Here is our extended interview with incumbent Pam Hemminger, who is running for reelection in District 1.
Q: What are your thoughts on the regional transit plan?
We need transit improvements desperately for both the rural and towns and it's got to be a regional approach. We're connecting into the towns we're connecting into Mebane, some of the that plan actually does serve more of the rural communities.
We have a lot of individuals, 27,000 leave our district every day to go work somewhere else and 24,000 people come into it from both sides and all around. There's a lot of people moving around and if they're all in cars, the roads will just clog up, so we need to have more public transportation.
And there's people who are now riding the 420 [bus route] from Hillsborough down and come from all parts of the county from two jobs and to the hospital the hospital draws a lot of people from around here.
So we can't widen our roadways any more. We're not going to build more parking. The plan has a lot to offer. What commissioners are working on is to make sure we've nailed down the understanding of what's involved financially because the commitment the county's taking on we want to make sure that only sales tax revenues are used from the half cent if it passes.
If we decide to vote to put it on there that we're not committing the general fund to these projects. Light rail is one of the options that the group has chosen as an option but has only if we get state and federal funding to go with it.
There are other options available if you don't get those fundings and and ten years from now those fundings could change anyway, we could want bus rapid transit or some other kind of mode so we're studying all the information about where people are going and coming to and how they are growing and that includes the rural part of the county.
There are benefits to this. The Hillsborough train station is a wonderful benefit for the whole district, not just the northern part, but that would be fabulous and there's all the thought of a commuter rail line from there into the Durham the tracks are already there for that if we can work those projects in there's a lot we can do with those transit moneys that everyone can benefit from.
Q: Are you concerned that sales tax revenue, if a half cent increase passes, wouldn't cover costs?
You have to base it on some kind of assumption and I'm glad we took a conservative approach. We haven't had a big variance in our sales tax growth in the last few years. Durham has a bigger swing than we do they have bigger pools of money revenues because of all their retail and revenue structure.
So I like the fact that we were conservative. If you go conservative and you come in higher then that works out really great. We've also put some ceilings on some of the stuff in our negotiations with Durham about what we're really to do. The vehicle tag tax is a part of that equation, but we're not willing to to go beyond the sales tax numbers.I'm happy we went conservative, I think it's more realistic for our area in this point in time.Our biggest sales tax generator is the Walmart in Hillsborough for the entire county, we need more than that. I'm hopeful we're going to get more.
Q; Are you concerned that the tax won't fully fund the project?
It will. The numbers are what can be generated from the half cent. They work out, from the finical model, they work.
We did have to go back to Durham and negotiate for what we were willing to do and they were willing to work with us within certain parameters. [But] they made a promise to their voters so they couldn't swing too far and TTA is aware of that. We're the smaller piece of this whole big puzzle. And there are all these contingencies out there…federal funding, state funding, Wake County deciding what they're doing, commuter rail options.
Q. How important is light rail in the plan?
Increased bus hours for me was enough to say I would like to put this sales tax option out there for voters because we need these bus hours no matter what we do and nobody has that in their general fund to do. Bus hours are expensive and the light rail is a fabulous option. I'm not sure how real it is, I don't know that fed or the state is going to back us up on this. We can reconsider there's time to do that. Populations shift [and] we could end up with bus rapid transit, we could end up with commuter lines. I think the options are out there but we need to pass the tax to fund anything.
Q: How can Orange County better compete with neighboring counties with economic development?
We're still behind. We have a lot of ground to make up. We're not just talking about it though, we're putting in the water sewer and up in economic development zones right now.
We have some of three largest tracks of land left on the interstate system in North Carolina that are perfect to have, wonderful places there on the transit corridors, so we have popery but only if we develop the water and sewer to make them viable because we're competing with places like Alamance County. They don't even have a review process. So we also have to streamline our review process, which we've been working on. This recession has given us time to work on those things. We're ready to go, we've been making great contacts we've been getting on some lists from the state department, short lists of companies looking. We've been talking to our existing companies, trying to figure out what they need for expansion.
The [county's] revolving loan fund is really exciting and it's been taking off. We've had many more requests now that we've passed the quarter cent they've been many more aware available.The other nice thing is the economic development directors from the town and county are working together finally and that was a major road block.
Our area is going to have to get over the fact that they don't want businesses. We have to have economic development, we don't have a sustainable model. We're not the sustainable the way we are right now. We can't keep raising property taxes. That's going to push people out of our district. We're going to become a bedroom community of only the wealthy who can afford all these taxes. That's not the value system I embrace. I love the diversity. The economic development zones are ready. We've done zones economic development plans, we're open for business finally.
Q: Is economic development moving at the right pace?
A. We have some work to do on that, but there's interested parties now, and like I said, mostly because we have these large tracts of land that aren't left anywhere else in the state. We have the talent pool here. It used to be companies came into our area said yes they'd love to live here with their employees but they put their business in Durham. Now we get more companies interested in working and living here and thinking about these areas because it's not much of a commute from Chapel Hill up to Waterstone. It's just not.
Q: Should the rural buffer be reconsidered?
A. I really like the buffer idea. Without water and sewer there's no way companies are going to come in there. Companies can't locate without water and sewer. I think it needs to be looked at again … basically the rural buffer is kind of keeping the towns in a certain section.
I personally believe some of the rural buffer space along the highway needs to be put to better use. I don't see the need. You've already got a natural boundary with the highway there. I'm not sure I see the need to keep [it], you've got a natural boundary there with the highway and you can restrict what goes in it. You can totally review what goes in and whats acceptable.
Q: How is the county going to deal with costs of solid waste once the landfill closes?
A. So the county itself doesn't generate a lot of garbage, it's mostly generated in the towns. Sixty five percent are generated in the Chapel Hill Carrboro, UNC area and I personally don't like the Durham transfer station option because we lose control.
I'd like to see us have our own transfer station so we can have more control but also as future technologies come along we're going to have a space and a site for that.
So from the county's view point it pays about he same price. The county itself because of the convenience centers doesn't have a major financial situation with garbage, it's more the towns.
To be partners with the towns, in figuring this out together, no one was really willing to come to the table until we said, 'This is the date we're going to close,' and there were multiple reasons all kinds of environment justice but also realistically, there's no more room. We're done unless we build a mountain of trash but I don't think anybody wants that either.
So we had to make a change and it may be one of the more expensive options but it's probably more realistic as far as waste disposal. I don't thin this community has been paying the price of waste disposal as much as they think they have over the years. There's been a built up fund towards closure there's been monies put away it's been a built up fund towards closure of the landfill and monitoring and all those kinds of things.
We've been making inroads in being more efficient and bringing our costs down to doing all that.
Q: How much of a priority should EMS be in this year's budget?
A. We're just very lucky. [We've] pulled together different partners in this to figure out what kinds of steps to take.As you know, the call logs and the bounce backs and not enough cell space has been a big issue and we're working on those and the technology. The cell issue itself needs to be enhanced but what is the best system for our area what are our neighbors doing.
…The fire districts are some of the first responders as well, what are they doing? How does that work together? So the whole reasoning behind putting this work group together is to was to study it as a group, not just Orange County's EMS is owing this the fire districts are doing that.
We want to make sure we're working towards something that's working best for everyone and we know that we have not increased the EMS staff in a very long time yet the calls have tripled and they're' just going to continue to grow.
What many people don't understand is we have to cover individuals on the two highway corridors as well not just our own citizens but any wrecks that happen along I-40, I-85 are ours and we need to respond and we have a very dedicated volunteers. We do a lot with volunteers and our staff is very dedicated they take it very seriously we're very lucky they do.
We have the Southern Orange rescue squad, we have UNC, which supplies a lot of we we've been running pretty well but these work groups is to flesh out what would be the best way to solve these problems. What's the best way that's going to wok with us for the future? We need the group to tell us what the priority order should be because we can't do everything at once.
We have money separate from the general fund that we do capital projects with now we're working on Elementary 11 and that a big major $21 million project. But other projects are on the list and we have to prioritize. Some projects shift in a year or so to get matching grant money sometimes you get a fabulous interest rate. The county tries very hard to keep a debt ratio of in the 15 percent. You go below that you lose your bond rating.
We've built up our fund balance over the lsat couple years. We've actually built back up our fund blanche so we can build those projects. You have to balance out the other projects you need out there and you just try to strike a balance of how the safety rate versus jus a need the county has and you have to work with those numbers that why its really import to understand the bigger picture of all the county needs and all the revenues you think you're going to save.
Maybe sales tax revenues will come in better than we thought and thats a great thing because you put those moneys towards a long term financing solution, a $3 million project, while hard to do in one year, you could space it out over ten years at $300,000 or more a year and that comes very doable so we have to work those numbers out.
I think it's going to be pretty much one of the top ones out there we cant risk peoples lives especially all of our fire fighters and EMS volunteers.
Now they think they have found some low cost help, they're using a different radio system while they'e there on site so they're coming back with some good suggestions like that in the short term and they're investigating this VIPER system and it's not just us, it's other communities. The whole state took on the VIPER system…other states have dealt with this North Carolina had dealt with it and there's come some success and some not success and you learn from that.
Q How can communication between the town's and county be improved?
A. It has a horrible history, it really does, and it takes a lot of to come past the bad history. The assumptions are made based on bad history.
We have tried to reach out. I will also say public officials spend a lot of time in meetings its really hard to read everything that comes across your desk so you have todo it more on a person to person [basis].
We're meeting now individually now with the towns instead of the Assembly of Governments where everyone's together and [we're] having some better dialogues now.
That needed to happen. We need more of those we need to come together and maybe it is town by town and talk about what the issues are and talk about how we can work together. It shouldn't be a fight between each other.
I think it reached an ultimate head when the county and the towns experienced it's economic decline. All of a sudden everybody's got financial concerns and who's paying for what and 'we need more and you've got it.'
We realize we're serving the same citizens, they're all county citizens. It's a newer friendlier commission than it's been in years.
One of the reasons I ran the first time is because I felt the commissioners weren't listening, that they weren't even having dialogue. They'd make up their minds without taking input so when I got on there I pledged to get input.
It's interesting in trying to have dialogue on the land fill with individuals on the county and got told that that it wasn't a top priority for them right now and it didn't become a top priority until we said we had to close it and we invited them to the table three or four times and they didn't come.
What do you do with that? What you do with that? That way was not effective. We've caught on to that we should have tried other ways and that's what we need to keep doing. We need to find other ways to communicate and in person instead of in paper.
Q. Why do you want to run again?
I love my job I get to meet a lot of interesting people I get to learn about fun topics. I came on frustrated wit the lack of transparency and wanted to make sure schools remained supported when I got there.
It was my push in them making the email distribution list huge letting anybody sign up for agendas. If you wanted to before you had to call up and get permission to be added to the list.
I've been working on pushing the county towards more transparency so that more of the county could understand what we do.
If you ask the average citizen, they don't know what a county commissioner does. There are some important things that go on and I have spent three years learning and being involved and making those contacts and I talk about if we have two school boards 13 fire districts four county neighbors, two different water shed basins and thats a lot of different people and a lot of moving parts.
You've been on for your first term and learning all of that and learning all the county does, it gives you the information you need to move forward and make some big changes going forward and [I've] even made a lot of great changes in the last three years that the county had been behind on and I want to keep doing that.
I want to keep on this economic development that was a big turn for the county. We need the realism in there, we can t keep saying we want to protect all the land and we only want business that we handpicked to move here.
Well that hasn't worked. It hadn't worked for years and we need to change that attitude and I have been part of that change and I want to see it stay on this course towards welcoming businesses and we can keep the community that I love. It's so diverse. We value differences and that to me is the at makes the community really strong. We embrace differences, we value input no matter how random, out left field. I think you make better decisions when you consider all those aspects. I feel like we're doing really good work and I like it.
Q. Any other issues that are important to you?
A. The state and federal government has been cutting to our schools and our county has held constant but what's that going to be?
With the economic the pressure is on the the DSS has been incredible, all these groups, their needs are escalating. Why have we only left them a certain part of the budget when we've given 48.1 percent to the schools? I want to make sure that our schools stay funded especially during this hard time. If we cut back too I don't know what's going to happen and I don't want cut back, I want to stay fully funded.
I know the library is a big issue with a lot of people but I truly believe that is something we can work it out if we can sit down and talk it out
because we're looking at [building] a Southwest branch library also.
We need to have that branch we need to work with Chapel Hill … people are only willing to throw dirt bombs at each other instead of having a conversation so we need to have that conversation. I came on the board and the county had frozen its funding [to the Chapel Hill library to a certain level. I don't know why, no one can find out why but I came on and said 'that needs to change' and we've increased the funding and it's not at the level Chapel Hill wanted but it's big.
We shifted, we're willing to shift. We're willing to work with them but the reaction was 'too little too late,' we want to do something we can't just jump and cut from other services, so help us out. Together lets come up with a different plan. It could be worked out, it needs to be worked out
but again do you value monies at the library when you have EMS decisions to make? And DSS?
There are all these interesting dynamics going on and I guess that's why I find the job intriguing. There's just so many things going on and you have to look at the whole big picture and how you balance this out and what you're going to need when and how you're going to finance it."