Chapel Hill Town Council Inches Closer to Approving Annual Budget

GOVERNMENT

By James Kiefer

Correspondent

The Local Reporter

With an upcoming vote for next fiscal year’s budget looming, members of the Chapel Hill Town Council worked to clarify some last-minute details on how the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget during the council’s regular meeting on June 1.

Estimated to total roughly $128 million, next year’s budget includes staggered pay raises for town staff and an increase to the property tax rate that will support transit operations.

Town Manager Maurice Jones presented a recent overview of adjustments made by the council being folded into the drafted budget:

  • Raise property tax rate to 52.2 cents (a .8 increase);
  • Add an Economic development admin coordinator position;
  • Defer on hiring a compensation analyst position;
  • Commit to an interlocal agreement to assist in funding the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service (IFC);
  • Commit funds for an initiative to end homelessness led by Street Outreach, Harm Reduction and Deflection (SOHRAD) Program.

The bulk of the property tax increase is going toward the transit fund and will help with vehicle replacement.

Transit director Brian Litchfield stated in a previous meeting that the town needs over two dozen buses to meet performance demand.

Council member Michael Parker commented that the council needed to be better at paying for non-glamorous, but important services and maintenance.

“There are just too many things that we keep deferring and cutting out of the budget every year,” he said. “And we’ve got to have some serious conversations, as a council and as a town, as to how we’re going to get us to a better place for all of those needs.”

Parker added that since the budget seems to be in good shape after a hefty year of increased tax revenue, he is comfortable pulling from the fund balance to pay for it. 

The council expects to vote on the budget on June 8.

Following budget talks, Parks & Recreation Director Phillip Fleischmann clarified some current functions of the department. Fleischmann explained current expenditures for maintenance, including lawn care for places like cemeteries and along town roadways and sidewalks.

Fleischmann also walked through some current needs that were laid out in the town’s 2013 Comprehensive plan that have still not been addressed.

Key items include:

  • Building a new Parks & Recreation office building;
  • Constructing a community arts center and expanding and maintaining the skate park;
  • Building a new teen center to replace the one currently located in the basement of the Franklin Street post office.

Fleischmann further added that growth opportunities within recreation programs are limited by the type of spaces the department can provide. Currently, the department is collaborating with the school system to find a solution.

“Chapel Hill has not added a new community center or gym facility since the construction of the Northside gym in the 1990s, and as mentioned, the teen center is not up to modern standards,” Fleischmann said. “Recognizing that there may be ways to utilize other community assets for programming, we are engaged in conversations with the school system in order to determine what additional shared use could look like seeing that as an important possibility.”

Parks, Greenways and Recreation Commission chair Tyler Steelman said some Chapel Hill residents don’t feel like their recreational needs are being met.

“People are talking about having to leave town to engage in parks and recreation, and go to surrounding areas to just participate in the types of programs they would like to see,” he said.

Council member Adam Searing remarked that previous councils had forced the town into this position by not allocating enough money for parks. He also said more of the federal funds the council received from the American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA], a sum greater than $10 million, should be redirected towards the parks department.

“I think we are missing the boat with the ARPA funds,” Searing said. “We’ve dedicated some of them for this, but this is a need our community is saying again and again and again that they want and we’re just not doing it.”

The council has until Dec. 31, 2024, to commit ARPA dollars toward spending plans. The funds must be exhausted by the end of 2026.

What remains uncertain is the future of land recently purchased by the town from the American Legion on Legion Road. Jones explained the land acquisition was completed in 2019, but COVID-19 forced a holding pattern and stalled talks of development. In May, several council members introduced a petition to rekindle those talks.

Assistant Town Manager Ross Tompkins explained the over 36-acre parcel that cost the town nearly $8 million currently only has two structures on it: the American Legion building and a smaller structure currently being leased as a dance studio.

The town maintains the right to develop the land as it sees fit, or it can also sell it to an interested party to help offset budget costs, Tompkins said. In a survey of less than 1,000 town residents, the majority said they would like to see the parcel developed for recreational use and less than 10% of recent survey respondents said they wanted the area turned into affordable housing, he added.

Fleischmann mentioned in his presentation that the construction of new parks was a priority. Council member Amy Ryan advised the council against making it a binary issue.

“I just want for us not to fall into the trap of pitting housing against parks and open space,” she said. “We need both for our community, and we need both for a healthy town.”

Ryan added that she doesn’t see a need to sell off what could be a valuable resource. Council member Karen Stegman said her interest in moving forward with planning, not having the land sit and remain unused. Stegman added that selling portions of the land could help the town recoup the costs of acquiring the parcel.

“We absolutely want park space for our existing neighbors and our new neighbors, that’s the goal here, along with the urgent need for affordable housing that we talk about a lot,” she said. “I think we can meet multiple needs if we can pay for it in a fiscally responsible way.”

Council member Paris Miller-Foushee called it a great opportunity to achieve several council-stated goals and “to build complete communities that are transit-oriented, walkable, [and] that provide housing that is affordable and accessible to green space.”

Council member Camille Berry noted that due to the size of the parcel, it might not be limited to a housing project.

“The beautiful thing about this parcel is that it is large,” she said. “It has the opportunity for more than housing, more than housing that’s affordable to folks who can’t afford to live in the houses or the apartments nearby.”

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