Penny Rich | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week
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Penny Rich 

Orange County Commissioner

Name as it appears on the ballot: Penny Rich
Campaign Website: pennyfororange.com
Phone number: 919-428-5952
Email: pennyrich.ch@gmail.com
Years lived in Orange County: 18

1. What are the three most important issues facing Orange County? If elected, how would you address those issues? Please be specific. 
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Economic development:
Without diversifying our tax base, we will not be able to fund the other priorities and issues facing Orange County. 84% of our tax dollars come from homeowners. This is not sustainable. Orange County needs to approach economic development as multi-faceted, and be willing to take risks to create a diverse economic base and to meet the challenges of a changing county. My goal is to foster programs that assist all types of business at all stages of development with hopes that they come to, and remain in Orange County. In 2014, the BOCC was happy to announce the successful recruitment of Morinaga, a Japanese candy manufacturer. The company has invested 48 million dollars in a new facility that will employ 90 people, most of whom will live in Orange County. In 2015 we had 65 inquiries, from light manufacturing to clean industry, twelve of which are still being discussed. Orange County had to play catch-up due to insufficient infrastructure, but we are now on par with our surrounding counties and in the game. I believe this kind of light manufacturing is a perfect match for our EDD areas. It is important for the county to continue to invest in Economic Development District infrastructure, and support efforts that increase the attractiveness of Orange County for company relocation, such as the availability of roads, utilities and water.

I would like to develop a program, partnering with the municipalities, where start-up companies that graduate from our 5 incubators can call Orange County home for 3-5 years, with hopes they will remain after establishing their business. MidWay Business Center, Piedmont Food and Ag Processing Center, The Cube, LaUNCh Chapel Hill and 1789 host 142 enterprises. We need to make every effort to retain this talent and help grow their companies with incentive based solutions and affordable office space.

Affordable and Workforce Housing:

1. We need to review our land use ordinances and amend them to be more flexible in allowing cluster housing, Granny flats, and micro housing options. Along with this, we will need to re-visit the impact fee requirements. A micro house should not be paying the same impact fee as a 4000 square foot house.

2. In 2014, the BOCC began a fund, with a one million dollar commitment, that is specific to land banking. The fund is a safety net for mobile park home residence that will be displaced when the landowner sells the property. I propose we continue to add to this fund and expand the scope to land purchase and banking along transit corridors.

3. We should increase the total amount of public dollars spent on affordable housing. We currently spend $891,000 yearly. A resolution to move this number to 1 million passed in 2015. I think we need to do more. I propose that we begin with 1 million and raise that amount each year. I would invite our partners, Community Home Trust, Empowerment and Habitat for Humanity to help us formulate an appropriate increase based on future needs.

4. We should utilize the land we currently own to build housing. Orange County has pockets of land that we can build on, and we are partners with Chapel Hill and Carrboro on the Greene tract. I suggest we keep a large portion of the 104 acres open space and agree with the work of the Greene Tract Workgroup (2002) recommendations to jointly build affordable housing on 18 acres. I would expand this to workforce housing as well as some mixed-use development to support the residence with needed amenities.

5. It is vitally important that we partner with the municipalities on affordable housing efforts. Affordable housing and public transit go hand and hand. Lowering the cost of commuting by utilizing public transit can help families meet needs such as food and utilities. It is also better for lowering our carbon footprint as our population grows.
How do we pay for this? The 2016-17 budget will be the first for our new manager where she has complete control. Ms. Hammersley understands the BOCC’s desire to do more for our housing needs and will guide us through the budget recommending options from the General Funds and CIP (Capital Improvement Plan). One of our priorities identified at our 2016 retreat was to have measurable outcomes. I would like to come back to this question in the future with data showing how our efforts paid off, how many homes were built, how many families we helped and how our energy today will benefit our community tomorrow.

School Funding:

The North Carolina General Assembly is waging an all-out attack on North Carolina Public Schools. The state’s constitution requires that every student be provided a sound basic education. Recent cuts to education funding have put a “sound basic education” at risk, and a quality education out of reach for many of the state’s 1.5 million students. In the 2014-15 school year, the state reduced funding for schools by $277 million from the year prior. Since 2010, state leaders have cut $145.9 million in funding for textbooks and supplies. In the past two yeas, funding was cut for more than 7,800 teacher assistants. In addition, a large portion of funds has been diverted from traditional schools to charter schools, resulting in a significant negative impact on public school budgets. State leaders have provided large tax cuts to corporations, and this has undermined our ability to educate our children. The result is that the burden has passed to counties. It is difficult to cope with constant funding reductions, and this causes friction during our budget discussions. We have a number of new school board members, and I am hoping that this will create a opportunity to form a stronger understanding of each others’ roles and provide collaborative solutions to budget shortfalls. We must consider all options while understanding that some of our residents are already budget constrained and may need to move if taxes continue to rise. If we truly believe that every child deserves a quality education, the school board and the county must be partners and move forward together.

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Orange County Board of Commissioners? (This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.)

I have over 17 years of experience serving my community at all levels.
I have been a County Commissioner since 2012, where I have served on the following committees and boards:
Orange County Visitors Bureau: Board of Directors
Triangle Council of Governments
NACo – Nation Association of County Commissioners
The Community Home Trust: Board of Directors
Swag – Solid Waste Advisory Group – Co-Chair
Intergovernmental Parks Workgroup - Chair
Orange, Durham, Chapel Hill Workgroup – Rotating Chair
Historic Rogers Road Task Force – Co-Chair
Communications Task Force/Strategic Plan - Chair
I remain committed to being a strong voice for affordable and workforce housing, smart economic growth, the environment, social justice, and our schools.
My Vision; "Protecting What is Great While Creating New Opportunities for Orange County” explains my passion to keep Orange County a diverse and creative community, constantly evolving, providing opportunities for all of our citizens.

I am a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, 2009-2011, where I served on the following committees and boards:
Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission: Public Art Review Committee for 140 West
Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission: Public Art Review Committee for Superstreet Project
Community Design Commission
Council Committee: Orange Water and Sewer Authority (Interview Committee)
Council Committee: Sustainability, Energy, and Environment
Justice in Action Committee
Mayor’s Committee: Campaign Public Financing
Mayor’s Committee: Council Communication
Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness
Historic Rogers Road Task Force

I am a former member of the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) Board of Directors, 2001-2007, where I served on the following committees and boards:
Vice Chair
Secretary of the Board
Chairperson of the Human Resources Committee
Chairperson Natural Resources Committee
Served on the Community Outreach Committee
Water Conservation Task Force
Art Committee
Property Committee

I have participated in the following leadership enrichment programs:
Meeting Facilitation Skills, Dispute Settlement Center
Advanced Leadership Corp, UNC School of Government, Awarded Ambassador Status
Communication and Conflict Resolution, Dispute Settlement Center
Managing Conflict, UNC School of Government
Development Finance Toolbox, UNC School of Government
Essentials of County Government, UNC School of Government
Essentials of Municipal Government, UNC School of Government

Other Civic involvement:
Active Volunteer for the Inter-Faith Council’s Community Kitchen
Served on the Ironwoods Home Owner’s Association
Chairperson for the Neighborhood Impact Committee
Former member of Carrboro Elementary School, Smith Middle School, and Chapel Hill High PTA
Former Member of the Chapel Hill Technology Advisory Committee
Former President of the Chapel of the Cross Pre-School Board of Directors
Former Fundraising Chairperson for the Chapel of the Cross Pre-School
Served on the SGC at Seawell Elementary School

Membership:
Orange Democratic Women
Lillian’s List
State Executive Committee, North Carolina Democratic Party
League of Women Voters


3. How do you define yourself politically, and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

Liberal/Progressive. The job of a county commissioner is covered by two words: Human Services. Most of our departments focus on our residents. I make decisions that support a mission to provide excellent services that promote healthy, safe and sustainable communities; preserve Orange County’s unique environmental heritage; and encourage meaningful participation in the governance of the County by all.

4. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

1. Obtaining the highest quality standards in CHCCS/Orange County Schools
2. Committing to economic development so that the tax burden to residents is lowered, job opportunities are increased, the commercial potential of Orange County is realized, and continued levels of business growth and job opportunities result.
3. Preserving the best of Orange County’s unique historical significance and heritage in North Carolina while positioning the County to be in the forefront of progressive enterprise.
4. Strengthening Orange County’s commitment to the environment by considering all of our actions’ impact on: the conservation of natural resources; the reduction of greenhouse gases; the prevention of pollution; and the use of renewable energy and materials.
5. Supporting policies that challenge injustice and value diversity while maintaining an environment where residents share a common humanity and have a right to equitable treatment.
6. Adopting fiscal responsibility as a core principle.


5. What is your vision for development in Orange County? Do your development ideas include preserving the rural buffer? Do you think it was worthwhile to rezone hundreds of acres in economic development districts to attract businesses?

Since I have started on the BOCC there have been 3 developments proposed, and I voted for each one. Two were single-family homes; one in the rural buffer and one in the county, and the third was a co-living development for residents age 55 and up. Most of the dense development takes place in the municipalities, and the commissioners have no influence on their outcome. Most of the new development being proposed in the county for the next few years falls under Hillsborough’s jurisdiction. For those developments, I have some concerns about traffic through the downtown area that is already over congested, and I also have concerns about storm water and runoff, and will look at each proposal with an eye to those concerns.

The Rural Buffer has been an effective tool in containing sprawl and protecting water quality and farmland for close to 30 years. In 2015, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County relaxed some rules to include Agriculture Support Enterprises in order to help farmers maintain their land and businesses, and to preventing them from selling to a developer that may develop single-family homes. It is important to be flexible, monitoring the impact of these changes, and modifying the buffer rules as needed. I have no intention to remove the rural buffer or extend OWASA water and sewer into the buffer. The purchase and sales agreement does not allow for this action, and for that I am grateful.

Land in the Economic Development Districts has been pre-zoned. Each new development will still have to go through the permitting and approval process before additional land is re-zoned. We have added infrastructure and utilities to make our EDD’s more attractive to light- and clean-manufacturing companies looking to re-locate. Over the next couple of months the commissioners will have a work-session discussion about how to update the EDD’s to accommodate today’s business.

6. After the tragic shooting death of one-year-old Maleah Williams in Chapel Hill on Christmas Day, what can the Orange County Board of Commissioners do to promote respect, safety, and peace in your communities—particularly those beset by crime?

This hits close to home for all of us. The young adults involved in this tragedy are not much older than my sons. As a mater of fact, they attended Chapel Hill High with my older son. My sons had the opportunity to go to college. I worry that these young men did not see that as an option for themselves. Our community fails young people when they do not feel they have the opportunity to continue their education or secure a good job when they graduate from our school system. We must intervene early. I believe the Family Success Alliance is a good start. This program is relatively new to our county and came out a long discussion about poverty in our 2013 commissioner retreat. The goal of the program is to improve a child’s chance for educational and economic success by applying evidence-based programs, services and support systems from cradle to career, and to end the school-to-prison pipeline. We have identified two “zones” in the county to pilot the program: Zone 4 in central Orange, and Zone 6 that covers downtown Chapel Hill to Hwy 54. A representative from each zone serves on the FSA council, taking an active decision-making role in both the education and community affairs of the children they represent. This empowers the children and families to exert some influence and control over their future. I am honored to have been selected to be a commissioner liaison to this program in 2016.

I attended the service on January 1, 2016 for Maleah Williams in Chapel Hill. Rev. Barber addressed the community with an angry voice. “We made it out of slavery without killing each other, why the hell are we doing it now” said Barber. I had the opportunity to talk with Rev Barber after the service and he outlined some of the on-going efforts he is working on in rough, crime-ridden areas of Greenville. His focus there is on “gang leaders and gang bangers” (his words). He explained that if you bring them into the conversation and give them the tools to help their community, they will respond. He talked about doing that in Chapel Hill. I look forward to more conversations with Rev. Barber to see how we can support him in that effort.


7. Do you have interest in waste-disposal alternatives to landfills in Orange County? If so, what ideas appeal to you? Are there cost benefits to the alternatives you favor?

I serve as the co-chair on the Solid Waste Advisory Group (SWAG), which is an intergovernmental group and includes UNC and UNC Hospitals, working to find solutions to our recycling and solid waste challenges. Recently, a year-long discussion resulted in an agreement to offer curbside recycling to both urban and rural districts in Orange County. Our goal of 61% (64%) waste reduction was achieved in 2015, ahead of projections, and we are 2 years ahead of schedule and $500,000 under budget on expanding rural service. We will continue discussions on our efforts to complete an inter-local agreement for Solid Waste, and will consider our options for future waste collection and disposal. Priorities moving forward include: development of a waste transfer station within Orange County; emergency storm debris management and planning; alternate technologies including but not limited to organics collection and processing waste-to-energy solutions. UNC and UNC Hospitals are at the table and have been invited and encouraged to be part of the county solution. We must also consider regional partnerships as Orange County does not create enough waste to benefit from some of the newer waste-to-energy solutions. We will continue to proceed with evaluating and examining a wide range of possible technologies and cost savings over the next year.


8. Is the current school-funding model working for both districts? Should the board revisit the policy that allocates 48.1 percent of general-fund revenue to education?

When we look at the “Total Effort” in school funding that includes yearly operating costs, capital costs, debt balance and ADM (average daily membership – per pupil spending) we allocate well over 50% of Orange County’s budget to both school systems. Orange County funding to schools is the second highest county funding in the state, with Dare County slightly higher due to a citizen-approved transfer tax that goes to school funding. With the additional district tax in the CHCCS system, state and federal funding, CHCCS’ yearly per student funding is the highest in the state, and has been for over a decade, at $10,872. Orange County Schools (OCS) do not have the district tax, therefore, the ADM is $9602.

A joint group, including elected officials, from both school systems and the county commissioners met to determine a target amount of spending for schools to bring some predictability to the budget process. The group, agreed to simply take an average of the last 10 years, which turned out to be 48.1 percent of our budget. While this was merely a target, it at least assured a funding level to be sought regardless of circumstances. Considering that we annually ranked No. 1 in the state among counties in total effort for education funding, operating, capital, and debt service combined, this seemed eminently reasonable to the BOCC and in keeping with our historic commitment. I am open to discussing any alternate funding mechanisms and will consider all options in the upcoming 2016-17 budget.

9. Do you support the $125 million bond package to fix aging schools? Even if voters approve it, that’s only one-third of what districts estimate they’ll need. What is your plan for funding the rest?

Yes, I do support the bond package. As we look at prioritizing the repairs and renovations for our schools it is vitally important to keep in mind that this will push the need for new construction out past the 10-year projections. School enrollment is down in CHCCS/Orange County Schools and this is projected to remain the trend for the next couple of years. Funding the remaining needs of our schools will be a two-step approach. First, we will need to review our 2-, 5- and 10-year Capital Improvement Plans and consider shifting funding currently allocated to building new schools to repairing of older schools. Second, we will need to consider another bond in 5 years to cover the needs that the CIP money cannot fund. I have no objection to reviewing the financial strategic plan for each department in the county to see where allocations can be moved to funding school capital improvements. As I listen to parents, I hear three concerns: safety and welfare of our children, teacher and teacher assistant permanency, and overcrowding in classrooms. I shared these three concerns when my children began kindergarten 20 years ago, and they are still relevant today.

10. The issue of bicycle safety is on the minds of many people in Orange County, particularly in rural areas where road sharing can be challenging. What recommendations could you offer to the ongoing conversation about bikes on roads?

It’s an unfortunate fact that there are, on average, twenty-six bicycle crashes each year in Orange County; only six other counties in the state experience more bicycle crashes per year than we do. More than 80% of all bicycle crashes occur in commercial and residential areas, and almost three-quarters happen during daylight hours. Cycling safety is a real issue here, particularly because cycling is so important to our communities in Orange County. It improves health and fitness, quality of life and the environment. It’s also emerging as a significant means of economic development for our state – visitor spending on cycling-related activities each year rivals that of visitor spending on golf. Bicycle tourism generates $60 million each year in the Outer Banks area alone.

A bill passed in June of 2015, HB 232, required NCDOT to study North Carolina bicycle and traffic laws and make recommendations on how the laws could better ensure the safety of bicyclists and motorists. The bill also required NCDOT to convene a “working group of interested parties knowledgeable and interested in the bicycle safety laws of the State.” NCDOT released its final report containing recommendations to the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee last month. I have read the commission’s report, the final recommendations by the NCDOT, and many of the hundreds of public comments submitted. The vast majority of feedback includes concerns about three of the NCDOT’s recommendations, each of which countermanded the commission’s recommendations, and none of which were supported by any evidence to suggest they would improve bicycling safety. I, too am concerned about these recommendations, which include enacting legislation requiring cyclists: to ride in the right half of the lane; to ride no more than two abreast; and to apply for permits for informal groups (e.g., non-racing or organized event) of 30 riders or more in areas with posted speed limits of 35 mph or more. Unfortunately, the suggested legislative actions, like the report from which they came, will only serve to further polarize the issue. I fear that the heightened tensions between motorists and cyclists will undermine our efforts to improve bicycling safety.

With regard to the ongoing conversation about bicycling safety, recognizing that the changes recommended in the study are to be implemented at the state, and not the county level, I would offer the following recommendations:

• First and foremost, both motorists and cyclists should understand and obey existing law, and demonstrate basic courtesy and respect for one another. This is a message we can continue to work with local law enforcement to promote at the county level.
• Both motorists and cyclists should recognize that bicycles are considered vehicles under state law and that cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities on the roads as do motorists. We must also continue to promote this message.
• Rather than enact legislation that may be costly and difficult to administer and enforce, local elected officials should urge the state to first consider whether education can accomplish the same goal(s), and request that any new legislation aimed at improving bicycling safety:
o Be backed by clear evidence indicating that the measure improves bicycling safety
o Reflect the input of key stakeholder groups
o Be logical, enforceable and not overly burdensome to administer


11. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

Fair Housing Wage – others are talking about it, I want to put it into action. In 2015, Orange county commissioners approved a living wage of $12.76 for all county employees regardless of job status (full time, part time and seasonal employees). I led the collaboration with the non-profit “Orange County Living Wage Project” to recognize and certify Orange County as a Living Wage Employer, and encouraged our municipalities and schools to become certified as well. OCLWP encourages local business to pay the current living wage and has certified 53 businesses that do so (http://www.orangecountylivingwage.org/certified_employers). It is important that Orange County lead by example, as the county government, both school systems, local governments and the university system are the largest employers in the county. I believe we can take this one step further by implementing a “fair housing wage” for all Orange County employees, which would provide the opportunity for county employees to live in Orange County. The Fair Housing Wage is currently over $15 an hour.


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