Name as it appears on ballot: Matt Hughes
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.matthugheshsbo.com
Occupation and employer: Accounting and Human Resources Manager, Forward Cities
Years lived in Hillsborough: 26+ (29 years total in Orange County)
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? Why should voters entrust you with this position? What are your priorities, and what would you want to see the Board of Commissioners do differently or better over the course of your term?
Hillsborough has been my home all my life and my family’s home for generations. I was raised in Hillsborough and attended Orange County Schools, graduating from Cedar Ridge High School. I have chosen to remain in Hillsborough because I am deeply invested in our town and want to see it grow and thrive while remaining true to its roots and character. I am committed to this community because it has given me so many opportunities and growing up here has shaped me into the person I am today. Right now, Hillsborough is changing and experiencing unprecedented growth. We need folks who are able to bridge the gaps in our community as we confront tough issues for our small town. As a young professional, lifelong resident who lives on the southern end of town, and an LGBTQ person of color, I play a critical role in solving our community’s challenges and seizing new opportunities.
I’m committed to protecting Hillsborough’s historic character and charm, while bolstering our town’s vitality for all who live here. Whether is economic development, affordable housing, equity, public safety, or water services, I’m committed to making Hillsborough a welcoming, safe, and affordable community for everyone.
2) Given the direction of Hillsborough government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
I believe Hillsborough is on the right course. There are a lot of things we need to do to go from good to great. We are really good at providing a lot of our services with limited financial resources but providing more with less is only sustainable for so long, especially with our expected population growth. This is most evident at the intersection of human resources and town services. There are several key positions that we need to fill, but current budget constraints have not allowed us to provide the financial resources to hire these folks. These positions include just about every department in the Town. This leaves more of the work load of a growing town on a smaller and incredibly dedicated staff. We can only leave these positions unfilled for so long. Additionally we must provide services to a growing population, including construction of new fire and police stations and adding additional infrastructure for water, sewer, sidewalks, and other amenities. In the last two budget cycles I have advocated that at some point we will need to consider tax increases to continue delivering high quality services and will do the same in the next budget cycle should I remain on the Board. On the issue of infrastructure and other construction the town will need to do, I have begun to advocate for a bond referendum to fund projects and will continue to do so if elected to a four year term.
3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
My top three priorities come down to:
1) Affordability – Addressing water/sewer affordability through restructuring water and sewer rates in a more equitable way; working with partners in affordable housing on “missing middle” housing; and working with the county to bring better paying jobs to Hillsborough, specifically in the Waterstone Economic Development District, which has languished for far too long in the area of commercial development
2) Managing growth’s impact on the town – the town has approved a lot of new residential development and we will have to tackle the cost this growth will have on infrastructure, roads, and providing more services even before these units come online
3) Supporting our community’s business community by streamlining processes so it’s easier to do business in Hillsborough and for business owners to do their business with the town, such as permits for signage, outdoor eating permits, limiting disruptions to existing business, and providing additional support to businesses, like working with the county on supplementing business grants to new and existing businesses.
4) What prior experience makes you qualified for and passionate about the Board of Commissioners and its duties? What made you seek this position?
I have been very active in civic life in Hillsborough and the greater Orange County area. Prior to being appointed to fill the seat I currently occupy on the Board of Commissioners I had the fortune of serving on several boards and commissions. These have included: former service as chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, current service as the second vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, and as a member of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, Orange County Board of Adjustment, Hillsborough Tourism Board, Orange County Partnership for Young Children, Hillsborough Tourism Development Authority, and the North Carolina Human Relations Commission.
My family has made Hillsborough home for generations. I was raised in Hillsborough and attended Orange County Schools and graduated from Cedar Ridge High School, where I served as student body president. After high school I had the great fortune to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were I majored in political science and later earned a Master of Public Administration. I have chosen to remain in Hillsborough because I deeply invested in our town and want to see it grow and thrive while remaining true to its roots and character. I am committed to this community because it has given me so many opportunities and growing up here has shaped me into the person I am today.
At one time I literally did not have a voice. As a child, I was hampered by a speech impediment. Public programs helped me find and use my voice. I have decided that I want to use my voice to speak for others in my community who feel left out or unsure how to raise their concerns. I want to continue to be their voice on the Board of Commissioners. I will continue to be out in the community frequently listening and learning about the issues people face in our Town and what our Commissioners can do to improve their lives. You never know the impact you can have on someone’s life, which is something I learned when I ran for County Commissioner. A supporter reached out to me after my loss only to say that my campaign was the first her son volunteered for because he was inspired and got out of his comfort zone to knock doors on my behalf. It was not something I knew at the time, but motivates me to continue my career in public service. I want to represent all the people of this great town, no matter their age, race, gender, gender identification, immigration status, sexual orientation, or political ties.
I am seeking election for a full-term because in order to have decent jobs that pay our people well, we need competitive economic development and recruitment. I am seeking a full-term because if we are to have greater affordability and stay true to our progressive principles, we need policies that will help the struggling and striving as well as the successful. Continued service on the Hillsborough Town Board would be a continuation of my long career of public service that harkens back to the mantra: do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.
5) In light of the recent Klan protests—though the Klan members were not from Hillsborough—how do you believe the town can best project an image of inclusivity? Has the town done a good job of this in the past?
I believe inclusion, diversity, and racial equity are commitments that this Board has made and should continue to make well into the future. Having a diverse community where everyone feels welcomed, especially in these times, is of paramount concern to me. One of the best ways Hillsborough has displayed our spirit of inclusivity has been through the Board of Commissioners. Things such as extending same-sex partner benefits to town employees prior to marriage equality or even recently declaring Pride Month for the first time. After Donald Trump’s election, the Town Board issued an open letter to the community reiterating our position as a progressive, inclusive community. Of course, it’s how our people have displayed the literal image of inclusivity following the Klan demonstration by organizing a demonstration of love and kindness and repeatedly fighting against hate and intolerance through a truly grassroots action.
Moving forward I would like the Town Board to push harder to ensure that people feel safe and welcomed in our town. That will come with a delicate balancing act between First Amendment guarantees of those who want to spread hate and division with the safety and security of those who believe the Klan and other white nationalists would do them harm. As the only person serving on the Town Board who is both non-white and LGBTQ, I understand that we have to do more to promote inclusivity and safety and have taken proactive steps with staff to identify ways we can strengthen town ordinances while still adhering to the spirit of the First Amendment.
Aside from the Klan there are other issues we need to consider. We’ve recently seen there are still issues in our community that need to be addressed as part of that commitment to racial equity. I would take my experience from the Orange County Human Relations Commission (HRC), which is dedicated to the work of inclusion, diversity, and racial equity, and apply it to the work of the Town Board. The HRC developed social justice goals for the county and a subsequent Social Justice Goals Impact Tool that would be used to evaluate decisions the county commissioners made just as they would with a fiscal impact statement. I would like to see the Town do something similar by having an ad hoc task force of community members come together and help set the social justice goals with town commissioners and then develop an impact tool staff can use to evaluate the social justice impact of the decisions the board makes. A great starting point would be working with the UNC School of Social Work, which has developed a social equity toolkit that can be used by local governments to guide decision making in town governance.
Additionally, I believe that part of the commitment to these three principles is diversity in hiring and building a pipeline for diverse leadership within the town staff. I would like the board and town staff to be more intentional when it comes to hiring a more diverse pool of talent so that our work force can reflect the diversity of the town and better understand the needs of its residents. Hopefully over time this would also increase the diversity of senior management as the town begins to undergo critical succession planning. One way I believe the town could diversify its workforce is through recruitment efforts by partnering with HCBUs in the area (which we are not far from six major HCBUs – NCCU, NCA&T, WSSU, Bennett, Shaw, and St. Augustine’s) to promote employment opportunities.
6) Do you believe the town’s stormwater management plan is effective, or is there a way to make it more efficient and less costly? How can the town decrease the cost of water and sewer services?
The stormwater utility fee has now been in place for over a year to help reduce stormwater pollution. I believe this utility fee, while not a tax, is vitally important to ensure that we reduce/limit pollution from going into our surface water and ground water sources. We should continue to use this fee to cover the major expenditures for maintaining infrastructure, including ditches, basis, road rights-of-way, and pipes. It’s important that we provide assistance for residents who may find the $75 fee unaffordable while also improving collection rates to meet or exceed the 97% collection rate for the previous year.
Our Water and Sewer Advisory Committee is working with academics at local universities to identify better ways to structure our water and sewer rates. I am in favor of restructuring our water rates in a way that is more equitable, provides relief to out-of-town customers (who pay nearly double the in-town rate), and allows the town to balance the water and sewer enterprise fund’s budget.
7) In your opinion, what are the best methods to lure businesses to Hillsborough? How should the town seek to make itself more attractive? What types of industries should it pursue to grow its tax base?
Economic development is not simply about supporting small business owners or recruiting more businesses to come to Hillsborough. Economic development is making the economic development in Hillsborough sustainable and manageable, while keeping our town fiscally strong. We need economic development as a means of keeping a healthy balance between residential and commercial property taxes, while also seeing a boost in sales taxes. A healthy balance ensures that the town’s financial house is in order and having managed growth means our town is growing at a sustainable pace.
Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, and the entrepreneurship we see sprouting up around town makes our town a more vibrant community. Continuing to foster our economic growth, I want us to continue placing an emphasis on promoting entrepreneurship and reducing the barriers our residents face when starting their own businesses, including access to capital. I would like to see continued commitment to working with our county partners, such as the County’s Small Business Loan Program so that we can continue to support our existing and new businesses. Growing our Town’s economy will need the continued revitalization of various sectors of town and I’m most excited for the northern part of town, including the Cornelius/US-70 Corridor.
As a member of the Hillsborough Tourism Board since 2016, I know how vital tourism is to our town’s economic development. Increasing tax revenues will be partially dependent on continuing to make Hillsborough a destination for folks in the Piedmont and across the nation and world. To that end I want to make sure that the goals and objectives surrounding tourism as an economic development opportunity are in alignment between the Tourism Board and the Town Board. It would also benefit our tourism/economic development efforts to see more collaboration and partnership with the Orange County Visitors Bureau.
8) As with most places in the Triangle, Hillsborough is grappling with issues related to affordable housing. How would you like to see the town approach affordability issues over the next few years? What do you believe the town is doing right? What could it do better?
Part of living in Hillsborough means being able to find housing that is both adequate and affordable. Fortunately for Hillsborough we have more affordable housing than other parts of the greater Orange County community. We must increase the stock of affordable housing, including requesting developers to include additional opportunities for affordable housing when they come to the Town for approval. I believe there are three critical areas for ensuring residents have their housing needs met: implementing more workforce housing, making the dream of owning a home a reality, and encouraging more property owners to accept Housing Choice Vouchers (“Section 8”). Since we now have a county-wide unified affordable housing strategy, I believe it’s imperative that we collaborate with our other Orange County partners to ensure Hillsborough gets a fairer share of affordable housing dollars and projects. I was appointed by the County Commissioners to serve on the Orange County Bond Education Committee for the 2016 county bond for affordable housing and education. I understand the issues surrounding affordability in our community and the difficulty of “selling” the issue. This bond, $5 million of a $125 million bond package, was not enough to fully address the issue, but I hope we can continue working with our local partners to address the issue of affordability and for the Town to develop additional affordable housing policies.
9) Like most surrounding areas, Hillsborough is currently experiencing growth. What are the best ways for the town to manage this growth and capitalize on it?
Hillsborough has a water services boundary agreement with Orange County and therefore put a limit to how far out we’re willing to place water utilities. When coupled with the fact that we have tied future growth with the ability of providing water utilities, we have limited how much Hillsborough will grow once previously approved developments come online. Even when the approved developments are completed, Hillsborough will still be one of the smallest and slowest growing towns in the Triangle.
Hillsborough can do so much to capitalize on this growth. There are so many opportunities for greater business development and future industry, especially in the Waterstone Economic Development District. We have the perfect combination of relatively lower taxes in Orange County, a well-educated population, great schools, and easy access to transportation corridors. There are some longtime residents who do not like the growth Hillsborough is experiencing and would rather not see us grow. With the growth we’ve seen thus far we have seen great economic growth with businesses launching or relocating to Hillsborough. For a few years now we’ve had an economic development planner on staff to help us capitalize on this growth and further grow our local economy.
10) Describe something you think the town should have prioritized differently in the current budget.
There is nothing I would have prioritized differently in our current budget, which was conservatively developed by our great town staff. Our budgets are fairly lean with not much wiggle room. Without a doubt the growth of our town will require additional services and infrastructure investment on top of identified needs that have been delayed due to lack of funding, such as hiring additional planning staff, hiring an assistant police chief, and upgrading facilities so we can provide our employees with better working conditions. Doing more with less was a necessary mantra during the Great Recession at all levels of government, but now ten years later it is unsustainable. Many of our future projects that require funding involve either infrastructure or construction projects, such as sidewalk improvements, water line upgrades, and construction of new police and fire stations. For these projects I support the Town placing a bond referendum on the ballot as soon as the 2020 General Election.
11) Walkability and recreation are important to town. What environmental initiatives would you like to see change or improved?
Sidewalks and parks are part of our community’s quality of life. I would like to see the Town continue to build additional sidewalks, such as those towards the western side of town, and improve sidewalks like the recent improvements made on Churton Street and planned are for Nash Street as part of CMAQ. However, we also need more sidewalks in and around the Fairview community, along US-70, and in other parts of town with little to no sidewalks. I would love for our town to become a more walkable and interconnected community. Our sidewalks should continue to improve in line with ADA recommendations with crosswalks that are more visible and aesthetically pleasing.
Riverwalk and Gold Park are part of that vision of more parks and greenspace. If we can connect more of our Town, then our Town will be a healthier community as well. We’ll need to provide additional parks and other recreational opportunities for our residents.
12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.