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.”
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.”