Once upon a time, hearing seven "ayes" at a Wake County Board of Commissioners' meeting was rare. But on Dec. 1, at the first meeting of the newly elected all-Democratic board, the ayes reigned.
Once ruled by an obstinate Republican majority, the commission now is controlled by seven Democrats, four of whom were elected in November. But commanding a supermajority, the commissioners are wary of overreaching—unlike the GOP, which has used its control of both the executive and legislative branch of state government to ram through its political and social agenda.
"Supermajorities are just not the normal status of government," says John Burns of District 7. "As we saw with the Legislature that I think ran well beyond their mandate, we have to be careful we don't do the same thing."
While the seven Democratic commissioners say they share a common vision for the county regarding education, transit and economic development, they will face challenges in and beyond their control. Most notably, commissioners could encounter conflicts with the state legislature, and possibly even divisions within the board itself.
Burns says those who only followed his campaign, where he led the way for the Democratic candidates to run as a unified bloc, may be surprised to see him rely on his business experience. "If they are expecting someone with a hard-left political view, I think they'll be very much surprised," he says. "I'm much more interested in approaching problems with a clear goal in mind, and then an analytical and practical approach to moving toward that goal. Local government is a place for practical, consensus-based work."
"I don't think we'll agree on everything," adds District 2 Commissioner Matt Calabria. "But I think the mark of a healthy board is not unanimity but being able to think things through, making good decisions and making those decisions based on public policy, not politics."
Education funding likely will present the greatest challenge. Wake County's population has grown to 1 million people this year, but school construction has not kept pace. Poorly compensated teachers have left, not only the county, but the state, since the General Assembly cut education funding. The relationship between the Wake County school board and the commission, which controls the school budget, has become strained over the past several years. That tension culminated in 2013 with the commissioners' attempt to wrestle control of school construction from the board's hands.
"We really have to build a relationship based on trust," says District 3 Commissioner Jessica Holmes, an attorney for the North Carolina Association of Educators. "The issue isn't whether we want to fund schools, it's how much money do we have available to fund schools."
Holmes says she sees the potential for disagreement with the school board over finances. "The school board doesn't have a blank check," she says, "but we're all optimistic about moving forward in a respectful manner so that when we do have disagreements, we're able to talk through them in a logical way."
Burns says the board is "going to do everything we can" to increase teacher pay. While much of the problem with teacher compensation lies within the state's education budget, Burns says, "this county, of all counties, can fill in the gap in the meantime until the Legislature comes to its senses."
Tax reform could also hurt education funding, not just in Wake but in other urban counties, says incumbent commissioner Caroline Sullivan of District 4. This includes potential changes in how the sales tax is calculated, which could cost Wake County $27 million to $30 million a year.
"There will be challenges with revenue coming in from the state," Sullivan says. "Hopefully they'll think of different ways to address what they're trying to do with tax reform."
By 2020, the county will have built only half of the schools it will need. To pay for the rest, Wake will be due for another school bond referendum within the next four years. And while there has been bipartisan support for another education bond—the last one was in 2013, for $810 million—Burns says that in the short term, the county should consider updating existing buildings to make them more energy efficient and less expensive to operate.
"I think before we embark on another billion-dollar bond referendum, we need to be sure we are being as efficient as possible in spending those monies," Burns says.
Transit—moving those million people, plus commuters, around the county—is the other major issue facing the commission.
The previous commission opposed placing a transit referendum on the ballot; the Democrats are transit-friendly. If there were a referendum, voters could decide whether to increase the sales tax by a half-cent to fund the plan. However, commission support for transit may not be enough.
The county is scheduled to release its Transit Network Plan in May or June 2015, leaving enough time to put a transit referendum before voters in the fall. But the Legislature passed a law last session prohibiting counties from holding bond referendums in odd-numbered years—presumably because turnout is higher in even-numbered years, particularly in presidential elections when Republican turnout is larger. The new law would delay the referendum—and momentum for transit—until 2016.
"The most important thing now is to move forward on transportation thoroughly, without putting it on the shelf for years," Calabria says. "But we want to reach out to the Legislature and help them understand what our priorities are, and understand their priorities as they relate to Wake County."
Sig Hutchinson of District 1 served on the Triangle Transit Authority board for seven years. He says he will continue to advocate for buses and light rail, but also sidewalks, bike lanes and greenways, with a focus on interconnectivity between all types of transit.
"We had a plan I thought was adequate, and plans can always be refined, but we have to get started," Hutchinson says. We want to put it on the ballot as soon as legally possible to give voters a choice in their transportation future."
Incumbent commissioner Betty Lou Ward, who repeatedly and unsuccessfully asked for transit to be addressed under Republican leadership, says Wake County will have to be creative in funding a plan. While Durham and Orange county voters easily passed a half-cent increase for bus and light rail, a Wake County referendum would not be a shoe-in.
At 860 square miles, Wake is larger and less compact than Durham (298 square miles) and Orange (400 miles), so light rail would likely be confined to the southwestern part of the county: Raleigh, the airport and Cary. That excludes smaller, more farflung and more politically conservative towns such as Wendell, Zebulon, Rolesville and Fuquay-Varina, where voters might not agree to a tax increase for services not targeted toward them. However, the commissioners agree that expanding bus services to these more remote municipalities needs to be considered as an option as well.
"Unless we pass a bill like the one they passed in Durham and Orange counties to enable us to move ahead with federal money, we will have a tough time," Ward said. "I'm hopeful that people of the community will be able to agree with that."
What happens with transit will dramatically affect the future not just of Wake County, but of the region, particularly in job creation and economic development. About 200,000 people in the Triangle live in one county but commute to work in another, according to the Triangle J Council of Governments, which promotes collaboration among local governments on regional issues. About 40,000 to 50,000 people commute to Research Triangle Park daily, according to the RTP Foundation.
"Folks should be able to get from everywhere, to everywhere," Burns says. "There needs to be a way to bring jobs where the people who need jobs are and perhaps our economic development policies can be tweaked a little bit to lead to that result."
Burns says more focus is needed on other areas of the county, particularly north and east, that have not traditionally benefitted from large companies relocating to the area. He credits the prior commissioners for "moving down that road already," by investigating whether the county could give incentives to smaller private companies and entrepreneurs who can't afford to invest as much at the outset as the large companies that the county has courted in the past.
Sullivan agrees that it's time to stop thinking of Wake County as an island. "We've got to start thinking beyond our borders. There are all kinds of things to be talking to our neighboring counties about. I'd love to see us have some regular dialogue with the mayors of our municipalities and figuring out ways we can harness the incredible talent and brain power that we have here to help address some of the problems we all have."
Sullivan says a first step would be to hold future commission meetings all over the county, not just in the downtown offices, which are inaccessible to some county residents because of transit and parking limitations. "I think, for some people, coming downtown is intimidating," she says. "It shouldn't be that way."
Commissioner James West, the board's new chairman says he welcomes the creativity and new ideas that the four new members of the Commission will bring to planning a long-term vision for Wake County.
But this Democratic supermajority could be the last. As part of its ongoing efforts to erode local government control, Republicans in the Legislature are considering forcing Wake commissioners to run in individual districts rather than countywide. As it stands, all Commissioners are elected by all Wake County voters; if Commissioners are forced to run in districts, as state lawmakers and school board members are, Commission elections could be subject to the same kinds of GOP redistricting efforts Wake County has seen in state legislative and school board elections.
"There's a lot of talk around the General Assembly about their being able to question the way we are elected," says Ward, who is one of three commissioners whose terms expire in 2016. "I think that is so unfair, we won countywide and that is the most wholesome way to do it. [Some legislators] don't consider that Wake and the other large, urban counties are the engines that drive everything. Being able to work with us is far more important than cutting us off."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Absolute power"