper has consistently said he supports the use of body cameras in law enforcement but the law signed by Governor McCrory doesn’t do enough to ensure transparency,” Cooper campaign spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement. “Transparency is vital to building trust and respect between law enforcement and the communities they protect. It’s a shame that (the) Governor insists on attempting to mislead voters instead of taking responsibility for the law he signed.”

Herman said that releasing the tapes to the public could potentially expose the town to legal action.

“My view is the manager needs to know about (an incident) immediately and then the manager outta be able to to come in here and closed session and show you the tape and say ‘We gotta do something about this’ because what your lawyers gonna say is ‘We are gonna get the hell sued out of us,’” Herman said after the meeting.  “Now releasing to the public is sticky wicket. There would be at least legitimate arguments about some safeguard about putting this out in the public domain only because take an ambiguous tape—everybody sees what they want to see.”

Local ACLU attorney Susanna Birdsong, who collaborated on the Carrboro policy, also criticized the law in September after violent protests erupted in Charlotte, N.C. over the shooting death of Keith Lamond Scott.

“Under this shameful new law, North Carolinians will have to spend time and money seeking a court order if they want to obtain police footage they themselves are in – and even then, they could still be denied,” Birdsong said in a statement. “The law also prohibits law enforcement agencies from releasing footage in the public interest – as we have seen officials do recently in Greensboro, Charlotte and Tulsa, Oklahoma – without a court order, which is why it has been criticized by police chiefs in Burlington, Fayetteville, and Greenville, and people across the state.”

The Carrboro policy would allow officers to view recordings prior to writing their reports, except in cases of officer involved shootings. In the event of a shooting, the officer would be suspended for two to three days and then would be required to write a statement about the shooting before they could view the tape. The written statement could then be amended thereafter, but the original draft of the statement would be kept.

Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton said he supports the new policy, but it will not be the panacea to police-resident relations.

“My two cents—we’ve got a solid policy,” Horton said in the meeting. “I am looking forward to (body worn cameras) but they are not gonna be the end-all solution, the everything that’s gonna answer every question… but I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Burden of Dependency:

Carrboro leaders long for freedom from harmful state legislation

Carrboro’s leaders sometimes wish the town they lived was somewhere else.

A town not tucked in the center of a state that passed HB2. Not nestled in place that strips their authority to govern with just a few approved words on paper. Not controlled by a majority that seems to think differently in every possible way.

A town that wants to, as its bus-side advertisements say, “Feel Free”—free to raise the minimum wage, free to outfit the police with body cameras, free to fund a public transportation system that connects communities.

But town leaders are starting to feel that this freedom is being slowly chipped away. Their own state legislators, the people claiming to represent them, are attacking their very way of life.

Where has the money gone?

For Alderman Randee Haven O’Donnell the main appeal of living in Carrboro is the schools.

Less than ten miles from Carrboro are three of the top ten high schools in the state—East Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The town also lies only two miles away from one of the nation’s top public universities, UNC-Chapel Hill. 23.5 percent of workers in Orange County, the county where most of Carrboro resides, work in education and almost half of the county’s budget goes to fund its two school districts.

But funding for the schools has recently been jeopardized by several bills from the state’s General Assembly.

House Bill 406 would remove the ability for Orange County to collect impact fees, or fees charged to developers to fund social projects. A similar bill, House Bill 436, would remove the ability impose these in towns and counties state-wide including in Carrboro. Impact fees make up roughly $2.8 million of the revenue for Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro public schools. Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils believes the only ways for the town to make up for the lost revenue would be to raise property taxes or cut school spending.

“I think regardless of how people in Orange County feel about impact fees in general the reality is if Orange County is no longer able to collect those school construction impact fees that’s going to be a significant hit on the budget and the county will have to make up that revenue somehow,” Seils said in an interview. “Of course the community is not going to support cutting spending that would be a pretty major hit on the school system. Most likely outcome there would be a pretty significant rise in the property taxes.”

Other bills have attacked UNC-CH’s finances. House Bill 728 would forcibly remove UNC from the Atlantic Coast Conference if the conference continues its boycott of the state for its championships, potentially costing the university roughly $90 million in exit fees and the loss of all media rights until 2027.

Perhaps the greatest impact on the schools and on Carrboro has been the passage of House Bill 2, or the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, in a special legislative session in General Assembly in March. The bill limited the rights of transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice and also enacted limits on town non-discrimination and minimum wage ordinances.  Several companies pulled out of North Carolina including PayPal and Adidas and seven states issued travel bans to North Carolina in reaction to the law. In addition to the ACC, The National Basketball Association and National Collegiate Athletic Association also boycotted the state by removing their respective championship games. A HB2 repeal bill passed on March 30, but it was soon decried by civil rights groups because of provisions that continued to prevent municipalities from implementing non-discrimination ordinances until 2020.

“The economics of this should say to our Republican legislators that they do not have North Carolina’s economic interests at heart. That their ideology is in conflict with the health and welfare and stability, economic stability, of the state,” Haven O’Donnell said of HB2. “(Orange) county is going to suffer the most, because we’ve got UNC which is the flagship university of this state…. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

In July of 2016, the Orange County Visitors Bureau estimated that the county had lost over a million dollars in revenue from HB2, mainly from tourism. The majority of tourism revenue in Carrboro comes from the Hampton Inn on East Main Street. Haven O’Donnell said the hotel is vulnerable because of the discriminatory state laws’ effect on UNC-CH’s sports. The state also currently sets limits on how much money Carrboro can collect from the hotel, further constraining the town’s finances.

“78 percent of the tourism dollars are generated by the Hampton Inn in Carrboro,” Haven O’Donnell said. “(The economic loss) is not only going to make a difference county-wide—I think it’s going to erode those numbers for folks getting accommodation at Carrboro’s hotels.”

The state has also imposed limits on how much it will contribute to capital projects like spending on infrastructure. In February, the Board of Aldermen failed to approve of a new capital improvements plan that would provide much-needed repairs to Town Hall partially due to a lack in funding.

“I am very fearful about state resources in the future for transportation and subsidies, housing subsidies that kind of thing at the state level to our own ability to raise money at the local level,” Alderman Bethany Chaney “All of those things can really reset our ability to manage our finances as well as we’ve been able to do in the past.”

Several Alderman also expressed concern with a public transportation plan that was approved by the voters in 2012 because of a drop in state funding for the project. The $2.5-billion-dollar public transportation plan provides expanded bus service and also calls for the construction of a light rail system connecting Durham and Orange counties by 2062. The original draft of the plan requested 25 percent of the funding to come from the state, but after the law changed in 2016 only 10 percent of the project will be state-funded.

A report by the financial consulting firm Davenport and Company said unless the funding gap was addressed the plan could leave Orange County in a potentially risky financial situation. Davenport and Co. estimated the county will only have $210, 725 to cover any unforeseen expenses with the plan by 2040.

Despite historically sound financial management, several Aldermen believe that property taxes must rise to make up for the impact of General Assembly legislation.

“That being said I think the biggest threat to the towns ability to meet its expenses over time is actually the state of North Carolina and the state legislature. There are very few actions we can take as a board that are independent of the state,” Chaney said. “When the states legislature is as conservative and as bitter as it is we find that we are very constrained in the way that we can creatively raise resources and pour those resources.”

A progressive agenda in a conservative state

Seils said legislation is more partisan and targeted under the current Republican-controlled legislature, especially for liberal communities.

“It’s somewhat common I think especially under this current legislature for bills to come through that affect particular communities,” Seils said. “I think there are others that are more general ideological that they just reflect a different view what the state should be and certain kinds of regulations or what the role of local governments should be in local regulations.”

Orange County residents have supported a liberal candidate for president ever since 1928. In the 2016 election, roughly 72 percent of Orange County residents voted for Hillary Clinton—significantly higher than the 46.7 percent state-wide. None of the current members of the Board of Aldermen are registered Republicans.

Carrboro has also served as a model for other liberal municipalities state-wide. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools was one of only three school districts in the country to close on March 8 because the “Day Without Women” protest was projected to leave the district understaffed. The town elected the very first openly gay mayor in the state in 1995, and currently is led by the state’s first lesbian mayor. In 2016, all Carrboro town and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools employees were guaranteed a living wage of $12.75 an hour, $5.50 more than the state minimum wage.

General Assembly legislation has damaged more than just the town’s finances. Several laws or pieces of proposed legislation conflict the progressive vision the town has prided itself on.

Recent proposed legislation also targets the towns environmental measures. Senate Bill 434 places restrictions on stream buffers, or lands adjacent to streams where vegetation is strongly influenced by the presence of water. Alderman Damon Seils believes the bill were to become law it would negatively affect both the water quality and disaster preparedness of the town.

Another bill, House Bill 63, would target policies on the treatment of residents in the U.S. illegally. The bill would allow for any resident to report their town harboring persons in the country illegally. Currently Carrboro is not registered as a “sanctuary” city for these immigrants but Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said they need not fear deportation.

“The fact is in an environment where some of the basics are being dismantled, the ability, the local authority, to determine who is welcome and who has sanctuary in your town this is something that North Carolinians should push their legislator (support local control),” Haven-O’Donnell said.

A recent initiative to implement body cameras in the Carrboro Police Department sparked debate by Alderman Sammy Slade because of law passed by the General Assembly in November that would limit access of body camera footage.

Under the new law body camera footage could only be accessed at the discretion of the police department by a legal representative of a person appearing in the footage. In all other cases access to the footage could only be granted by a superior court judge.

Jeff Welty, a Professor at the UNC School of Government said in November that the law is the first of its kind.

“Other states are all over the map,” Welty said. “But one aspect of our that’s unique is that I don’t think there is any other state in which there is no way to get access to a recording like this except through a court order.”

Slade said he was unable to support the body camera resolution because it would not provide for proper public accountability of the police department.

“The value in general of video footage is for the public to serve to hold accountable not just the police force but (also) the justice system itself,” Slade said. “And so the reason I find the state law problematic is that it takes that opportunity to hold the justice system accountable from us.”

Town Attorney Nick Herman said he and a group of other attorneys are trying to fight back against the law to allow for disclosure of body camera footage to the town manager.

“There is nothing unlawful about the statute itself, its enactment or what it says. What the fight would be potentially is an interpretation of the reach of the statute—what it means,” Herman said. “Some of us believe that the statute must be read in light of other statutes—that the manager is empowered to do certain things. Viewed that way is disclosure or release may be more expansive than just what’s literally stated in this.”

Fighting back

Haven O’Donnell believes it is the town’s job to stand up against perceived injustice by the legislature.

“I think peaceful dissent is always appropriate,” Haven O’Donnell said. “I’ve always felt that when people have concerns that they need to express it, they need to be able to tell what they are thinking and feeling and need to be able to let people know where their voices are.”

Despite the legislative setbacks, Carrboro’s Aldermen continue to pass progressive policies and remain optimistic for the future and for the town they live in.

“Personality-wise we are much more like in kindred spirits with places like Portland, Oregon or on a tiny scale Seattle or Boulder, Colorado,” Haven O’Donnell said. “We extend that view in every direction—It just radiates out from who we are. And that’s the reason why I want folks to know “Come to Carrboro.” The rest of the state may have a different view, but the progressive mindset lives and breathes here.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro Alderman consider property tax increase for next year

Carrboro has been on steady financial ground for a while.

The town recovered and revitalized itself after the tremors of 2008 and for the fourteenth time in a row the town received a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award. Property taxes haven’t been raised in over seven years.

But this year something changed. The financially sound foundation is starting to shake.

The town is under seismic treat, Town Manager David Andrews said, because property taxes have failed to keep pace with inflation.

Andrews expressed concern about the taxes in the January 24 board meeting. Alderman Bethany Chaney said she is beginning to worry about the possibility of raising the property taxes to avoid a crisis.

“I think anytime we hear a statement like that there is reason to be concerned,” Chaney said.  “Nobody likes having to figure out a funding gap when potentially one of the options on the table, or the best option on the table is raising the tax rate.”

Scott Mooneyham, the director of public affairs for the North Carolina League of Municipalities said in an email that the if the property tax doesn’t rise with the rate of inflation the town can be put in an uncomfortable position.

“The property tax is really the only tax that local governments—municipalities and counties—have real control of,” Mooneyham said in an email.  “If inflation is rising faster than the growth in property tax collection—and those collections do make up the bulk of revenue for the vast majority of municipalities—then over time the governing boards of those municipalities really have only two choices: cut services or raise the property tax rate.”

Carrboro’s current property tax rate is about 59 cents for every $100 in property value. The property value for the town that lies within the Orange County limits is also facing a property reevaluation which could affect the town’s taxable income for the next fiscal year. The town was last evaluated in 2009. The final budget, which will be released in May, will reflect the potential tax changes. Andrews said the property taxes for the town have not been increased for over seven years.

Carrboro’s current property tax rate is about 59 cents for every $100 in property value. The property value for the town that lies within the Orange County limits is also facing a property reevaluation which could affect the town’s taxable income for the next fiscal year. The town was last evaluated in 2009. The final budget, which will be released in May, will reflect the potential tax changes. Andrews said the property taxes for the town have not been increased for over seven years.

“The property tax rate has been flat and we’ve seen sort of marginal increases from some developments coming online which has helped it to grow but certainly not at a high pace,” Andrews said.

The board has not yet been asked to formally consider a tax increase, but Chaney believes it will be part of the discussion going into the budget negotiations.

“The staff has not asked us to consider it yet, but I can say with confidence that we can no longer avoid (raising property taxes) as a real possibility over the next three years,” Chaney said.

Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell also expressed concerns about the Carrboro’s inability to meet the goal laid out in their planning document, Vision 2020, that called for a doubling of the commercial tax base.

“The residential tax base remains the critical scaffolding for our financial solvency,” Haven-O’Donnell said in an email. “It is obvious tax rate sustainability is in jeopardy and is struggling to keep pace with inflation rates.”

The balance of the percentage of taxes the town was collecting from sales taxes could also potentially be too high, Andrews said. He said they could leave the town financially vulnerable if the town were to face an economic downturn. Andrews was, however, optimistic that the taxes were coming from a diverse mix of sources.

“I’m not sure what the exact right mix (of property and sales tax) will be,” Andrews said. “Even though property tax revenues have really increased modestly, the bright side is our sales tax and other types of revenues have grown at a stronger pace which has allowed us to continue to balance our budget.”

Mooneyham said the Carrboro property and sales taxes were not unusual for a town of its size but expressed concern about its lack of diversification.

“Most economists who study tax and finance issues would say governments should have more varied revenue sources than municipalities enjoy because relying on too few revenue sources can lead to wide swings in revenue based on the economy and unequal tax burdens for residents,” Mooneyham said.

The Board also expressed concerns at the meeting about the lack of affordable housing in Carrboro. Affordable housing is partially funded by the town, which contributes one percent of its overall budget toward the cause. Despite the contribution, residents gave the town its only failing grade in the town’s first-ever Biennial Citizen Survey for the lack of affordable housing. Chaney said the funding is already under scrutiny for possibly contributing to tax increases in the future.

“I think some members of the board are concerned about is that that one percent could be the triggering factor for higher taxes down the road,” Chaney said. “I disagree that that’s the case. I think we are committed in general as a board to continue to fund affordable housing efforts.”

Chaney also criticized the North Carolina General Assembly for immobilizing certain revenue streams for the town like the income the town collects from occupants in hotels.

“There are very few actions we can take as a board that are independent of the state,” Chaney said. “When the state’s legislature is as conservative and as bitter as it is we find that we are very constrained in the way that we can creatively raise resources and pour those resources.”

Despite the constraints, both Chaney and Haven-O’Donnell still stand opposed to tax increases. But Chaney said unless the town invests in large-scale commercial development, it will continue to be constrained.

“The town of Carrboro has always been committed to keeping our property tax rate as low as we can and we are constrained by our size of the town—we are 6.5 square miles,” Chaney said.  “So unless we build up and unless we are willing to commit to large development projects, we are not going to grow that tax base.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro town hall lies in wait for needed renovation

In the past 60 years, buildings have come and gone in Carrboro. New technology has been developed. The population has increased by a factor of 11.

But in that time, the town hall has stood waiting for the same change and development that occurred all around it.

Now, when the building is finally scheduled to be renovated, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen is having second thoughts.

At the February 21 Board of Alderman meeting, town leaders failed to approve a new capital improvements plan, which would fund the $6.2 million needed for renovations to the town hall.

Town leaders expressed concerns about the overall cost of the plan, which they say is significantly higher due to the addition of town infrastructure for the first time this fiscal year.

“It’s is not a surprise because we’ve asked for those things,” Alderman Bethany Chaney said. “But it does give you pause when you realize how much things cost and it’s hard to make choices when we have so many priorities and demands.”

The town hall, which sits at 301 W. Main Street, has been rendered partially unusable due to a failure to meet certain property codes. Chaney said the closure of part of the building means the town staff no longer have adequate space. Chaney also said the current boardroom is too small to accommodate all the people who attend some of the town’s larger public hearings.

The town hall renovations were proposed in this year’s capital improvement plan.  The plan lays out what the town needs to spend from the current fiscal year until fiscal year 2021-2022.

The plan also recommends funding an additional $14.3 million in office space above the planned southern branch of Orange County library at 203 S. Greensboro Street. Town manager David Andrews said town leaders are still deliberating about how much additional space they will need.

“(The library) can be built up to as high as five stories per the zoning so we are looking at building some office spaces on top of the library, and going up another two, or three or four floors depending on what our needs are and what we can afford,” Andrews said.

This year’s plan calls for roughly $51 million total in capital spending, $9.7 million of which have already been appropriated. Last year’s plan only requested $49.3 million.

Alderman Jacquelyn Gist said she was alarmed by the cost increase.

“With some of these numbers—well I haven’t been that scared since Trump’s last speech,” Gist said in the meeting.

Gist also expressed concern with the possibility of the town having to raise taxes on residents to fund the capital improvement plan.

Chaney believes that it is likely town residents will see tax increases in the coming years, regardless of whether the town funds the improvement projects.

“The inflationary cost is increasing at a rate that the growth of our current tax base so whether or not we move forward on the projects I’m afraid that we are going to see tax increases in the next two to three years,” Chaney said.

The projects also faced funding challenges, Chaney said, because public buildings don’t generate property taxes, so they can’t be paid for sustainably without other revenue streams.

“When you are trying to build a building you want to have somebody paying for it, through the property taxes or otherwise,” Chaney said.

In previous meetings, Alderman Randee-Haven O’Donnell also expressed concerns about a drop in funding from the state and federal governments, which could affect the town’s ability to fund projects in the capital improvement plan.

“We do not know what tomorrow will bring and where our economy is going,” Alderman Randee-Haven O’Donnell said. “When you overlay that uncertainty on top of basic questions about county funding not to mention North Carolina and the legislature you really have to be careful.”

While the aldermen debate the costs, the town hall still stands on W. Main Street waiting to be fixed.

“All those projects are vital projects. Whether they could be delayed a year, or two or, three—every time we delay a project the costs increase and that’s just increasing the bottom line.” Chaney said.

“It’s just not adequate. Frankly, it’s a little shameful.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro leaders stand up for women’s rights

By Ari Sen 

After teaching for 39 years, Randee Haven-O’Donnell knows there are some things that can make geology, ecology or water chemistry wait for a day.

So when Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools sat empty Wednesday because of the “Day Without Women” protest, she held off on the science, instead deciding to discuss sexism with her seventh and eighth grade Durham Academy students.

“For me, my goal is to be front and center with my students and to say to them, as I did (Wednesday), ‘I am here to be with you and talk about this,’” Haven O’Donnell said.

Haven-O’Donnell, who also serves on Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen, believes that even though students may have missed a day of school, the value of the message was more important than what students would have learned that day.

“I think having this out for the day in the very short run it’s a way to make a statement about women that’s important for children to realize,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “I would submit to you that the most important aspect of learning goes far beyond was it going to be measured by any given test or assessment on any given day.”

At the March 7 Board of Aldermen meeting, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle was greeted with a spontaneous round of applause after she read a proclamation declaring Wednesday to be “Carrboro Women’s Day.” Lavelle said she declared the holiday in solidarity with International Women’s Day, which was held on the same day.

“I think this is (a holiday) I’m going to continue,” Lavelle said.  “There is a great emphasis on it, I think particularly this year with the spirit of the Women’s March. I just felt like it was really important to kind of state that Carrboro stands behind the principles that founded that day.”

A movement based off of the “Day Without Immigrants” protest encouraged women to take the day off from work, wear red and refrain from spending money to support the cause of women on the holiday. Because of a high number of predicted staff absences, Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools declared an optional teacher workday.

Only three school districts in the country were forced to close because of the protests. The closure garnered national attention and was reported by various news outlets including the New York Times. A statement released by school superintendent Jim Causby said the closure was not because of any personal politics, but rather because of a perceived inability to operate the schools properly with the number of staff members absent.

“While Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools values and supports its female employees, the decision to close schools is not a political statement,”  Causby said. “It is entirely about the safety of students and the district’s inability to operate with a high number of staff absences.”

Haven-O’Donnell said even if the school says they didn’t claim to close for political reasons, it is possible that still support the cause.

“The school district does that because they don’t want to be like a weather-vane—depending on what the political mood is you know flip-flopping one way or the other,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “But I think that the school district does not want to be in crisis either.”

Haven O’Donnell believes that Carrboro is the ideal community to support women’s rights because of their recent history of supporting social justice issues. In January, Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools proposed raising their living wage rate from $12.75 to $13.16 per hour—well above the $7.25 state minimum wage.

“This is something that Carrboro does,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “You can see it in life with how we support social justice issues, but even more important than that, (you see it) undergirding the platform that supports women—whether it be wages, salaries, equalization, equity, healthcare.”

Lavelle also said she was open to allowing town employees to take the day of in solidarity with the movement.

“I believe our town employees that want to are able to participate and can take time off to do so,” Lavelle said. “I want people to be able to make a point or have their voices heard.”

Though she believes they understand the issues, Haven-O’Donnell said that she was pessimistic about young people’s support for feminism until the past year’s protests of President Donald Trump.

“When I was in Washington there were million people standing around with me energized to resist,” Haven-O’Donnell said. “This is that extension. It’s not going away. It’s overdue. And I think especially middle schoolers, high schoolers respect people who are trying to fight and people who are strengthening their voice—that’s the way kids are.”

Lavelle said that a new energy has been breathed into the community to stand up for women’s rights and other social issues.

“I’ve seen it everywhere I go. People want to get engaged,” Lavelle said.  “They look to local government for it first to start to try to hear what’s going on to try to shape policy statewide and nationally. There’s absolutely a lot of energy. Speaking especially for our area, our towns—we are always energized, but even more so this year.”

Haven O’Donnell said no matter the age or gender, protest is always appropriate when faced with injustice.

“I think peaceful dissent is always appropriate,” Haven-O’Donnell said.

“Passive resistance is not easy. But it’s effective. And sometimes that’s all we’ve got.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Town of Carrboro preempts legal challenge to N.C. body…

By Ari Sen 

Carrboro’s town attorney thinks body camera video should be seen by community leaders.

And he thinks he just might have a way around a new state law that would prohibit such disclosures.

“The statutes say the council of a city runs, or are the corporate officers of the city and that includes the police department. The statutes say that the manager is essentially the chief executive officer and administrator of all personnel in the city,” Town Attorney Nick Herman said in an interview.  “So if you’ve got the police department doing something on tape arguably under the statutes that would empower the manager to be the administrator of the city and he outta be able to see that tape.”

After two years of deliberation and refinement, the Carrboro Board of Alderman passed a measure 4-1 at the Feb. 28 board meeting which would authorize body camera use by the town police department. Body camera video disclosure is governed by N.C. General Statute 132, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2016.

Under the new law, police body and dash camera recordings are no longer part of the public record and only legal representatives of those in the recordings could request to see the footage from a police department. The police department, however, would not be legally required to allow them to view the footage.  If the footage wasn’t handed over to the representative, they could then request the footage from a superior court judge. For any other person who wants access to the footage, they must request access to it in court from a superior court judge.

The Carrboro resolution was developed in a collaboration between the aldermen, the town police department and attorneys for the town, police department and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Upon request from the ACLU, the town implemented measures in the new policy that places the presumption on disclosing all footage unless the police chief has a legitimate reason not to do so.

The aldermen also authorized four new motions to the policy before it passed on Tuesday night including resolutions striking language that reiterated the general statutes excluding the recordings from the public record and adding language allowing the town to read the new policy in ways that could potentially allow their access to any police tapes.

“My position on that is that we are bound by the statute… we cannot bring a facial challenge to it,” Herman said in the meeting. “There is nothing unlawful about the statute itself, its enactment or what it says. What the fight would be potentially is an interpretation of the reach of the statute—what it means. Some of us believe that the statute must be read in light of other statutes that the manager is empowered to do certain things and empower (the alderman) to do certain things. Viewed that way is disclosure or release may be more expansive than just what’s literally stated in this.”

UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government professor Jeff Welty said in a September interview that despite other states passing laws governing body camera footage, North Carolina’s law is unique.

“(Other) states are all over the map,” Welty said. “But one aspect of our law that that’s unique is that I don’t think there is any other state in which there is no way to get access to a recording like this except through a court order.”

Alderman Sammy Slade voted against the policy Tuesday night because he said the state law limits one of the original intentions of body cameras.

“I feel that one of the values that video footage has… is for the public to serve to hold accountable not just the police force but (also) the justice system itself,” Slade said in the meeting.

“A superior court judge is accountable to a larger group of people who vote for him than a Board of Aldermen or an elected body is. Other people participating that have other issues or concerns may not feel the accountability that may happen is as direct”

Alderman Bethany Chaney said that despite objections to the state law she supports the new policy.

“I’m very much in support of this policy,” Chaney said. “I think the two years it’s taken to get here has been appropriate.”

Gov. Pat McCrory said when he signed the law on July 11 that statute is designed to increase transparency.

“This legislation fulfills our commitment to protect our law enforcement and gain public trust by promoting uniformity, clarity and transparency,” McCrory said.

Gov. Roy Cooper opposed the law in his campaign against McCrory, criticizing it as misleading and not transparent.

“Cooper has consistently said he supports the use of body cameras in law enforcement but the law signed by Governor McCrory doesn’t do enough to ensure transparency,” Cooper campaign spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement. “Transparency is vital to building trust and respect between law enforcement and the communities they protect. It’s a shame that (the) Governor insists on attempting to mislead voters instead of taking responsibility for the law he signed.”

Herman said that releasing the tapes to the public could potentially expose the town to legal action.

“My view is the manager needs to know about (an incident) immediately and then the manager outta be able to to come in here and closed session and show you the tape and say ‘We gotta do something about this’ because what your lawyers gonna say is ‘We are gonna get the hell sued out of us,’” Herman said after the meeting.  “Now releasing to the public is sticky wicket. There would be at least legitimate arguments about some safeguard about putting this out in the public domain only because take an ambiguous tape—everybody sees what they want to see.”

Local ACLU attorney Susanna Birdsong, who collaborated on the Carrboro policy, also criticized the law in September after violent protests erupted in Charlotte, N.C. over the shooting death of Keith Lamond Scott.

“Under this shameful new law, North Carolinians will have to spend time and money seeking a court order if they want to obtain police footage they themselves are in – and even then, they could still be denied,” Birdsong said in a statement. “The law also prohibits law enforcement agencies from releasing footage in the public interest – as we have seen officials do recently in Greensboro, Charlotte and Tulsa, Oklahoma – without a court order, which is why it has been criticized by police chiefs in Burlington, Fayetteville, and Greenville, and people across the state.”

The Carrboro policy would allow officers to view recordings prior to writing their reports, except in cases of officer involved shootings. In the event of a shooting, the officer would be suspended for two to three days and then would be required to write a statement about the shooting before they could view the tape. The written statement could then be amended thereafter, but the original draft of the statement would be kept.

Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton said he supports the new policy, but it will not be the panacea to police-resident relations.

“My two cents—we’ve got a solid policy,” Horton said in the meeting. “I am looking forward to (body worn cameras) but they are not gonna be the end-all solution, the everything that’s gonna answer every question… but I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Carrboro hangs in precarious balance after HB2 repeal, NCAA…

By Ari Sen 

For some members of the Board of Aldermen their worst nightmare is a Carrboro without the revenue from Carolina athletics.

So when the National Collegiate Athletic Association threatened to withdraw all of its championship games from the state until 2022 unless legislators repealed House Bill 2, the town leaders took notice.

“I worry that in Orange County, where we do not have the industry or the retail that Durham has. We are really vulnerable,” Alderman Randee Haven O’Donnell said in an interview yesterday. “The economic picture for is rosy if everything were status quo. But I don’t think it is”

A repeal of House Bill 2, House Bill 142, passed in the North Carolina Senate and North Carolina General Assembly Thursday morning and N.C.  Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill, this afternoon.  In addition to repealing HB2, the new law would also place a moratorium on municipalities passing non-discrimination ordinances until December of 2020.

“I know I’ve done the right thing,” Cooper said in a press conference today. “My choice was to do nothing or repeal House Bill 2 and take this important step forward.”

Activists from pro-LGBT rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign have denounced the repeal bill.

“The governor and General Assembly may be turning their backs on LGBT North Carolinians today, but we are not,” Sarah Gillooly, policy director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement. “We will continue to fight in court for transgender people to access the restrooms that correspond to their gender identity and for equal protection for the entire LGBT community in North Carolina.”

The NCAA has yet to make a determination as to whether to move the championship games. It is still unclear whether the NCAA will consider the passage of House Bill 142 to be a true repeal of House Bill 2.

“Last year, the NCAA Board of Governors relocated NCAA championships scheduled in North Carolina because of the cumulative impact HB2 had on local communities’ ability to assure a safe, healthy, discrimination-free atmosphere for all those watching and participating in our events,”
Stacey Osburn, the NCAA Director of Public and Media Relations wrote in a statement last week. “Absent any change in the law, our position remains the same regarding hosting current or future events in the state. As the state knows, next week our various sports committees will begin making championships site selections for 2018-2022 based upon bids received from across the country.”

Haven O’Donnell said that if the NCAA were to remove its championship games from the state Carrboro would be negatively affected by the lack of tourism money.

“78 percent of the tourism dollars are generated by the Hampton Inn in Carrboro. That’s amazing to me,” Haven O’Donnell said.  “If what happens with the sport at the university I think is not only going to make a difference county-wide—I think it’s going to erode those numbers for folks getting accommodation at Carrboro’s hotels.”

Two of the Alderman, Damon Seils and Bethany Chaney took to Twitter to express their displeasure with the repeal bill and the NCAA’s ultimatum.

“Come on, (N.C. Governor Roy Cooper). We’re looking for high-value democratic leadership not this wet-fish, basketball-starved crap.” Alderman Bethany Chaney wrote in a tweet.

House Bill 2, or the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act passed the General Assembly and senate in a special legislative session in March 2016 and was signed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. Several companies pulled out of North Carolina including PayPal and Adidas and seven states issued a non-mandatory travel ban on the state in reaction to the law. In addition to the NCAA, The National Basketball Association and Atlantic Coast Conference also boycotted the state by removing their respective championship games.  An Associated Press report claims that the failing to repeal HB2 would cost the state almost $3.8 billion in revenue over 12 years.

“I started thinking about that $3.8 billion and a lot of that is local money,” Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said in Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting. “The extra effect of HB2 is that it’s really, really hurt us.

Seils said in an interview that he was unsure whether House Bill 142 would carry the economic repercussions for the town that House Bill 2 did, but he is worried that it has some of the same characteristics.

“I think there is a case to be made that today’s bill has some of the very same problems that House Bill 2 had in terms of not providing non-discrimination protections for LGBT North Carolinians and again making this false claim branding transgender people as sex criminals is what this bill does just like House Bill 2,” Seils said.

“It’s become increasingly clear that (a full House Bill 2 repeal) is not something that the Republican legislature and the North Carolina General Assembly would like to consider. So it looks like this is the best we are going to get for now.”

Carrboro Board of Alderman

Developer’s complaint to cost schools, community millions

By Ari Sen

Ask any high school or college student and they’ll tell you that one late paper or homework assignment doesn’t carry to large a penalty. Ten points off or perhaps the difference between an A and a B.

But one local apartment owner’s late paperwork might have led to proposed legislation that could cost local schools and taxpayers millions of dollars.

The bills, House Bill 406 and House Bill 436, would eliminate impact fees for municipalities across the state. HB 406 specifically targets impact fees for Orange County whereas HB 436 would ban the fees in several municipalities including Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Pittsboro, Raleigh and Wake Forrest. HB 436 also applies to Catawba, Chatam and Orange counties.

“It’s probably a good sign in that there’s not a whole bunch of people signing onto these and saying, yes, we support this,” Orange County Rep. Graig Meyer said in a Board of Commissioners meeting.

Despite Meyer’s comments, both bills have cleared their first procedural hurdles by making it to the finance committee of the General Assembly. Seils said they were told it was unlikely the bills would be voted on this week, but they could move to the House floor as soon as next week.

Impact fees are fees paid by developers to the local town or county government that help to fund social programs such as infrastructure projects or schools. Orange County currently receives $2.8 million in revenue from these impact fees, which goes to support both Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools. Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools budget is roughly $144 million for the 2017-2018 school year whereas the smaller Orange County public schools requested roughly $44.5 million for the 2017 fiscal year. Alderman Damon Seils said the only ways the county could make up the lost funding is by cutting spending or raising property taxes by at least two cents.

“If we are looking at a shortfall caused by loss of revenues we are talking about needing to make up that revenue some other way, notably by increasing property taxes,” Seils said.

“Of course the community is not going to support cutting spending—that would be a pretty major hit on the school system.”

Seils said the bills were likely brought on by a single development in Orange County. Orange County Rep. Verla Insko told the News and Observer that the development in question is likely the Chapel Hill complex currently known as Townhouse.

Townhouse apartments are currently owned by A.P. Segar, and are located on Hillsborough Street, roughly a half a mile from downtown Chapel Hill. In 2014 Segar submitted a proposal to update the apartment complex, adding additional recreation facilities and 204 new beds putting the total for the facility up to 850. The complex would also be renamed, changing from Townhouse to Grove Park.

The impact fees increased for some developers recently when the town underwent its re-evaluation process which became active on January 1. After the re-evaluation, Grove Park’s impact fees would rise from roughly $300,000 to more than $1 million.

The Orange County commissioners passed a grandfather clause that would cover Grove Park and other developments from the new impact fees, but only if they were to submit the paperwork on time, which Seils believes Grove Park didn’t.

After the late filing, Segar hired four lobbyists including former lawmaker and attorney Bill Faison. Documents show that Faison lobbied the bills’ primary sponsor, House Speaker Pro-Tempore Sarah Stevens.

“I think you have to look at who benefits from (the bills),” Seils said. “In this case who introduced the bill, who was lobbying for the bill, who benefits if the bill passes.”

Campaign finance reports show that Stevens accepted campaign contributions from real estate and construction companies that opposed impact fees in the past. Stevens also operates S&E Properties, a Mt. Airy real estate leasing and rental company, with her husband.

Both Chapel Hill and Carrboro have spoken out against the bills. Carrboro’s resolution opposing the bill was drafted by the Triangle J Council of Governments, a group of local governments, stakeholders and partners that attempt to solve problems in the Triangle region. Triangle J said the bills could cause up approximately $28.9 million in lost revenue across the region.

“That really affects rural communities that use this revenue particularly for infrastructure and it does not spare communities that are Republican-led or Democrat-led—progressive or conservative it doesn’t matter,” Carrboro Alderman Bethany Chaney said in Tuesday night’s work session. “Everything really is damaged by this bill and we think because the regional impact is so great and our region is interdependent we need to support our colleagues’ cause to let these bills fail at the NC General Assembly.”

Seils feared that the bills represent an attack on Orange County and its values.

“In the case of this impact fee bill it’s pretty clear based on the history of the bill that it was meant to benefit particular people,” Seils said. “It had a very clear motive.”