Pam Hemminger | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

Elections » Candidate Questionnaires

Pam Hemminger

Candidate for Orange Board of County Commissioners


Name as it appears on the ballot: Pam Hemminger

Full legal name, if different: Pamela S Hemminger

Date of birth: 03/20/1960

Campaign website:

Occupation & employer: Orange County Commissioner

Spouse's name: Brad Hemminger

Spouse's occupation & employer: UNC-CH, Assoc Professor, School of Information and Library Science

Years lived in Orange County: 25 years


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

I believe three of the most important issues we need to address are diversifying our tax base, prioritizing funding for important county needs, and improving transit. (Waste disposal is as well, but addressed in your fourth question).

#1 We have to diversify our tax base. We can no longer rely on such high property taxes to provide the services we need and want. Such high property tax rates are forcing people to leave our county because they cannot afford to live here. As this pattern continues, we will become a bedroom community of only very wealthy people. Diversity is what makes our community strong and I do not want to lose that. Our model is not sustainable and we must find other ways of raising revenues. We need more businesses and more retail to produce more sales tax income and not rely so much on property taxes.

I have been part of the team to change the County direction on economic development. We have made progress in making our county "open for business" with the passage of the cent sales tax, the infrastructure projects going on in our economic development districts, expediting the review process, the revolving loan fund, working with the Towns and changing our attitude about clean business development. We can protect our environment and bring in the businesses we want at the same time.

#2 Funding for important projects. The County has many projects that are in need of improvement. With the down economy and low revenue projections, making improvements to any project means directing revenues away from existing services or projects. We have an issue of outdated and underperforming equipment in our EMS division that could result in lives lost. We need more cell tower access in many parts of the county that affect response times to emergencies. We are constantly competing for cell time along the highway corridors and in some spots of the Towns. Our call logs are alarming given our population and the number of employees we have to respond to needs.

We have a work group meeting to help give input as to what the County needs to set for priorities for responding to safety, health and fire concerns. It is projected to be many millions of dollars. We also have a need to build a new jail, a new elementary school, a dental clinic in the southern part of the district, a southwest library branch, pressures from aging schools and a long list of other needs. We also face many pressures on the operating budget as revenues shrink and the State and Federal governments reduce their funding to our schools and populations at risk. As a Commissioner I have learned how to look at these needs, listen to input and help decide a priority list for these concerns. It requires a balanced approach and looking at the County needs as a whole and not just by sections or groups.

#3 Improving Transit. Orange County faces some tough issues concerning all kinds of transit. Over 27,000 people leave our district every day for work and over 24,000 people come into our district for work or for reasons related to the UNC system. That is a lot of movement. We need a public transportation system that works. We need improved bus services from all directions. We are looking to the future for light rail, bus rapid transit and infrastructure improvements. This community is only going to grow and there has to be a plan to handle that growth.

We as Commissioners have been looking at the regional transportation plan. We will decide whether to put this issue on the November 2012 ballot or not. Before that decision, the Commissioners have to know what the details and obligations of the county's piece of this plan are. How much do we commit to funding, what are the relationships between the counties, TTA and the Towns. Who gets to make the decisions of how to spend the monies if costs and revenues to not meet expectations? I have been learning all I can about these questions and talking with other partners about these issues. It is a very complex and involved process and we have to know what the commitments are before putting it out there for the citizens to vote on an increased sales tax for transportation.

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 spent over 7 years in elected office (4 on the CHCSS School Board – chair & vice chair – 3 as a County Commissioner – currently vice chair) and 14 years on Chapel Hill Town Boards (Parks & Rec –chair – Greenways – chair and Transportation). I have led four forums for the Town of Chapel Hill, been on PTAs, SGCs, Booster Clubs, the local Sierra Club Executive Committee, non-profit boards, and been involved in neighborhood groups. I love our community and have spent 25 years being involved, meeting people, listening to concerns, and working to improve our community. One of my biggest strengths is that I do not bring my own agenda into a situation. I listen to input, research information, reach out to interested groups and weigh out the pros and cons before making a decision. The lack of listening to citizens was one of the main reasons I ran for County Commissioners back in 2004.

I have had great success in bringing diverse groups together. Some examples include the Street Fair Review Committee for the Town of Chapel Hill which was a very contentious group of divided opinions. By getting everyone to agree to listen to every participant's concerns we were able to find some common ground, respect each other's viewpoints and agree to move in a forward direction. While on the school board, I was able to help push through Professional Learning Communities to help teachers collaborate on content while helping to ensure that all students were exposed to the same information in taking the same classes. This idea started off controversially, but through a series of discussions, it became a very positive teaching improvement tool.

Currently, I serve as chair of the Upper Neuse River Basin Authority which is composed of 13 different jurisdictions in the Falls Lake Area. This group had struggled to find consensus and had made little progress. Since becoming chair, two years ago, we have changed our focus, by-laws, hired a consultant and new director, increased our dues in a down economy and worked together to solve these problems and share information. By listening to each groups concerns and bringing the politicians, attorneys and technical staff to the table we were able to find common goals and belay fears of targeting/blaming one group over another. It takes positive leadership and unbiased listening skills to make these kind of situations work in today's world of expected quick fixes.

As Commissioners we work with 4 towns, 2 school boards, 13 fire districts, other neighboring counties and 25 different departments. We need to be better listeners and we need to facilitate conversations with our partners, not wait for them to complain that the system is not working. These relationships take time to build up and a Commissioner needs to be receptive to input from all parts of the county and not just represent certain factions. We have to make long term decisions that affect many citizens and that requires a balanced approach to reaching the best decisions. We need to be the leaders and communicate better with all of our partners. I have met so many different parties and learned so much about the county government in the last few years, that I am ready to assume a stronger leadership role. This year I am serving as vice-chair of the commissioners.

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

I would define myself as a moderate Democrat. I believe in weighing each issue separately and working for long term solutions. I have spent a significant amount of time in our community and have listened to many different voices. Citizens really value open mindedness, and appreciate when someone in authority listens, understands, and tries to help with their situation. My background experience is with schools (many years volunteering in the classrooms), environment (active executive committee member and chair of local Sierra Club) and financial experience background in non-profit book-keeping and prior business management experience).

I have helped to keep the property tax rate steady for the last three years while cutting expenses, increasing the fund balances and finding more efficiencies in services. We have to keep our safety net of social services intact especially during these tough economic times. So I am a realist and very practical while making sure that we aid and protect those in need. There can be a balance between increasing revenues, decreasing expenses, providing quality services, protecting our environment and holding onto our diversity of community values.

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?

Orange County assumed the responsibility of making waste stream decisions when all the Towns asked the County to be the managing partner. The landfill had a limited life expectancy and processes were set in order to find a solution or next phase. All of those processes failed for one reason or another and the partners ended up being antagonistic rather than cooperative. Most of the partners agreed that the trash should no longer be handled in the Rogers Road neighborhood area, but could not reach any other agreement. When I came on the board during the end of the second search process, the only options made available were to put the trash way out in the county without access to water or sewer or to transport the waste to the Durham transfer station. Many of us asked both formally and informally for the partners to come together to discuss this issue and for them to realize what this kind of decision would mean. The towns declined to engage in the discussion. The BOCC voted 5-1 to use the Bingham site, I was the lone dissenter. Slowly the BOCC moved towards the Durham Transfer station. Many of us visited several transfer stations and were not pleased with this method but felt there were no other short term solutions.

The landfill has to close for many reasons, social justice being one of the top reasons, but also for practicality – it has run out of room. We have compacted, re-arranged and re-estimated the life left in the landfill. Even with this information, the partners would not participate in conversation; it was a very frustrating experience. Now that the BOCC has set the date of closure, the partners are speaking up. I am hopeful that we can find a better solution.

The Durham Transfer station is not an ideal solution and not one that I want for a long period of time. We lose control of our waste stream and our costs of waste disposal. We currently monitor our solid waste to look for recycling opportunities and violators. We will not be able to do this at the Durham site, which does not prioritize any recycling. We waste gas, man hours and wear and tear on trucks making the trek to Durham each run. This is not an environmentally sustainable solution and will cost the partners a great deal more.

I would like to see a site in our district close to the larger waste generators, near the highways and accessible to water and sewer. Waste transfer stations have to be washed down every day and the waste water has to be handled – it is much more energy efficient to have water and sewer on-site than to transport those items each way every day. I want to have a site large enough that when alternative waste-to-energy solutions come into play, we are ready to pursue them. There are parcels of land in the towns' jurisdictions that meet this criteria but it has to be a joint effort. None of the partners will agree on having our own landfill. We talk about being responsible for our own trash, but no one can agree and the public comes out in full force to protest this idea.

The County government is poised to run a transfer station and would welcome working with the towns to site and run a transfer station in our district. The discussion needs to be happening now--the Durham Transfer station solution is to be temporary only. We must move forward. For now if we can agree to our own transfer station, I believe this will allow us to have more reasoned discussions on how to handle the long term waste issues we face. Reduction in waste, recycling and alternative waste solutions can help us reach those goals, but only if we have control of and knowledge of what we are throwing away.

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?

These conversations have not worked well in the past. The Towns look to the County to make the decisions and the County looks to the Towns for input and solutions. None of them want to take all the responsibility. There should be joint decisions from all partners, probably even an informal voting procedure. Many individual players have changed on all of the boards. Promises were made by individual board members to the community and then not upheld by subsequent boards. This has to stop. We have to talk to each other instead of just sending resolutions to each other. Proactive versus reactive generates a better relationship and builds trust. Sadly, we have a long history in this district of mistrust, even though so many boards have changed in individual composition.

The BOCC has started having individual joint meetings with all four Towns. This seems to be working better. The dialogue is more meaningful to each Town as they concentrate on their own interactions with the County. We also meet with the school boards several times a year to talk about common issues and budget information. Representatives on all boards have a better chance of knowing individuals on each board instead of just one board member's individual perspective.

I want to see the County and the Towns continue talking about issues and budget information before the situations occur. We can plan ahead especially in the budget discussions. The County needs to be proactive in sharing information about budget drivers (sales tax numbers, property tax changes, re-evaluation, changes in state/Fed funding) early in the budget season. We need to communicate to the towns about decisions that the County is facing that directly affect the Towns. We need to spend more time talking and updating each other on a regular basis before issues create such alarm and suspicion.

The Mayors and BOCC Chair meet on occasion; we need more of these meetings between all board members. We need to have more small working groups or informal gatherings to talk about common issues. We all serve the citizens of Orange County and we need to make it a priority to communicate with each other, especially in planning for the future. We should be partners and not adversaries. It is going to take a lot of time to overcome our past bad working relationships and realize that we no longer need to be territorial and need to be more cooperative. I am determined to make these relationships work so that we can find solutions together.

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.

We directly caused this situation. Our review processes are too complex and time consuming and expensive. We make developers jump through so many hoops and spend so much time with no guarantee of a positive outcome that we do not attract the better projects, only the ones willing to go through our processes.

The County has spent a great deal of time, money and resources protecting land and natural resources. We have done a good job of this and now have priorities for protecting vital waterways, specimen areas and wildlife corridors. Now, the County has recognized that it could designate economic development nodes, areas and specific places that do not conflict with environmental protection. We have some of the best and largest tracts of land left on the I-40 & I-85 highways. These areas can be a big boon for Orange County economic development but they will have to have infrastructure before any commercial or light industrial entities will consider the sites. We have moved forward on putting in water & sewer and reducing the developmental permitting processes. We have hired an economic development director who has many ties to the state offices and can bring interested parties to our sites. We have developed site plans and made it very clear that Orange County is "open for business". We have long term reputation for shunning business development which we must work hard to overcome. We are poised to do better, and the current board is making an effort to move forward and encourage more businesses to consider Orange County home.

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?

We need to improve our transit situation, especially since we are only going to have more dense development and bring more people into our district. We have to plan with our neighbors on all of our borders as to how best bring people into and out of our district. The University and Hospital are big draws for bringing people here.

I support the 1/2 sales tax increase for transit. This is probably the only way a comprehensive transit plan can work. In the short term we need more bus hours (new routes and increased current routes) and more park & ride lots. In the long term we need a better plan of either light rail, bus rapid transit, commuter rail or something that is a mix of the above. We are running out of room to handle all the people that come into our district each day and there has to be a plan for the growth that we are expecting. Public transit is one way to help reduce our air quality problems that are constantly increasing.

Building more parking downtown and at the University should be avoided unless part of an integrated long term plan, and coordinated with mass transit. Long range planning should also not include widening of any roads unless it is to include bus rapid transit or some sort of public transit expansion. We do not need to bring even more cars into the city/town centrums.

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.

I chose to run in District 1 because I have lived here for 25 years and knew it better than the other parts of the County. I know the CHCCS school system very well and have been actively involved in the Chapel Hill community for many years and have served on many Town boards. I felt I could help bring the Town perspective into the County view.

Once you become a County Commissioner, you must serve the entire county. We make decisions that affect more than just one district, but it also very important to have representation from both Districts on the BOCC.

Two of the biggest issues that face District 1 are the need for more County services to be located in the southern end and library support. The County needs to expand its space at the southern campus to include more resources for the large majority of citizens living in the Towns. We need to have the dental clinic, a larger health clinic, workforce development and more social services closer to where more citizens live. I plan to help prioritize those projects and bring more services closer to the population.

The County needs to do a better job in working with the Towns over library services. The County fell behind in its support of the Chapel Hill Library and has moved very slowly with implementing a southwest branch library. As a Commissioner, I pushed to increase funding and for a long range plan to bring funding back up to where it should be to serve our Town citizens. We need to have more communications with the Towns over library compatibility and a plan that works for all citizens and partners. We need to move forward with a southwest branch library that consolidates our current two small branches in the Carrboro area and brings the services and space that our citizens need in utilizing a library in the information age.

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 too want a just and vibrant community that values diversity and public input. As a Commissioner I have reached out to many groups to gather input and to listen to community concerns, especially from those who often cannot speak up for themselves. There is so much to be gained by listening to many different points of view and making those ideas part of the solutions we seek. We have to balance the loudness of complaints from certain individuals with the needs of the many who do not show up to advocate their views.

Our County has become too expensive to live in for many people. I serve on the Community Home Trust affordable housing board and I listen to the stories of people who want to live in our community because they work here, but cannot afford the housing prices or the property taxes. That is not just. We need all levels of people to work and live in our community. Teachers, nurses, firemen and many other kinds of service industry people help make our community a wonderful place to live. They should be able to live here as well as work in our community.

We value environmental protection, education and freedom of choice in ideas and lifestyles. I pledge to make sure that we keep those values but also find ways to make sure that it applies to everyone, not just those who can afford the high prices.

We also need to bring clean businesses and good paying jobs to our county to help those who have lived here all their lives be able to stay here and earn an affordable living.

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

We need our own waste transfer station close to the Towns where most of the garbage is generated. It needs to have access to water and sewer and it needs to be a joint effort with the Towns so that we have control of our waste stream and look together for more efficiencies in recycling and alternative waste solutions.

I also want the County to start inspecting septic tanks. In the County, we know that over 30% of the pollution in our water ways comes from failing septic systems. Other communities have taken the leadership in inspecting septic tanks every five years to monitor for leaks and problems to help clean their water ways. We have limited water resources in our County and we need to do all we can to make sure they are as clean as possible. This would cost the homeowner an average of $125 every five years for inspection.

Add a comment