January 2010


Quick update from the Town:

WINTER STORM 5 p.m. Jan. 31 Notice
Posted Date: 1/31/2010

Following the weekend snowstorm, normal operations for Town of Chapel Hill services are anticipated tomorrow (Monday, Feb. 1) with the exception of Monday trash collection, which has been rescheduled to Wednesday.
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Chapel Hill has a new tool to track road conditions during adverse conditions, like today’s 3 to 6 inches snowfall.

The GIS map showing roads salted, cleared and relevant services is here.

Good to see this finally in place. The Tech Board discussed just such an application of the GIS system about 6 years ago.

Current weather conditions, courtesy of the Weather Underground, are available here.

The Town’s NextBus service, which usually shows current locations of the buses on their routes is available here.

Big caveat, though (from Chapel Hill Transit):

CHT’s NextBus system estimates the next arrivals for buses in real time, based on each vehicle’s location and average speed. But when many vehicles are off-route or significantly delayed, it cannot make accurate arrival predictions. NextBus can, however, tell you if your line is delayed, or the location of the next vehicle.

Longtime readers might recall that was one of the criticisms (beyond the expense, lack of WIFI and rejection of a local vendor) I had of the NextBus system.

Latest updates on the transit system here.

The Council decided to postpone the Library expansion decision pending further data and discussion.

Council member Laurin Easthom pointed out on Monday, once again, “We need to make some real serious decisions about citizens who use our library and don’t pay.” Laurin has been on-top of this issue for some time. She has also been quite clear in her concerns (THE LIBRARY AND THE FREE LUNCH) unlike several of her colleagues.

Laurin is not alone.

Her colleague Penny Rich added “Citizens in Chapel Hill are quite generous, but I think the endless supply of money in our wallets is not there anymore.” (Daily Tar Heel, Jan. 26th, 2010).

New member Gene Pease, who has been a stalwart supporter of the library for many years – raising significant funds as a member and leader of the Friends of the Library president of the Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation [thanks Fred!] to support its mission – said “To have no conversation about this and about how to attack this problem in the operating budget, I think it’s irresponsible to make the decision tonight” (Lauren Hills,NBC17) in justifying the delay.

I’ve watched this issue unfold for several years, called on former Council’s to show some fiscal restraint over the last 4 years so we could accommodate this project. It is clear that given the current economy, a prudent assessment of our Town’s revenue stream, the core fiscal liabilities and obligations we must discharge (which does not include that Lot #5 money pit), the Library expansion must wait.

Of course, that’s my considered opinion which is based on the data at hand, my entrepreneurial experience and a financial philosophy that emphasizes “living within our means”.

Laurin Easthom foresaw these same issues and tried to set several plans in motion to address this unfortunate juncture – the public’s growing desire for a new facility coupled with a bare public cupboard.

Last April, in fact, she directed the Town Manager and staff to come up “with a financial cost sharing plan” to help ameliorate the anticipated rise in operational costs. To date, no plan has emerged from Town Manager Roger Stancil and crew.

A quasi-plan did emerge on Monday from new Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Jim Ward – pressure the Orange County Board of Commissioners and, as Jim put it, make adequate library funding a “litmus test the winners are going to pass, period.” in this year’s county-level election cycle.

Given the County budget mess, the incredible pressure to fund the schools, existing debt obligations, new costs and lost revenues, threats are a non-starter. And, as Jim and Mark seemed to have forgotten, when the county commissioners (BOCC) pushed through election districts, Chapel Hill citizen’s leverage was somewhat diluted.

Our leadership must work with the BOCC on adequately funding the library using a more positive approach. Sure, we shouldn’t continue to accept “nice words that … are worth zero” as Jim Ward said of the Commissioners (Greg Childress, Herald-Sun, 01/26/10) but we also can’t expect to get blood from a turnip.

The best approach, I believe, is to jointly identify sources of funds, possible cost savings made possible by collaborating on other issues, to find the money we need for operating the facility.

That said, “absorbing” additional debt alone should push the start date of the expansion off until next year.

The Town Manager is recommending that as the Town retires existing debt we take on new debt by issuing the Library bonds. That might be a sensible approach if our Town wasn’t already burdened by an incredible debt load – historically unprecedented – during such a troubled economic time. The Town needs to retire existing debt, bring our reserves back up and take a small breather before launching into another spending spree.

Here is what I meant to say at this evening’s Council meeting.

Like a lot of my remarks, I find myself editing on the fly, so what I managed to get out in less than 3 minutes wasn’t quite what follows but I believe I made the points I needed.

The simple summary?

We can’t do the Lot #5 (140 West) project and the Library expansion together. Lot #5 hasn’t met its goals, the cost/benefit ratio is decidedly out-of-whack, the necessity quite clearly not there anymore.

Further, the Library expansion project needs to be delayed until taxpayers can bear the total cost. Beyond that, we need to request an extension from the North Carolina Local Government Commission to allow issuing bonds beyond the current deadline so when it is fiscally prudent we can move expeditiously.

Finally, public participation, once again, is barely considered.

Tonight’s remarks:

In 2010 you will be making several key budgetary decisions whose impacts will span the next decade – the Lot #5 (West 140) and Library expansion – two examples.

Lot #5 represents the greatest and riskiest fiscal liability going forward that can be safely dispensed with.

Part of the sales pitch made by some on this Council is we needed this project to kick-start development Downtown.

With Greenbridge nearly built, University Square poised for redevelopment, approval of Grove Park – which will displace the affordable Townhouse Apts. on Hillsborough St. with luxury condos – and other Downtown projects on the way it’s clear that we don’t need that supposed stimulus Lot #5 brings anymore.

It’s time to reconsider this troubled project especially given that:

1) the cost reductions that allowed RAM to lower prices haven’t been significantly passed on to the taxpayer,

2) the number of units pre-sold hasn’t grown in-line with price reductions (33 units pre-sold so far, down from the reported 2008 commitment of 35).

3) the open-ended nature of the cost of the environmental cleanup is still being underplayed,

4) the University at University Square has already put forward a much more sound, interesting and integrative proposal (123 West Franklin) for that stretch of Franklin St. than the expensive – at least to the Chapel Hill taxpayer – Lot #5,

5) still up in the air how we will borrow the money – COPs, TIFs, etc. In any case, however we borrow the $9-10M or more it will limit the Town’s ability to prudently respond in funding core needs,

6) and from what I can see in RAM’s recent missive ( RAM Dec. 22nd, 2009 letter [PDF]) no effort has been made to involve the nearby business and residential community in discussing mitigation of the type of construction-related problems that have plagued Greenbridge or even apprise their future neighbors of current developments (let alone present a coherent and consistent story to the local press).

Three years out and no significant improvement in the proposal. Three extensions to the contract granted by Council. Lot #5 should be shelved now so that the Town can take projects that are more central to its charter.

What does this have to do with the Library?

I want to see the Library expanded but now is not the time.

The memos before you [here] paint a fairly rosy picture of the borrowing in terms of adopting new debt but they don’t do a very good job in putting that increased debt in context of our already astonishing – at least by historical Chapel Hill standards – debt load.

Memo #A, in fact, disingenuously characterizes the increase to homeowners using examples of property valuations well below ($200K) the Chapel Hill baseline.

Look at the chart in Memo #A. The rate of increase in the debt load – that rapidly increasing impact on the Town’s flexibility in borrowing – running our debt right up to the debt ceiling for our AAA bond rating – starts in late 2012 and zooms steeply from there.

Of course, besides adding new debt that and anticipated G.O. additions will account for roughly several cents on the current tax rate while the real kicker is the growth in cost of Library operations – which appears to be even more significant.

Worse, the continued structural instability and weakness of our economy gets short shrift.

Now is not the time to take on a large forward liability.

Making a decision based on these figures tonight will be guaranteeing a tax increase or steep cuts or just ignoring basic obligations two years hence.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Shelve Lot #5. We can have a Library expansion – hopefully starting next year – or we can have Lot #5 – we can’t handle both.

2) The Library borrowing should be delayed until prevailing economic conditions show signs of improvement – strengthened sales tax revenues, stable fund markets which will lend money at a more favorable rate – say less than %100 of the 20 year Treasury bond ratio.

3) Have staff prepare a request to NC Local Government Commission to extend Chapel Hill’s time limit for issuing these bonds so the Council and community have adequate time to plan.

4) Use the established public budget process which kicks off next week [2/3/2010 7:00 PM Council Chambers Townhall) to discuss the Library in light of all our Town's needs – competitive staff wages, affordable housing reserve funds, the growing retirement fund deficit (Unfunded Liabilities: Pay As You Go Not Sustainable) among many others.

Last Fall many of many on Council obligingly participated in a special “emergency” meeting to acquire Dawson Hall for police and other key Town services. That urgent need hasn't gone away – the police department's facility still needs attention - why isn't that part of the rosy projections?

Our citizens deserve a diligent evaluation of the cost of the Library expansion and operations within the context of our total budget and foreseeable needs - not wants.

They also deserve to participate - not just get an agenda item 3 days before a decision is scheduled.

5) Finally, postponing tonight will give you the opportunity to carefully consider this proposal in light of all your priorities, give you time to evaluate the rosy picture drawn by these memos against your own understanding of the economy and think about how to engage the community during this weekend's Council retreat.

In addition, it buys needed time for the public to review the current proposal, attend the budget sessions, ask their questions, get their answers and finally weigh in in a thoughtful manner.

Thank you.

[UPDATE: Council Postpones Consideration]

From tonight’s Council flash report:

Consideration of Proceeding with the Library Expansion Project: The Council considered the project schedule and associated costs for expansion of the Chapel Hill Public Library. The Council delayed action and indicated its desire to discuss the expansion costs in greater detail and in the context of the entire Town budget. The Council stated it wants to know what level of funding Orange County will provide toward Library services.

Orange County provides no capital support toward the Town’s Library expenses; this includes all past and present Library construction costs, debt service for same, equipment or special project costs. County support toward Library operating expenses has remained at $250,000 since 1995 and represents 11 percent of this year’s Library operating budget. About 12,000 of the Library’s patrons live in Orange County outside Chapel Hill limits. The number of materials borrowed by these patrons was 386,000 items last year. This represents approximately 40 percent of the Library’s annual circulation.

Catherine Lazorko, Chapel Hill’s information officer, sent me this email to Council from Town elder Roscoe Reeve. Roscoe recalls how the 25 bed limit for shelters was set. As suspected, it was somewhat arbitrary though based in an intent to make the approval process less onerous for community-oriented facilities.

Thanks Catherine!

From: Roscoe Reeve
Sent: Monday, January 11, 2010 11:03 PM
To: Town Council
Subject: The Magic 25 Number for Shelters

Dear Mayor Mark and Members of the Council,

I have followed your deliberations, this evening, on the 25 cap for shelters in the LUMO and can, perhaps, clear up its origin.

I was a member and Chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Board that created the 25 cap for shelters in the early 1980′s.

The cap was proposed by staff in the process of creation of the LUMO, a very long and complex process of study and meetings. There was never any discussion or rational for the number 25 as a cap appropriate to a shelter. The interest of the Board was to create (as Mark and Sally implied tonight) a number of permitted uses in appropriate zones so that standards would be clear and that long and expensive deliberations, such as the SUP process, would not impede needed public uses (shelter, school, day care, church, etc.). We thought that if things were appropriate in a zone, as determined by Council’s approval of the tables within the LUMO, arbitrary political passion would be discouraged, the famous “crap shoot” referred to tonight. Especially since schools, churches and private charities could ill afford a lengthy approval process governed by the whims of NIMBY. At that time there was a Council member who would not vote for the approval of any development application where the applicant did not meet personally with him, and in some cases the applicant would have to agree to a personal request of the Council member as arranged at that private meeting. And of course we board members were perplexed when totally complying development proposals were still voted down because a neighborhood didn’t want the development and they raised hell with the Council. Silly us.

In other words, we were all for getting basic development permitted uses so that the development process was logical, based on development standards, and could be completed in a time that did not bankrupt the applicant. Silly us.

I hope this in some way provides explanation for the 25 shelter cap. We assumed that shelters bigger than 25 would need to have a SUP. The number 25 itself was not studied or considered.

With warm regards,

roscoe

Education and our own private “rabbit-proof” fencing seems to be the extent of Chapel Hill’s plan to deal with its exploding dear population.

The Town is responding to my Mount Bolus neighbor’s Oct. 12th petition this evening with a proposal [PDF] to educate folks on how to deter expansion of the deer population.

Unfortunately, rather than expanding on the petition’s intent – to manage deer population in a safe and humane fashion – some on Council immediately responded negatively to the suggestion of urban archery and acted as if it was the sole proposed solution. Though I know urban archery has been safely and successfully used elsewhere I also can understand how it might not fit here. Surely, though, there are more possibilities than outlined in tonight’s staff memo (I wonder why the Town didn’t reach out to UNC and Duke – who is managing deer populations in Duke Forest – for relevant expertise).

I’m also troubled by some of the assertions made in the report, including the implication that populations are increasing due to increased food supplies made available by urban landscaping.

I’ve lived on Mt. Bolus for over a decade and have seen the steps my neighbors have taken to limit access to food (we’ve put an 8′ high fence around our garden, for instance).

In my Mt. Bolus neighborhood, I believe the problem owes more to limiting natural corridors than increased food supply. I also know that this year we’ve observed that the number of deer has nearly doubled from just last year – something that can’t be explained by the simple assertion that folks yards are providing a greater buffet than before.

Tonight’s recommendation?

Based on the limited portions of Town on which an urban hunt could be safely conducted, combined with the issues outlined above, we do not believe that an urban hunt is a viable option for the Town. We recommend that the Council adopt the attached Resolution, which authorizes the Manager to develop an information packet for residents interested in protecting their landscaping and gardens from deer.

I’m hoping that this isn’t considered an endpoint in the process and that Council will hold the public forum recommended by the Sustainability Committee. Ideally, the forum should be held by late Spring to give adequate time to developing a realistic deer population management plan for Fall (further recommendations from the committee here [PDF].

It appears, though, that tonight’s recommendation is seen as an end-point by at least one commercial organization. Every mailbox I passed this afternoon on Mt. Bolus had the following brochure attached:

Deerbusters? I know we aren’t going to invest in an 8 foot high eyesore and I hope my neighbors don’t either….

Lot’s of discussion about Chapel Hill’s deer problem including these posts on the Chapel Hill News (Hunters Take 86 Deer in Duke Forest,Chapel Hill Rejects Deer Hunt) , Chapel Hill Watch (Passing the Buck), WRAL (Chapel Hill Council to consider ways to reduce deer population)

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