Casting a vote in North Carolina’s presidential primary that might actually make a difference this year is a good reason to get to the polls on March 15, but you can’t just stop there.
Choosing party nominees for a number of statewide races to be decided in November is one thing, but for the Orange County Board of Commissioners races this year, the Democratic primary is the competitive election that matters, as no Republicans filed to run.
We don’t often think about the role our county commissioners play in our everyday lives, but county government in North Carolina oversees a number of policies and decisions that are important in our local communities. Our county commissioners oversee a number of vital government services, including things like public health, social services, affordable housing, emergency services, solid waste management, and economic development. They also determine the budget allocated to our county’s two school systems.
Our county commissioners tackle local issues targeted at important issues in our community. The Family Success Alliance, a county-funded and managed project, was created to combat child poverty in Orange County and to identify models that work at reducing poverty, an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Our county board also approved a business investment grant program to help local businesses grow and succeed. To date, 28 local businesses, including WomanCraft, Sandwhich, and Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, have received these grants.
The board of commissioners also plays an integral role in moving our community forward when it comes to public transit. Under North Carolina law, Orange County was able to enact a half-cent sales tax to fund transit investment. County commissioners approved the ballot referendum to authorize this tax in 2012, and voters overwhelmingly approved it in November of that year. Four years later, our county now benefits from regional transit service linking Mebane, Efland and Hillsborough to Durham; enhanced transit service to northern Orange County; increased year-round transit service and newly expanded service to the Rogers Road neighborhood. Future expanded transit service with the Durham-Orange light rail line and the planned bus rapid transit corridor from Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd to Southern Village will provide even more connectivity for residents.
Much of the growth projected for Orange County is expected to occur in rural areas of the county, which the county has planning jurisdiction over. The form of this development, whether it is sustainable or not, and whether it adequately integrates with and connects to Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Hillsborough will all be determined by the individuals we elect to serve on the board.
Economic development is yet another area where our county commissioners play a vital role. With growth pressures coming to the rural areas of the county, it isn’t just the kinds of residential development that we have to think about. County-level economic development policy determines the kinds of jobs we attract to Orange County, which in turn has a greater impact on who can live and work here in Orange County. Whether the county continues to pursue the economic development district approach it has developed or pursues alternative approaches to economic development will be determined by who we elect this March.
Our county, much like our state and region, is changing rapidly and experiencing exciting developments as people are attracted to the amenities our state, region, and county have to offer compared to other communities nationwide. Policy set at the county-level will have an impact on who finds our community attractive and whether those individuals can afford to live here or continue to live here. County-level policy will also determine what makes our county and its communities unique compared to other areas in the region, which will play a large role in determining the economic success — or lack thereof — for Orange County.
While it may not be as exciting as a contentious presidential primary, our local contest for county commissioner is just as critical to our future. It’s only a matter of weeks before Orange County voters head to the polls to cast our ballots in the March 15 election. Don’t forget about the county commissioner races at the bottom of the ballot. They matter — and quite a lot — for the future of our community.
Molly De Marco is an editor of the blog OrangePolitics.org and lives in Chapel Hill.