Brother, can you spare a quarter percent?

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

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.

Signs of the Time? Say it Ain’t so Carrboro!

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

Bit of a shocker this evening in Carrboro

Tonight I made the rounds of the major municipal precincts to pick up my Honest Abe “A house divided…” referendum signs. Beyond recovering those and some for various candidates, I also made numerous stops along the way to retrieve others. By the time I hit Carrboro’s Town Hall, I’d already visited 12 polling stations – covered 16 miles – almost filled the bed of my truck.

Some signs were drooping from the rain, some had come loose from their staples, some were leaning precariously, some had blown off their stakes but NOT ONE – Republican or Democrat, popular or not – had been maliciously mangled.

And then came Carrboro’s Town Hall. Carrboro, “always one degree cooler” as WCHL’s Ron Stutts says. Carrboro, the Paris of the Piedmont. Carrboro, advertised as a bastion of liberal idealism and progressive profoundity. Carrboro, the only precinct to get two of my homemade signs – placed prominently front-and-center.

Carrboro, where the only signs mangled, torn and completely destroyed were mine.

Election Day 2006: Hogan Farms and Beyond…

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

Covered Hogan Farms from 6:45am to 9:45am. BOCC candidate Jamie Daniels was handing out material until roughly 9am. Stein supporters covered the precinct from 7ish on. The Democrats staffed a table handing out sample ballots the whole time I was there…

As of 9:35am, 300 confirmed voters with another 10-15 milling about waiting to go. When I called in to report the numbers to O.C. Democratic headquarters, was told the 10am figure was 369.

Hogan Farms has a nice setup – including hot coffee. A welcome bit of hospitality considering the temperature and rain began falling in earnest as I left. Judge Baddour was getting some good support. So to folks voting NO on the districting referendum. A welcome surprise.


2AM Chapel Hill Library – Prepping Signs

[UPDATE: ] Moved the rest of the photos here.

The rain has let up a bit. I’m hoping most of it has swept through by 4:30pm when Elijah and I start working Chapel Hill library (Estes Hills – my home precinct).

Vote No on Orange County Districting Referendum, Another No from Katz

Saturday, November 4th, 2006

A resounding NO from former Orange County Democratic Party chair Barry Katz in his Oct. 28th LTE to the Chapel Hill News:

I will vote no on the ballot referendum to restructure the Orange County commissioners.

First, there hasn’t been enough public debate on the merits of change, and I oppose change without voters’ understanding its consequences. Second, since the mid-1930s, The Chapel Hill News has reported countywide contests between candidates in favor of funding schools, health clinics, etc., and candidates who oppose raising taxes to fund such services. Most years the pro-funding candidates win and they do it with support from all parts of the county, albeit with greater support in southern Orange. So this is an old story.

Third, my six years on the county Planning Board suggests to me that underlying the push to change how county commissioners are elected are residents who are concerned about “restrictive” land-use planning and the rights of landowners to do what they want with their land. I joined the board as a skeptic regarding land-use planning and left a confirmed proponent of strategic land-use planning. We have only to look at Wake County to see how unregulated growth leads to urban sprawl, a lack of public transportation and too little public open space.

Orange County has been in a decades-long urban-suburbanizing transition that will continue past my lifetime. Agriculture now accounts for about 1 percent of the county’s economy, but the value of agricultural land has skyrocketed in recent decades due to residential housing demand. “Recent residents,” i.e., people whose grandparents weren’t born in Orange County, constitute a strong majority of voters and now determine the outcome of local elections, as is only proper. Not only would new and future Orange residents benefit from planning, but agricultural landowners would enjoy sustained maximum land values if the quality of life stays high in the county, as would occur under a thoughtful land use plan.

I hope landowners recognize the practical truth in this notion. — Barry Katz, Chapel Hill

Vote No on Orange County Districting Referendum

Friday, November 3rd, 2006

Thank you Orange County League of Women Voters for sponsoring tonight’s forum.

There were 15-20 folks in the audience this evening, including former BOCC candidate Artie Franklin, current BOCC candidate Jamie Daniel and Superior Court District 15B candidate Chuck Anderson.

Fright-night, referendum style, came a day late as Moses Carey pretty much reprized his earlier “debate” performance pulling out the legislature as bogeyman. In Moses’ scenario, the legislative demons will swoop in if the referendum dies, reject the voters will and steal our ability to choose alternatives.

Backing off an earlier claim that independent runs would be easier, tonight he just claimed it would be slightly easier. It won’t be. Technically it’ll take %5 of 88944 registered voter signatures to even get on the ballot. Strangely enough, that’s more signatures than it would’ve taken to win a District 2 spot in this year’s primary.

Once again, he asserted the best way to unite the county is to divide it, contrary to the lunacy our southern neighbors in Chatham county are going through…

Though he acknowledged helping craft a 1993 recommendation to use this alternative voting method, he characterized my claim that cumulative voting opens doors to minority voices as pure speculation. Further, he rejected my claim, once again saying it was pure speculation, that evidence to the contrary and in spite of wide usage throughout the world – our country – in corporate governance, the method is better than districting in apportioning representation.

He did recant and admit that the expansion of the board and districting could be voted on separately.

He also agreed that the “1 person, 1 vote” didn’t accurately capture the real exercise of voting power – a side-effect which allows fewer voters in District 2 to elect a candidate than candidates in District 1 (this given that winning the Democratic primary is “de facto” winning the general election).

Moses did surprise me with his suggestion that Orange County citizens weren’t up to understanding cumulative voting – that it was too confusing – and that they couldn’t be educated.

After presenting the only option in defeat as sticking with what we have, I asked him directly what would stop the BOCC, 24 hours after the referendum’s defeat, from starting over and incorporating the best ideas for selecting and electing a diverse slate of candidates.

He ducked that direct question and a subsequent one from the audience: “What will you do if the referendum is defeated?”

When asked the same question I made the following pledge:

If the referendum is defeated I will appear at the first BOCC meeting after the election and ask for:

  • Expansion of the board to seven members
  • Non-partisan elections
  • Cumulative voting
  • Immediate implementation of rural and urban super-precincts

If we pass this referendum, additional reforms will not be implemented. If we pass this referendum, rejecting proven and practical alternatives which emphasize coalition building, then we’ll have consciously created a house divided.

Please don’t be fooled by the sugar-coating, board expansion, around this bitter pill, institutionalized divisiveness and disenfranchisement.

Vote NO on the Orange County districting referendum.

Nov. 1st: Carey, CitizenWill and the 2006 Redistricting Referendum in Hillsborough

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

I’m once again on the hot seat tomorrow as pro-referendum Orange County Commissioner Moses Carey (and legions of staffers) try to counter my pro-democracy arguments against local election redistricting 😉

Seriously, if folks walk away understanding how this redistricting actually diminishes “small d” democracy, distorts voter-power, potentially overweights rural influence and that other, better, alternatives were not adequately entertained, I’ll be satisfied.

Since the last “debate”, Commissioner Carey has reversed his previous assertion that the expansion of the board to seven members and the districting must be done together – it doesn’t. He did assert, evidence to the contrary (look southward to Chatham for instance), that districting isn’t divisive and that this referendum is the best way to promote minority representation. Again, alternatives, like cumulative voting, do a much better job promoting minority voices without sacrificing “small d” democracy.

Finally, based on this WCHL1360 [MP3] interview, Moses appears to have no idea or desire to carry forward with increasing local democratic access to our government if this referendum should fail.

Hey, at least he didn’t use the NC legislature as bogeyman argument.

ELECTION FORUM — The League of Women Voters-ODC will host an educational forum on the November referendum on district elections for Orange County commissioners at 7 p.m. in the Orange Water and Sewer Authority conference room, 400 Jones Ferry Road in Carrboro. A second forum is scheduled for Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. in the F. Gordon Battle Courtroom, 106 E. Margaret Lane in Hillsborough.

Map to tomorrow’s meeting.

Soundbite: Carey, CitizenWill and the 2006 Redistricting Referendum

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

WCHL1360 caught a small taste [MP3] of Wednesday’s “debate”.

I’ve since heard the radio ad promoting,to some small extent (and, hopefully, unintentionally), the referendum. Besides surmounting all the advertising – radio, print – the layout of the ballot will probably prove to be the hardest obstacle to overcome. As someone (thanks) pointed out to me, most folks will read the first sentence describing the expansion of the board to seven members – something I agree with – and skip all the rest of the legalese. My concern? That on this strategic layout alone will the referendum be decided.

Oct. 18th: Carey, CitizenWill and the 2006 Redistricting Referendum

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

I’m on the hot seat tomorrow as pro-referendum Orange County Commissioner Moses Carey (and legions of staffers) try to counter my pro-democracy arguments against local election redistricting 😉

Seriously, if folks walk away understanding how this redistricting actually diminishes “small d” democracy, distorts voter-power, potentially overweights rural influence and that other, better, alternatives were not adequately entertained, I’ll be satisfied.

ELECTION FORUM — The League of Women Voters-ODC will host an educational forum on the November referendum on district elections for Orange County commissioners at 7 p.m. in the Orange Water and Sewer Authority conference room, 400 Jones Ferry Road in Carrboro. A second forum is scheduled for Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. in the F. Gordon Battle Courtroom, 106 E. Margaret Lane in Hillsborough.

I’ll be the long-haired, bleary-eyed, referendum rebuker.

BTW, I might not be able to make the Nov. 1st meeting. Anyone else interested in publicly countering the referendum?

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