The Wake County Board of Commissioners faces increased expectations since last fall’s election turned it into an all-Democratic board. But while the election swung control of the board from Republicans to Democrats, the change is more profound than a change in party.
The change is about a swing from closed to open, from skeptical to ambitious, from quarrelsome to cooperative, from a former Wake County to a dynamic new Wake County. Though the change is welcome, it won’t really take effect until the critics who became commissioners turn their complaints into actions.
The previous Republican-led board was conservative, but members did what they said they would do – they held the line on taxes and spending. Now progressive commissioners will have to translate their promises into action and move the county forward while maintaining its solid financial standing. Governing will involve hard choices and making sure the county residents understand and support the changes to come. The following should be priorities.
• Mass transit.The board’s first priority is one neglected by the previous board – mass transit. Wake County cannot move forward if its people and visitors cannot travel by means other than automobiles. An urban county – and Wake is fast becoming one – must be knit together by a range of transit options including a strong bus system, light rail and commuter rail.
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Roads simply cannot absorb the rate of growth in population and traffic. Wake has already lost precious years of transit funding, planning and development as previous boards debated whether there was enough “density” for mass transit. Now Wake has to catch up even as Orange and Durham counties are already collecting light-rail taxes and planning routes. That means getting a transit tax on the 2016 ballot, selling the tax and rolling from there.
• Sustainability. The previous board ignored a report calling for better environmental practices in handling waste, water supply and water quality and energy use. New Commissioner Sig Hutchinson was one of those who prepared the report. Dust it off and take it up.
• School board relations. For reasons that were never clear, Republicans on the previous board thought the best interests of the county were served by bullying and usurping the power of the Wake County Board of Education. These two boards need to work together. The fate of the county is tied to the quality of its schools. The boards are now in agreement on that. Evidence of the change should begin with more generous school funding from the county and a willingness to raise county taxes to provide it.
• Water. Wake is blessed with plentiful rainfall, but growth creates a great thirst. Commissioners should move to protect water quality through strong watershed protections, step up water conservation and develop long-term plans for future water sources.
• The county jail and public safety. Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison is elected in his own right, but his operations are not his own fiefdom. Commissioners should take a closer look at jail operations and public safety issues, including the sheriff’s request for better pay for deputies.
• The state legislature. Wake is a big urban county that votes Democratic. That makes it a target for mischief from the Republican-controlled General Assembly. The board did well to enlist Richard Stevens, a former Republican state senator, as its lobbyist. But the board itself will have to be vigilant to fend off legislative meddling in local tax, election, education and development and environmental issues.
• Regionalism. The previous board had trouble relating to the city of Raleigh let alone to governments throughout the Triangle. That has changed. This board wants to be part of a region and work with other governments for the good of the whole. The board should carry through with plans for regional government meetings and agreeing on priorities for development and the environment.