By Adam Powell
The Feb. 22 Chapel Hill Town Council meeting at 7 p.m. is set to see closure of the legislative hearing for the Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO) text amendments as part of the consent agenda, with staff asking for additional time until May to complete its research for council consideration. However, the regular session of Feb. 15 showed that the Town Council has a number of issues to work on simultaneously related to development over the coming months, along with a looming property tax increase part of its annual budget deliberations.
The Town Council opened the Feb. 15 meeting by honoring former U.S. Congressman David Price, who served Chapel Hill in the House of Representatives for North Carolina’s 4th District for 34 years. Many current and former elected officials and community partners who have worked closely with Price over the years came to the meeting, including newly elected 4th District Congresswoman Valerie Foushee, who spoke about the retired congressman.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to thank him (Price) for his decades of invaluable service to our community,” Foushee said. “For 34 years, David Price worked tirelessly to make North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District a better place to live, to work, and to prosper for everyone. From defending our democratic values, to securing critical federal funding for countless local projects. his constituents knew in full faith that they had an unwavering voice in Washington fighting for them.”
Addressing Price, Foushee said, “You are an inspiration to everyone who knows you. Our community, our state, and indeed this country have benefited greatly from your service.”
In early business, the Town Council received a brief update on staff’s current work on the upcoming 2023-24 fiscal year budget. Matt Brinkley, assistant director of Business Management, broke down a variety of grants the Town will receive and include as part of its 2023-24 fiscal year planning. He also explained next steps in the process. Although a proposed 2023-24 fiscal year budget is not currently available at the Town of Chapel Hill’s website, the Town Council will be holding a budget work session on Wednesday, March 15.
The update touched on a number of priorities and realities the Town Council discussed the first weekend of February at its annual retreat. There, they received some stark numbers from Interim Town Manager Chris Blue about the Town’s need for increased spending on everything from vehicle repairs to higher pay for current employees.
In order to meet approximately $60 million in impending needs for repairing fire engines, police vehicles, and garbage trucks, improving infrastructures such as parks and playgrounds, and increasing pay and benefits for Town staff, the Council is looking at a variety of options for a phased series of property tax increases over the next five years.
One option is a 4-cent property tax increase in fiscal year 2023-24, followed by incremental increases of 1.5 cents over the next four fiscal years, culminating in an increase that would be 10 cents over the current tax rate by fiscal year 2027-28. This would be the most dramatic tax increase scenario of the options presented to the Town Council at the retreat.
Other potential options include a 1.15 cent tax increase each year over five years—reaching an increase of 5.65 cents after five years—as well as a one-time 1.3 cent tax increase in 2023-24 alone, which would raise over a million dollars for Chapel Hill’s parks and affordable housing.
Mayor Pam Hemminger was quoted by Tammy Grubb in The News & Observer as saying at the Saturday portion of the retreat, there is “going to be a tax increase” this year. The question, of course, becomes “How much?”
“We talked a lot about budget at our retreat,” Town Councilmember Amy Ryan said at the Feb. 15 session. “And we got some good news and some sobering news from our staff. The good news is we are proceeding with the five-year budget strategy. And that has become something we’ve been trying to get going for a long time. Doing that has shown us that we have a lot of needs, so I know that this budget season is going to be an interesting one with some hard decisions.”
Chapel Hill residents currently pay 52.2 cents per $100 in property value, equating to $520 for every $100,000 of assessed home value. An increase to 62.2 cents over the next five years would increase the average local tax bill in Chapel Hill by an average of $500 to $1,000 per year, depending on the value of one’s home.
Councilmember Adam Searing alluded to the potential 4-cent tax increase in next year’s budget in his closing comments near the end of last Wednesday night’s meeting, while adding his concern that some Town Council members seem prepared to re-focus the input received by local planning and other advisory boards to a strictly policy role.
“These boards represent one of the main ways that people feel like they are able to have their voices heard, and contribute to the debates that we have here. And we have had in the past year a number of debates where people do not feel that. They feel the opposite. Their voices are not being hard,” Searing said. “And if we go ahead and do this (minimize the role of advisory boards), I feel it will contribute to that—that people will feel like ‘I cannot have my voice heard.’ There will be less trust in the process.”
“In combining that to this dire situation of our budget, where we’re going to have to go back to not only the people serving on these boards, but also everyone else in the community, and say we’re going to need a 4-cent tax increase just to keep our services as they are. That’s when we’re really going to need trust from the community,” Searing continued.
Council members Michael Parker and Camille Berry provided alternate points of view, expressing support for adjusting the role of advisory boards in Town development planning.
“If we wait a month, two months, three months, I don’t see it getting easier, or the boards getting any happier,” Parker said. “To use a bad metaphor, we may as well rip off the scab now and try to live with it.”
“I hope that we don’t make decisions just so that we can appease our community members, rather than get substance. Rather than get value from what they’re contributing. If we’re doing it so that they can feel important, but they’re not contributing what we need, then that’s a waste of their time, Berry said.
“One thing that I detest is to be someone who voices my opinion, and it doesn’t really go anywhere. Are we willing to sacrifice staff’s time in order to make our community members feel better about themselves by giving them a false sense of what we need? If we don’t need this, then why do we continue to have it?” Berry added.
The discussion regarding advisory roles in Chapel Hill’s development planning would ultimately lead to a debate between Berry and fellow Council Member Jessica Anderson on whether or not the Town Council had formally agreed to meet with developers or not.
“All we’re telling them is they’re getting kicked out of a role,” Anderson said of the advisory boards’ members. “[We’re telling them] we have a plan for you. We have a spot for you. We just haven’t decided what it is yet. That I don’t love. It doesn’t feel like a holistic picture of what we’re trying to do. I don’t think that approaching it through our concept review plan process is the point. I think it’s one piece of a much bigger conversation.”
Anderson then added, “There are Council members at this dais who are still meeting with developers, even though we agreed not to.”“Excuse me. We did not make that agreement,” countered Berry in response. “We discussed it, but we did not arrive at that agreement, so do not make that false statement.”
“This is what we talked about as the culture change that is necessary,” Anderson said back to Berry.
Adam Powell is a reporter on local news and sports and an education communications professional. A 2001 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Powell has served as managing editor of multiple local publications, including the Mebane Enterprise, News of Orange County and TarHeelIllustrated.com. The public information officer for Rockingham County Schools in Eden, N.C., Powell is the author of four books and lives in Mebane with his wife and two children.