More than 1 million people will be affected by the outcome of the Wake County Commissioners' race this fall. The Board of Commissioners will determine the future of the region, including whether Wake's schools will remain underfunded and politically embattled and whether the county's outdated transit system stagnates.
Or will the county, with the state's capital city at its heart, progress to raise per-pupil spending to the national average, construct needed new schools and allow voters—finally—to say whether they want to expand the county's bus and rail systems.
The prognosis is optimistic for a progressive shift in the composition of the commission. While candidates run in their districts, they are elected by all voters in the county. Four seats are up—Districts 1, 2, 3 and 7—and in all of them, strong Democratic candidates challenge incumbent Republicans. Democrats need win only one seat to secure a majority, and contentious positions the Republican-led board has taken recently have been unpopular.
"Because (Republican commissioners) have been so divisive and mean, it's catching up with them in terms of how they'll do," says Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUp Wake County, a citizen organization dedicated to promoting solutions for the county's explosive population growth. "This election is about how we're going to plan for future growth, and the issues that affect us every day."
The Republicans on the board have voted as a bloc since they gained a majority in 2010. Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, who was elected in 2012 and is not up for re-election this fall, says she can recall only one time when a Republican commissioner broke ranks with the majority: in the 2012 sales negotiations of the YWCA building after the Y went bankrupt.
Commissioner Joe Bryan originally voted with the Democrats on the board to sell the building to the Wake County school system. "The majority didn't like the price," Sullivan said. "It was absurd because they ended up selling the building to a non-government entity for what the school board said it was worth. That was valuable property inside the beltline that we needed." When it came to the final vote, Bryan voted with the other Republicans. "Anything to do with school funding, even appointments, they have voted as a bloc," Sullivan says.
Thirty percent of the Wake County Public School System's overall budget is funded by the county. The county has been under pressure recently to increase the local school budget, as well as teacher pay, because the state has been making such deep cuts to public education. Last year, the county gave teachers a laughable $200 raise.
Although in 2013 commissioners agreed on a voter-approved school bond for new construction, this year, they decided not to use full taxing authority for the bond, claiming the county didn't actually need it, even though estimates show the system will need 33 more schools in the next 20 years.
Christine Kushner, chair of the Wake County school board, said that county government and the school board are at odds. (She is not up for re-election). "We need a board that is working collaboratively with the school system," Kushner says. "We have had some strained relations."
During the 2013 legislative session, Republican commissioners approached Wake County senators Neal Hunt and Chad Barefoot and asked them to sponsor a bill that redrew school board districts and reconfigured elections to favor Republicans. The bill became law and school board elections and districts changed.
Kushner, a Democrat, is now in a Republican-leaning district, for example. She told the INDY last year the bill was "un-American and undemocratic."
"The main things facing us in this election will be financing schools and the operational side of it, paying teachers, principals, support staff, teachers' assistants and bus drivers, and also paying for the facilities that can accommodate growth," Kushner said this week.
Public transit is the other major issue at stake this fall. In 2008, Orange, Durham and Wake counties, together with the Triangle Transit Authority, developed a transit plan to link the Triangle by bus improvements and light rail to be paid for with a local half-cent sales tax increase.
Durham held a successful referendum on the sales tax increase in 2011, and in 2012, Orange did the same. A transit plan that would expand Wake's bus system and prepare the county for light rail went before the county commission in November 2011. The idea was that the board would review it and put the sales tax increase on the ballot the following year.
Paul Coble, the board's chairman, opposed the plan and refused to allow it to even be discussed. No action has been taken on the plan since.
"That was a huge insult to many transit stakeholders," Rindge says. "It's very frustrating. Orange and Durham are moving ahead, and Wake, the most populous county, is inactive."
Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones says many Wake Forest residents commute via bus. "Bus service isn't used as much as I would like because we cannot offer it with the frequency needed," Jones says. "To get broad-base support and use, you have to have more frequency. We could have doubled our bus service by now if the Commission had talked about the plan and allowed a referendum."
Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht says Wake County leaders are failing residents by not addressing transit. "The Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area is slated to be one of top two job-producing areas in the country within the next 15 years," Weinbrecht said. "If you have traffic jams from morning until night because there is no transit, it will impact your quality of life."
Perhaps because of their lagging popularity, as well as the hiring of County Manager Jim Hartmann, who favors progress on transit, Wake leaders held a transit work session in July and indicated they were ready to hire new consultants to work on a revised transit plan.
Meanwhile, two actions affecting transit took place in the General Assembly this summer. The first was a measure to limit raising the county sales tax, which would effectively have forced Wake County to choose between funding education and transit. The bill ultimately failed. But in a little-watched maneuver, the General Assembly amended the state's election laws to restrict counties from holding referenda in odd years.
"The plan was to get moving and hire a consultant with other stakeholders and have a new vision in March to put on the 2015 ballot," Rindge says. "They were set up and ready to go and now we can't have a referendum in 2015."
Rindge says the only way Wake could vote on transit in 2015 is if a united county commission, with pressure from the business community and other stakeholders (and possibly, with the backing of state transportation secretary Tony Tata, who supports the Wake transit plan) approached the General Assembly to ask for an exception.
Democrats elected to the commission will likely push for a light rail component to the plan, whereas Republicans may just want to focus on buses. But a light rail component may be crucial if a referendum is to be successful with voters.
"We need light rail to help move people reasonably across three counties," Rindge says. "It's about guiding growth. Buses are critical for mobility, but to guide development and population growth, without rail, sprawl will just continue."
Transit and education are at the forefront of the Wake County Commissioners' race this fall, but other important issues are at stake, as well. The drinking water supplies for eastern and western Wake County—Falls Lake and Jordan Lake, respectively—have been significantly polluted in the last several years, and Wake County Commissioners have done little to address water quality under Republican leadership. Libraries, jails and other human services depend on the financial support of the board of commissioners, too.
"We have serious growth issues to contend with, and the question is, are we addressing the infrastructure we need for sustainability and healthy communities," says Rindge. "We need to elect commissioners who will lead on these issues."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fast forward"