Bernadette Pelissier | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

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Bernadette Pelissier

Candidate for Orange Board of County Commissioners


Name as it appears on the ballot: Bernadette Pelissier
Date of birth: 10/18/1950
Campaign website:
Occupation & employer: retired social science researcher
Years lived in Orange County: approximately 30 years (+2 years in Chatham County)

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 most important issues facing Orange County are growth, economic development and schools.

  1. Growth puts pressure on land use, housing, service infrastructure and transportation infrastructure – my priorities will be to:
    • develop long-range plans to ensure that land use and development remains within the limits of our water resources.
    • support the forthcoming Special Transit Advisory Committee recommendations for a regional transit system including financial support. Transit addresses both air quality which is crucial to our physical health and traffic congestion, crucial to ensuring quality of life.
    • work toward augmenting affordable housing for all income levels including affordability of purchasing/renting and affordability of home maintenance through energy and water efficiency.

  2. Economic development. Our County is more dependent than other counties in N.C. on the ad valorem tax: it represents approximately 70% of our tax revenue. In addition, of all the Orange County expenditures, more than half is spent outside of Orange County, thereby making us one of the counties with the lowest sales tax revenue per capita. I will promote economic policies that encourage the creation of locally owned and run businesses, which reinvest their profits locally, purchase supplies and services locally. I will advocate for a campaign to educate residents about the need to purchase within the County and encourage increased within-County purchases

  3. An appropriate education for every child in this community is vital to ensuring that our future adult citizens have the skills to become fully functioning and productive citizens. I will work to ensure that both the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems receive the funding required to provide the necessary education programs, even in the face of tight budgets. This will also include advocating for mental health programs for pre-school and school aged children to help ensure academic success for all children.

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.

Leadership with vision. In my community service work and in my professional career as a social scientist, I have often been selected to be the leader of a group. I was selected to be chair of the Orange Chatham Sierra Club group for multiple terms and I was elected chair of the OWASA board. I became project director of the largest multi-site evaluation in the Federal Prison system. I was elected president of the Toastmasters group at the Federal Prison.

My leadership incorporates being proactive. I anticipate future needs and propose solutions. For example, during my tenure on the OWASA board, along with a fellow board member, I petitioned for OWASA to develop a long-term water conservation plan. This plan was subsequently developed and some of the components will soon be implemented. An effective County Commissioner who is a leader will assess the issues facing the county and provide direction and ideas for how to best accomplish the goals shared by county citizens.

Experience with budgets and capital improvement plans. As a member of the OWASA board I have experience in overseeing budgets, both operational budgets and long-range capital improvement budgets. In my professional career I was director of a multi-site multi-million dollar project with staff located at various sites throughout the country.

Experience with County issues. For the last 16 or more years, I have been appointed to numerous boards and involved in community organizations. Previous involvement includes: Orange Chatham Sierra Club, OWASA, Shaping Orange County Future Task Force, Carolina North Leadership Advisory Council, and Community Leadership Collaboration. Current board appointments include: Orange County Planning Board, Orange County Commission for the Environment and Special Transit Advisory Committee. Through participation in these various boards I have become familiar with the wide range of issues, environmental, economic and social, throughout this County and the region.

Ability to work with others. I have demonstrated the ability to work with and engage individuals of differing interests who might otherwise feel threatened or have strong opposition. These are skills that I will use as a County Commissioner faced with conflicting public demands and where some citizens may feel their concerns are not heard.

I have demonstrated my ability to work with others on the various boards of which I have been a member, particularly in my capacity as OWASA board chair and as a member of the Orange County Planning Board. I am known to listen to others of differing viewpoints and to make suggestions to address concerns.

In my professional work conducting evaluations of mental health treatment programs in the community and in federal prison, I worked with treatment providers and program managers who had no experience with program evaluation. I reached out to program administrators and staff to solicit their input during the design phase and discussed with them the results before they were published. I was able to alleviate the fears and gain respect of staff who felt threatened by the program evaluations.

Integrity and fairness. I have demonstrated moral integrity and principles of fairness. While a graduate student at UNC, I had the courage to go to administrative staff to address an issue about a professor who made students work more hours than required by the assistantships. My action resulted in a fair distribution of workload. In my capacity as a researcher, I had the courage to bring up an issue of improper procedure in contracting for services. I faced negative reactions from managers and the contractor, but the issue was subsequently resolved using proper procedures. Citizens must be assured that County Commissioners are persons who operate from integrity in decision-making and are not afraid to confront wrongdoing.

Decision-making in a complex environment. The pressures on the economic, social and environmental domains of our lives are mounting with the growth in the Triangle Region. The issues are complex and interrelated.

My experience on the Planning Board and OWASA demonstrate my ability to make decisions of a complex nature. In addition, my skills as a social science researcher directing a national multi-site multi-year evaluation demonstrate my ability to successfully deal with complex issues. Colleagues shared with me that many individuals who could have collaborated in this multi-site evaluation refrained from doing so because they thought the project was too difficult and complex.

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

I define myself as a social progressive. Progressives believe in certain rights such as the right to health care, the right to a living wage, the right to breathe clean air, etc. Progressives believe in a balance between individual responsibility and the government, civil rights, equality, and sustainable development.

The following actions are some illustrations of my political philosophy:

In my years as chair of the Orange Chatham Sierra Club, I advocated for involvement in County issues and Chatham County issues. Prior to that, the group had been involved primarily in Chapel Hill issues.

As a member of the NC Sierra Club Chapter Political Committee, I worked on endorsements in rural parts of the state where there were no active Sierra Club groups to fulfill this task.

While serving on OWASA, we assessed the impact of changes in rate structure on lower income families to make sure rates do not negatively impact these families.

As a member of a subcommittee of the Planning Board on community building, I am advocating for adding community building as an element to the Comprehensive Plan. This is important to ensure equal voices for all community members to foster a greater sense of community among all citizens.

As an OWASA board member, I advocated for very high water use surcharges during a drought (surcharges now in effect) to help equalize access to water for essential needs by all citizens, regardless of income.

In my current campaign platform I advocate: a livable wage; equality in access to good education; wise use of our natural resources; leadership in energy efficiency to address effects of climate change; affordable housing for all income levels; increasing the ease of citizen access to local government

4. Approximately how many BOCC meetings have you attended in the past two years?

Eight meetings – public hearings – for Planning Board issues, schools budget hearings and waste transfer station siting. Budget work sessions.

5. Orange County is in the almost unique position of allocating funding to two separate school districts, which together account for approximately 50 percent of the County’s budget. To make matters more complex, commissioners must balance the per-pupil allocation with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools’ district tax. How do you balance the needs of these two school systems while ensuring equity between them, at the same time considering the County’s other pressing financial needs?

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools’ district tax creates a situation where there is, overall, unequal per capita expenditure. While this inherently violates the principles of farness and justice, the fundamental issue is whether the programs in the two schools are equal in meeting the needs of the students in both schools systems and whether there is equal opportunity in accessing good education. I will work to ensure that the funding mechanism for the two schools ensures that all students in Orange County have equal access to educational programs which meet their needs. Spending for quality education is important, even in times of financial pressures. Good education is vital to preparing individuals to participate in the workforce. When individuals are not prepared, research suggests that we will expend increasing amounts of taxpayer monies in the future on various social services and incarceration for those who are not successful in the school environment.

The commissioners are required by law to provide equal per capita funding to the two school systems. However, the funding becomes imbalanced when factoring in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro school district tax: The Orange County school system spends less per capita than the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. The per capita difference was approximately $900 in the 2006-2007 school. Even when adding in federal and state monies the difference was $500.

Recent reports indicate that 22 percent of the children in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools on free and reduced lunch as compared with approximately 33 percent in the Orange County schools. To what extent does unequal per capita spending effect the access of the students in the Orange County schools to the necessary programs they need to successfully learn? Does the lower per capita spending in a school system with a great percentage of economically disadvantaged children affect successful learning in the Orange County school population? The 2005 Grumet report on educational resources in Orange County showed that school performance was equal in both school systems during the elementary school years. However, during the middle school years, academic performance diverged: it was lower among the Orange County school students

I will advocate for the creation of a workgroup to assess how the current funding of the two different schools systems, particularly with the special district tax, may hinder the ability of the Orange County schools to offer educational programs which are equal to those in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools in meeting the needs of the students.

Following this will be an assessment of how to structure the budgeting process to ensure that the needs of all students are met. The result might be the development of a long-range plan to phase out the special district tax while ensuring that the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school funding does not decrease. Reducing the importance of the special district tax in funding the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, may also reduce the tension between residents in the two systems.

This plan will need to take into consideration complications of the budget process which are a product of the current funding system. For example, in order to help equalize services, the County now provides social workers to the Orange County schools from the human services budget. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, in contrast, reflect these services directly in their operational budget and per capita expenditures. The County is taking some steps towards equitable funding but in a manner which is not transparent in the school budgets and figures on per capita spending.

I have faith that our citizens have a sense of fairness and support good education for all its citizens. They will support needed changes if it is clear that the changes will improve academic success, reduce drop-out rates, close the gap in achievement by minorities, and better prepare all students for the workplace and to be productive citizens.

6. The Orange County Board of Education recently decided to address an imbalance of economic diversity between two elementary schools—Central Elementary and Hillsborough Elementary—by setting a cap on the number of students from a given attendance zone who can be enrolled in HES. Furthermore, the board chose to use federal Title One School Improvement money (available to the district because neither CES nor Efland-Cheeks Elementary made Adequate Yearly Progress in math last year) on pre-K programs. Both decisions have proven controversial. Do you agree with the board’s actions? What role does the BOCC have in overseeing these types of budgetary actions on the part of the school board?

The BOCC does not have the legal authority to direct how the Orange County Schools (OCS) Board of Education decides how to allocate students or expend monies. The BOCC can intervene if there is evidence of discrimination or illegal behavior. There does not appear to be evidence of discrimination or illegal behavior. The Board of Education has flexibility granted by the Federal Government in how Title I monies are used. The actions of the OCS Board of Education are within the federal guidelines. I therefore offer only my personal opinion on the Board of Education actions. I personally agree with both of the decisions of the Board of Education.

I think it took courage for the school board members to take the decision which plans for an orderly progression to a more balanced socioeconomic distribution between the two elementary schools by placing attendance zone caps for HES. There was much public outcry about the original plan to merge the two schools. The decision is a reasonable alternative which will, over time, lead to a greater socioeconomic balance in the student population between the two schools.

Research indicates that students do not learn or perform as well when more than half come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. However, research also shows that students from higher income families do not have decreased performance when placed in a school where less than half are economically disadvantaged. In other words, diversity actually helps all students learn. For this reason, other school districts set a cap of 40 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged.

Furthermore, the Orange County School Board took care to minimize the transition pains for parents who already have a child enrolled at Hillsborough Elementary. The decision was to cap the percentage of students from each elementary school district attending Hillsborough Elementary to 20 percent (subject to change if there is a good socioeconomic balance in the future). However, the Board voted to exempt children who are entering grades three through five.

According to N.C. Department of Public Instruction data for the 2006-2007 school year, the average percentage of children classified as “free and reduced lunch” was 32 percent in the Orange County schools. The school with the highest percentage was Central Elementary at almost 53 percent. In contrast, the percentage at Hillsborough Elementary was almost 15 percent, the lowest of all the schools except Cedar Ridge High School. I have not been able to find historical data on the percentage of economically disadvantaged children before the creation of the year round school at Hillsborough elementary. However, Orange County school board members have told me that there was a better socioeconomic balance before the creation of the year round school in the late 1990’s. It appears that the socioeconomic imbalance was an unintended result of the Hillsborough Elementary year-round program. Apparently, some members of the school board and the community felt that a year-round school would benefit the children from lower-income and minority families. However, there was little transportation available for those initially enrolled, thus making it impractical for lower income parents who do not have the means to drive their children at a distance to attend such a school.

Regarding the expenditure of Title 1 monies, one must consider that both Central Elementary and Efland-Cheeks schools recently went into school improvement status. Both of these schools have more than 50 percent of their students who are economically disadvantaged. There is concern that the affluent families would continue to opt out of those two schools, leaving those schools in worse shape for the remaining students, mostly economically disadvantaged. In order to improve the performance at these schools and help stop the outflow of affluent children, I think it is reasonable that the Board direct the Title 1 monies on pre-kindergarten programs. Research shows that such programs do indeed help at-risk children. The successful education of all children depends on maintaining a socioeconomic balance as well as providing additional resources to the economically disadvantaged.

7. The BOCC voted to put the land transfer tax on the ballot this spring. Do you personally support the land transfer tax as a revenue option for the County? Please explain why or why not.

Ideally, I would prefer that other revenue options were available. I personally support the land transfer tax because the county has critically important capital needs, particularly for schools, but limited options for funding them.

My rationale for supporting the land transfer tax takes into account the budget context within which the Commissioners decided to put the land transfer tax option on the ballot. As per a recent County Commissioner budget work session, Orange County is now at its self-imposed maximum debt capacity. At present, the County cannot issue any more bonds. Yet the County has infrastructure needs for new schools and parks. The County is obliged to build schools for incoming students to meet the requirements of the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances (SAPFO). The Commissioners passed a resolution pledging that the monies (in the first years) from a land transfer tax would be used to fund already identified capital projects related to SAPFO and to County parks. None of these capital needs are for new projects.

The options available to counties for raising revenues are very limited. Last year the NC legislature provided counties with two new revenue options: levying a sales tax of a quarter cent or a land transfer tax of .4 percent. The Commissioners placed only the land transfer tax option on the May 2000 ballot, so the primary discussion should be about the advantages of this tax as compared to not levying a land transfer tax.

If the land transfer tax is voted down in May (and the sales tax revenue option is not placed on a subsequent ballot), we will be left with only one option for raising the needed revenues in the short-term: increasing property taxes. I prefer a land transfer tax because the burden to current homeowners will not increase as much as it would without the land transfer tax. A land transfer tax occurs only upon sale of a property, including vacant land. In general, homes values in Orange County have increased substantially over the last years: Between 1999 and 2006, homes increased on average 60 percent in value. Therefore, a land transfer tax is, with certain exceptions for quick turn-around time between time of purchase and time of sale, a tax on profit made. This seems less regressive than having all homeowners pay increased property taxes, some of whom are barely making ends meet during these difficult economic times. The only lower income individuals who currently have a reduction in property taxes are those who are over 64 years of age. Relative to increased property tax, the land transfer tax could perhaps allow a greater number of lower income households to stay in their home.

The Commissioners voted to put the land transfer tax on the ballot as opposed to the sales tax revenue option. It was estimated that the land transfer tax would bring in more revenue than a sales tax. Given the current economic climate, it is possible that land transfer tax would not bring in as much revenue as originally anticipated. However, this is likely to occur only for the short-term. This is a very desirable community in which to live, in large part because of the quality of schools and quality of life. By keeping up with school and park capital needs of the community, we will continue to be an attractive community and housing values are less likely to decrease in value.

In considering the land transfer tax it is crucial to keep in mind that the tax will not penalize individuals who make gifts of real estate or individuals who inherit real estate. If a family or farmer deeds the property to a family member, there will be no land transfer tax.

8. The drought has raised awareness of the limited natural resources our region’s population relies on. Do you think Orange County has done a good job managing its water supply and encouraging conservation? What steps would you take as commissioner to manage the drought situation?

Management of water resources promises to be an increasingly important issue, not only locally but state-wide. It is of vital importance for the county to have strong policies in support of efficient and wise use of water, in support of protecting water quality and in support of water conservation. The county has done an excellent job of protecting water quality and has been working on water management and water conservation.

As commissioner, I will take steps to support the work of the soon-to-be hired water resources specialist. I will ask that, using available information and other information to be obtained, the County examine our land use zoning. I will advocate for long-term land use patterns that recognize the limits of our water resources and for orderly development that does not pose a water resource risk to existing homes, businesses and farms. I will also advocate for implementing water conservation measures similar to ones being considered by OWASA and the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. I propose that new construction be permitted on condition of installation of ultra efficient plumbing, design of water efficient landscaping, and good design of water recharge areas. I will work to ensure that the County assesses the impacts of drought conditions on its water resources.

The water supply that is directly managed by Orange County does not include surface water reservoirs and utilities such as OWASA, although Orange County does appoint two representatives to the OWASA board of directors. The County’s management of water supply and conservation measures pertains primarily to ground-water resources and the County’s land use plan.

The County has been taking steps to collect information vital to good management of water resources. In 1992, a Water Resources Committee was formed to address issues of ground-water resources. This involved projects in collaboration with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to study the County’s ground water. When the committee issued its report in 2001 ground-water contamination (radon), drought and ground-water availability were identified as the most pressing issues.

Although the USGS studies can provide some indication of the carrying capacity of the land in Orange County’s jurisdiction, the fragmented rock nature makes the science less than precise. Both Commission for the Environment and Planning Board members have expressed interest in the County’s ability to plan for future growth within the available water resources. The major step to help advance this goal is currently underway with the hiring of a water resources specialist. This new position will be tasked to provide advice to the Advisory Board and the Commissioners regarding water resources and will work on developing an integrated water management plan for the County’s surface and groundwater. I think this demonstrates that the County, like OWASA, is proactively planning for the future.

Several years ago, the County presented a draft of a revised Land Use Plan which had as one option to downzone certain or all areas in the County’s jurisdiction. The major rationale for such a revision was related to ground-water resources. This was not pursued because the Board of Commissioners asked that the entire Comprehensive Plan be updated, not just the Land Use element. This action, although, not pursued at the time, does demonstrate the County’s interest in managing its groundwater resources. I believe that the County will continue to work on ensuring that development does not exceed the carrying capacity of its water resources.

Regarding conservation, the County was not proactive during the 2001-2002 drought. However, the County has more recently taken action to promote water conservation. Last summer, a committee called H2 Orange was formed and has now sponsored several workshops for citizens. These workshops provided information on why well water users need to conserve water and outlined water conservation measures. In addition, the County will likely consider new policies to encourage water efficiency in new development in its implementation of the revised Comprehensive Plan.

9. Commissioners will soon consider the proposal for Buckhorn Village shopping center, which calls for more than a million square feet of retail, hotel and other development near the intersection of I-85 and I-40. What are your thoughts on the potential economic and environmental impact of this proposal? How should the board weigh these concerns?

Unfortunately, I cannot directly answer this question because of my role on the Orange County Planning Board. If I take a specific position before all the evidence is heard and the Planning Board has deliberated, I am prejudicing my position and would have to recuse myself from voting on a special use permit. I take my obligations as an Orange County Planning Board member seriously and want to participate in this process.

I will, however, share my goals for the Economic Development Districts (EDD’s):

  1. create jobs that will provide good wages. The poverty rate in Orange County is almost 13 percent and we should target creation of jobs to help reduce poverty among working age adults
  2. encourage the creation of locally owned and run businesses. Such businesses will reinvest their profits locally, purchase supplies and services locally, and also be more involved in community endeavors. This will keep more money in the local economy and help increase the non-residential tax base.
  3. encourage light industry in the environmental sector and therefore helps mitigate the effects of global climate change
  4. encourage commercial and industrial development built in an>environmentally friendly manner with the smallest possible carbon footprint (e.g., energy efficient, water efficient, etc.).

There are three major EDD’s and each comprises more than 500 acres. The Buckhorn/I-85/I-40 has even more acreage with a total of more than 2,000 acres. These districts were established to provide locations for a wide range of light industrial, distribution, flex space, office and service or retail uses. These districts have not yet been developed although they were identified in the 1990’s. I believe that it is important to Orange County’s economic vitality to develop a strategy for creating viable economic development in these districts.

In developing these districts I think it is important for the County to encourage the type of industry and commercial activity which is best suited to the economic needs of the county and the locations. Given that the County is now undergoing a revision of its Comprehensive Plan, this is an opportunity for the County to revise its criteria for EDD’s to ensure that the development in these EDD’s meets the multiple goals of an integrated comprehensive plan. Economic development should also adhere to principles of environmental sustainability and social equity.

10. Orange County’s landfill is full, and the county must now decide where additional trash should go and where to put a waste-transfer station. Some citizens have raised concerns over environmental justice, saying the historically African-American Rogers Road community has already borne too much of the county’s waste and should not be considered as a waste-transfer site. What should the county do about this problem?

I feel that some of the concerns of the Historic Rogers Road residents go beyond environmental justice and involve social justice issues faced by all lower income neighborhoods. These are issues that the County should proactively address throughout the county.

I think the County took a positive step in reopening up the search for a transfer station and developing a list of criteria to be used in assessing all potential sites. It is important to take into account environmental justice issues for all potential sites. Although I am not an expert on transfer stations, I wonder about the need to find a 25 acre site. I looked up the transfer site in Greensboro (with a larger population) and they have a 9.4 acre site. I hope the size does not create too many constraints in identifying suitable locations.

I believe that all major facilities for the towns and or county should involve neighborhood input, especially if mitigation is required. Mitigation should be part of the discussion as soon as a site is selected. Given the history of the Historic Rogers Road area and negative feelings and mistrust of Rogers Road residents, I hope that the County Commissioners give greater weight to the community specific criteria for Rogers Road. For example, if three suitable sites are found and the Rogers Road site scores higher than the others, I would select one of the others.

There are two efforts (one temporarily stalled because of a pending lawsuit) underway focused on the Rogers Road neighborhood: the Historic Rogers Road Community Enhancement Plan and Monitoring Task Force, an Orange County effort, and the town of Chapel Hill’s Rogers Road Small Area Plan Task Force. Both of these efforts have the potential to enhance the life of the Rogers Road residents and are efforts that will help revitalization of the neighborhood. Hopefully, these efforts will reestablish trust among the Historic Rogers Road residents.

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

It is my responsibility as a county commissioner to make sure that every voice is heard. I will be an advocate for low-income households, working people, and those at risk from either environmental degradation and large scale development which decreases quality of life. I want to ensure that those who cannot send paid advocates to the Board of Commissioners are represented. I will work to engage those who struggle with jobs and family and less able to make their views known.

I want economic development which puts people first. I want economic development which focuses on supporting the entrepreneurs and family farms of Orange County, which supports the residents with quality jobs that offer good wages and which provides new opportunities for training. I want clean air and clean water for all our citizens and access for all to educational, social and health services that meet their needs. I want access to nature and recreation for all.

These values will guide my work and decisions as an Orange County Commissioner.

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

I would be willing to vote for a down-zoning of one or more watersheds in the County. I realize that some landowners would be upset because they would feel that their property is less valuable with down zoning.

I would vote for down zoning if reasonable scientific studies of groundwater recharge indicated the need to do so in order to adequately and reliably provide water to current citizens and businesses in the future.

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