Light-rail transit could be on many voters' minds when they go to the polls May 8 in Orange County.
Two county commissioners are retiring this year — Mia Burroughs and Barry Jacobs — giving critics of the Durham-Orange Light Rail project a chance to vote in candidates who also have questions about the $3.3 billion project.
While the project is approved, it is awaiting word from the federal and state government about how much money is available for construction. If the project doesn't get 50 percent of its funding from the federal government and 10 percent from the state, Orange and Durham county commissioners will have to decide whether to continue with the project and how to pay for the difference.
One light-rail critic, former Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board member Jamezetta Bedford, is unopposed in her District 1 bid to replace Burroughs. Bedford has expressed "significant concerns" with the light-rail costs and the county's potential benefit.
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In District 2, Tommy McNeill, a business development manager who supports the light-rail plan, is challenging longtime light-rail critic Earl McKee for his commissioners seat.
At-large candidates Brian Crawford, Noah Oswald and Sally Greene, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member, also have expressed concerns about the project. Greene is the only at-large candidate who supports the light-rail plan.
Besides attending regular board meetings and other local, state and national meetings, the county commissioners have a major effect on residents’ lives by approving county budgets, setting property tax rates and county policies, approving land-use changes and developments, and helping people with their needs and concerns.
Early voting for this year’s primary begins Thursday, April 19. The primary election will be held Tuesday, May 8. Voters in District 1 and District 2 will vote for the candidates in their respective districts, plus the at-large candidates.
Only voters who are registered Democrat and unaffiliated can vote in the commissioners' primary — and the winners will not face any opposition in the November election — because there are no Republican candidates running.
Here's how the candidates responded to our questions:
Q. What do you think about the light rail plan and why? What would you give up if the required state or federal money falls short?
Jamezetta Bedford: I am in favor of working collaboratively with our neighboring counties to enhance transit. Unfortunately, the current rail plan raises significant concerns, primarily whether Orange County can afford to participate and whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
▪ Costs include both the costs of construction of the rail as well as the costs of financing. The basic cost of the light rail is estimated to be $2.476 billion. On top of that, financing costs are anticipated to be $830 million, thus bringing the total costs to $3.3 billion. Debt payments will last until 2062.
▪ Orange County’s share is 16.5 percent of the construction costs and 18.5 percent of the interest, which totals about $316 million. The half-cent transit sales tax, $10 vehicle registration fees, and 5 percent vehicle rental tax are projected to cover these costs if federal funding is $1.23 billion and IF state funding is 10 percent and IF private donations are $102 million. There is little leeway for any shortfalls in funding.
▪ If the federal funding is not approved, the plan needs to be mothballed. Any other shortfalls should be made up by Durham County, which will see increased revenue from economic development and will benefit disproportionally from the rail. Under the current plan, which mainly serves UNC Hospitals, Orange County will receive disproportionately less revenue since three of four stations in Orange County are on UNC property and have limited development opportunity, and despite the Gateway station being moved closer to Orange County.
▪ Displacement and affordable housing are also big concerns. Generally, rail lines cause gentrification and higher housing costs near stations, which pushes out those who most depend on public transportation and who would most benefit from light rail.
▪ The environmental impacts of light rail are mixed. While this light rail does not decrease air pollution, it will have the positive environmental benefit of allowing Durham to direct growth along the line instead of adding to urban sprawl. However, the 40-plus at-grade crossings will increase traffic congestion, which contributes to pollution.
▪ Finally, Chapel Hill has no Bus Rapid Transit funding and rural and northern Orange County residents do not have sufficient bus service. We must consider whether our funds could be better spent on these transit needs.
Earl McKee: I have been and remain a light rail critic. The cost of this project, which was supposed to be shared between the federal government at 50 percent, the state at 25 percent and the counties at 25 percent, has now evolved to a point that the counties are responsible for 40 percent of total cost. That project cost has also ballooned to over 3 billion and is still rising. One of the most troubling changes over the past years is the amount of debt that the counties will have to cover and the extended timeframe that will be required to retire this debt. At this time, the residents of Orange County will be paying on the loans until 2062.
I am not willing to give up anything else if and when the level of state and federal funding is reduced. Our board has been repeatedly told by GoTriangle representatives that the project is not viable without 50 percent federal funding. Having experienced the shifting of additional cost to the counties after the reduction of state funding, I am reluctant to believe any statements made by GoTriangle. I am convinced that other transportation services provided by GoTriangle will suffer as a result of the ever-increasing cost of this project. Those services which address the critical needs of many of our most transit dependent residents may have to be picked up by all Orange County residents through their property taxes. As this area grows, there will be a time when a point-to-point fixed-rail system is needed and can be justified, but that time is not now.
Tommy T. McNeill: I fully support the 17.7-mile Durham-Orange light-rail system between UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill and Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham.
The light-rail system will connect residents to many of our area's largest employers, provide access to high-quality healthcare and educational opportunities, and help our city and county governments prepare for exponential growth by fostering compact development along a high capacity transportation network.
If federal or state funding are not met, I would propose a general sales tax. However, I do not believe federal or state funding are in doubt according to GoTriangle official statements.
Brian Crawford: Our goal for transportation in our community should be to provide services to those that need it most. Based on what we have seen, DOLRT does not serve the populations with the greatest need. I will advocate for better services in the neediest sections of the county first. When we have robust and accessible transportation for our most vulnerable populations, then I will feel more comfortable pursuing light rail.
As an attorney, I am aware that contracts have been signed, and money spent. As a result, there may not be an opportunity for us to withdraw or delay. If we can rethink the timeline because the federal government or state drastically reduces their required investment, I may advocate a delay. This is not a path I would suggest if doing so would result in the county and its taxpayers being sued or otherwise placed at risk. I am disappointed that greater connectivity to economic opportunity played second fiddle to light rail.
Sally Greene: I support the Orange County Transit Plan adopted last year, of which the DOLRT is a part. Combined with other transit modes, LRT is key to an increasingly necessary regional transportation system. It will connect major employment destinations, including UNC and Duke hospitals — the region’s two largest employment centers.
It will connect the VA Hospital, plus three universities: UNC, Duke, and NCCU. The planned Hillsborough Amtrak station will extend connectivity. New commuting options will make the region more attractive to businesses, thus enabling more people to find work without having to move. It will make commuting to universities much easier, creating more opportunities through education.
The LRT will be the backbone of a robust, multimodal transit system. The first five years of the plan have brought many hours of new bus service to the county via Chapel Hill Transit and Orange Public Transportation, plus a regional route connecting Durham to Mebane; a total of 34,000 new hours are funded.
The final, April 2017, version improved upon the 2012 plan by directing GoTriangle, Chapel Hill Transit and Orange Public Transportation to work with residents on how neighborhoods not within walking distance of stations will be connected by bus service.
The Gateway station area offers an opportunity for increased tax revenue through economic development. Though the station is in Durham County, the redevelopment area extends well into Orange County. Easy access to the interstate as well as to rail and bus connections will make this station area attractive to new businesses.
An important benefit of LRT is the ability to plan for housing: transportation costs figure significantly in the cost of living. By starting early, local governments can plan zoning and incentive packages to support equitable housing development at all stations.
A 2015 study estimated that the DOLRT will create over 750 direct construction jobs and 1,000 indirect construction jobs.
The cost-sharing contract signed by Orange County, Durham County, and GoTriangle sets fixed amounts for each party’s investment in the light rail. The total capital cost is $2.48 billion. Orange County’s commitment is $149.5 million. This is 16.5 percent of the local share of the capital cost, and 6 percent of the total capital cost.
The contract assumes a federal New Starts match of 50 percent and a state contribution of 10 percent. The federal omnibus budget signed last month includes a funding increase for the New Starts program.
On April 3, the N.C. Department of Transportation released technical scores of over 2,100 transportation projects across the state. The DOLRT project was the highest-scoring transit project in North Carolina, suggesting it will do well in the upcoming prioritization process.
There is good reason to believe that the federal and state contributions will be met. But either one could fail to come through fully, or at all.
If the federal or state funding falls significantly short, going forward would be very difficult, probably impossible. Orange County commissioners worked admirably to negotiate downward to the 16.5 percent of local share, from 22 percent.
Particularly after that, it’s hard to see asking Orange County taxpayers for more than the amount fixed by contract. If the funding falls significantly short, regrettably I believe Orange County would have to give up the LRT project itself.
But if the project garners close to the full amounts, Orange County should meet with Durham County and GoTriangle to determine how the LRT can be adjusted to the available budget.
Neither scenario would obligate Orange County to contribute additional revenue to complete the project.
Noah Oswald: I have spent significant time in two major metropolitan areas with high-quality light rail systems. I have seen that good light rail projects can benefit major cities and the surrounding urban communities, but this project is not that. The DOLRT project heavily favors Durham County and does not clearly provide for the type of economic and residential development in Orange County that is touted by its proponents.
That said, because Orange County is now part of a multi-lateral contract, it is important for our leaders to defend our financial assets, oppose increased local spending and, if federal or state funding is changed, initiate the procedures to modify and end the agreement.
Q. The county is facing tough budget decisions for the next few years. What would you cut or by how much are you willing to raise taxes to meet county and school needs?
Jamezetta Bedford: To meet Orange County’s needs in a balanced way, we need a combination of a small tax increase, reduced expenditures and economic development to increase revenues. Health and safety should always be the highest priority.
At the January 2018 BOCC retreat, initial projections showed a $7 million deficit if nothing is done, in part due to the loss of impact fee revenue of $3.3 million, and assumed no tax increase. The affordable housing and school bonds of $125 million passed in 2016 predicted a property tax increase of between 3.7 and 5.8 cents once all the bonds are issued. Starting this year, $3 million in school recurring capital for routine maintenance is being debt financed to provide short-term flexibility in the operating budget, which is quite worrisome.
Here are some ways the county can balance needs and revenue:
▪ This week the county approved the purchase of land for a new jail and county office facilities. The jail is critically needed, but the other facilities can be phased in later. Other capital projects will need to also be delayed.
▪ We must cut costs and identify needs from wants.
▪ We need to stop thinking in silos, a la, here’s the parks capital budget and here’s the county's other capital budget and here’s the schools’ capital budgets, and look holistically at required and projected maintenance. We need a plan on how to fund the significant repairs for the older schools.
▪ And, we need to prioritize infrastructure spending for sustainable economic development to increase revenues to pay for needed services.
▪ Most significantly, we need to turn the General Assembly blue in November so that state cuts to all services can be restored. The county taxpayers have valiantly tried to make up for brutal cuts from the state. We are now going to be doing less with less unless we vote for change at the state level!
Earl McKee: In a presentation of the projected financial condition of Orange County over the next few years, management made it clear that without increases in revenue or cuts in the budget, we could expect shortfalls. Revenue increases can be achieved through growth in business activity or by additional housing stock, both of which happen slowly. The usual method of increasing revenue is to put in place a tax increase on property. That method was used for about 20-plus years with the result being that many of our lower-income folks had to relocate to other areas with lower property taxes.
Over the past eight years, the board has only increased the property tax rate one time due to a strong economy and good management by our staff. We already know that the bond that voters passed in 2016 could require a tax increase, so I am not going to support even higher tax increases. That will require cuts to our budget and may impact services in some areas. Projects such as new construction to replace existing county facilities will need to be delayed or eliminated. Something as simple as holding the line on increases in department budgets can have a major impact on how we address the possible shortfall in future budgets.
Each year, as we look at the budget, there are new programs and requests for additional funding from outside agencies that provide services to our residents. The funding for these requests may not be as available as in the past given the projections we received.
Tommy T. McNeill: If elected as Orange County Commissioner District 2, I plan to advocate restrictions in order to balance the budgets:
▪ County capital projects
▪ Post-employment insurance benefits for retirees
I support raising taxes for county school needs by 3 to 5 cents.
Brian Crawford: It would be very difficult for me to ask citizens to face another tax increase. What is most critical to me is that we are as open and transparent as possible and seek consensus and involvement from all citizens. I believe that schools are our priority, and that many other planned projects could be delayed or even cut when they are not essential to the future for all of Orange County.
Sally Greene: Every year brings tough budget decisions. This year, taxes will likely rise to pay for bonds approved in 2016. Next year’s discussion will be in a different place. As an elected official, I’ve never approached a budget with an amount in mind by which I would be willing to raise taxes. My mindset is to work to minimize an adverse impact. The size of an increase emerges only after study and negotiation.
Schools must remain a priority. State per-pupil spending continues downward; the law mandating reductions in K-3 class size seems unworkable; a backlog of capital expenditures exists from deferred maintenance; local legislative authority for school impact fees is gone.
A couple of approaches:
▪ Create a long-term plan for the backlog of facility maintenance
▪ Lobby for passage of the Public School Building Bond Act to get a statewide school construction bond referendum on the ballot for 2018.
Certain investments I would be reluctant to cut: Social Services ($18.7 million), Health Department ($9.9 million), Child Support Services ($1 million), Aging ($2 million), Emergency Services ($11.7 million).
Bearing down upon economic development will help reduce the overall tax burden. In addition, I would explore more strategic engagement in nonprofit partnerships.
Noah Oswald: Orange County has had tremendous success in providing high-quality public education to our students, but the current financial needs of our county and schools is a looming crisis. We must avert that crisis by implementing a multi-tiered effort to diversify revenues and enhance our county. Approval and progress in new business development that preserves the community feel of our towns, but provides much needed expansion of the corporate tax base should be central to meeting our funding needs. The Morinaga factory in Mebane is a great example of how well-planned development can enhance our county while properly protecting natural resources and community identity. Our children are the future of our communities, and I am committed to supporting local education programs through community-driven economic development.
Q. What is the county’s biggest challenge not being addressed that you would bring up?
Jamezetta Bedford: Budgeting one year at a time with no county strategic plan and no integrated capital budget is a key challenge.
For the first time in recent memory, a long-term budget forecast was developed by consultants and presented to the BOCC at their January retreat. Looking ahead 10 years, it illustrates significant financial challenges if no changes are made. We are nearing a crisis, and politicians prefer not to call attention to that.
While some departments have a strategic plan to direct their work and align to budgeting, the county itself does not. Perhaps the BOCC is so divided that it is not possible to develop a plan, but we should try. Residents should be given a voice in the process, so their priorities are known.
To me, there is no point in having top-notch education, parks or lots of money, if you cannot drink the water or breathe the air. So health and safety are first priorities, followed by serving those most at risk: the elderly, the disabled and children.
As I see it, everything intertwines, so we need financial projections in real time where variables can be adjusted as real life happens. We need a plan.
Earl McKee: Even though we have had some success in attracting industry to the county over the last few years, Orange County still lags in implementing a strategic plan for business development. Neighboring counties have state-certified business parks in place with private sector partners standing ready to help in the recruitment. More importantly, these private sector firms are able to work with interested businesses on property development, financing and construction of necessary infrastructure.
Often Orange County can only offer possibilities as we compete against counties with shovel-ready sites. Until and unless we move to address this imbalance, Orange County will continue to see the good-paying jobs and potential tax base go to other better prepared counties. Making the changes necessary will involve direct cost as well as changes in how some view economic development, but to fail to adapt to today’s competitive business environment is to deny opportunity to many of our friends and neighbors. We can make these changes without losing what makes Orange County special.
Tommy T. McNeill: There are big challenges facing Orange County, such as:
▪ School infrastructure, i.e., buildings
▪ Increase teachers’ wages
▪ Funding economic development
▪ Support for the arts
▪ Farmland preservation
Brian Crawford: Affordable housing is a crisis in our community. While we have municipalities and nonprofits working to solve the issue, we must recognize the seriousness of this challenge. The county commissioners are uniquely positioned to lead a coalition of representatives of the university, OWASA, the State Housing Trust, our municipalities and developers. We should seek creative, innovative solutions that create a range of housing alternatives. The sad truth is that we are becoming a community where the people that work and serve here can’t afford to live here. That is simply not reflective of who we are, and what we can be. We can and must do better for our community.
Sally Greene: The budgetary impact of charter schools — a looming issue especially for Orange County Schools. By law, districts must transmit funds to charter schools for their students who reside in the district.
Orange County’s voluntary practice is to make up the difference. Replacement funding has increased from $1.9 million in 2015-16 to $2.75 million in 2017-18. The county has historically funded the actual number from the previous year, not the projected number. Once the budget is set, the district cannot seek more during the same budget year: it must find money elsewhere. Orange County administrators plan to request $3.2 million for the upcoming year, based on their projected number of charter students. This challenge must be addressed.
Noah Oswald: As a native of Orange County, I have seen discord and divide permeate all levels of our communities. I truly believe that Orange County is the best county in our state and that we have communities that draw new residents from around the country. Our residential growth is one of our biggest assets, but independent growth plans for each town and from our county government truly need to be unified for our several municipalities to coexist and prosper. Overcoming social divisiveness centered around geographic and cultural differences is essential, and the first step to doing that is electing a commissioner whose local roots and professional experience allow those gaps to be bridged.
A candidates forum will begin at 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, in the Assembly Hall of Carol Woods Retirement Community, 750 Weaver Dairy Road in Chapel Hill. The forum will include candidates for sheriff, clerk of court and Orange County commissioner.
Another forum for the Orange County commissioners races will begin at 7 p.m. Monday, April 16, at Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill.