Earl McKee is the only incumbent county commissioner running to keep his seat in the May 8 primary in Orange County.
Business development manager Tommy McNeill is challenging McKee for his District 2 seat. Meanwhile, Commissioner Mia Burroughs will step aside in December for her unopposed replacement, Jamezetta Bedford.
A third seat up for grabs, representing the at-large district, is a race among three people who have never served on the board. The winner will replace longtime Commissioner Barry Jacobs.
County commissioners have a major effect on residents’ lives by approving budgets, setting tax rates, approving land-use changes and developments, and helping people with their needs and concerns.
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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 District 1 and District 2 candidates responded to our questions. (Look for a separate story on the at-large race later this week.)
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.
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?
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!
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.
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 (per $100 of assesed property value).
Q. What is the county’s biggest challenge not being addressed that you would bring up?
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.
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.
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
▪ Revisiting the [unified development ordinance] to reflect future growth throughout the county
An Orange County commissioners forum will begin at 7 p.m. Monday, April 16, at Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill.
Another 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 commissioners.
Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb