Bernadette Pelissier | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

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Bernadette Pelissier

Candidate for Orange Board of County Commissioners

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Bernadette Pelissier

Full legal name, if different: Bernadette Marie Marguerite Pelissier

Date of birth: October 18, 1950

Campaign website: www.bernadetteforcommissioner.com (Facebook – Bernadette for County Commissioner)

Occupation & employer: Retired from Federal Government

Spouse's name: Vann Bennett

Spouse's occupation & employer: Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Duke University

Years lived in Orange County: 36

Email: bmpelissier@gmail.com


1. What are the three most important issues facing Orange County? If elected, what are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?

The three top issues and priorities are economic development, infrastructure and county capital needs. All of these issues are interrelated.

Economic development has already been acknowledged by the BOCC to be a top priority. The 2008 recession brought home the recognition that our tax base is too dependent on residential property taxes. For example, this county has the highest per capita income in the state but is only 77th in per capita sales tax revenue. The current Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) knows that we cannot continue the long-standing tradition of raising property taxes almost every year. The dependence upon property taxes which rise continually makes it difficult to maintain a diverse community.

With the successful passage of the cent sales tax in 2011, we now have a revenue source other than property tax which allows us to invest in the infrastructure needed to spur economic development. The BOCC needs to ensure that we follow through on the economic development plans, which include additional revisions to the development ordinances for the Economic Development Districts (EDD'S) and for farm related businesses.

The second major issue is infrastructure and it comprises three components: water and sewer for economic development, transit, and solid waste. Water and sewer for economic development (more details are contained in my response to Question 6) is currently being addressed using funds from the cent sales tax. This priority only requires implementation of the plans in place.

Transit infrastructure, an issue discussed for many years, is now in the forefront with the transit referendum on the ballot this fall. Transit infrastructure is related to economic development and quality of place. Economic development experts and studies note that while incentives can be critical, business wants access to an educated workforce and a community with vital infrastructure including transit. The transit infrastructure is needed also to address air quality and traffic congestion. Fortunately, there is a transit referendum on the ballot this fall. If the public votes yes for this referendum, the county, along with its transit planning partners, will be able to implement a regional and local plan.

Solid waste is also on the forefront as the County waits for pending decisions by Chapel Hill (and possibly Carrboro) to go on its own. Solid waste, an essential service, has become more prominent since the County identified the landfill closing date in 2013 and with the Rogers Road Task Force assessing mitigation options for the Rogers Road community. While many members of the community, me included, wish to process our solid waste locally, it is not clear who will be involved and how this can be accomplished. A transfer station in Durham is not a viable or desirable long-term solution. The environmental effects of hauling waste a long-distance before processing or transferring to haul even further for processing is not acceptable. However, a local or regional processing facility may require a transfer station. Such a transfer station would need to be located near the center of solid waste generation, somewhere close to or within the jurisdiction of Chapel Hill or Carrboro.

Although many look to the BOCC for a solution, the reality is that a viable solution cannot be developed without the collaboration of all the municipalities and preferably also with UNC. The county does not generate a sufficient volume of solid waste to consider alternative technologies and at present Chapel Hill is considering on its own the construction of a transfer station.

I will continue to encourage collaboration between the county and the municipalities to identify a viable method of using waste as input for an energy product (I provide more information on addressing solid waste in response to question 4).

The third issue is capital needs. The first two issues are prominent in public awareness and discourse. However, this third issue is not. With the growing population, the need to build new schools continues. The recent emergency services report showed that we fall short of acceptable standards and the capital investment required could be up to 11 million dollars. We have committed to building a community center for Rogers Road and are considering water and sewer. We want to build a southern branch of the Orange County library system. We want to build a dental clinic at the Southern Human Services Center. We have areas of the county without parks and we have land bought for parks which are currently undeveloped. We need to build a new jail: the current jail is chronically over capacity. We are deconstructing the Northern Human Services Center and considering a replacement facility. The maintenance and renovation needs of the numerous older schools cannot continue to be deferred. The projections for capital needs in the next 5 years show us always on the borderline of 15% debt without including all of the needs listed above. In recent years, the Local Government Commission has become more restrictive in allowing counties to issue beyond the 15% limit. If the county attempts to exceed the 15% limit, it is possible that the Local Government Commission would not approve county borrowing.

The anticipated student population growth is based upon past growth figures. However, increasing densities in the municipalities may change the actual influx of students. The growth rate within the Orange County school district appears to be increasing more than in recent past. The county may need to build a school sooner than currently anticipated. This could make addressing other capital needs even more challenging and tip the balance we are currently striving for between the various community needs.

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 been elected to be chair of the BOCC for two years. The confidence of peers in my leadership was previously reflected in my selection as chair of OWASA, the Orange Chatham Sierra Club, and the Partnership to End Homelessness.

I received the 2011 Chair's Award for Public-Private Partnership by the Chapel Hill Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. This demonstrates my ability to work with varied constituents.

Before my election in 2008 I served on numerous boards and commissions which included environmental organizations - Sierra Club and Commission for the Environment, a public utility – OWASA – and planning efforts – Shaping Orange County Future Task Force, Special Transit Advisory Committee, Carolina North Leadership Advisory Council, and Orange County Planning Board. This provided me familiarity with a variety of issues in this community.

I also have experience working as a social scientist in a community mental health center as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This experience provided me insight into mental health, criminal justice and other social issues.

My management experience in the Federal Bureau of Prisons helps me understand county government operations and personnel policies.

As a member of the BOCC, I have served on various boards and commissions and make an effort to spread my responsibilities in various domains. I believe it is important to be familiar with a variety of topic areas as commissioners make decisions in various areas. I have served on the mental health board and the Triangle Area Rural Planning Organization. I currently serve on Triangle Transit Authority, the Partnership to End Homelessness, and Orange County Partnership for Young Children. I am liaison to the Master Aging Plan committee.

I voluntarily serve on NC Association of County Commissioners' Environmental Steering Committee and the Public Safety and Justice Committee and was recently selected to be vice-chair of latter committee.

I attend presentations and lectures – e.g., webinar on solid waste, conferences on water issues and biosolids, lectures on fracking – and attend state and national county commissioner conferences to learn about new ideas and how other counties address issues

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

As I stated when I ran in 2008, I define myself as a social progressive. I believe in the right to living wage, the right to breathe clean air and drink safe water, the right to health care, the right to equal treatment, the right to education.

I believe that Orange County government has a role in ensuring the greater good of the community. I want to ensure that we have a safety net for those who lose their job, cannot find employment, have medical emergencies, are disabled, etc.

My long-term leadership roles in the Orange Chatham Sierra Club group demonstrate my commitment to ensuring that all citizens have access to clean air and clean water. My activities as an OWASA board member showed my commitment to clean water and provision of water to the community. I supported purchase of land to protect water quality both as an OWASA board member and as a member of the BOCC.

In 2010, I successfully advocated to add monies to the proposed BOCC budget for child care subsidies and social services emergency assistance because of the effects of the recession on families. In 2011, I again advocated for increased funding in child care subsidies. In 2010 I supported the adoption of the county's Social Justice Goal, a goal adopted by few very counties across the country.

I feel that decisions should not be made in isolation. For example, focusing on funding schools without focusing on social services is not practical. Many at-risk children need social services in order to come to school ready to learn and benefit from the educational system.

Community involvement and diversity are fundamental to making good decisions. I want to hear the differing viewpoints. I want to ensure that our advisory board positions are filled with citizens with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

On the fiscal side, I believe that it is important to continually review how we organize and deliver services in order to deliver what is needed in current times and do so efficiently.

4. Provide a review of Orange County's trash decision. Are you satisfied with using Durham's transfer station to transport trash to Virginia? Why or why not? Has the county done enough to address concerns at Rogers Road? What else needs to happen?

The decision to bring Orange County's solid waste to the Durham transfer station was made at the very beginning of my term. At that time, the only option being discussed was a transfer station with criteria that focused upon land within the county's jurisdiction. After a number of months, it became clear that a transfer station at a distance from the centroid of trash generation (Chapel Hill) defeats the purpose of having a transfer station. A Durham transfer station also defeats the purpose of efficiently transporting solid waste. However, the county cannot site a transfer station within a municipality without the collaboration of a municipality.

The selection of the Durham transfer station is not and was not meant to be a long-term solution. Nonetheless, the decision was made not knowing what the long-term options are because there were no plans in place. The lack of a viable long-term plan results from the difficulty of identifying a proven technology other than a landfill which is also of a reasonable cost, especially considering the volume of solid waste in Orange County. Reports from an outside consultant and my participation in a recent webinar concluded that it may take another 10 years before we see a set of choices which counties/cities of our size can consider.

We now face many challenges in deciding how to formulate a reasonable approach to solid waste. With the pending 2013 landfill closure, Chapel Hill is concerned about the cost of transporting trash to Durham and has hired its own consultant to review their solid waste options. Will the county be able to partner with the municipalities and UNC to develop a long-term solution? How will each entity weigh its own costs in addressing solid waste? Can we find a technology which will allow UNC to reduce its use of coal by adopting a waste to energy technology?

I have been participating in informal informational sessions on alternative technologies and have attended other presentations reviewing the range of new technology. Senator Kinnaird has taken a lead on bringing some alternative technology to the county's attention. While some vendors claim to have a solution for our County, we have not yet undertaken an assessment by a neutral party. I will continue to actively seek long-term solutions.

There has been some discussion of Chapel Hill building a transfer station. If so, will Chapel Hill and the other municipalities work towards a shared solution in the future? Will Chapel Hill share its report on solid waste with the county?

One solid waste issue which deserves additional attention is further reduction of our waste stream? We have done an excellent job compared to other counties in recycling. How can we ensure recycling by all households? How can we address food waste recycling? One way to provide an incentive for households to decrease waste is to implement a pay-as-you-throw program. Such programs have been successfully implemented in other states. The county's upgrade of convenience centers will include additional recycling opportunities for items such as food waste and material. What can be done within the municipalities? I will continue to advocate for reduction of the waste stream.

Addressing the concerns of Rogers Road has been a long and emotionally charged process. Unfortunately, the Interlocal Agreement signed by the county and towns in 1999 did not specify a time frame within which the parties would agree upon a mitigation plan for the Rogers Road community. In the meantime, the county has provided water lines, established a no-fault well policy to address failing drinking water wells, and recently cleaned up illegal trash sites within the neighborhood. This mitigation is not sufficient. At a recent meeting the BOCC agreed in principle to fund the construction of a community center in the Rogers Road community and I wholeheartedly support this effort. With the recent vote by Carrboro to contribute monies to sewer, we are moving towards a collaborative arrangement between the towns and the county to provide sewer service. This would complete the provision of infrastructure to the community as compensation for the harms suffered for several decades.

One issue not being discussed, but mentioned in previous reports, concerns the division of the community: the community is within three jurisdictions: Carrboro, Chapel Hill and the county. Is there a way the municipalities and county could revisit the boundaries and land use plans to bring the community together?

5. Building off of the landfill debate, what's your view of the working relationship between the BOCC and Orange municipal governments? What's worked well? What hasn't? How will you change it, if needed?

Developing a working relationship with 4 municipalities is challenging because of the number of issues, some of which overlap across municipalities and some which do not. In response to feedback from the towns, the BOCC now holds a meeting every year with each municipality. This is in addition to a yearly Assembly of Governments (AOG) meeting where all municipalities and the county are present. The AOG bi-annual meetings were not sufficient to develop a relationship with each town since meetings were limited to items of interest to all the parties. In addition, AOG meetings are too large to have meaningful discussions. A yearly meeting with each municipality allows us to address issues specific to one particular municipality. This has improved our ability to work together on common goals and share information of mutual interest. The towns find these meetings useful. This strategy is also being used with the Fire Departments who previously had no direct communication with the commissioners. We now have a yearly meeting to learn about each other and discuss the challenges and achievements.

Many feel that increased communication will foster better relationships. Meetings alone, while necessary to increase the opportunity for communication, are not sufficient. Improved relationships also require mutual trust and respect and the ability to listen to differing points of view. Trust is difficult to achieve without some level of a personal relationship and understanding of each party's constraints and needs. Meetings, in and of themselves, are not always the venue in which trust is developed, especially when there are newly elected officials who have no history with another governing body. The responsibilities of municipalities differ greatly from those of the county. It is only through a mutual understanding of the role of each entity that productive problem-solving can occur. As we have recently done with the school board, I will advocate for other joint meetings to include a summary of budget constraints, service needs and service mandates of each entity.

Experiences with the two school boards are an example of how productive working relationships have developed. The chairs and co-chairs of all three boards, along with key management staff meet several times per year to discuss issues and provide recommendations to each respective board. During the difficult budgetary constraints of the past few years, the school boards understood the county's financial situation and obligations and all parties feel positive about the relationship. There is a mutual understanding and respect of need despite the fact that the county has not funded the entire request of the school boards.

While such a model could be productive with the towns, the challenge is the burden of time on staff and elected bodies. However, it is a model that has been successfully used for specific topics. For example, a small group of CH Town Council members and commissioners met to negotiate an agreement regarding county contributions to the Chapel Hill library. The negotiated agreement was adopted by both boards.

On a personal level, I have found it useful to meet one-on-one with elected members of each municipality over the past few years. One of the purposes of the intercity trips is to get to know others in the community and form partnerships. This relationship building does occur between elected officials during these trips and can be initiated among ourselves.

Another strategy that I have taken to build relationships is to meet several times a year with all the mayors to informally discuss issues of concern. This has helped me understand the perspectives of others without the pressures of a formal decision-making agenda.

I would like to consider the use of a mediator when there are issues of great contention.

To end, I want to say that a good relationship does not preclude tension and conflict on specific issues. Tensions between towns and counties are likely, especially when there are budget challenges of the kind experienced in the past few years. Towns are currently more likely to have expectations of receiving additional financial assistance from counties.

6. With Wal Mart's application to build a store in Chatham, Orange could have three major shopping centers—Wal Mart, Tanger Outlets and New Hope Commons—just across its borders. What, in your view, lead to this situation? Assess the county's work in the last two years on economic development and your priorities for the next four.

This situation is in large part a result of the lack of planning for economic development on the part of not only the county but also the towns in the past. It is also a reflection of water and sewer infrastructure and water and sewer boundary agreements. All the entities in the county did a good job of defining the town boundaries and where we want development, but this development was primarily residential. Tanger Outlets is a result of Orange County not having made provisions for water and sewer in the Buckhorn EDD which was designated for economic development several decades ago. Orange County is now developing this infrastructure. The Wal Mart in Chatham County is a result of the water and sewer service boundary agreement between the municipalities and the county and Chatham County taking advantage of the commuters from Chatham County to Chapel Hill.

Over the past few decades most of the development in the municipalities and the county focused on residential development. Most citizens did not want "business" in their backyard. Now, there is the recognition that this model is not financially sustainable.

The county has made great progress in the last two years. Placing the sales tax on the ballot (which was successful) and allocating half of the proceeds for economic development has allowed us to earmark funds for water and sewer, for increasing the revolving loan fund, for recruitment and location of businesses in the county, innovation centers and agricultural businesses. We recently reconstituted an Economic Development Advisory Board with expertise from various sectors. We have pre-zoned land in the Economic Development Districts to speed the approval process. We have negotiated an agreement with the City of Durham for water and sewer infrastructure in the Eno EDD on the eastern side of the county. We have negotiated with Mebane to provide water and sewer services after we build the infrastructure in the Buckhorn EDD. We have partnered with the town and university on a downtown incubator space. We are defining the types of businesses we wish to have in the EDD's.

We have been able to assist several new businesses through the expanded revolving loan fund. These businesses are diverse in nature. Skram Furniture Company, Mystery Brewing, and Isis Information Technology are a few examples.

In the next four years, we need to ensure that the water and sewer infrastructure is completed. Our economic development director is actively attempting to attract business – company from outside the county, an expansion of an existing Orange County business or a University spinoff - to the EDD's.

The county's role will be focused primarily on light industry because of the location of the EDD's and the lack of significant dedicated space to light industry around the municipalities. While some retail may be in the EDD's, most of the additional retail should be within the jurisdiction of the municipalities. There is much more space within the Hillsborough EDD and the municipality to add retail. Coordination of economic development efforts to identify the focus of each elected body will be beneficial to all parties. I would like to see a comprehensive assessment by all governing bodies in the county to identify the locations for retail expansion and the type of retail most suitable for each location.

Following the general guidelines of the resolution passed by the BOCC in 2011 regarding the sales tax expenditures is my commitment. In addition to water and sewer infrastructure, I want to continue increasing the revolving loan fund, support agricultural economic development, provide business incentives, and work towards an economic development commission which is a public/private partnership. The latter effort could leverage private investment for economic development. I support continuing and expanding the collaboration with Durham Tech for workforce training programs tailored to the businesses in Orange County.

7. What's your stance on regional transit and specifically the half-cent regional rail tax? What should a long-range transit plan include for Orange? What should it not include?

I have been a strong advocate of regional transit since my involvement on the Special Transit Advisory Committee before my election to the BOCC. I wholeheartedly support the half cent sales tax and am actively working with the grassroots campaign committee to inform the public about the transit plan and in obtaining endorsements from community organizations.

A long-range transit plan should include: a sustainable financial model for the transit system, service to both urban and rural residents, seamless service in order that citizens are not hindered by county and city boundaries, accountability to the public for use of funds, public and service provider (e.g. social services, aging services, etc.) involvement in modifications to the plan. With the "silver tsunami" occurring nationwide, we need to plan for transit services for the 65+ population. The plan should also address environmental issues and access to transit for those without vehicles, low income individuals, and those unable to drive. Lastly, a long-range transit plan requires continual review to ensure efficient and effective use of monies and responsiveness to changing conditions.

8. Candidates can choose to run either at-large or in the district in which he or she resides. Explain your decision. Do you see district representatives serving different interests than at-large commissioners? Name two issues specific to your district and your plans to address them.

In 2008 I chose to run for an at-large seat. Regardless of whether a commissioner runs at large or in a district, all commissioners must take into account all citizens and all areas of the county when making decisions. It is important to have rural and urban perspectives to facilitate the BOCC making decisions which are in the best interest of the county as a whole. I lived for many years in Chapel Hill and have lived in rural Orange for over a decade. Living in rural Orange has changed my perspectives and has allowed me to better understand both rural and urban needs.

9. The Independent's mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

I have demonstrated by commitment to social issues. I have been chair of the Partnership to End Homelessness for two years and we have greatly increased the number of community volunteers to help prevent homelessness and assist the homeless. I serve on the NC Association of County Commissioners Public Safety and Justice Committee and will work to identify how those with mental health problems access the care needed to prevent their imprisonment.

I will complete the work on mitigation for the Rogers Road community. I support affordable housing efforts and the county's policy on providing a living wage to all employees. I will work to consider policies that help ensure the ability of individuals of lower and moderate income levels to remain in our community. I am committed to lobbying the NC General Assembly to change the Homestead exemption limits. I support working with the municipalities on policies which increase the stock of affordable housing.

Historically, there has been a tension between the rural and urban citizens of Orange County. It is my duty as a commissioner to ensure that we are fair to both groups in the allocation of services and resources.

10. Identify a principled stand you would be willing to take if elected, even if it cost you popularity points with voters.

A principled stand should always be the default in decision-making. Our role is to make decisions we believe achieve the greater good for the community using the best available information and weighing the opinions offered by staff and citizens. If we make decisions that are not based on principles and only in reaction to opposition or popularity, we risk making bad decisions for the long-term.

If I were to make a decision that I knew were to be implemented which would benefit the community as a whole in the future, I would have no regret if I were not re-elected. Public opposition in the present is not always opposition in the future.

Taking a principled stand is most tested when there are issues to which citizens are likely to express opposition and for which there is much emotion. Solid waste is an issue which inevitably elicits emotionally charged reactions. I would be willing to site a solid waste facility in this county where we process our own solid waste if I were presented with: a) a technologically feasible and reasonably priced option b) a location with minimal impact on neighbors and, c) a mitigation plan developed in collaboration with neighbors prior to building the facility.

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