In case there’s any confusion, Morgan Freeman had nothing to do with this post!

I’ll be helping the Orange County Democratic Party over at the Caldwell precinct in northern Orange County from 9:30am to 4:00pm. Drop by if you’re in the area.

Over the last week I’ve received emails asking my recommendations for the judicial races. Here’s who I’m voting for:

US SenateElaine Marshall

I know, Elaine isn’t running for the bench but since I have your attention….

A lot has been made of the apparent Democratic electorate malaise this year. We are still involved in the longest war of our country’s history. We still haven’t punished the use of torture or kidnapping as tools of war. Affronts to our Constitution, to basic human rights continue to be promulgated. Backroom deals derail chances of improving our populaces health and welfare. Billions are bilked and the public coffers milked. Spying and lying are now commonplace insults to our country’s democratic well-being. So much of the same old, same old with nary a peep from so many Democratic “yes we can change” Congress folks.

I understand that immense lethargic unease the folks that turned out in 2008 must feel. Does that mean we need to suffer with a Burr under our saddles another 4 years? Hell no.

Elaine is more than the anti-Burr choice. She wasn’t supported by the torpor inducing national Democratic apparatchik, a real win in my book. She will work to bring real change on behalf of all North Carolinians if elected. Do your part today to make that happen.

Supreme Court – Bob Hunter

Both candidates have a strong record on governmental transparency, solid experience and track records of reasonable judicial advocacy. While Jackson served as counsel under Labor Secretary Cherrie Berry during a period of time when that office was less than proactive on a slate of labor related issues, it’s not clear to me if her role allowed her to advocate for better outcomes. Hunter has the edge in experience, great endorsements and, as a Democrat, the background to work towards an equitable decision on Congressional redistricting should it land in the Court’s hands.

Court of Appeals – Gray,Elmore,Geer.

Gray and Geer, Democrats, have solid reputations, been unequivocal that politics will play no role in their courts. Elmore is a solid choice.

Court of Appeals – Instant Runoff version: Thigpen – 1st. Hammer – 2nd. Payne or Middleton or Vesper -3rd.

In other races:

Board of Commissioners – Earl McKee.

I’ve been watching Earl as he has taken on a few County issues these last 18 months. He spent 6 months attending BOCC meetings to get a feel of the office before ever standing up and speaking his piece. His first issue, challenging the expensive remodeling of an office space to serve as a Commissioners chamber, demonstrated the type of leadership he plans to bring to the Commission: he did his research, spoke sincerely and directly to the issue, stood firm on his principles while pursuing the best policy for both his rural district (District 2) and the County as a whole.

Sales Tax Referendum – AGAINST

This is a lousy year to raise any taxes – no matter how small the bite – but that is not the main reason I stand so firmly opposed to this referendum.

Poverty is on a steep uptick in Orange County. Demand for health and welfare services is at an all time high. Long needed structural shifts – from fully staffing our community health system to shifting the emergency homeless shelter burden off the IFC – are not occurring supposedly due to fiscal difficulties at the County level. Yet, when presented with $2.3M from a sales tax or $4.6M windfall from refinancing the County’s debt, the BOCC chose areas outside those vital needs.

I lobbied them to put the lions share towards addressing the needs of those struggling the most – for the 1 in 5 Orange County residents in poverty and other residents who are just treading water. $2+ M new revenue targeted effectively represents more than a life jacket – it would lift folks out of the deep end of the pool and move them on to firm ground.

Again, I appreciate the BOCC making a somewhat firm commitment to spending priorities – I just don’t support the same set of priorities.

The BOCC has been clear, as they should be, that this revenue sharing plan is a firm commitment over the next 5 years and will not change – period. The BOCC has also reaffirmed their stance that this new revenue will not replace existing revenue or cover existing expenses – it is new money for a new purpose )funds will not be freed up elsewhere that could be redirected to human services).

Given that, tomorrow, I’m voting NO for the sales tax in hopes that we will get another chance to set the priorities for that spending, that the new priority will be waited heavily towards addressing human service needs and that core needs – like improved emergency medical services(EMS) and required school facility repairs – be paid out of core budget.

More of my reasoning on voting against the sales tax below:

The suggestion that passing the sales tax will keep our property taxes down aren’t justified. Comparing Orange County to other counties where the passage appears to have kept property taxes down is like comparing a blueberry to a pineapple: economically and socially those counties are quite different than Orange.

The sales tax sales job has been quite disappointing – the rhetoric at times quite cynical given the reality. While the Chamber led the way by sponsoring the effort (“Schools and Jobs”), their PAC funding highlights who stands most to gain: $5000 from the NC Realtors.

I suspect the NC Realtors sponsored the 1/4 cent sales tax to take the land transfer tax off the table. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the $610,000 they spent running a campaign against the land transfer tax (and much easier to wrap up in feel good propaganda that it’s “for the kids”). An additional $1000 came from the Chamber with the remaining $250 coming from County Manager Frank Clifton [credit to him for putting his money where his mouth is] according to the Oct. 23rd disclosure report.

The effectiveness of the expenditures is a key problem with the revenue sharing formula.

We all like libraries but the proposed revenue share is not quite the windfall it appears to be. The $172,000 raised by the new sales tax for libraries will be reduced by at least $100,000 just to restore County spending to 2009 levels. The remaining $72,000 will be split using a protocol that could lead to further inequities between the heavily populated southern side of Orange and the rural areas. Of course, Chapel Hill, due to its Library expansion, is facing an additional $1.3M in operating costs and has demanded a substantial increase – as much as $900,000 to start – from the County. As recently revealed, the County has purchased property in Carrboro for a new branch at around $600,000 or more. There isn’t enough money, by far, to restore the previous budget, handle Chapel Hill’s demands, manage the new debt from the land purchase and increase the County’s library capability.

Improving emergency medical response times has been on the agenda for years. EMS is a core service of the County and must be serviced out of the general fund. There is absolutely no doubt that these improvements are required. Implying that this County obligation will only be satisfied by passing the sales tax feels like fear-based arm twisting. For shame that this key need has lingered so long and that there is no political will to find the monies to address it.

Promising “jobs” is equally a cynical sales pitch. Instead of committing the bulk funds to projects with measurable goals and fixed funding needs – like building supportive infrastructure – the money is to be split between the “same old, same old” and some new proposals. That old methodology hasn’t done much to decrease the ratio of commercial vs. residential tax revenues let alone foster real jobs growth (if it wasn’t for UNC and UNC healthcare our jobs picture, even before the downturn, was absolutely miserable). I do like the revolving local business loan idea but, so far, I haven’t seen enough details to see if the limited monies allocated to it will actually spur economic activity.

Unfortunately, Orange Justice United was suckered into supporting the economic development provision under the mistaken assumption the folks in Efland, who really do need a way out of their neighborhood’s sewer nightmares, would get assistance in the form of a sewer extension to Mebane. As Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier clearly said Saturday:

“none of the money from the tax, if passed, would directly go to the sewer system in Efland.” She said if the sales tax is passed, the Board of Orange County Commissioners might install a commercial sewage system along the Interstates 40 and 85 corridor, which would connect businesses as well as the Efland community to Mebane’s sewer system.

DTH, Oct. 23, 2010

To sum up, the proposed economic development spending is generally for vague purposes with uncertain return or for purposes that haven’t generated the outcomes we desire. I did find some of the planned infrastructure improvements attractive – supported them on economic and social justice grounds – but that, as Bernadette highlighted, isn’t a given.

The aggregate school system budgets weigh in over $85+ M ($25M for the county/$60+ million CHCS). $1.1M more is a fractional improvement. The money allocated for schools is targeted to some of the same areas that the lottery was supposed to address – capital related expenditures to repair, renovate or expand existing facilities. Where did the lottery funds go then? Is the $1.3M to $1.7M of those funds previously ear-marked going to some other purpose?

An interesting nuance to the school spending is an added level of oversight by the BOCC is dispensing the funds. The BOCC will determine if a project qualifies. After that, the disbursement is based on the BOCC’s discretion and won’t necessarily align with per capita enrollment or even by district (the county schools could get all %42.5, etc.). Once the $1M is divvied up it will be hard to draw a direct correlation between the expenditure and the quality of our students education.

The additional $1M, while I’m sure will eventually be helpful, will not have the dramatic impact it would have if spent on those services that are “shovel ready” – additional staff at the health department, additional outreach workers, space for the existing southern dental clinic elsewhere in Town.

Finally, beyond the recent funding priority surprises – dropping the dental program without finding another southern home, purchasing land for a new library instead of looking at using existing resources – like the Jobs Link center on Franklin – we only have to look at how the County uses unanticipated funds in this economic climate to get a sense of the true priorities. The County recently started to refinance some of its debt freeing up $4.6M (WCHL).

Will any of that money go to the incredible backlog of human services requests or to finding a southern home for the dental program/guardian program/etc.? No. Instead it appears that the funds are earmarked for the new property tracking system for the tax assessors office, a project I was told was to be completed by Nov. 1st.

The only mechanism to rebalance the spending priorities, then, is not to pass the sales tax request and rework the allocations next round. The risk is if the sales tax referendum fails this round then it will fail next time.

I imagine that most folks aren’t as sensitive as I am to the spending priorities and will probably fall for the cursory and incorrect assertion that the sales tax will really do something for jobs and education. From what I can tell, most don’t realize that the BOCC could reflect on the growing, looming demand on services and come back with a better solution.

That said, if it should fail the BOCC still needs to address the needs that they highlighted in the sales tax sales brochure.

Of course, this is a lousy year to raise any kind of tax – no matter how small the bite. Maybe it will fail for that reason alone.

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