Campaign Website: www.jamezettaforcommissioner.org
Phone number: 919-360-9498
Years lived in Orange County: 23+ years
1. What are the three most important issues facing Orange County? If elected, how would you address those issues? Please be specific.
Without public input (tsk), the Commissioners set priorities at their retreat on January 29 for the 2016-17 budget: funding an aggressive social agenda addressing poverty, economic development and expanding pre-K (education), which I support.
My priorities are as follows:
1. Long range fiscal planning to achieve the progressive goals adopted by the
2. Fund excellent public schools for both school districts.
3. Diversify our tax base with green commercial development to pay for these services and schools.
We need to enact policies to recruit and retain businesses to diversify our tax base, increase revenue, be less reliant on residential property taxes, to pay for progressive initiatives, and to create jobs for our residents. Good projects include positions for technical workers. Our lower income residents need these jobs and could be trained at the Durham Tech campus in Orange County. Jobs and education are the best remedy to poverty.
The county’s designated three economic development districts have taken far too long to actually develop. Much of the delay has been the lack of water and sewer lines into the development districts. Four million has been committed to the Buckhorn EDD phase 1 for a backbone water and sewer utility line and $4.9 million for phase 2 was approved by the Commissioners on Feb 2. I support this investment. We are decades behind our neighboring counties. The county receives numerous inquiries, but we need to have the infrastructure including broadband in place for these zones to attract business. Yes, the cost of water access for Durham/Eno EDD has more than tripled, but it will only continue to increase. In fact, we need to identify the next three locations. Our reputation has to change from business adverse to welcoming sustainable business. And, we could use the rural buffer to support biking commerce. The county can also partner with the towns and UNC for economic development. It is not all about the EDDs.
Nearly half of the county budget is appropriated for education. I have extensive knowledge about both public education and budgeting that will assist the Board of County Commissioners in long term fiscal planning to ensure the health of our residents, education system, economy and environment now and in the future. The $120 Million bond proposal to repair older school facilities and add the wing at Cedar Ridge High is a small step toward meeting the need. We must develop a plan for the next twenty or more years to address the school facility needs. One specific measure is to examine the 2005 arbitrary decision to fund pay as you go maintenance funds on a 60:40 split, where 60% of the funds go to the two school systems and 40% go to county facilities. We need to develop criteria such as square footage, # of people/students who use the facility daily, age and related cost of maintenance, etc. to use to make this funding decision. And, we need to consider more broadly if the revenue streams are insufficient and more dollars need to be appropriated for this purpose. We also must act to recruit and retain teachers, certified staff and noncertified staff, due to the policies and cuts by the General Assembly. For the first time in recent memory, this August, there were five elementary vacant classroom teaching positions in CHCCS that could not be filled. Some fifth grade classes are at 32 students. In particular, neighboring Wake Co school board and commissioners are partnering to increase pay. Orange County commissioners need to collaborate with the two school districts to help increase pay acknowledging we do not have the tax base to match Wake. Now that the state Teaching Fellows program has been eliminated by the General Assembly, the county needs to develop our own similar program to fund undergraduate tuition for our local students who would in turn then work for one of our school districts for five years after graduation. Grow our own. And it was very interesting to watch the commissioners at their retreat agree to funding expansion of pre-K services to at-risk students. Three years ago the two school districts brought a pre-K resolution to the BOCC and they only approved half of the resolution. I pledge to support funding of evidence-based programming such as pre-school to help close the achievement gap.
Given the cuts by the general assembly we must change how we budget and prioritize needs from wants. In order to have a strong social services safety net, to reduce poverty, to have senior centers and services, libraries, parks and recreation, we need more revenue and to review the budget closely. We need to improve the process. A one year window for budgeting priorities is too short; more can be accomplished with flexible long term strategic planning. Public input and collaboration with other governmental agencies and nonprofits are essential and I would advocate for improving this entire process and to be sure the voices of all are heard.
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 served 3 terms (12 years) on the Chapel Hill/Carrboro City School Board; 3 years as Chair and 3 years as Vice-Chair. I understand the needs of both school districts, which is important to our constituents. (I also taught math for two years and was a CHCCS substitute teacher for 5 years.) At present, approximately 48.1% of the Orange County general fund revenue goes towards the school districts’ budgets. I have demonstrated leadership and collaboration as a dedicated, open minded, prepared board member. The chair and vice chair of each school board and the county commission meet every couple of months in a “collaboration” meeting to discuss budgets and issues. For example, county school construction standards were initiated in the collaboration meeting. SAPFO review was another recent discussion. The school boards have tried to raise the 60:40 capital maintenance issue here too. The school bond for older facilities was first explored in this group, along with questioning the legality/equity of funding sheriff’s officers for the Orange County School System outside of the per pupil allocation. It is a slow process, but as a school board leader, I succeeded by working with the other leaders to move many of these initiatives and others forward for approval by the BOCC. I would bring this experience and background to the other side of the table as a commissioner.
I am a Certified Public Accountant practicing in Chapel Hill, Orange County with experience in budgeting, forecasting, cash flow analysis and financial planning. We need long-term fiscal planning to ensure the health of our residents, education system, economy and environment now and in the future. I have over 10 years of experience working with local small businesses, non-profits and individuals. I understand audits (having worked on several), the ever-changing tax code and governmental accounting, all of which will help with policy decision-making and anticipating the real impacts on people in our community. During this recession, the commissioners have carefully limited tax increases. The county needs to diversify the tax base from an over-reliance on residential real estate to smart economic development that creates jobs and does not harm the environment. This is essential so that we can pay for the services we need and the quality of life we desire. The county budget needs to prioritize the goals and needs of the residents, using input from residents and comprehensive strategic planning.
As the mother of a daughter with special needs, I am a committed supporter of social services and those with disabilities. Through this lens, I have advocated for all children in our schools. I live with the scarcity of mental health services, residential services, affordable housing, and jobs for people with disabilities such as my daughter. I was a long time member of the local unit of the autism society and was President for a term as well. Our group, led by my husband at that time, presented a paper to the CHCCS board of education on appropriate inclusion that became the foundation for the district. Several years later, when I served as President, our group presented another paper on improving middle school services for students with autism. The autism spectrum is wide and we effectively included the recommendations of parents with very high functioning children along with the views of parents with children with lower functioning levels. This was challenging, but we focused on the children and compromised for the greater good. I was proud to be a part of the group. I would bring this same advocacy, collaboration and transparency to the BOCC to benefit all people (not only the disabled).
3. How do you define yourself politically, and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?
I am a progressive Democrat who values public education, environmental activism and strong county services while simultaneously insisting on fiscal responsibility. My priorities are long term fiscal planning and smart economic development to sustain and improve our schools, social services, and environment. Let me give you an early example. During my first term as Chair of the CHCCS Board of Ed, we requested additional funding from the BOCC for a mental health day treatment program for high school students called Bridges. Val Foushee was Chair of the BOCC at the time when I made the speech with the request which was then granted. This August that program was moved from CHHS to join Phoenix Academy High School. Students in both programs now have the clinical mental health services from Bridges and guidance counselor and principal support from Phoenix. Not all students can be successful at a large comprehensive high school. We must offer a spectrum of options and services to meet students’ academic, social and emotional needs. Similarly, the county needs to provide a spectrum of options and services to meet other varying needs. I am committed to the value of every person, to listening to all of our residents, to studying the issues, to learning from our county professionals and to collaboration within Orange County and regionally.
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?
As the mother of an adult daughter with autism, intellectual disability and mental illness co-morbidity, I am very familiar with the lack of social services and safety net for people with disabilities and their families. This same scarcity exists for residents across the county who need access to housing, mental health services, food, child care, senior care and services, health and dental care, etc. These services benefit children and adults so they have better, healthier lives. As the commissioners heard in the recent bond public hearings, affordable housing helps all ages including school children. Senior services need expansion. I am a strong supporter of residents, nonprofits, universities and government partnering together to meet these needs. At the annual county Human Relations Commissioner Forum held January 31, panelists discussed the growing disabilities minority and urged the audience to elect officials who “get it,” “who are sympathetic.” I am more than sympathetic. I am your strongest candidate for relating to and understanding disability, discrimination, the need for social services and education, and the one who will sincerely advocate for those who cannot.
The county is taking a proactive approach with criminal justice by hiring the county’s first criminal justice resource manager. Despite funding cuts from the state, the county is spending local funds to prevent higher expense later and to improve outcomes for citizens.
Most people would not include parks and recreation under the umbrella of a “just” community, but I do. Community centers similarly provide a place for these services to happen. Transportation is another critical element to enable residents to access services and jobs. Social services and resources available to all residents enrich our lives and make us a just community. We must support those most in need and provide opportunities for all of us to flourish.
Specifically, I would like to help the BOCC accomplish the following for a just community:
- Improve the budgeting process and forecasting by engaging in longer term fiscal planning for both the current expense and capital improvements budgets.
- Target resources to close the academic achievement gap with adequate funding for our schools and a focus on the whole child beginning at pre-conception as seen with the Family Success Alliance.
- Increase public input: The BOCC met in retreat on Friday Jan 29 to revise their goals and set one-year priorities without soliciting any public input. This process needs to be improved. A one year window is too short to accomplish anything and public input and collaboration with other governmental agencies and nonprofits is essential.
- Develop a plan for affordable and workforce housing in collaboration with UNC and local municipalities. Convenient, affordable public transportation needs to be included in this plan.
- Champion mental health services for all ages and residents, but especially in our schools, for the homeless and at the jail.
- Analyze the CIP to develop a plan for our senior centers, social services, parks and school facilities to include integration with our other county facilities’ needs. Also determine an equitable plan for funding libraries and complete the sewer extension into RENA.
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?
We need to emphasize clean commercial economic development and change Orange County’s reputation from being business adverse to one that welcomes sustainable business. We need to enact policies to recruit and retain businesses to diversify our tax base, increase revenue, have less reliance on residential property taxes and to create jobs for our residents. Good projects would include positions not only for those with degrees, but also for technical workers. Our lower income residents need these jobs and we could look for private monies to train workers at the Durham Tech campus in Orange County. Jobs are the best remedy to poverty. We also benefit from sustained corporate philanthropy from engaged local businesses who donate to groups and nonprofits in our county.
The small business loan fund, investment grants and the agricultural economic development grants ($360,000 annual funds) are useful in developing and retaining a very small number of businesses; we need to do more to recruit business. Orange County has designated three economic development districts. Four million has been spent/committed to the Buckhorn EDD phase 1 for a backbone water and sewer utility line and $4.9 million for phase 2 was approved by the Commissioners Feb 2. I support this investment. We are decades behind our neighboring counties.
Another $100,000.00 is allocated from county funds to support LaUNCh Chapel Hill as an innovation and incubator for entrepreneurs via a 50/50 interlocal agreement with the Town of Chapel Hill. UNC and private sponsors also contribute. There is much interest in supporting these new firms and we need to plan for the next phase to keep these burgeoning companies located in Orange County as they expand. This presents an incredible opportunity for Chapel Hill and the county to collaborate. Similarly there is area along 54W before the rural buffer in Carrboro that could benefit from planned clean economic development via collaboration.
There were also pros and cons to changes for “agricultural support enterprises” (ASE) to increase allowable uses for farmers to increase farm-related income to better enable farmers to stay in the business of farming, particularly in the rural buffer. This needs to be monitored. Supporting agriculture and local farmers builds a stronger community and economy. The rural buffer has served the community well to provide clean water, protect habitat and prohibit sprawl. I support denser residential in-fill in Chapel Hill-Carrboro in order to protect the rural buffer and to have housing as the towns grow; that is an issue for discussion and collaboration between the BOCC and the towns.
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?
When I first read this question, it seemed too soon, too raw and bordering on sensationalizing a tragedy. I trust as editors, that was not your intent. We need to train all of our community leaders and employees to lead and work with respect. Personally, I found the racial equity training provided by OAR to be thoughtfully provoking and supportive of understanding our national history including policies that have created an unjust society. The BOCC can work with our state and national delegation for reasonable gun control and background check statutes that protect second amendment rights, and review local ordinances. The BOCC can fund school character education and additional programming like after-school care. And, in my opinion, the nation needs to change what is not working; to decriminalize most drug offenses and focus on prevention and treatment. We can challenge every public employee and commissioner to discover the real issues, and work hard every day to engage residents in solving them. There is nothing more powerful than engaged people working together to solve issues within their own communities.
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?
We must continue our success with reduce, reuse and recycle. Diverting food waste from landfills is a good next step. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have succeeded with composting leftover lunch for over two years now (Three Phillips students traveled to the White House to be honored for their innovation after winning first place in Siemens’ national “We can change the World” challenge). Curbside composting is an interesting idea that should be explored. San Francisco implemented such a program more than 15 years ago as do over 90 cities currently. We could partner with Durham and or Wake county to purchase mechanical anaerobic digesters that could efficiently convert waste to nutrients for farming, while capturing methane for use as fuel.
We could also engage NC State University to see what new technology is available. Plasma gasification requires more trash than our county currently generates and there are questions regarding the environmental impact, but we can explore whether this is a potential technology for the future.
Should we ban plastic bags? In 2007 San Francisco created an ordinance banning plastic bags in large markets and drug stores, requiring compostable bags made of corn starch, biodegradable plastic or recyclable paper sacks. Plastic bags cause litter, take up landfill space, hurt marine animals and are made from petroleum. And, yes there are costs associated with these alternatives but they are worth investigating.
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?
Because NC is one of the handful of states where the school board does not have taxing authority, there is a resulting tension between the county commissioners who do and the school boards who don’t. Yes, the board of commissioners should revisit the policy that allocates 48.1 percent of general-fund revenue to education because it is an arbitrary limit that does not take into account or address the extreme hardships that are resulting in both districts due to state legislative cuts that have occurred over the past several years.
Additionally, the policy is not applied consistently. For at least the past two years, the county audit has shown an unexpected additional surplus fund balance. It was $2.89 million for fye 6/30/15. To truly spend 48.1% of the county funds on public education, 48.1% of this $2.89 million should have been subsequently appropriated to the two school districts. Both districts have made significant cuts in their positions and budgets during this recession. As mentioned in the first question response, we will need to fund increased teacher and noncertified staff salary supplements to compete with Wake County and the decreasing supply in NC.
That said, let’s not forget that the General Assembly is also shifting other costs to the county such as for jails and environmental protection. It used to be that those sentenced for misdemeanors for one month or less stayed in the county jail and those with longer sentences were housed in state prisons. That term is now expanded to one year for county jail and associated costs. The courts’ pro-active programs that helped people have been cut by the state and the county needs to fund those as well. So this supports my recommendation that we must change how we budget at the county level and move to a longer term view.
Stakeholders across the county want and need the commissioners to prioritize education. The General Assembly majority is out to decimate public education; to privatize and profitize it to benefit only the wealthy. They disrespect teachers and blame teachers for the results of the GA’s war on the poor. The cuts have left our school districts jointly looking to the county for relief.
In addition, the BOCC needs to stop funding current expense positions outside of the per pupil allocation. Since 2006-7 it is safe to say that CHCCS taxpayers have subsidized OCS by over $8.5 million and closer to $9 million. For 2015-16 the amount given to OCS outside the per pupil funding was approximately $449,562. To hold OCS harmless, the BOCC would need to fund CHCCS $705,234.57 more. Currently the primary reason for this disparity is the additional direct appropriation to the Sheriff’s office to provide School Resource Officers to OCS, while no such funding is provided to law enforcement for SROs for CHCCS, which instead are paid for out of its per pupil allocation.
Until 2014-15 the BOCC funded 8 social workers for OCS via the county DSS department in the amount of $692,283.00. Again, social worker for CHCCS were paid for out of its per pupil allocation. In other words, the BOCC is funding some needs of the OCS by not CHCCS through county departments rather than through the per pupil allocation. I believe this disparity is certainly inequitable and raises a host of questions about BOCC transparency and fairness in dealing with the two school districts.
The CHCCS Board of Ed has raised this issue with the collaboration committee since discovering the details on May 13, 2013. The legality of providing services outside the per pupil allocations should be confirmed. Additionally, it is a foolish practice because it then becomes an unnecessary source of conflict between the schools and the BOCC. Funding to both districts should be done openly and fairly. If you would like to see an excel spreadsheet I’ve prepared with the figures, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
I support the BOCC plan to place $120,000,000.00 on a bond referendum for school capital projects and also include $5,000,000.00 for affordable housing.
Watching from the audience and at earlier meetings, I was impressed that speakers made a strong effort not to pit schools and children against affordable housing or the needs of seniors. Rather, many recognized the integrated nature of affordable housing and education to serve the needs of children and seniors.
I believe the desired process should always include resident input. Surveys would have helped with input. The challenge is to prioritize our needs from wants, and then prioritize the needs themselves. We must be pragmatic, as there are insufficient funds to solve all our needs with one bond.
The CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) needs a thorough review for long term planning. Two and three years ago each school district employed engineers, architects and security professionals who worked with stakeholders at each school to develop the list of tiered needs at the older facilities. The schools have charts to project when a new roof or HVAC will be needed for each building looking out for decades. It does not seem like the school and county facility needs have been projected and integrated far enough into the future. I believe long term cash flow analysis is lacking, and as a CPA, I bring that skill to the table. The CIP would then include a 20 year window (vs. 5 or 10) to plan for older school repairs, senior centers and other county facilities. For CHCCS, the designs also include increasing the capacity at the older schools which will then move the need for new schools and associated debt further out the timeline on the CIP, and that funding can also be used for older schools in both districts. The three boards also need to set parameters to determine when a building is obsolete and despite public sentimental attachment, when is it fiscally sound to tear down/deconstruct that building instead of renovating it.
And, as I wrote in the response to the first question, we must plan for the annual maintenance of all schools and review the 60:40 arbitrary ratio for capital maintenance. For example, when Northside Elementary opened three years ago, the CHCCS facilities department then adds new roof and HVAC to the CIP for 20 years out. This must be done at the county level too.
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?
Our rural buffer and avid cycling community is an asset. We should capitalize on these attributes by promoting safe cycle paths that could encourage recreational opportunities and economic development along enhanced, safe bike lanes that meet the needs of both cyclists and drivers. Both the cyclists and the drivers need to be educated concerning the laws of the road. Additional signage may help. For example, signs could indicate that in order to pass a cyclist there must be 3 feet between the cyclist and the vehicle. We could host cycling events that then added to sales tax revenues as we promote local restaurants and shops - cycling tourism. I need to learn more about this area and promise to study and talk with biking enthusiasts while minding concerns of drivers as well.
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.
This is easy to answer from my school board history: changing FPG Elementary to a Spanish Dual Language magnet school made some families very angry and supporting the Mandarin Dual Language program also cost me some popularity points with voters as did redistricting to open Northside and favoring distributing the student population for less disparity in free and reduced lunch population. If elected to the BOCC, I would support funding the sheriff’s department to use body cameras. This is not popular with the deputies and would cost me some popularity points with some voters. However, I believe it is crucial to law enforcement to use body cameras to protect the integrity of our officer and the assure the public that best practices are being employed at all times. If the body cameras reveal flaws, they should be addressed immediately. Every person should be assured that he or she will always be treated fairly by our officers.