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Sunday, May 30, 2010

BP prohibited workers from speaking with media

Posted by on Sun, May 30, 2010 at 2:32 PM

Several journalists from UNC-Chapel Hill have obtained BP's agreement with at least one of its contractors that show workers were forbidden to speak with the media until the company reversed its policy last week.

BP required workers employed in the Vessels of Opportunity program to sign a contract that included a clause prohibiting them and their deckhands from making "news releases, marketing presentation, or any other public statements" while working on the cleanup . Fishermen who violated the contract could have lost their jobs.

The UNC journalists are part of a team working on Powering a Nation, that investigates the political, economic and scientific tensions behind U.S. energy use.
Powering a Nation is affiliated with News21, a national initiative sponsored by the Carnegie and Knight foundations to innovate the news business.

These journalists also posted a brief video about a community of Vietnamese fishermen awaiting a training class that would certify them to help with BP’s clean-up operations

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Lottery funds ray of hope for Durham schools?

Posted by on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 6:12 PM

  • N.C. General Assembly
  • Michaux

As community activists, parents, teachers and local elected leaders met to talk budget cuts Friday afternoon, N.C. Rep. H.M. "Mickey" Michaux (D-Durham) offered a bit of hopeful news—that in its proposed budget, the N.C. House would allow for $126 million in lottery funds to go to save teacher jobs across the state. That could help restore 237 teacher jobs in Durham currently threatened by funding cuts.

The House still has to vote on the budget, and will do that next week, said Michaux, one of several state legislators, Durham county commissioners and school board members who attended the meeting. It was a "town hall"-style question-and-answer session for the community called by the Umbrella Coalition, an activist group from Hillside High School that has been vocal in the past several months about budget cuts to Durham Public Schools.

"If you use that money properly, we will not have to lose any teachers in this school system," Michaux said. Currently, education lottery funds are only used locally for physical improvements to schools and their infrastructure.

Perhaps the most promising part of this news was that about $1.2 million in lottery money from this fiscal year that already has been tentatively assigned to school projects might now be used to save teacher jobs. Above that $1.2 million, there's an additional balance of lottery funds due to Durham County from the lottery, said County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. She's not sure of the exact balance.

Upon receiving this news from Michaux, the audience mumbled, then applauded.

Minnie Forte-Brown, chairwoman of the Durham school board, looked around at her colleagues, saying "We've got the money. There's our money."

"Not so fast," grumbled one parent sitting in the audience.

With the promising news from Michaux, came bad news — that $488 million our state had expected from the federal government for a Medicaid program had just this afternoon been cut out of a U.S. House bill. Budget proposals from the governor and both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly had been counting on that money. The U.S. Senate has yet to vote on the matter, Michaux said.

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Franklin Street has a bigger cigarette butt problem; we cannot lie

Posted by on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 12:51 PM

While health department officials are quick to celebrate the obvious benefits of an indoor-smoking ban, smokers have been pushed outside, their butts now flapping in the wind.

Students display their bags of butts.
  • Photo courtesy of TRU
  • Students display their bags of butts.
Chapel Hill High School student volunteers of Orange County Tobacco.Reality.Unflitered bagged and tagged 5,866 discarded filters on the town’s man thoroughfare on May 6 and May 13.

Members of the Downtown Partnership used to same method to collect 5,784 butts in 2008, but they saw that number drop to just 3.538 four months later after ashtray receptacles were provided to smoke-heavy locations.

Students found only five receptacles during their count, down from 13 in 2008. Smokers didn’t take the time to find them, offloading their unwanted nicotine remnants in flowerbeds, tree grates and along the bricks.

The Downtown Partnership plans to push for more cigarette discarding locations to cure the problem.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Caswell County enters broadband brouhaha with its own Internet bill

Posted by on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 7:36 PM

Bill Faison
  • Bill Faison
Caswell County Commissioners have taken a stand against Sen. David Hoyle's anti-municipality broadband bill (S 1209), by proposing H 2067. Introduced by Bill Faison, a Democrat representing Orange and Caswell counties, the bill allows Caswell County to enter the Internet marketplace and potentially build its own network.

State Rep. Faison says Caswell County Commissioners decided they needed to expand on North Carolina law, which allows municipalities to build their own broadband systems. In 2005, an state appeals court ruled that towns and cities had the right to offer high-speed Internet to their residents.

In making his case for the bill, Faison cited as an example electrical co-ops across the state that brought basic utilities services to under-served towns. "High speed internet is just as important today as electricity was in another era as a basic service," said Faison, a proponent of municipal broadband.

"We need to supply to every one. Where AT&T will go and provide at a reasonable cost, I am happy to let them do it—but where they won't go, someone must step up and bring that service to those people," he added.

Faison called Sen. Hoyle's bill, S 1209, a "poison pill" to municipal broadband, adding that high-speed internet access might be considered a luxury—just as roads, electricity and phone once were—but in the global marketplace, success depends upon bandwidth.

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Municipal broadband bill takes a time out

Posted by on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 4:23 PM

  • D.L. Anderson
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, is working on a compromise between local governments and cable companies over the highly controversial broadband bill, S1209, that would sharply limit local governments that want to build their own broadband or fiber-optic network or need to expand or repair a current network.

The bill was pulled from the Senate Finance Committee meeting Wednesday; it is scheduled to be heard Tuesday, June 1 at 1 p.m.

Introduced by state Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, at the Revenue Laws Study Committee meeting on May 5, the bill quickly sparked concern over its requirement that local governments hold a public vote to build, repair or expand Internet services. Telecommunications companies support S 1209 because they don’t want to compete with cities and towns in providing high-speed Internet service.

Sen. William Purcell, a Democrat representing Anson, Richmond, Scotland, and Stanly counties, attended yesterday's meeting, and said he cannot support S 1209 as written.

“I hope the bill is going to come back changed,” said Sen. Purcell. “I have had a lot of calls and emails from local governments in my district who are very concerned about this bill."

Sen. Purcell is most concerned with the burden the bill places on local governments to apply for and receive General Obligation Bonds before implementing a broadband system or repairing an existing project. “Local governments going up against powerful communications people who have the money to do a large campaign against a broadband project during a general election, could make it virtually impossible for any city to put in their own system.”

Municipal cable and broadband consultant Catharine Rice of Action Audits said, “I think Sen. Clodfelter finally understands that there are negative impacts to Sen. Hoyle's bill.”

“These Senators have to hear from the grassroots,” said Rice. “They need to hear from their own people who don't want our state handed over to Time Warner Cable and AT&T.”

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chancellor's Ridge resident takes issue with neighborhood board's support of protest petition

Posted by on Wed, May 26, 2010 at 4:33 PM

Proposed location of 751 South development
  • Proposed location of 751 South development

Chancellor's Ridge resident Rob Lentchitsky, who lives on Education Avenue, sent an e-mail this afternoon to the Board of Directors in the Chancellor's Ridge neighborhood, Planning Director Steve Medlin and the Durham Board of County Commissioners stating he takes issue with the board's signing a petition protesting the proposed 751 South development, thereby representing the whole neighborhood. He asks that the board remove its signature from the petition.

From Lentchitsky's statement, "I recently learned that the protest petition filed against 751 South included the signature of the Board on behalf of the common areas near the town homes. I cannot put it more succinctly than this: This is unacceptable. While I understand that certain members of our community are very staunch opponents of this development, it is not the job of the Board to take on their cause - especially without consulting the rest of the residents."

These concerns seem to echo previous issues some Chancellor's Ridge residents raised the last time members of the South Durham community signed a protest petition to stave off the proposed 751 South development near the neighborhood. At that time, there also was concern over whether the board could sign as the owner of those common areas in the development.

The petition is an attempt by residents near a large tract of land off N.C. 751 to make it more difficult for Southern Durham Development to build a controversial community there, where retail space, offices and as many as 1,300 homes would be built in the watershed of Jordan Lake. Many opponents of the project say this type of densely developed community would be ideal if it were located elsewhere in Durham, near public transportation and near roads and other infrastructure to support its size—not near the water reservoir and on the edge of rural Durham and Chatham counties.

Click the jump to read Lentchitsky's full complaint.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

UNC pays $16,000 fine; answers questions from feds

Posted by on Tue, May 25, 2010 at 6:30 PM

UNC has paid a $16,000 fine levied by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources related to the Bingham Facility’s illegal discharge of treated wastewater into Collins Creek last fall.

Read the letter from UNC to DENR: UNC_response_to_DENR_penalty.pdf.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health, which awarded UNC a $14.5 million construction grant for an expansion of the Bingham Facility, has peppered the university with questions about a series of problems with the wastewater treatment system at the site.

In a letter to UNC, NIH Grants Management Specialist Christy Leake noted that the site “has had a few wastewater issues” and asked the university for further explanations about the repair and configuration of the wastewater treatment system, the citations from DENR and the existence of wetlands.

Read the NIH letter and UNC's response: NIH_letter_05122010.pdf"> NIH_response_for_C06_RR029912-01-_Bingham_Facility.pdf

In the original grant application, UNC stated incorrectly that no wetlands were on the property. After UNC mapped the site, it discovered several and reported the error to DENR. The state agency then cited UNC for encroaching on these protected areas.

“Although these incidents have been painfully embarrassing to the institution, they have also taught us some valuable lessons," wrote William Roper, dean of UNC Medical School, and Tony Waldrop, vice chancellor for research and economic development.

UNC acknowledged to the NIH and DENR that there were “problems with the design and construction of the wastewater treatment system.” UNC will not repair the current wastewater system, which has been closed for several months.

The original contractor for the project, Diehl & Phillips, has been replaced by McKim & Creed, which will design a new system.

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What's next? Schools to lobby legislators and eye more cuts to keep teachers

Posted by on Tue, May 25, 2010 at 3:47 PM

School board member Steve Martin talks to the Board of County Commissioners during a budget work session Tuesday, May 25.
  • Jeremy M. Lange
  • School board member Steve Martin talks to the Board of County Commissioners during a budget work session Tuesday, May 25.

County Manager Mike Ruffin may have set some minds at ease last night when he proposed a budget that would restore 111 teaching jobs Durham Public Schools feared it would have to cut to balance its budget for the coming year.

But there are 126 remaining teachers who have been notified they'll be losing their jobs, and the school system still needs $6.9 million to keep them, school board members said in a meeting Tuesday morning, where they reviewed the schools budget with Durham County Commissioners.

Among their next steps, the Durham school board will continue to work with a budget committee comprising administrators, students, teachers, county commissioners, community members and accountants to keep looking to pool together as much money as possible.

The committee will meet at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Durham Public Schools Fuller Building at 511 Cleveland Street. The committee is still considering several reductions to make up that $6.9 million that would keep teachers on staff, including a 2 percent reduction in local supplements the county adds to the salaries of teachers, principals and some administrators, and the possibility of requiring teachers to take unpaid days off, or furloughs. (The school district is awaiting a decision by the state legislature that would give school districts the authority to furlough employees.)

Each day of furlough would save Durham schools $1 million, and a 2-percent supplement cut would generate another $1.2 million, said Steve Martin, a member of the school board.

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After memo from developer's attorney and withdraw of appeal, 751 Assemblage public hearing scheduled for June 23

Posted by on Tue, May 25, 2010 at 1:41 PM

Durham's county commissioners finalized the date today: they'll hold a public hearing on the controversial 751 Assemblage rezoning case at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 23. The 167 acres to be rezoned is in the watershed of Jordan Lake and at the center of a long-brewing controversy about whether to build a dense community of homes, offices and shopping areas there.

Much to the suspicions of critics, the commissioners have scheduled and rescheduled the public hearing twice in the past two weeks. Attempting to settle the matter last night, commissioners couldn't choose a date due to scheduling conflicts. Other obstacles have thrust themselves in the way of choosing a date, not the least of which was the deferral request by resident Melissa Rooney... Which resulted in an appeal to the Board of Adjustment. Which was withdrawn yesterday.

The decision comes a day after a memo (PDF) from K&L Gates (attorneys for developer Southern Durham Development) to the Board of County Commissioners, poking holes in Rooney's appeal and asking commissioners to defer the hearing until the latest possible date, June 24.

Residents near the area proposed for rezoning submitted a protest petition to commissioners yesterday, which will make it more difficult for the developer in this case to win rezoning. If the petition is deemed valid, it would require four of five county commissioners to support it, instead of a simple majority that would require only three supportive votes.

Because the public hearing has been moved to June 23, the official due date of the protest petition is June 16, Steve Medlin explained in an e-mail to the Indy Tuesday. Therefore, the planning department won't be determining the validity of the protest petition until around June 21, Medlin wrote.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Durham manager's budget proposal: give schools $6m, restore 111 teachers, raise tax rate 4.29 cents

Posted by on Mon, May 24, 2010 at 7:27 PM

Protesters outside the Durham County administrative building.
  • Photo from county presentation
  • Protesters outside the Durham County administrative building.

NOTE: This post will be updated throughout Monday evening as the county manager presents his budget.

Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin released his proposed budget to the Board of County Commissioners late Monday. In it, he proposed a tax rate increase of 4.29 cents, which would help the Durham Public Schools restore 111 teaching jobs—about 47 percent of the teachers they notified last week they would no longer have jobs.

In their request to the county, members of the Durham school board had asked the county for $13 million more than what county leaders initially said they would fund. With Ruffin's proposed budget, the schools would get $6.14 million, a little less than half their request for additional funds.

Teachers, parents and other community members have held protests in Durham and throughout the state to decry state budget cuts to education.

"Just Friday, I watched form my perch on the second floor of this building hundreds of citizens in front of the courthouse asking that we help them save 237 teaching positions that state reductions have forced on our school system,” Ruffin said in a prepared budget speech Monday night. Read the speech >>

Many school districts are trying to make up the funding gaps through local money. Parents and teachers in Durham have said in recent weeks they would support a tax increase if it meant keeping teachers, thereby keeping class sizes manageable. As Ruffin noted in his speech, he is the only county manager among the state's six most populous counties to recommend a budget increase in local funding for public schools. Wake and Guilford counties recommended no increase or decrease, while Mecklenburg schools are facing a more than 6 percent reduction, Ruffin said.

Community organizers in Durham are also lobbying the state to make up the funding gaps pushed on to counties. They have set up a meeting for Friday with some of Durham's local state legislators from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the auditorium at Hillside High School, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.

Ruffin said he pooled the $6.14 million by taking $1 million from the schools' capital outlay, or school construction and improvements funds, and tacking on 1.79 cents to the tax rate. The other 2.5 cents in the proposed tax-rate increase would go to feeding debt the county has accrued for various borrowing.

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