Community


Over the year’s I’ve seen some rather jam packed final spring term Council meetings. This one was about average in length, light on content but big in setting the stage for two broad initiatives – siting an emergency shelter and legally mandating affordable housing – to move forward.

I left prior to Council’s revisiting Laurin Easthom’s reasonable request for further fiscal analysis of Library funding, I’ll report back on that soon…

The first big bang of the evening, Council approved the %15 affordable housing inclusionary zoning ordinance.

Before voting for the zone, Jim Ward brought up the same fiscal equity issue I raised about this ordinance months ago. Downtown developments are only required to provide %10 affordable housing under the logic that it is more expensive to develop Downtown and that development will be driven into other parts of Town to avoid a %15 requirement.

Sally Greene reiterated that the existing density and height bonuses were not sufficient to overcome developers reluctance in meeting a standard %15 requirement. Of course, while property Downtown is more expensive to develop it also demands far greater premiums – something the analysis downplays. Her argument also doesn’t account for the radically increased density/height allowances in TC-3 – the self-serving zone Council created for their Lot $5 disaster.

Mark Kleinschmidt acknowledged that the inclusionary zone wasn’t fully baked and suggested that it be reviewed one year out. The zone, whose goals are laudable, could’ve used a bit more polish before setting in motion. We’ll see if the gaps are filled in 2012 (if the Council is entangled in litigation over the provisions by then).

While I semi-live ‘blogged the discussion of creating guidelines, standards or zones for human service facilities there are a few more observations to add.

First, there was a strange juxtaposition between the discussion of siting human service facilities, including “white flag” emergency shelters, and the approval of the inclusionary zone.

In initial discussions of the inclusionary zone, several of us argued that space should be allocated not just for affordable housing but community-oriented uses like human services facilities. Using a zoning process would be one way the Town could find needed space for these type facilities. We got the same response as when we asked Council to include space for feeding/housing the homeless at East54 or Lot #5 – not interested.

Council continues to reject calls to make this part of our development approval process (if Roger Perry’s Obeys Creek proceeds I’ll be asking Council to set aside some of that mandated square footage or in lieu monies for community-oriented services outside of affordable housing).

Second, the IFC has tried very hard to work within the rules informally suggested for siting the new Community House facility.

One primary requirement was that the property didn’t need rezoning.

I’ve watched Council twist zones, like the RSSC zone meant to encourage %100 affordable housing into a spot zone for hundreds of luxury condos for their business partner RAM Development, to meet their political agenda. Ed Harrison observed the current SUP process is a “crap shoot”. I’ve seen similar Council machinations use the SUP process to meet various goals (many I agree with) so why can’t we roll the dice favorably?

The point being that while the IFC struggled to find a site that doesn’t need rezoning, there are many examples of where a particular zone was little or no impediment to Council approval of a project (look at the creation of TC-3 for Greenbridge, West140 and which will apply to Short Bridge development and University Square redevelopment, look at how East54’s developer Roger Perry got a range of allowances to maximize his profit, etc.).

Of course, this is a main concern of Homestead’s neighborhood activists.

Without binding zoning requirements (well, as binding as Chapel Hill makes them) or standards mandated by ordinance, the Council can twist the current rules to meet their own agenda and reject public concerns.

The IFC continues to jump through what must seem like an endless series of hoops in an effort to provide two services, one – an emergency shelter – of which is squarely the County’s responsibility, the other – a transitional program to move folks from homelessness to established residents – which is commendable on every measurable axes.

After years of marching through the desert, th group submitted their special-use permit (SUP) request this morning – moving the project forward to an eventual yea or nay vote early Fall.

Neighborhood activists have already helped IFC sharpen their proposal. The move to address some of their concerns is what is fueling the drive to create a transparent, somewhat objective, process for evaluating siting services.

As the Community House discussion lurches into the next phase, I anticipate arguments over what guidelines or standards should apply and what decision-making framework – the Planning Board’s findings, SUP process or some kind of intermediate hybrid – will dictate the eventual result.

The residents of Chapel Hill deserve an open discussion on not just siting human services but providing future space for anticipated human service requirements. Not only should the current process yield a set of somewhat binding standards for evaluating particular sites but also provide a framework for measuring the cumulative impact and operational advantages of siting services compactly within the community.

Finally, my hope is that the current process opens up a real discussion on this Town’s obligation to support IFC and other incredible human service groups within this community.

That discussion should be frank and honest.

Council must explain why human services aren’t sited at developments like East54 as part of the SUP process, why it is so easy to twist a zone like RSSC or create a TC-3 zone for their own agenda while making the IFC jump through hoops to find an existing zone and why the newly minted inclusionary zone doesn’t include a mandate to set aside square footage for both affordable housing and human services.

The Council has asked the Planning Board to develop a range of regulatory options controlling the development and operation of shelters within Town. The range of policy proposals the Planning Board could create include shelter zoning, shelter standards or shelter guidelines – each with their own regulatory weight and requirements.

Guidelines, for instance, are broad directives – more suggestive of what is wanted than what is required – don’t have the predictability of a standard or zone.

Memo HERE

Semi-live ‘blogging:

Mike Collins, Planning Board chair – Council discussion already demonstrates the complexity of the process and the need for firm direction from Council
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[UPDATE:] According to Chapel Hill News reporter Jesse D. the Council finally agreed to Laurin’s request. Staff will research and report back on the options this Fall, approximately 18 months after her first request.

Quick note from this evening’s Council meeting. Council member Laurin Easthom renewed her reasonable request (reviewed here [THE LIBRARY AND THE FREE LUNCH]) for additional fiscal analysis of the recently approved Library expansion.

Her original April 2009 request to the staff and Town Manager for a range of specific funding scenarios to manage both the transitional and additional operational cost of the Library expansion has been rebuffed successfully over the last year.

Why the delay?

Possible political embarrassment to some of the Council folks who pressed for expansion in-spite of foreseeable negative consequences. A real analysis would reveal the weakness of the current estimates for these costs.

Tonight’s problem, though, is that Laurin is well within her rights as a sitting member of the Council to request staff input and that foot-dragging is not acceptable. Rather than strengthening her call for informed decision making, some of her colleagues have tacitly participated in this delay.

Tonight her re-request for this information spawned a half-hour of meandering Council commentary.

Instead of a clear directive to staff to produce the report, Mayor Kleinschmidt punted the issue to later this evening. Mark, rather than reaffirming his colleagues simple, reasonable request, dispatching it quickly, instead, muttering several times that “folks are waiting” and “we’ll discuss this after 12:30”, pushed it to the Council meeting dead zone.

Anyone that still buys the myth former Mayor Foy touted of a Council grounded in collegiality should take heed how the tactics of the imperial mayoral-ship he fostered impedes respectful dissent even within the Council itself and harms a transparent, reality-based approach to decision-making.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) opened up discussion this evening of putting a %0.25 increase in local sales tax before voters in November (Levy of a One-Quarter Cent (1/4¢) County Sales and Use Tax [PDF]).

The tax, if approved, will bump our local sales tax to %8 with all the additional proceeds going directly to the county (it seems like it was mentioned several hundred times that the municipalities would get NADA from the increase). Best estimates, and only if a pending state bill is passed, has the county reaping in $500K in 2011 rising to $2.4M in 2012.

I spoke before the BOCC on the issue – raising a few concerns, suggesting a possible course of action.

I acknowledged the Commishes quandary in filling the current $9.4M hole in the County’s budget and the near certainty of dealing with an even deeper one in 2011. I recognized the appeal in making a seemingly small increase in a tax that is spread across a wider arc than property taxpayers. I understood it probably seemed an easier sell especially given the recent turmoil over our hefty property revaluations and the failed attempt to create a land transfer tax.

I also pointed out even though it doesn’t apply to food or medicines that the increase represented an additional burden on those folks living here who can least afford it (the characterization in the press that “what the heck, it’s only a few more bucks week!” really bothers me).

By its nature, it is a regressive tax.

Given that increased burden, I asked the BOCC to commit in as legally a binding way as possible, to dedicating the new revenue to funding the rapidly growing demand on social services. That revenue should bolster the existing commitment and go well beyond this year’s baseline (not to rely on it, as many counties have with the NC lottery and education).

Steve Yuhaz and a few other commissioners suggested throwing this modest amount of money – $2.5M at best – at the schools or pouring it down the current economic development rat-hole.

Spending $2.5M on needed social services would have a much more profound effect than adding to the considerable school system overhead or to funding economic incentives during this downturn. And it’s the right thing to do given the rather dire outlook for next year.

Other than clearly dedicating the use of the funds, I also asked for two additional provisions:

  • that the tax increase be time limited – maybe 3-4 years at most – in order to emphasize that this wasn’t a case of avoiding fiscal discipline but a response to some very difficult circumstances
  • that the public be given plenty of opportunity to weigh in.

At the conclusion of the topic it was clear that public input beforehand will have to come quick – June 15th to be exact.

Some quick observations/comments.

Several counties, like New Hanover, were used as success stories for the referendum. New Hanover, of course, has much lower property taxes and with its tourist draws has much greater outside revenue flows. Orange County’s increase will be borne mostly by Orange County residents.

Comments by several commissioners that this broad 1/4 percent sales tax would bring revenues in from residents not currently “paying their fair share” made very little sense given that a pretty good chunk of the existing %7.75 sales tax paid by all residents ends up in the county coffers.

It was also strange how quickly the discussion settled on two options – raise sales taxes or property taxes. The obvious third option – raise no taxes – didn’t make it onto the table.

My suggestion to time limit the measure didn’t get traction. Long time NC residents probably recall that a fair portion of the existing %7.75 sales tax was supposed to be “temporary”. Like many of the current “usage fees” and other tax burdens, government claims on our income tend to take on a life of their own and rarely get rolled-back (at least on middle and lower income folks). The rates might get adjusted but the real outlays stay the same or increase.

It’s hard to dodge the appearance that raising the sales tax rate has more to do with an inability to prioritize spending than fiscal discipline when the increase has an open-ended expiration date.

Sales tax revenue is sensitive to prevailing economic conditions. Without a dramatic upturn in the economy or a steep expansion in the County’s commercial tax base – both unlikely in the near future – the dependability of this revenue stream is not sufficient to fund core services.

Finally, the oddest arguments of the evening circulated around the reason for raising and the commitment to restrict the expenditure of the funds. Many commissioners argued (and then voted for) a course of action that essentially boiled down to this: put the referendum on the ballot with little public discussion and then invite the community to speculate on what the funds are to be used for and how firm the obligation to spend them accordingly will be.

Strange inversion.

I pushed for public participation first, a clear statement on the use of the new revenues (I lobbied for human services first, debt reduction – as County Manager Clifton pointed out – a good second) and a legally binding obligation to use the funds for that specified reason.

That way the community would have a clear idea early on as to what they would be asked to vote into being.

Feels like, at least at this point (with June 15th weeks away), public participation is an afterthought.

Of the few ways one can “exercise” citizenship directly, being chosen as a sitting juror seems most capricious.

Ever since I turned 18 I’ve waited for the call.

Master jury lists in North Carolina are randomly drawn from voter rolls and driver license records. Having been a licensed driver and voting maniac (all elections except one 2nd primary) for over 30 years, I expected to have been selected at least once before now, yet it was only last month I was notified of my first opportunity to serve.

Given my activist background, I imagined that being selected to serve in court was a long shot. Still, getting my chance to discharge this citizen obligation was rewarding enough. Yes, I know it might sound a bit crazy to many folks, especially those who have tried and possibly succeeded in ducking the call, but I was excited my turn finally arrived.

Orange County has a fairly efficient system. You get a letter a month beforehand. You’re instructed to call a particular phone number (919-644-4516 in Orange County should you happen to Google this post) the night before to check your status.

After returning from this evening’s Board of Commissioner’s meeting I made that call.

The disappointing recorded message was short, to the point – “All jurors are excused. This concludes your jury service.”

Excused, yes. Concluded? Just doesn’t feel that way.

Went to this afternoon’s Council committee meeting to see how Orange County’s Commissioners would respond to Chapel Hill’s demands to increase Library operational funding NOW rather than later.

A few general observations/comments before my notes.

First, an apology to my loyal readers. I have spent much more time accumulating content than presenting it.

For instance, I went on the recent Town sponsored walk through Northside, led by Empowerment’s Delores Bailey (whose mother lived along the route), to review various NCD (neighborhood conservation district) violations and missteps (which generated these Council concerns the following Monday). Took lots of pictures, made lots of notes, hope to turn it into a post “sometime soon”. Given the huge backlog of content, I’ll try to pick up the pace over the next month.

As far as the Library funding issue, it’s clear that Chapel Hill has been subsidizing access to the %41 of County residents who hold library cards for too long.

The portion of that expense, calculated simplistically as a straight ratio, totes up to almost $7 million over the last decade. Given that there is a huge gap between the level of service our community has demanded and paid for those last 10 years – at a yearly cost now of $3 million dollars – and the level of service offered county residents – funded to the tune of $1 million – one could argue – as Orange County’s Manager Frank Clifton did – that the putative subsidy’s scope is distorted by Chapel Hill’s historical level of extraordinary support. While I agree with Council member Gene Pease, that the whole of the county deserves to have a library system more akin to that of Chapel Hill’s, I also agree with Frank’s analysis – comparing Chapel Hill’s caviar diet to the more modest appetite of County residents is an apples to oranges comparison.

As I’ve noted before (Library or Lot #5?), even though Chapel Hill has been unfairly subsidizing service for years, the demand for more operational funds NOW is being driven by the majority of this Council’s stated desire to imprudently issue $20.1M worth of bonds in June rather than addressing a fundamentally inequitable situation.

Given that the Council will not shed the ridiculous Lot #5/West 140 financial liability in order to deal more effectively with the fiscal strain a Library expansion will place on the budget, their demand to the Board of Commissioners, especially given the deep hole ($6M+) Orange County finds itself in, rings hollow.

Why the emphasis on increasing operational funds then?

To make the case for doing the expansion now irrespective of foreseeable economic conditions arguing otherwise.
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As some readers might recall, I was appointed to serve on Chapel Hill’s Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force early last year.

Before we got started there were a few issues to address involving recruitment of a diverse membership to reflect both the concerns of the business community and the community as a whole. After settling on over 20 members, we began to work on a fairly ambitious task – to create a framework for making reasonable decisions on beneficial growth over the next 10 years.

The last few months the SCVTF worked diligently to create a set of principles that will inform our final work product. In the last few weeks, though, concerns about how to address issues raised as long ago as last Spring, once again surfaced.

Four members, Amy Ryan, Del Snow, Madeline Jefferson and myself, submitted the following letter to the committee as a whole this evening outlining not only our concerns but some proposals to more effectively, efficiently and energetically move forward with the task at hand.

Kudos to Amy for doing a fantastic job of word-smithing:

March 8, 2010

Members of the Sustainable Community Visioning Task Force,

When the task force was convened last summer, we were united in one thing: our willingness to commit a significant amount of time and energy to the task of ensuring that the future development of Chapel Hill would proceed in a positive and equitable manner. We all see the importance of providing citizen guidance to town staff, review boards, and local developers for managing the successful growth of our town.

As was made evident at the last meeting, there is a group of task force members who are concerned with the direction our work has taken and feel that our mission is being compromised. We would therefore like to take this opportunity to state our concerns in detail and propose an alternative to the process currently under way.

Our concerns with the current process fall into four specific areas:

1. No opportunity to look at the big picture

By focusing first on individual key areas in town that are likely to develop, we will not be looking at the town as a whole, as we were charged to do, and will not be able to see the cumulative impacts of our recommendations.

Unless we spend many meetings looking at every key area (which the task force seems disinclined to do) and then assessing the cumulative impact of all of them together, under the current plan we will have no way of determining whether our recommendations are reasonable, equitable, or practical for the town as a whole.

2.No specificity

The current Comprehensive Plan does an admirable job of providing general guidance for the development of Chapel Hill, but many of its provisions and recommendations are vague enough that they can be used to justify a broad range of development options, some less desirable than others. The task force’s set of guiding principles, while useful as a general statement of our vision, do not make any progress toward offering more specific, concrete guidelines for the town and local developers.

We agree that it is not the SCVTF’s job to create detailed small area plans, nor do we feel that such exercises are a particularly effective way of guiding real world development. Rather, beginning with the principles’ general vision for the town’s development, it should be the task force’s goal to provide leadership in guiding the town to begin developing specific, context-based guidelines for future development.

3.No acknowledgment of constraints

As the process is currently constituted, there is no mechanism for the task force to acknowledge and plan for factors that will limit the town’s development. The school district has confirmed that we are running out of sites in town for building new schools; the resources of our local watershed are finite; we can add only so many more cars to current roads before quality of life deteriorates; like all communities we have a responsibility to work toward sustainable resource use.

Phil’s “Where Do We Go from Here” memo of 3/9/10 (PDF) states that our charge is “recommending what kinds of growth and where growth can occur if it does occur, not whether growth should occur, or how much or how little.” While none of us are in a position to predict the future, we also can offer no meaningful guidance to growth without accepting and working with at least some general parameters of how much growth is expected, responsible, and desirable. We were charged by Mayor Foy to “challenge all assumptions,” not to work without any assumptions whatsoever.

4. No plan for iterative community input

In our discussions at the beginning of our tenure, the group was strongly in favor of obtaining community input that would provide feedback on our work along the way.

Until Phil’s 3/9 memo, the task force had not been informed of any plans for eliciting community opinion on our recommendations before our report goes to council. If the goal of a May report to council still holds, we question whether there is time for steps 3 and 4 of Phil’s plan to be implemented and incorporated into our report.

For our work to succeed, it must be “owned” not just by us, but by the community as a whole. Adequate time for public input on the guiding principles, hierarchy of trade-offs, and vision for all key development areas is crucial to making this happen.

Given these concerns, we would like to propose modifications to the plan of the task force’s work as we carry forward:

1. Spend one or two meetings on a Reality Check exercise

Given high and low estimates of population changes anticipated in Chapel Hill, along with accepted formulas for calculating expected demand for schools, commercial space, water, etc., it should be possible to form rough estimates of how many square feet of new residential, commercial, and civic space the town will require and can support. The task force could then spend one meeting in small groups deciding how this growth could be logically allocated throughout town; another meeting would allow reconciliation of the groups’ visions into a single task force plan, which town staff could review for conflicts or other problems.

This step would allow us to address big picture issues while avoiding hours of extra meting time looking at each small area in detail in order to build a picture of the cumulative development effects. It would also allow us to work within our development “budget,” accommodating constraints and planning for the town’s future needs. The resulting map would also provide a clear object for testing against the task force’s guiding principles.

2.Conduct character-based small-area development studies of one or two key neighborhoods

Using the information obtained from the Reality Check exercise, the task force could take the development allocated to one or two specific areas and take a close look at how best it could be accommodated.

The product of such a study would be a clear statement of the current neighborhood character, identification of opportunities for development and important elements to preserve, guidance for reconciling expected conflicts and making trade-offs, and specific examples for developers and town staff and boards on what kind of development would be appropriate.

Ideally, this exercise would be a quick example of a more in-depth process that the town would ultimately conduct in each neighborhood in town where significant development is likely to occur.

3.Plan for community input

It is vital to provide enough time for citizens to review and comment on the task force’s work as it progresses. Key elements for review would include (1) our refined list of guiding principles (after we have tested them in one or two small areas); (2) our map showing general allocation of development across the town from the Reality Check exercise; and (3) our recommendations for the select key areas we study.

When the town moved forward to develop in-depth neighborhood plans, it would obviously be crucial to get citizen input about how they see the neighborhood, what is lacking, what development works, and what doesn’t. This information would be the basis for the work of whatever group was charged with carrying this work forward.

While all members of the SCVTF may not have the exact same vision for Chapel Hill, we are united in our concern for the town and its future. It is time for us to be united in framing and agreeing to the process that will carry us forward. At the end of our tenure, we should all agree that we have produced a product that will identify the principles we hold in common, help us preserve what we value and improve what is falling short, and provide useful guidance for the town as it grows and develops. The process we have outlined above can be accomplished efficiently, will produce more useful guidance for the town, and will provide the basis for developing the specific development vision and guidelines the town so urgently needs.

Signed,

Amy Ryan
Del Snow
Madeline Jefferson
Will Raymond

cc: Garrett Davis
Phil Boyle
Mayor Kleinschmidt
SCVTF mailing list

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)

(more…)

Chapel Hill’s government is finally doing the survey that the Town’s (now defunct) Technology Board recommended more than 5 years ago.

As you might expect, I have a few questions about the survey, including the cost, why it was done by an out-of-state company, how it was constructed, who it was targeted at initially (online version coming soon), how the data will be analyzed and how transparent the process will be among others.

Don Evans, over on Chapel Hill Watch has already started a thread discussing the survey here (“Survey Says” ).

Here’s the scanned in survey if you’re curious about the questions:

ChapelHillSurvey2009.PDF (4M)
Chapel Hill Cover Page
Chapel Hill Survey Page 1
Chapel Hill Survey Page 2
Chapel Hill Survey Page 3
Chapel Hill Survey Page 4
Chapel Hill Survey Page 5
Chapel Hill Survey Page 6
Chapel Hill Survey Page 7

Following up on last night’s post Unfunded Liabilities, the presentation finance head Ken Pennoyer made is here [MS Powerpoint].

This graph isn’t only a call-to-arms for Chapel Hill but is reflective of why health care reform is critically needed NOW.

If the Town decides to change its plan in response to the OPEB criteria, the escalating cost of health-care and the inherent risk that at some point Chapel Hill’s taxpayers can no long sustainably “pay as you go”, we still must make sure that the end-result is a comprehensive, competitive, yet fiscally prudent, benefits package to continue to attract and retain topnotch staff.

[X-Posted from WillRaymond.org]

After 17 formal forums, neighborhood meetings, community picnics and other organized opportunities for candidates to meet and engage with our wider community, we ended this evening in the midst of community.

Tonight I witnessed the birth Orange County Justice United, a new umbrella organization comprised of 25 local advocacy, service and faith-based groups who are working together to improve the quality of life for all our town and county residents.

As part of that process, the new organization asked each of the Council candidates that attended to pledge to meet within 90 days to discuss a breadth of issues, including remedying the problems found during a recent census of the Northside/Pine Knolls communities (Orange County Justice United Northside/Pine Knolls Census).

While I applaud the formation of an organization dedicated to community service, I wish, as I said this evening to the 450+ assembled activists, they had organized a bit earlier in the campaign cycle in order to encourage a wider discussion of the challenges facing our people.

Simply put, this year’s focus has been more on houses than homes, more on begging hands than offering a hand up.

That said, tonight’s event was the best possible way I can imagine to finish this phase of the campaign.

Thank you Justice United for inviting me to participate.

What’s left then? Organizing folks to hand out materials election day (volunteer here), raise a few more hundred dollars (contribute here) and continue to work to get the message out that a vote for Raymond is a vote for beneficial change.

According to this WCHL 1360 story Downtown’s Varsity will reopen in November.

The Varsity’ new website VarsityOnFranklin.com advertises all seats are $3 for “recently released and classic movies with excellent service and a customer focused staff to create an enjoyable movie experience at a discounted price.”

I’ve seen hundreds of movies at the Varsity over the last few decades and am happy, both as a customer and someone interested in enhancing Downtown’s vibrancy, that the Varsity is returning.

Quick question, “What is more expensive? A night at the movies – popcorn and all – or the cost of parking in the Town’s lots during the movie?”

Until Council starts rolling out the core recommendations of the Downtown Parking Task Force, of which I was a member, it seems like a venue that is targeted at providing a reasonably priced evening’s entertainment will have difficulty making that value proposition.

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