Time for a review of some things we’ve learned this year, now that it is mercifully nearing its end.
First, the election – not as strange as it seems.
Observers of local political trends shouldn’t have been that surprised by November’s results. Our 2015 contest was really a harbinger of this year’s national results. The forces that swept away a mayor and installed two council members last year paralleled the forces that put the ultimate outsider in the White House this year.
Of course, many of the issues driving those forces locally were diametrically opposed to those in the national election. The values couldn’t been more different, too. But the mood of the electorate was the same, for largely the same reasons.
In both cases, voters rose up to reject the establishment. They had reached the point where they felt their voices were not being heard. Government was serving other interests; it was out of touch.
Well the voters were heard on election day: no more politics as usual. First Chapel Hill, then Brexit, now Trump. So goes Chapel Hill, so goes the world.
Lesson learned: pay attention to all your constituents.
Second, our proclivity to embrace tax increases continues. When the Orange County Board of County Commissioners punted a huge bill for deferred school facility maintenance costs to the voters, the bond passed overwhelmingly.
Repaying that bond will eventually boost our tax rate by up to 5 percent. This will hurt low income homeowners, small businesses, and our efforts to be competitive for recruiting new businesses.
Some may wonder when a property tax tipping point will be reached in Orange County. Perhaps never. After all, the higher the cost of living rises, the more the well to do will displace the less well to do. An increasingly affluent electorate can afford higher taxes.
Lesson learned: Our elected officials may see the support for the bonds as a sign there are no constraints on their spending.
Unfortunately. That leads us to our third and last big issue. The GoTriangle Light Rail Project– going from exorbitant to extortionate. Maybe, just maybe, this white elephant has jumped the shark.
The light rail project has become a fiscal nightmare. Costs have dramatically escalated, while changes in state and federal rules have reduced funding, leaving a huge gap in funding. GoTriangle has to find $254 million by the end of the year or the proposal is in jeopardy.
Where will GoTriangle get the money?
First, by pressuring Durham and Orange Counties to allocate general funds to the project (it’s now being funded only by a special sales tax). Orange County must cough up at least $4 million annually for ten years. That will come from money currently being spent on other needs (like schools) or through a large tax increase.
While $40 million is bad enough, Orange County may end up being billed significantly more. GoTriangle has no concrete plan to find $59 million it needs. That may fall on the counties. Frighteningly, if costs go up, or state funds and sales tax revenues decrease, we’ll be on the hook to cover our share of the overage. It’s an unpredictable liability.
Let’s hope all this expense and uncertainty finally convinces the BOCC to pull out of the project. It is no longer close to the deal we were all led to believe when the sales tax increase was approved by voters.
The commissioners will preliminarily decide this week. Which lesson will they draw from these election results? Will they consider the needs of all Orange County citizens and turn to alternate transit plans that are more fiscally prudent? Or, will they ignore those voices and support the establishment’s interest in this train because they no longer fear backlash about subsequent future tax increases?
Mark Zimmerman owns a home and small real estate business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org