Chapel Hill News

May primary to decide two Orange commissioner seats

The winners of the May primary for two seats on the Orange County Board of Commissioners will help make several major decisions, from schools and county finances to solid waste.

There are three seats up for grabs May 6. Commissioners Vice Chairman Earl McKee and challenger Mark Marcoplos are competing in District 2, while Chairman Barry Jacobs and challenger Bonnie Hauser are competing for the at-large seat.

Early voting starts April 24. Only District 2 residents can vote in that race, but all county residents can vote in the at-large race.

The race for retiring Commissioner Alice Gordon’s District 1 seat will take place Nov. 4. Neither Democratic candidate Mia Burroughs nor Republican candidate Gary Kahn has a primary challenger.

Here’s what the four primary candidates had to say:

What are your top 3 priorities?

• Hauser said the county’s highest priority must be funding short-term school needs and long-term building and maintenance costs.

“Take the immediate pressure off by making sure the teachers are paid, making sure the social safety nets are in place, making sure the schools aren’t falling apart – that they’re heated and they have hot water – these are some problems that we’re having with our schools. Take those pressures off, spend another year and really plan these facilities,” Hauser said.

Her other priorities: Start real discussions about solid waste and recycling, transportation aligned with future growth and housing and other elements of an affordable community. She also wants more transparency and clarity so the county’s zoning rules are easier to understand, she said.

• Jacobs offered a litany of goals: Promoting Orange County values – quality public education, environmental protections, helping those who need a hand and building beneficial partnerships – and quality economic development “where we want it and in as diverse a way as possible.”

It’s also “a really important time in the history of the county,” he said.

“We’re going to have at least four new commissioners, a new manager, a new sheriff, we’re under assault from the state legislature, and I think we need some continuity of leadership and some leaders who understand the relationships that we have and the situations that confront us and can move us forward without too much of a pause while other people get up to speed,” he said.

• Marcoplos cited schools, solid waste and economic development. There hasn’t been a tax increase in five years, the budget is tight, and school needs have grown, he said.

“It’s going to be a real challenge, and I suspect the people in the county who really take a lot of pride in and appreciate the school system will begin to request that we raise the taxes a little bit,” he said.

Marcoplos said he expects the new Morinaga candy factory to spur growth in the county’s economic development districts. He has proposed a searchable database of small, local businesses to let residents, entrepreneurs and other businesses know what products and services are available.

• McKee said schools could be a critical budget driver over the next decade. The county also must decide whether to work with local or regional partners to handle recycling and solid waste, he said.

“I think we’re going to have to have a long and possibly painful discussion on how we handle solid waste, as well as how we handle, and along with that how we fund, our recycling services, which are overwhelmingly successful,” he said.

Clarifying the county’s rules will attracting more industry, and small, local businesses also are a priority, McKee said. Clear rules also attract and existing resources also attr, such as the small business loan program, the Launch business incubator in Chapel Hill and the Piedmont Food and Agriculture Processing Center in Hillsborough, could attract more companies, he said.

What are your thoughts on the budget?

• Hauser suggested the county assess its underutilized office space, consolidate and sell or lease the high-value properties. Without more revenue, the county’s unique lifestyle could become unaffordable, she said. The commissioners also need to be deliberate in financial matters, she said.

“Why are we talking about curbside recycling instead of talking about a plan for solid waste and recycling for the future? Why are we talking about a meeting room in the Whitted Building without a facilities plan? This kind of backward decision-making process gets very expensive,” she said.

• Jacobs said the commissioners are examining the need and cost of capital projects. A proposed $30 million jail could be built in pods over more years or a Southern Branch Library might be smaller than 20,000 square feet, he said.

It’s difficult, but the commissioners also will maintain their support for education in the face of state cuts, he said.

“At some point, because we have such a strong commitment to schools, it almost inevitable that we will have to raise taxes,” he said. A bond “is something that needs to be ratified, I believe, by the voters, because they are voting on a property tax increase.”

• Marcoplos said it’s getting the bottom when the commissioners talk about raising taxes. He wants to explore creative solutions, he said.

“This is a challenging time, a new era, with state government being irresponsible,” he said. “It’s crucial to fix the schools and help teachers. Not only buildings, but the maintenance side of it.”

• McKee said all the options must be on the table, including a tax increase, because it’s critical to provide students with adequate school buildings and a supportive learning environment.

“We have effectively used up all the low-hanging fruit over the last couple of years,” McKee said. “Our sales tax revenues are up, our impact fees are up because of increased building ... we have more revenue coming in than we did last year or the year before, but we have more demand. I think it’s going to be a very delicate balancing act.”

Relationships between county, towns

• Hauser recommended looking for solutions that cross jurisdictional boundaries. Instead of a county curbside recycling program, for instance, the towns could extend their curbside collection to residents just outside their borders, and the commissioners could find a way to pay for it, she said.

“We’re not all the same, but we need to be working together,” she said. “The context of the past is what drives us ... (but) our inability to talk, our inability to work together to get these things worked out is undermining our ability to deliver excellent services that are affordable.”

• Jacobs said there were some mistakes in the past and the towns started looking for their own direction on solid waste. Closing the landfill didn’t build any goodwill, he said. But the work to rebuild those relationships is starting to pay off, he said.

“The fact that Chapel Hill actually came to the Board of County Commissioners and said consider (helping with) Ephesus-Fordham, we think this is really great,” he said. “Regardless of what we do and regardless of whether we participate, the fact that they came to us with enthusiam and a lack of suspicion for how we would react is an improvement. I think that relationship is going to continue to flourish.”

• Marcoplos said there’s no reason why the county and towns can’t work together. A lot of the solid waste issues arose, because former County Manager Frank Clifton was “very uncooperative,” he said.

“In the end, the amount of money that has been wasted and the amount of undone work because of the solid waste ongoing fiasco needs to stop so we can get on with other stuff. I think as the local governments explore going on their own, which they had not done before, they are understanding we also work together. I think we’re on the verge of getting some cooperation going.”

• McKee agreed there’s going to be a lot of relationship building. Local leaders should talk regularly in all kinds of situations, he said.

“I (have relationships) with several of the municipal board members – talking with them when I see them, being open to questions, being open to explaining my rationale for the way that I voted and the way that I look at issues,” he said. “I think it is more of a board need to develop diverse relationships with the members of the various boards.”

What about recycling and solid waste?

• Hauser said the planning should have started last year, since the decision to close the landfill happened two years ago. The governments have not talked about how to handle future trash and recycling, the higher fees that residents might pay in the future or how the county plans to afford its solid waste operations without landfill-generated revenues, she said.

“All we have done so far is we’re almost at a contract with the towns to fund a service we’ve been doing for a long time,” she said. “How are we going to operate our solid waste system in a sustainable way without a landfill to subsidize it?”

• Jacobs said the first thing to do is implement a five-year interlocal agreement with the towns to work together on solid waste issues. The community then should spend the next year hearing what local and outside experts have to say before choosing from its options, he said.

“I’m reading that Carrboro wants to look at food waste. Well, so do we,” Jacobs said. “Those conversations shouldn’t be happening in isolation. We should all be sitting down.”

• Marcoplos, who named solid waste one of his priorities, was among those who successfully stopped the county in 1992 from siting landfills in the rural areas. The issue was brushed under the rug for 20 years, and people are paying more now to ship the trash to Durham, he said.

“So, present commissioners can sit there and say they’re always looking for a little way to save money here and a little money to save there,” Marcoplos said, “but the fact of the matter is they agreed to this wasteful process that’s costing the citizens of Orange County.”

The governments should build a transfer station near the Chapel Hill Operations Center on Millhouse Road, with an entrance off Eubanks Road beside the park-and ride-lot, he said. Couple with a recycling station, it could collect solid waste and recycling in the future, he said.

• McKee said the approach to solid waste has been piecemeal. Now, there’s no landfill, residents are paying to haul their trash to Durham and the commissioners have several options for rural curbside recycling services. That’s 13 percent of the county’s solid waste program, he said.

“I think we need to sit down and have a more comprehensive look at the entire program, all the way from solid waste and recycling to transfer station siting to whether we want a countywide waste collection system,” McKee said. “Look at it from a holistic standpoint rather than trying to fix each little problem as they pop up.”