The past year’s COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests and subsequent calls to defund the police have left many local governments in a tough position—and Orange County, and the county’s municipalities, are no exceptions.
Orange already has some of the highest municipal tax rates in North Carolina and living in one of its larger towns can mean paying more than $1 for every $100 you spend on property or other goods. This year, while both Orange County and Chapel Hill tax rates are dropping by a few cents, property revaluations this year mean residents could still end up paying more.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners approved a $240.7 million budget last week on a 6-1 vote.
Commissioner Mark Dorosin, who will move to Florida this summer to take a position at Florida A&M College of Law, was the lone dissenter due to the budget’s removal of a multi-million dollar project that would have expanded Durham Tech’s Orange County campus from the county’s capital improvement fund. He called the move a “tragic misstep.”
“It’s inconsistent with everything we talk about related to education, social justice, economic equity, diversity, economic development,” Dorosin said, “and I’m heartbroken that the board has decided to pull the plug on this right now.”
Commissioner Renee Price voted to approve the capital improvement funds, but also noted her disappointment.
Following a property tax revaluation this year, the Orange County tax rate will be 81.87 cents for every $100, five cents less than last year’s pre-revaluation rate, but residents will likely pay more in terms of real dollars because property values have increased across the board.
The county continues to spend more than $4,000 per child in its school systems each year. The sheriff’s budget also increased by more than $650,000 because Orange County made Juneteenth a paid employee holiday.
Chapel Hill’s Town Council approved a $116.7 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a 5 percent increase over last year’s budget. Despite this jump, one of the most notable changes to the town’s budget compared to previous years is, as with Orange County, a decrease in the property tax rate by three cents. Again, residents will still likely pay more overall.
As the INDY reported in May, property revaluations shocked many lower-income residents in the historically Black Northside neighborhood, whose values went up dramatically despite their homes remaining unchanged for years. The Marian Cheek Jackson Center has been helping dozens of neighbors file appeals to correct the record. The council is still exploring the possibility of creating a fund to assist retirees with their property taxes.
“Property taxes is an under-regarded element of affordability, living in a place like Chapel Hill,” Council member Allen Buansi said at the June 9 meeting.
Some of the town’s increased spending will be geared toward returning Chapel Hill to its normal cycle, including the 3 percent increase in town employees’ salaries. During the pandemic, wages were frozen and a hiring freeze was implemented alongside other new safety measures. The salary increase is a response to market rate, but Town Manager Maurice Jones also frames it as a “thank you” to the employees for observing the safety protocols.
The budget also gets close to a near-$300,000 personnel increase, thanks to the creation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer position. Shenekia Weeks, a former district administrator working with foster kids in Surry and Stokes counties, was hired to the position in June.
Chapel Hill is one of the rare municipalities that doesn’t spend the majority of its budget on police operations (that title goes to transit, thanks to the town’s free bus system). The town is also one of the few that cut its police budget this year, eliminating 15 vacant officer positions it had previously planned to fill, as well as a 20 percent decrease in spending on special events, such as Halloween on Franklin Street. The department also plans to hire an additional crisis counselor to work with vulnerable populations in the area.
There will also be a decrease in funding for the Chapel Hill Public Library, but only because the group received a one-time grant in the previous fiscal year.
Hillsborough and Carrboro
Hillsborough’s Board of Commissioners will wait until next week to solidify its budget but employees across the board are likely to receive 3.25 percent merit raises that were frozen last year, plus $1,000 cost of living adjustments. Police officers could also receive higher starting salaries to bring their pay in line with compensation in neighboring municipalities. Hillsborough Town Manager Eric Peterson will present tax rate options to the board at its June 28 meeting.
Carrboro’s Town Council was to vote on its budget after the INDY went to print, but before it hit newsstands. The budget will likely include a notable 75 percent increase to the town’s Climate Action plan.
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