Orange County taxpayers and visitors paid $25,400 last year for county departments to belong to and attend events sponsored by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Hillsborough chambers of commerce.
About half of the total — $12,665 — was paid using hotel occupancy tax revenues; the remainder came out of the county’s general fund budget.
The issue came to light in mid-June, when Commissioners Vice Chairwoman Penny Rich suggested cutting the payments from next year’s budget and putting the money to a better use.
County officials said they thought the Economic Development Office’s annual $8,500 membership fee covered all employees and departments. Instead, they found the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, the Orange County Public Library and the Orange County Health Department had separate memberships.
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The commissioners voted June 15 to drop the county’s membership in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Hillsborough chambers of commerce.
Rich, who advocated for not paying the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber dues, noted how its president, Aaron Nelson, backed a state repeal of Orange County’s authority to charge impact fees for school construction. A better route would have been working with the county to find solutions, she said.
It wasn’t the first time they had different goals, she said, noting Nelson’s changing advocacy for the Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit project; the competition from Chatham County members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber; and Chamber advocacy for hotels located in Durham and Chatham counties.
Those issues are independent of her concern about how much money the county is paying to the Chamber, Rich said. It may not seem like a lot relative to the overall budget, she said, but they need to know what they’re getting for the money and only pay once.
“That’s not nothing,” she said. “We could put that toward some affordable housing and get a unit. You double that, and you get a Community Home Trust unit or a Habitat unit or a CASA unit. Don’t say that’s nothing. That’s a lot of money.”
Nelson, in an email to the board, acknowledged the chambers of commerce sometimes take a different stand, but they “very much share Orange County values,” as well as its economic and community development goals.
That ranges from promoting last year’s schools and housing bond referendum to the quarter-cent sales tax for economic development and schools, and the half-cent transit sales tax, he said. Chamber money also supported HB2 repeal efforts, state employee raises and federal research dollars for UNC, and it provides myriad activities aimed at recruiting, retaining and helping local businesses and employees succeed, he said.
While a few Durham hotels and the Fearrington Inn in Chatham County are among its members, the chamber never promotes them over local hotels, he said.
“Sometimes we disagree, but we think that is a part of a meaningful relationship, and we hope you concur,” Nelson said.
The board reversed part of its decision June 20 — with Rich voting in dissent — and agreed to pay $8,500 next year to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber and $1,000 to the Hillsborough Chamber. County staff will return with a report on the issue in September.
Nelson said this week that his informal survey found multiple towns and counties that belong to local chambers of commerce. In the Triangle, that includes Carrboro, Hillsborough, Holly Springs, Mebane, Morrisville, Raleigh, Roxboro and Wake Forest, he said, plus Chatham, Wake, Durham, Alamance and Person counties.
Chapel Hill — the only non-chamber member — is an anomaly, he said.
Chapel Hill spokeswoman Catherine Lazorko said Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos has advised, based on his research, that a membership payment is not proper without a contract or performance agreement that spells out how the money would be used to meet a public purpose.
It’s up to the Town Council to contract with the chamber and provide taxpayer money, she said, and the chamber to decide if the contract is acceptable.
That’s not a concern for the Hillsborough Chamber and its relationship with the town of Hillsborough, because the focus is on building a better business climate and opportunities, Chief Executive Officer Kim Tesoro said. The town pays $5,000 a year for a top-level membership that covers all its departments, she said.
“Our makeup is very diverse,” Tesoro said. “We tend to avoid taking political stands and advocating for things that are going to be very divided.”
The Hillsborough Chamber also offers “in-kind” memberships to the county’s Department of Social Services, Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation, and the Sheriff’s Office, she said. Those include job fairs, community events and partnerships that better serve the community, she said.
The Visitors Bureau decided earlier this year to drop its chamber memberships, Executive Director Laurie Paolicelli said. They had joined the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber last year with the goal of stronger alliances and better advocacy, she said, but it didn’t work out.
“In March of this year, when our staff began to gather information for the county manager’s budget process, we agreed that this test did not seem to net us anything,” Paolicelli said. “In the end, we felt as if we got the same amount on incremental buys, only it would cost us a little less.”
Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce and Orange County records show the county’s Economic Development Office has been a longtime chamber member, paying $32,500 in the last four years. Most of the money went to dues, but some paid for advertising, training, outreach and travel.
County officials thought that money covered all departments but discovered other payments:
▪ Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau: Paid $9,665 last year to join the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber and attend events and training. Paid $3,000 to the Hillsborough Chamber of Commerce. All Visitors Bureau fees were paid with occupancy tax revenues.
▪ Orange County Public Library: Paid $695 last year to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber, and $400 over two years to the Hillsborough Chamber.
▪ Orange County Health Department: Paid off-and-on, between $250 and $695 a year, for the last 10 years. It’s unclear how much money was paid overall. The department paid $200 last year to join the Hillsborough Chamber.