As Wake reaches a million residents, can it keep up?

08/19/2014 6:41 PM

08/20/2014 3:57 AM

How fast has Wake County grown? The answer is statistical, with 100,000 more residents coming in the last four years alone. It’s also anecdotal: Many current county residents can remember when little Cary was a country crossroads with two-lane blacktops and 3,000 people in it. Now it has 145,000 and counting.

But a stunning statistic is about to hit home that is beyond just numbers or imagination. On Friday, sometime during the day and either by birth or a move, Wake County will have 1 million people in it. It will be both a celebratory moment and a sobering one.

The milestone comes at a time when the virtues of such growth are obvious, in the strength more property owners bring to a tax base, or the skills new residents bring to the job market, or the help that the 1 million figure gives to those who promote the county.

But the challenges are just as obvious. On the same day that The News & Observer reported the impending population breakthrough, Wake Tech enrolled a record number of students: 22,000. That’s a result of many things, including people training for new careers following the Great Recession, but it most emphatically represents a consequence of population growth.

And in Wake County schools, administrators are scrambling to assign students to new schools and manage growth in others, including remedying unacceptably large class sizes in too many of them. There also is a scramble to hire and keep teachers, so many of them buffeted by Republican legislators over the last couple of years as public education has taken a hit. A raise for early-career teachers may help keep some of them around, but veteran teachers gained little in salary. North Carolina and Wake County – where a teacher supplement is more generous than most – continue to get a bargain in education they don’t deserve.

We are sitting, in Wake County, on a volcano. The growth isn’t stopping. In 40 years, population is estimated to be 2 million.

Many of the 62 new people who join us daily, 40 of them transplants, are moving from the Northeast, where taxes are higher. They are drawn by the relatively affordable homes and the relatively low tax rates. That’s not all bad, but it’s problematic if those new residents oppose any new taxes or increases needed to maintain schools or infrastructure that helps deliver services to new residents and everybody else.

Convincing them of the need and having the courage to lead even when the search for new revenues may be unpopular are more vital than ever. In November county voters will choose four commissioners who will have much to do with determining whether growth will be faced or virtually ignored.

Republican commissioners have held up votes on a transit tax that’s going to be crucial to managing growth and the increased traffic it brings. By passing such a tax and working with Orange and Durham counties, where transit levies already have been approved, a regional approach to bus service and ultimately to commuter and light rail can move ahead.

Those 1 million people in Wake County are going to need more ways than cars to get to Research Triangle Park or to medical facilities at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Republicans stand steadfast against any new taxes. That’s their political mantra, and it’s not going to change. No one likes taxes, and a responsible government tries to keep them reasonable. But growth demands all sorts of goods and services, not the least of which is an excellent school system. And that, inevitably, is going to mean slight increases in taxes, unless those new residents from the urban centers of the Midwest and Northeast have visions of becoming self-sufficient.

“Planning for this growth is critical to a high quality of life for decades to come,” said Karen Rindge, head of WakeUp Wake County, a progressive advocacy group. “This includes addressing transportation challenges through expanded public transit and smart land use planning, ensuring clean and plentiful drinking water supply, and adequately funding our teachers and growing public schools.”

So let’s celebrate the milestone, but let’s demand that our leaders chart the way to the next one, with vision and foresight and not with heels dug in to political promises of “no taxes.” For the future isn’t the future any more. For Wake County, it’s now.

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