One woman and three men, all newcomers to elected politics, will join the helm of one of North Carolina’s largest governments on Monday, completing a Democratic takeover of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
With expectations running high in the weeks since Election Day, new and current commissioners have heard countless variations of one question: What happens next?
“They don’t tell you how fast the transition is when you sign up,” said commissioner-elect John Burns.
The new officials join a county in motion. About a week before their scheduled swearing-in, overcrowding in local schools led the town of Cary to table a proposed development. A week after, the county is set to restart a long-delayed conversation about light-rail transit.
Both issues are top priorities for the reformulated board – but the board is keenly aware that its promises will come with a price tag, and that blue Wake County stands in contrast to a Republican legislature. The new officials – John Burns, Jessica Holmes, Sig Hutchinson and Matt Calabria – also are learning the machinery of the billion-dollar budget they’ll retool.
But the term soon will start ticking, and county Democrats perhaps have never had such leverage to reshape Wake’s policies. As control of the board officially swings left Monday, here are issues commissioners are expected to confront:
• Transit plans they say were delayed too long.
• Their promises to increase funding for education.
• The question of how far a dominant Democratic board will go after years of chafing under Republican rule.
• Funding for social services as costs of living rise.
• Political relationships with the legislature and other political forces.
Transit looms large
The victorious Democratic candidates capitalized on their opponents’ delays in planning for a regional light-rail system. While Durham and Orange counties have increased taxes to provide funding and started to plan a railway, Wake officials largely didn’t discuss the issue for years.
“Transportation is an issue that I had called upon the board time and time again to bring up over the last few years, and I had been shut out,” said longtime commissioner Betty Lou Ward. “They didn’t want to bring it up, didn’t want to talk about it.”
The Republican majority did restart talks on the Triangle rail plan earlier this year, after ignoring a previous transit plan for about three years. The newly elected commissioners had dismissed the Republicans’ return to transit as election-season posturing – but they’re going to stick with the new plan, which would produce a report on transit and potential board action by next summer.
“We’re in the hands of a very capable county manager, and he has gotten us far on this,” Burns said, referring to County Manager Jim Hartmann.
James West, a current commissioner, said the new board would push for a quick resolution but wants to get all of Wake’s cities and towns on the same page again.
“I think we’ll at least have some information that’s needed to move forward at a much, I would say, at a better pace, and be able to make some very firm decisions regarding a transit system,” he said.
The new planning phase starts Dec. 8 with a “transit kickoff,” where speakers will explain transit options and the months ahead. The county is also polling people about where they want to see transit money spent.
Funding for schools
Nearly 3,000 new students crowd Wake’s schools each year. Especially near the suburban borders, school construction hasn’t kept pace with population growth – and the Wake County school system has limited new enrollments at 20 of its 170 schools.
That has been an inconvenience for new residents, but last month the problem reached a pitch not heard in recent years: In Cary, it threatens to interfere with development. The town board on Nov. 20 tabled a proposed development of 130 homes, citing school crowding.
“This, in my opinion, is a crisis,” said Cary Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson, a registered Republican serving on the nonpartisan board. “If we keep bringing people in without resources, it’s going to degrade the quality of living here.”
While the school board handles the placement of schools, it’s the county board that funds education.
The Republican-led board gave new money for education in recent years: In 2013, commissioners put about $810 million of voter-approved debt toward school construction. This year, they approved $3.75 million for teacher raises in the current budget.
In both cases, however, education advocates wanted more. School leaders this year asked for $39 million – about 10 times what commissioners gave – for teacher pay and expanded programs. That request could return in just a few months as the county board plans the next budget.
The new board is also expected to put hundreds of millions of dollars of school construction bonds on the ballot as early as 2016, which is the next legal year for a referendum.
“My sense is that we will need to accelerate school construction. ... These are not future consequences, they are present consequences,” said commissioner-elect Matt Calabria.
“The school transportation system is stretched to its breaking point and is trying to do too much with too little,” Burns said.
The board members’ challenge, said Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, is to figure out just how much spending their constituents want. All the commissioners interviewed for this article emphasized a careful, well-studied approach.
“You’ve got some level of urgency. At the same time, you also have, how are you going to manage the property tax?” Schmitt said. “ ... We still have to decide, what’s our tolerance of the cost of those investments?”
The one-party county
Commissioner Ward is looking forward to her party’s time in the sun after four years in the minority.
“You can almost rest assured that if a Democrat on the board made a suggestion, we wouldn’t get past first base,” she said.
It’s been at least two decades, Schmitt said, since one party has held such power in the county.
But a one-party board comes with its own challenges. Even the Democrats on the school board appointed Republican Bill Fletcher rather than adding to their majority last year.
“We need to remember, I think, that we were elected by a certain percentage of the county’s voters – but a good percentage of the voters did not vote for us,” Burns said.
Calabria said the board is not a monolithic force, and that it would listen to dissent both inside and outside its chambers. Ward figures the current commissioners hear opposing voices quite often already.
“I do deal with them. I live in North Raleigh, after all,” she said, half-laughing.
Said Burns: “Believe me, people are not going to stop talking and raising their voices about these issues just because they lost this election. The task is upon us to listen.”
Donna Williams, chair of the Wake County Republican Party, said that conservative politics still have a foothold in county government.
“A lot of Republicans are on the different boards and commissions that do the research within the community, and then report to the commissioners,” she said. “I hope that they’ll take that information into account.”
The thought among many, Williams said: “Oh boy, hang on to our checkbooks because increased taxes are coming.”
Beyond schools and trains
Serving a county of more than 1 million residents, the board’s responsibilities go far beyond transit and education.
Commissioner West wants to expand services for low-income areas and homeless people. The board funded a limited test program on related issues at “a tenth” of what he wanted, he said.
“The whole idea is a human capital development piece – some people call it the Middle Class Express,” West said.
Calabria, meanwhile, hopes to expand the county’s economic-development program, both by guiding new businesses to cities and towns and by nurturing existing businesses.
Burns named sustainability in government operations, improved human services and the balancing of resources across the county’s geographic areas as additional priorities.
The board also will have to think beyond county borders as it deals with state legislators. There already is talk that the legislature could rearrange the distribution of the sales tax, perhaps in favor of rural areas.
And for all of the new commissioners, a first term of elected office follows a journey up through the political system.
John Odom, a Republican on the Raleigh City Council, still remembers a young Sig Hutchinson knocking nervously at his office door more than 20 years ago, looking for help in bringing greenways to Raleigh.
Even after all those years, he’s unsure how Hutchinson’s style will translate in power.
Hutchinson has so far lobbied for causes, but “being on the inside, it’s two different things. So I don’t think we’ve seen Sig Hutchinson yet,” Odom said.
Raleigh Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, a Democrat, urged caution.
“Governing is different from campaigning,” she said. “My advice would be to take it slow and steady, not overreach.”