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Money talks in Orange County 

In Orange County’s May 6 primary, big real estate money sent the land transfer tax down in flames; an incumbent state senator beat her better-funded rival; and the county commissioner’s race heads for a run-off.

Land transfer tax

More than 66 percent of voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed county commissioners to levy a .04 percent tax on real estate transactions.

Real estate and homebuilders groups raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars to defeat the tax, according to an April 28 campaign finance report filed with the county board of elections. Citizens for a Better Orange County, the referendum committee organized to oppose the tax, spent $205,115 of the $234,239 it raised on direct mailings, polls and ads, some of which were produced by national political consulting groups. The N.C. Association of Realtors effectively ran the campaign from its Greensboro office.

The measure fared slightly better than in neighboring Chatham County last year, when more than 69 percent of voters said no.

But Orange County was widely considered to be the most friendly territory in the state for a land transfer tax. The referendum’s failure here doesn’t bode well for future attempts by other county governments, says Joe Capowski, a former Chapel Hill town councilman who heads Orange Citizens for Schools and Parks, a referendum committee organized in favor of the land transfer tax. His group raised $1,764 and spent $1,329 as of April 19.

“We had a real uphill battle,” Capowski says. The final result “bodes ill” for other counties that might consider putting a land transfer tax on the ballot, he says. “The fact that it failed by a two-to-one margin, that’s not going to change because of some tweaks in strategy. It would take an enormous effort of fundraising within the county to outdo the fundraising the Realtors’ groups had from outside the county.”

The tax would have generated $3.5 million in the first year for schools and parks, county staff estimated. Now, Capowski says, those funds will likely have to come from an increase in property taxes, “because that’s the only funding mechanism the county commissioners control.”

The measure was also defeated in three other counties on Tuesday: Ashe (55 percent against), Gates (71 percent against) and Tyrell (55 percent against).

N.C. Senate District 23

But a bigger bank account doesn’t always mean victory on Election Day.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird held on to her seat in District 23 after a heated campaign against Orange County Commissioner Moses Carey. Kinnaird won more than 64 percent of the vote district-wide, and nearly 66 percent in Orange County. Kinnaird has a reputation as one of the most progressive legislators in the state.

Carey spent significantly more money than Kinnaird—$48,495 to her $32,135, as of the April 28 campaign finance reporting deadline. Her victory this year recalled the challenge she received from Sen. Howard Lee in 2002 after redistricting pitted the two incumbents against each another. In that primary, Lee spent $320,894, while Kinnaird spent $69,618 total in the primary and the November race against a Republican challenger.

Board of County Commissioners and Board of Education

Orange County commissioners races were only partially decided on Tuesday.

Bernadette Pelissier, a former Sierra Club chair from Hillsborough, won the Democratic race for the at-large seat with more than 50 percent of the vote. Mary M. Wolff of Chapel Hill won approximately 29 percent, followed by neighborhood activist Neloa Barbee Jones with just over 20 percent. Pelissier will face Republican Kevin Wolff, Mary Wolff’s husband, in November.

But the District 2 race likely won’t be decided until a June 24 runoff, when Hillsborough surveyor Steve Yuhasz could face off against Leo L. Allison, a retired IBM employee from Efland.

Yuhasz won almost 37 percent of the vote in the four-way race, while Allison received almost 28 percent. A 40 percent plurality was required to win in the newly created district that covers the area north of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Allison has until May 15 to submit a written request for a runoff.

“I’m weighing my options,” Allison said Wednesday afternoon. He said if there were a two-way race, he expects he would receive many of the votes that went to his other primary opponents, Luther K. Brooks and Tommy T. McNeill. “I think I have a good chance, otherwise I wouldn’t even be considering it.” Allison said he hopes to come to a decision by May 12.

Much of the $6,379 Yuhasz’s campaign had raised as of the April 28 report came from real estate agents, farmers and people in the construction industry. Allison certified with the board of elections that he would not raise more than $3,000, so he was not obligated to submit a campaign finance report.

In the Orange County school board race, former Orange County commissioner Stephen Halkiotis was the top vote-getter with 22 percent of the vote, followed by retired social worker Eddie Eubanks at 21 percent, and Tony McKnight, a training consultant for the N.C. Department of Labor, who won 18 percent. McKnight ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2006.

Incumbent Al Hartkopf, who came in fourth in the six-way contest with 15 percent, was not re-elected to the school board. Nor was Jeff Michalski, an advocate of “school choice” with whom Hartkopf campaigned; Michalski won 12 percent. Stan Morris of Rougemont came in last with 11 percent.

Complete unofficial election results are available here. Official results will be available May 13.

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