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Although there's no chance of the Republican majority changing hands on the seven-member Wake County Board of Commissioners, these races are vital. The commissioners control the purse strings for Wake County schools, and they hold the key to Wake County's transit future.
We strongly endorse political newcomer Caroline Sullivan in this district because of her stances on transit funding and education. Sullivan regularly mentions in her stump speech that she'd be the only commissioner with children in the school system. She says that experience has led her to understand that overcrowding is a huge issue and a construction bond for schools can't wait.
Sullivan is running against Republican Dale Cooke, who is opposed to a half-cent sales tax referendum that would pay for commuter rail and expanded public transportation in the Triangle. Durham County has already passed such measures—Orange County voters cast ballots on a similar referendum in this election—and we believe it's time for Wake County to wake up and do the same thing. Sullivan shares that belief.
Cooke thinks the best way to deal with Wake County's development, whether schools or transportation, is to increase the tax base and thereby the revenue. We're not opposed to that, but we think anyone who won't consider raising taxes for the public good is irresponsible.
Cooke's views would fit in extraordinarily well with those of the GOP commissioners already on the board. But we don't think a county commission that wouldn't allow its citizens to vote on a transportation tax needs any extra support.
District 6 is home to six-term incumbent Betty Lou Ward, and given her track record we have no reservation in endorsing her again.
Ward supports getting to work on a school construction bond and getting a half-cent transportation tax referendum on the ballot. During the past two years in particular, she has served as a strong voice against a far-right Republican majority that has done little in the way of local governance. The GOP-majority passed resolutions in support of Amendment 1 (a constitutional gay marriage and across-the-board civil unions ban) and a voter ID law that would restrict the ability of minorities to vote. They also entertained the notion that a devious United Nations' "sustainability" conspiracy might be affecting Wake County.
Add to that the failure to reach an agreement with the school board on a badly needed construction bond and the denial of Wake County citizens' right to vote on a half-cent sales tax that would pay for commuter rail and expanded public transportation.
Lest you think we're a bit too harsh on the current majority, take note that we endorsed current Republican board members Joe Bryan and Tony Gurley in 2006.
Ward's opponent, Republican Paul Fitts, supports being more creative with the school dollars that are already levied by the county commission. It's Republican-speak for don't expect any more money from us. He also doesn't believe the Triangle is ready for commuter rail and at a recent public forum tried to link increases in crime and unemployment to mass transit systems. We'll let that speak for itself.
An important elected position you've never heard of, the county soil and water district supervisor manages conservation projects for farmland, forests, wildlife and other natural resources. Although the district can't enforce rules on environmental issues such as agricultural and urban runoff into streams (that's the state's job), it will gently encourage you, landowner or suburban lawn lover, to keep cow patties and weed killer out of our waterways. We thank you in advance.
A supervisor needs to have a firm grasp of the challenges particular to an area. In the case of Wake County, those include stream restoration, suburban/ urban runoff, the disappearance of farmland, and the ability to work with landowners and state and federal officials on conservation projects and funding.
We endorse Bill Cole, a software consultant from Cary, for this post. His excellent command of the issues facing Wake County is reflected in his list of priorities: managing water quality and quantity both above and below the ground, educating suburban and urban residents about water pollution from the over-application of lawn chemicals (Why do people hate dandelions so?) and strengthening local food systems.
His opponent, Patrick Lawson, is a real estate broker, which we feel could present a conflict of interest. What better way to pinpoint new real estate opportunities than working with landowners? In addition, Lawson's answers on the Indy questionnaire indicated he has a thin understanding of conservation issues.
If continuing education is a priority—and it should be—vote YES on this bond, which expedites $200 million for Wake Tech expansion with the county chipping in another $10.2 million. Thousands of students are on waiting lists to attend the multi-campus college, which plans to use the cash for capital construction. The bulk of bond money would go to three new instructional buildings on its Northern Wake campus. Other projects include expansion on its Public Safety Education Campus in South Raleigh, renovations and repairs at the school's main campus and startup at its new Research Triangle Park Campus in Morrisville. No tax increase is required to fund the Wake Tech expansion.
Vote YES on three bonds totaling $80 million in Cary. Town leaders plan to use about $57.6 million of the cash on recession-delayed transit improvements, including upgrades on streets, sidewalks, bridges and overpasses, as well as streetscaping, new traffic signals and more. Cary would spend another $15.8 million on local parks and recreation and another $6.4 million to update an outdated fire station. Each of these projects are quality-of-life issues, and town officials have effectively made their case that, without the bonds, these needed improvements will not happen.
There is a cost for taxpayers. According to Cary leaders, property taxes will increase by two cents in 2013 and another two cents in 2015. That means if you own a $250,000 home you'll pay an additional $50 per year. Cary currently has the lowest property tax rate in Wake County. If the bonds pass, that would not change.
Morrisville voters have two bond packages totaling $20 million on the ballot. The majority, or about $14.3 million, is intended for transit improvements at the bottleneck at N.C. 54 and Chapel Hill Road. Transit can be a headache in Morrisville. With the region's growth, don't expect that headache to go away without an investment. Town leaders say they plan to build 1.7 miles of new roadway extending McCrimmon Parkway from N.C. 54 to Airport Boulevard and ending at Evans Road.
The second bond package would direct $5.7 million toward upgrades at Morrisville Community Park and the Morrisville Aquatics and Fitness Center. Look for new tennis courts, horseshoe pits, disc golf and a greenway extension at the former; tennis courts and an enclosed pool at the latter.
If both bonds are approved, residents will likely see a four-cent property tax rate hike by 2018. The cash will be presented in two votes, so you can vote for one without the other. But we think quality of life is a worthwhile investment in Morrisville. Vote YES on both bond packages.
After the primary, it appeared the Durham County Board of Commissioners race was done. All five seats had been elected—from a crowded field of 11 candidates—and unless someone decided to file to run in the General Election, it was over.
That happened when Omar Beasley, a Democrat, filed over the summer and became the sixth candidate in a five-person race.
So now it's a contest. The candidates are incumbents Ellen Reckhow, Michael Page and Brenda Howerton, and newcomers Beasley, Fred Foster Jr. and Wendy Jacobs.
In the primary, we endorsed Reckhow, Foster, Jacobs and Will Wilson (he lost). Unable to decide on a fifth candidate, we left the final seat unendorsed.
In the General Election, we're again endorsing Ellen Reckhow, Fred Foster Jr. and Wendy Jacobs.
Notably, we did not endorse Page and Howerton in the primary because of their support for 751 South, which earned them the backing of a Super PAC run by Southern Durham Development, which was behind the project.
But given the field of six, the last two endorsements go to Michael Page and Brenda Howerton, with the hopes they will make better decisions, particularly on development issues, in their next term.
As for Beasley, a bail bondsman and ex-N.C. Central University football player, he is on the board of the N.C. Bail Agents Association. His affiliation on the board gives us pause because the group has pushed for state legislation supported, if not written, by the American Legislative Exchange Council. A right-wing policymaking group, ALEC has drafted regressive legislation in many states.
The association wanted the Legislature to pass a law requiring people to stay in jail for three days before getting a pre-trial release unless they bonded themselves out—via a bail bondsman, of course.
We're not saying Beasley is behind this, but his position on the board means he's in the thick of its questionable business. And we certainly don't need that on the board of commissioners.
As we noted in the endorsement for the Wake County supervisor, this is an important elected position you've never heard of. The county soil and water district supervisor manages conservation projects for farmland, forests, wildlife and other natural resources. Although the district can't enforce rules on environmental issues such as agricultural and urban runoff into streams (that's the state's job), it will gently encourage you, landowner or suburban lawn lover, to keep cow patties and weed killer out of our waterways. We thank you in advance.
A supervisor needs to have a firm grasp of the challenges particular to an area. In the case of Durham County, those include stream restoration, suburban/ urban runoff, the disappearance of farmland, and the ability to work with landowners and state and federal officials on conservation projects and funding.
We are impressed by Danielle Adams' depth of knowledge and understanding of environmental and conservation issues, and we endorse the incumbent for a second term.
In Durham, the district is encouraging county commissioners to adopted a unified watershed ordinance that will help homeowners more easily navigate the requirements. Secondly, the district is working on a voluntary program (the district has no major enforcement powers) to encourage homeowners to reduce the amount of fertilizers and other chemicals they apply to their lawns.
Adams, who is on the legislative committee of the state association, is also an ambassador to OxFam America's Sisters on the Planet advocacy program. As secretary of the Durham district, Adams was chosen as Outstanding Supervisor of the Year among the state's many soil and water district leaders, an impressive accolade for someone in her first term.
Yet she is unafraid to criticize the larger state association, noting in her questionnaire that "on a state level, districts are not keeping up with trends. As an association we failed to take a stand on fracking. We have not broadened our scope to include climate change, air quality, mountain top removal, deforestation, stormwater and nutrient management rules."
We applaud her honesty and hope she can change the state association from the inside as well as continue her work in Durham.
Her opponent, Kelly Smoke, while earnest in her concern for natural resources, lacks Adams' expertise and experience.
Bernadette Pelissier is everything that you expect of an Orange County commissioner—socially progressive, environmentally conscious and bullish on public transit. Thus we endorse Pelissier, the current Board of Commissioners chairwoman, to retain her seat in 2012.
Since her election in 2008, Pelissier has run up a proud list of accomplishments.
Last year, she helped launch the Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center, a joint operation with Alamance, Chatham, Durham and Orange counties to foster local food entrepreneurs and farmers. She's been an advocate for bolstering public transit, an issue that is as much a social cause as it is economic and environmental. And her leadership spurred the merging of various county departments to increase efficiency in tight budget times.
Over the years, Orange County officials have been far too slow in mending their relationship with Rogers Road residents blighted by an aging landfill, unfulfilled promises and a dearth of public utilities. But under Pelissier's watch in September, commissioners sent the message that they would back a long-delayed community center for the neighborhood. Admittedly, departing Commissioner Valerie Foushee provided the fuel for that fire, but Pelissier didn't suck the oxygen out.
Pelissier's opponent, Hillsborough Republican Mary Carter, is an interesting candidate, but she fails to offer a clear reason to unseat Pelissier. However, Carter's Latino heritage makes her a welcome shot of diversity, and we agree with her assertion that a dissenting voice is good for government. A social moderate who backs same-sex health care benefits, Carter is a fiscal conservative who hits many of the standard GOP notes: Lower taxes! Improve education! Sounds good, now tell us how.
It's hard to imagine a better fit for Orange County commissioner than Renee Price of Hillsborough, who has spent her life fighting for progressive change. A New York native, Price fought for inner-city reclamation and affordable housing before moving in 1990 to Orange County, where she became an advocate for small farms and environmental conservation.
Price has a wealth of experience, serving on many nonprofits and advisory boards over the last two decades, including the Planning Board, Historic Preservation Commission and the Commission for the Environment.
No surprise, Price is keying on transit and solid waste. Price is a proponent of mass transit's benefits for workers, the environment and the economy. She agrees the Orange County Landfill's closing is long overdue, and that residents responsible for creating the waste should be charged with disposing it. Price also encourages innovative solutions for Orange's trash headache, urging the county to explore waste-to-energy models, a method of energy recovery in which waste is incinerated in order to generate power. Recycling is still the preferred route here, but Price seems willing to explore creative options.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine a worse fit for Orange County than Chris Weaver, a self-described "screaming conservative" who identifies with tea partiers and seems more bent toward ideology than practicality. Weaver is a longtime business owner who blasts Orange as hostile toward business and demands lower taxes. He has a point that one-party rule can lead to blundering inefficiency, but it's hard to stomach his far-right views.
Weaver's view of government? "Government can only construct degrees of freedom in which prosperity may be created or suppressed." What about immigrants? "I will not vote for any tax dollars to be spent on non-citizens of the United States." Those are direct quotes from Weaver's campaign site. While we appreciate his blunt honesty, this is just a bad fit for Orange County.
At the right—or, more aptly, wrong—time of day, it can take as long to drive the nine miles from Durham to Chapel Hill on U.S. 15-501 as it does the 30 miles to Raleigh on Interstate 40.
And if population projections are correct—an additional 40,000 people could move into Orange County by 2030—then the gridlock could be so intractable that cars will fossilize in their tracks, like dinosaurs. (How poetic, considering most cars run on fossil fuels.)
Getting cars off the road and people into buses and trains is important not only to ease traffic congestion but to improve the region's air quality. That's why we're saying vote FOR on a half-cent sales tax to fund expanded bus and light rail investments in Orange County. Durham County voters passed a similar measure last year.
The tax will not apply to food, medicine, gasoline, utilities and housing—life's basics, in other words. But the tax is expected to raise $5 million in annual revenue to pay for an impressive array of new mass transit. This is in addition to state and federal funding, vehicle registration fees and rental car taxes and a $25 million loan.
Within five years, new service is planned between Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham; expanded weekend night service, Saturday routes to Hillsborough and enhanced rural transit. Mebane, a car-dependent outpost on the Orange/ Alamance county line, also gets express bus service to Hillsborough and Durham.
In six years-plus, a new Amtrak station will be built in Hillsborough. Currently, the trains can't stop there without a station, forcing Orange County riders to drive to Burlington or Durham to catch the Amtrak, which defeats the point of mass transit.
By the time those 40,000 additional people show up, a $1.3 billion (Orange would pay $16.2 million annually to build, $3.4 million annually to operate), 17.3-mile light rail system between Orange and Durham counties—connecting downtowns, urban neighborhoods and medical centers—should be under way.
Some Orange County residents oppose the tax, saying the transit plan is ill-conceived. They argue the new tax can't be used for existing bus service and that it does not provide additional service to or from Chapel Hill to RTP, the airport or Raleigh. (TTA runs express and local service buses from Chapel Hill to Raleigh, plus transfers to RTP and the airport.) No plan exists for rail service between Wake and Orange counties.
The fate of the region's mass transit systems should not hinge on the shortsightedness of Republican Wake County commissioners, who won't put a measure on the ballot. Orange County should demonstrate its leadership on transportation and leave Wake in the dust.
If fracking does come to pass in North Carolina, Chatham County is one of those places where it's likely to happen. So in the future, Chatham commissioners could face a number of questions about the controversial drilling practice. We endorse former board chairwoman and Democrat Sally Kost, who is clearly opposed to drilling. Her opponent, Republican Don Shilesky, is somewhere in the middle, although he promises a scientific, not emotional, analysis. This seems heartening, but we need clarity on an issue this big.
Still, Shilesky offers an inviting alternative as a challenger in this race. He's an environmental scientist who has worked as a technical consultant for trash bigwigs Waste Management Inc. He touts his expertise as a plus as Chatham negotiates a new hauling contract in 2014. Shilesky clearly brings expertise to the race, but so does Kost, a former budget director for Wake and Orange counties. Kost's fiscal experience is a major plus in these times.
The candidates diverge on education. Kost calls for more public school funding. Shilesky demands schools use the funding they have more wisely. If you've been watching North Carolina's GOP leaders in recent years, this is the type of thing they say when they're raiding the budget. In the end, you know what you're getting with an able progressive like Kost, which is better than what you might or might not be getting with Shilesky.
When Chatham County Democrats lost the majority on the Board of Commissioners in 2010, New Hill Democrat Mike Cross found himself in a diminished role on the board. That's not going to change in 2012. Only two seats are up for grabs this year and both are held by incumbent Democrats. Still, Cross—a U.S. Navy veteran who's held a county commission seat since 2004—is a solid progressive with experience and an ability to compromise. We endorse Cross for another term.
GOP challenger Bill Crawford, a former Pittsboro mayoral candidate, backs the conservative board in power. He demands reduced spending but doesn't offer specifics. And he's critical of school spending, calling for Chatham school officials to justify their budget requests. This is a common refrain among North Carolina Republicans eager to slice education dollars. Cross is the clear choice here.