Chatham’s leaders: State government needs to step up and fund

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/20/20

PITTSBORO — Along with wanting the state government to allow localities more freedom to make decisions, the government leaders in Chatham County have made it clear they need more funds to do what …

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Chatham’s leaders: State government needs to step up and fund

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Posted

PITTSBORO — Along with wanting the state government to allow localities more freedom to make decisions, the government leaders in Chatham County have made it clear they need more funds to do what the state is already asking them to do.

A discussion last month during the annual Legislative Breakfast with county legislators state Sen. Valerie Foushee (D-Durham) and Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Chatham) centered in part on how counties are bearing a burden that is either too strong for their coffers or more than what they have been asked to bear in the past. The deficits, they said, showed up in multiple areas that could be combined into three concerns: public school construction, transportation and services for the aging population.

These were all part of requests from local officials to state legislators to seek changes at the state government level.

Public School Construction

By law, counties and school districts are responsible for funding any school construction needs — something Chatham County officials said they are well aware of.

“The counties are faced with many new schools and funding with that, especially on the local level, is difficult,” County Manager Dan LaMontagne said. “We would like some assistance from the state to fund some of this.”

The proposal on the table is the Public School Buildings Bond Act, which, if passed, would put a $1.9 billion bond on a statewide ballot for voter approval.

Estimates say that Chatham County would receive up to $9.3 million for construction projects as a result of a successful referendum approval, something county leaders could use immediately. The county is nearing completion on the Chatham Grove Elementary School in northeast Chatham, a project slated to cost more than $27 million, and has begun construction on Seaforth High School near Jordan Lake, a school projected to cost more than $62 million. These construction burdens are handled by borrowing and debt payments.

School spending has already been a burden that taxpayers have had to bear — the county increased its property tax rate by 4.19 cents last year to help cover operating expenses for Chatham Grove and teacher supplements.

Seniors & Student Transportation

Both Chatham County Schools and the Chatham County Council on Aging expressed concerns at the legislative breakfast over how transportation funds were allocated from the state.

COA Executive Director Dennis Streets said that state Department of Transportation funding to his organization was cut in half in the current fiscal year and is expected to remain at that level in the coming year. The county government made up the difference, Streets said, something he was thankful for because seniors use COA-provided transportation or Chatham Transit to get to the county’s senior centers and medical appointments.

“Some of those goes out of the county,” he said. “We would have been dead in the water if the county had not stepped in to replace that cut.”

On its own list of legislative priorities, the school system indicated it desired more flexibility when it came to funds for transportation.

Senior Services Funds

Chatham’s population of seniors is growing and will continue to grow in the coming years. Projections say Chatham’s senior population will see an 83 percent increase and 85-and-older population grow by 208 percent from now until 2038.

With that in mind, Streets said, he’s hoping the state will return to funding what his organization is doing at prior levels. But even if funds come back to where they were, it wouldn’t be enough.

“The cost of services continue to go up,” he said. “We’re looking at an aging population without the ability to adequately pay for in-home aides. It doesn’t mean you’re going to able to serve more, just provide quality service to the ones you’re already serving.”

Commission Chairman Karen Howard said the work of the COA is “a critical part of our people infrastructure.”

“We can’t isolate it,” she said. “It’s a county issue, it’s a Pittsboro issue, it’s a Siler City issue, it’s wherever people are aging in Chatham issue.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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