Orange County

Orange County looking at $255M in construction debt through 2022

Orange County EMS Medic 9 has been stationed at Orange Grove Volunteer Fire Company since 2013. The county’s capital plan includes more than $5 million over the next 10 years to continue partnering with urban and rural volunteer fire departments to co-locate EMS crews and their gear at permanent stations.
Orange County EMS Medic 9 has been stationed at Orange Grove Volunteer Fire Company since 2013. The county’s capital plan includes more than $5 million over the next 10 years to continue partnering with urban and rural volunteer fire departments to co-locate EMS crews and their gear at permanent stations. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

Orange County taxpayers could take on $255.3 million in debt, largely for school construction and renovation projects, over the next five years.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners is still discussing which capital, or construction, projects are a priority and will approve the budget in June.

The first of two public hearings will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 11, in the Whitted Building, 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough. A second public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 18, at the Southern Human Services Center, 2501 Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.

It’s unclear at this point whether property owners could pay more taxes to cover the debt. A penny on the county’s tax rate generates $1.8 million. The county also pays for construction projects with money from its reserves — money set aside for special projects and emergencies — loans and voter-approved bonds.

Financial consultant Ted Cole, with Davenport and Associates, noted Orange County has AAA rating — making it one of 93 counties nationwide able to borrow money at lower interest rates. The county will repay its current debt — $170 million — within 10 years, he said.

County staff has suggested changes that would make the capital budget more affordable. That could include delaying future EMS substations — an ongoing plan to move EMS crews and ambulances now stationed in parking lots into town and rural fire departments — or some park projects.

Two parks that could be affected include the Millhouse Road Park off Eubanks Road, north of Chapel Hill, and Northeast District Park, 142 acres that the county bought in 2007 near the intersection of Schley Road and N.C. 57.

The county could spend over half of its capital budget on school construction, including $79.9 million in voter-approved bond money. Another $20.5 million, if approved, would pay for a Health Technology Building and parking at Durham Technical Community College.

Commissioner Barry Jacobs balked at paying for the Durham Tech project without more details and asked if it could be delayed by a few years. He also joined Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin in asking staff for more information about a $3.4 million Environment and Agriculture Center project.

Other potential issues:

▪  Millhouse Road Park: Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger wants to work with the county to advance that project, Jacobs said. Hemminger also has talked with local soccer leagues about picking up some of the cost, which Jacobs said would make it more feasible to build a soccer center.

▪  Southern Branch Library: Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said the town might be able to put $10 million into the joint project, planned for a town-owned parking lot at 203 S. Greensboro St., Commissioner Penny Rich said. Carrboro is planning to include offices and also is talking with the ArtsCenter.

County Manager Bonnie Hammersley and Carrboro Town Manager David Andrews could bring a development agreement to their respective boards this year, with construction starting in 2018-19. Hammersley noted the library could be 12,000 to 15,000 square feet — about the size of the Trader Joe’s store in Chapel Hill — but the plan and cost are not final.

▪  Fiber connections: The county and Hillsborough town government are working to bring internet fiber to public buildings and other parts of downtown. The work would negate an existing contract with Spectrum. The county also is planning fiber connections from Cedar Grove to Chapel Hill, and between its economic development districts. Dorosin asked whether any aspect of those $3 million in projects could be delayed.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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