Commentary

Mark Zimmerman: Chatham leads way by getting out of way

July 14, 2014 

As our local government budget sessions ended, there was a lot of hand wringing in Orange County and Chapel Hill about our fiscal future.

Savings are being depleted. Education needs more funding. Capital improvements to government buildings and schools are being deferred. Property taxes are being increased with the prospect of higher rates to come.

It’s beginning to look like past policies put us on an unsustainable path. We need more revenues. To that end Orange County is finally adding infrastructure to some of its economic development districts and Chapel Hill has approved redevelopment plans for Glen Lennox and the commercial areas around Eastgate.

Will that be enough? Should more be done to fund the amenities we’ve come to enjoy?

Chatham County may provide some clues. Four years ago an electorate seeking change swept a new majority into power in Chatham County. Change they got, with more on the way.

Jobs in the county are up 270 percent, more than making up for losses during the recession. That employment growth is a result of an almost 600 percent increase in private capital investment. In 2010, business only invested $500,000. Since then, nearly $250,000,000 has infused into the local economy. Chatham County now has a lower unemployment rate than Orange County.

More business not only means more jobs but more tax revenue. Property tax revenue is up on the new investment. Sales tax revenue has doubled, before the new Walmart has been counted. The sales tax increase alone means avoiding a 1.5 cent property tax-rate increase.

Instead, there’s been no increase in property tax rates for four years, even while spending has increased. School operations not only have been fully funded, making up for state decreases, but the county commissioners actually added a teacher supplement and an innovative school bonus program. County employees have received raises, too.

Capital needs are being addressed. School renovations are underway, a new detention center is being built, as is an Agri-Conference Center. All this while maintaining a healthy county fund balance, which has helped improve the bond rating.

These are significant results over a short period of time; especially given the county was reeling from a series of devastating plant closures and the real estate market collapse. But the biggest transformations are yet to come.

Responsible local developers will build Chatham Park next to Pittsboro. This state-of-the-art mixed-use community will eventually be a new town. Near Siler City, the state’s first megasite has been approved. It will seek to bring an auto manufacturing plant to the area. Anyone who has been to Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., knows about the positive regional impact that will have.

According to Brian Bock, vice chairman of the Chatham Board of Commissioners, this progress was surprisingly “easy to achieve.” He and a new majority were elected on a focused platform: make Chatham friendly to business. Their plan was simple. First, allow the county staff to be “customer focused.” “We wanted them to help applicants get through our regulations, instead of saying no,” he explained. The resulting “mood and attitude among staff changed” immediately. So did the business response.

Second, they made the regulatory process more transparent and efficient, and “stopped micromanaging.” That eliminated uncertainty and unproductive costs. Finally, they worked with residents on a new land-use plan to guide future development. That allows them to preserve rural character (planned new development equals only 3 percent of county land), add environmental protections, and grow into a place in which people can live, work, shop and play, instead of being “just a bedroom community.”

Chatham’s shift to a more sustainable course has had quick and dramatic results. It’s no secret, according to Bock: “Change attitudes, set the right priorities, then get out of the way of the professional staff.” Orange County and Chapel Hill should go to school on that.

Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at markrzim@gmail.com

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