Public Weighs in on Pending Budget; Elected Officials Talk Development 

GOVERNMENT

By James Kiefer

Members of the Chapel Hill Town Council received a heavy dose of community feedback Wednesday evening, as it conducted several hearings on items ranging from next fiscal year’s budget to potential development in the downtown corridor. 

Talking through the budget

Before receiving feedback from residents, Town Manager Maurice Jones gave a brief review of the proposed 2022-2023 budget. Part of his presentation included recent feedback to staff from the council regarding areas of potential spending cuts and redirected funds. Next year’s budget, estimated to total roughly $128 million, includes staggered pay raises for Town staff and an increase to the property tax rate that will support transit operations. 

Jones’ recommended budget suggested a half-cent increase per $100 of assessed property value (i.e., an extra $20 in tax levied on the owner of a house valued at $400,000), but some council members have expressed interest in raising the ad valorem tax rate higher, increasing it by as much as 1 cent. The current property tax rate is 51.4 cents. [Note: At the May 25 council meeting, council members voted to raise the tax rate by 0.8 cents to 52.2 cents per $100 assessed property valuation.]

Primary discussion from the council and the public at Wednesday night’s meeting focused on a budget request from the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service (IFC). The Carrboro nonprofit serves low-income Orange County residents and those in need of housing and food support.  

The IFC is currently seeking $650,000 through an interlocal funding agreement between Orange County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, including $273,000 for the Partnership to End Homelessness. Jones estimated the Town’s contribution to the IFC would be around $250,000.

IFC Executive Director Jackie Jenks spoke to the council about the dangers of being homeless, which range from a higher fatality rate to higher rates of mental illness. 

“People are literally dying outside in our community… and in other communities across the country from the effects of homelessness,” Jenks said. 

Councilperson Amy Ryan proposed the idea of using funds from the property tax rate hike to meet IFC’s budget request. Council member Adam Searing expressed reservations about raising taxes. 

“With super high inflation, increase in our sales tax revenues, I’m very reluctant to do big tax increases,” Searing said. 

Searing added he’d like to have more concrete numbers regarding Chapel Hill’s expected contribution and questioned whether it falls within the parameters of the proposed interlocal agreement. Searing also asked whether the request would be a recurring budget item and whether there are other funds in the proposed spending plan that can be cut beyond the half-cent tax hike intended for the transit fund. 

Council member Jessica Anderson asked for greater clarity as to why the county government is no longer funding certain positions it previously allocated funds toward. She added this might not be something Chapel Hill has to solve this budget cycle. 

“‘People were hired,” Anderson said. “People have jobs now and it doesn’t feel good to be put into the position of either finding the funding or people being laid off especially for really, really critical [and] important work.” 

Council member Paris Miller-Foushee characterized the current budget negotiations as an opportunity for the Town to set the pace in social services. 

“It is important that we understand [ourselves] to be working as a county, and if Orange County is unable to fulfill everything, we should [make up the shortfall],” she said. 

‘Missing the mark’ on Rosemary Street

The council also voted to continue a legislative hearing to mid-June for a development at 101 East Rosemary St. Assistant Planning Director Judy Johnson explained that 10% of the units in the proposed 7-story, 150-unit structure might be affordable housing. Joe Dye, an executive with developer Grubb Properties, said that was also impacting their bottom line. 

“A 150-unit threshold is kind of a minimum for us to achieve any kind of operational efficiency,” he said, adding that an ideal number would be above 250 units. 

Many council members still took issue with the proposed building design, specifically the inclusion of a cycling gym on a prominent street front. 

“This project is still very much missing the mark for me,” Ryan said. “It feels like very a suburban project that we’re trying to wedge into our downtown site.” 

Council member Camille Berry noted that the location of the proposed project is a prominent street corner that would be suitable for a mixed-use development. 

The council will continue the hearing June 15. 

Other business handled during the meeting included:

  • Council member Michael Parker introduced a petition that would allow the Town Manager to explore selling or developing part of the American Legion property acquired by Chapel Hill in 2016
  • The council opened a legislative hearing for the conditional zoning of Gimghoul Castle at 742 Gimghoul Road;
  • The council opened two evidentiary hearings for special use permit modifications: one at Fifth Third Bank on Fordham Boulevard, and another at Harris Teeter Fuel Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; 
  • The council reviewed a concept plan for the redevelopment of Porthole Alley by UNC.
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