Chapel Hill: Opinion

When money’s tight and Orange County neighbors disagree – Mark Zimmerman

Mark Zimmerman
Mark Zimmerman

Orange County has a history of fairly harmonious relations among our assorted governmental jurisdictions. Traditionally, the players – the Board of County Commissioners and the town boards for Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough – have been cooperative and supportive.

There are, of course, more distinct differences among residents. Like most of the state, there is an urban/rural divide, with folks in the country generally more conservative and the towns more progressive. Within urban areas, there is disagreement, sometimes heated, over the pace of growth.

In contrast, our elected officials and staff have largely worked together. They have shared common goals and a consensus as to how to achieve them.

Recently, however, there has been some friction on important issues. While these aren’t likely to lead to serious rifts, they may be harbingers of more discord down the road. Not surprisingly, at the heart of each is one of our most important resources – money.

First is a conversation that made the headlines of this paper last month – some Carrboro aldermen openly questioning our commitment to the GoTriangle Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project. As this project gets closer to reality, the stakes – and risks – are rising. And so are feelings about it.

From its inception, the proposed train has served only a sliver of Chapel Hill, with the key beneficiary being UNC Hospitals. A dedicated sales tax was to pay for the project in full. The tax also generated enough additional money to enhance other transit options across the other towns and county. Under that rosy scenario, everybody wins. So, the tax referendum had widespread support.

Now that train costs have exploded while outside funding has shriveled, sales tax revenues may no longer be enough. When costs increase further the county may need to add general revenue funds to pay for the train. If this happens, other transit needs across the county could be at risk.

All of a sudden, jurisdictions getting no direct benefit from the train are questioning why they are contributing to it. Taking the altruistic view was easy when there was more than enough money to go around. But officials have a duty to represent their constituents’ needs. Self-interest kicks in when having to compete for scarce resources.

Speaking of scarce resources, all our towns and the county have woken up to the need for more money. They also want lessen the tax burden on homeowners. To address both issues, economic development has become a new shared goal. The county even dedicated part of another sales tax referendum to building our tax base through recruitment of new commercial investment.

But how much of a priority jurisdictions are making economic development varies, and that’s caused some friction behind the scenes. Twice in the last few months, large development opportunities have been turned down by Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The decisions were based on local issues, but the impact affected everyone in the county.

Chapel Hill decided to forestall the construction of office buildings and apartments on the American Legion property by buying the land for use as a public park. Carrboro denied a proposal to build retail stores and apartments on the Lloyd Farm property.

Both towns have the right to control their development. Nonetheless, some at the county level were privately disappointed with the consequences of the decisions. If the projects had been built, the county would have received hundreds of thousands of dollars of school impact fees and well over $1 million annually from county property taxes.

At the same time, Chapel Hill has been asking for county funds to help with its Ephesus-Fordham redevelopment, and Carrboro is asking for the county to help with an affordable business park it would like to have built on land it owns. It didn’t go unnoticed that the towns are asking for funds from the county while killing projects that would help the county fund them.

Money. It’s often at the center of personal relationship issues so it’s not surprising to find it causing issues among our governments. With needs outgrowing revenues in Orange County, we may find less harmony in our future.

Mark Zimmerman owns a home and small real estate business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at