HB2 Cuts Off Wake’s Engine

One of my jobs as Commissioner is to be a liaison to the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau board of directors. Today at that meeting, we heard information about HB2’s very real impact on Wake County. This year, we are continuing to sustain some growth in visitor numbers and current bookings. But the problem is in the next several years, particularly 2018. Forecasts for 2018 are grim, especially if the NCAA takes us off the Championship circuit.

Convention and visitor business is a years-long investment that pays off over time. What we have coming to Wake now was put in the pipeline 3-4 years ago. What the Legislature did with HB2 was greatly restrict that pipeline. We spend a significant percentage of every pitch now explaining that Wake does not support HB2 and is working to overturn it. It’s a challenge in every single pitch. Same with Economic Development.

Some will look at our visitor numbers in 2017 and say they prove that HB2 has had no impact. They are lying.

Think of it this way. Raleigh and Wake County are like a rocket. For years, we’ve been climbing. Numbers have been rising. Our national image has been growing. If you cut off the engine, a rocket keeps climbing for a bit, then it slowly turns and begins to fall.

HB2 cut off our engine. It’s time to turn it back on.

Why I marched at RDU

I could hear it before I saw it. Thousands of voices chanting: “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!” carried easily through the parking garage at RDU International Airport. My son Duncan and I arrived about an hour into the scheduled four hour protest, and we wanted to lend our voices in any way we could.

As we walked towards Terminal 2, a woman named Kathy was pushing several cases of bottled water on a luggage cart. I asked if I could help and grabbed one of the cases and started handing out bottles to protesters.

There were thousands of people. Thousands.

As a County Commissioner, one of my responsibilities is to appoint members of the RDU Board. Wake County is one of the owners of this facility. So you might ask why I thought it appropriate to participate in a protest against the Airport.

Well, because the protest was located AT the Airport, but it wasn’t AGAINST the Airport. In fact, the Airport staff and security and the Raleigh Police Department should be congratulated for their flexibility and restraint as a crowd expected to number in the low hundreds swelled beyond all expectation.

No, I wasn’t there to protest the Airport. I was there to lend my voice to the millions who oppose President Trump’s immigration policies, which defile our history and our national reputation. I was there to march in the middle of the crowd, not at the front, because in this battle, I join my fellow citizens in declaring that we do not consent to these policies and they are not being done in our name.

President Trump’s ban on immigration from certain countries where he has no business interests is blatantly discriminatory. It hurts our allies in the region. It puts our troops in greater danger. It condemns refugees to death.

As an American, I am embarrassed by this President’s actions.

As a Christian, I am appalled that the lesson of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is apparently lost on those in power. Those who defend these actions as a way of reducing risk must understand that the Samaritan put himself at risk to help the man on the road. He helped a foreigner, and he exposed himself to the bandits by stopping to help. To paraphrase MLK, Jr., the true neighbor does not ask “if I help this person, what will become of me?” The true neighbor, and thus the true Christian, asks “if I do not help this person, what will become of him?”

When we turn away those who wish to come to this country, we hurt them. What sense does it make to hurt those who want to become Americans?

Today, those thousands of multi-colored faces and thousands of voices raised in protest gave me hope. Thanks to the people who protested and the people who protected them. Today was a good day.Flag 16252139_10154602271003183_6158435873640428836_o

PROMISE KEPT!

Sig Hutchinson and Matt Calabria deserve enormous credit for their hard work on this issue.

Sig Hutchinson and Matt Calabria deserve enormous credit for their hard work on this issue.

WAKE COUNTY APPROVES TRANSIT REFERENDUM!

On Tuesday night, a broad cross-section of community leaders and organizations celebrated a victory many years in the making. The Wake County Transit Plan, the product of two years of work and community discussion, passed by a 53-47 margin.

As a result, Wake County will be able to raise and spend $2.4 Billion of local money over 10 years which, combined with Federal grants and some GoTriangle bonds, will fund the development of a vastly improved public transit system. With three times as many buses running 7 days a week, 19 hours a day, Bus Rapid Transit, Commuter Rail, and a vastly expanded network of commuter express buses, the Wake County Transit Plan will make public transportation an option that is there when you need it, rather than something you need to plan your life around. It will make an enormous difference in our community.

My colleagues Sig Hutchinson and Matt Calabria deserve a huge amount of credit for their hard work and leadership on this measure. But we were joined in that effort by a bipartisan coalition built to prepare Wake County for the growth that is coming. Moving Wake Forward is a remarkable and unprecedented group made up of many corporations, individuals and community groups. It is the first time I can remember the Raleigh Association of Realtors, the Sierra Club, WakeUP Wake County, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce all on the same side of an issue.

In 2014, my colleagues and I ran for Commission on a promise to place a transit plan on the ballot and pass it in 2016. For the last three weeks, during early vote and on Election Day, it was my pleasure to stand and meet voters and tell them about the importance of transit to our growing community and the details of this plan. We promised to do this.

I am happy to say that’s a promise kept.

 

 

Voter Fraud? Show me the proof

Today, I sent this letter to the Vice Chairman of the Wake County Republican Party. In an earlier attempt to recruit poll observers, the Wake County GOP claimed that Democrats were engaged in “daily” voter fraud, including registering the dead and giving false registration information.

Because I believe allegations of voter fraud should be taken seriously and not made lightly, I invited Vice Chairman Hellwig to send me the proof of such fraud, and I would bring all the resources of my office to bear in rooting it out before the election.

Here’s the letter:

hellwigletter

The text reads:

Dear Vice Chairman Hellwig:

I read, with interest, your letter requesting that people register to be GOP poll observers for the upcoming 2016 General Election. As a Wake County elected official, I certainly support the presence of statutorily-allowed election observers at polling stations to ensure that voters have the opportunity to cast legal votes for the candidates of their choice. But I was alarmed by some of the accusations in your letter. Your statements that “nearly every day we see some new example of voter fraud or [Democrats’] attempt to subvert the will of the people” and “registering dead people or falsifying voter information” are certainly serious accusations. Further, I am concerned that a precinct observer will be unable adequately to combat such obvious crimes on Election Day.

Therefore, as a Wake County elected official with budgetary responsibility for the Board of Elections, I would like to assist in rooting out these purported frauds now, before the election season officially begins. After all, I am sure you will agree that neither of us wants to create any unnecessary disturbances at the polling places, which might actually prevent valid votes from being cast and counted.

However, time is running short. So let’s work quickly. By next Friday, October 14, please provide me with evidence of daily examples of voter fraud in Wake County and each instance of the intentional registration of dead people or falsified voter information. Feel free to call me to discuss the best way to deliver this information, as from the tone of your letter, it sounds quite voluminous. Together, we should be able to draw the attention of the Board of Elections to these issues and root out such fraud before the election, rather than relying on challenging voters in an ad hoc fashion on Election Day.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is dedicated to providing financial support for a fair and democratic elections process in Wake County. We value our citizens’ civic engagement and their history of turning out in heavy numbers in national elections. This year should be no different, and I am certain that both major political parties share the belief that every voter should have their vote counted without interference or subterfuge. I must take the allegations in your letter seriously, because I simply cannot believe that an official of one of our two major parties would intentionally call for interference with the right to vote.

I look forward to receiving the evidence of any of the frauds mentioned in your letter, so that we can work together to ensure a fair election.

Sincerely,

John D. Burns
Wake County Commissioner
District 7

Such accusations undermine voters’ faith in democracy and in our institutions. They are dangerous. At a time when the confidence of the American public in our government and democratic process is being shaken every day, it is irresponsible to use such accusations for political gain.

If they have the proof, then I am sure the Wake GOP will provide me with the evidence. If they do not, then the Wake GOP owes voters an apology.

-JB

It’s on all of us

Violent people in Charlotte disrupted a peaceful protest. Quit calling those people protesters. Doing so delegitimizes the reason for the protest, which is something we must discuss and deal with and, yes, protest.

I’m here today at the Wake County First Responders Appreciation Breakfast. We are hearing stories of Sheriff deputies that pulled intoxicated drivers out of burning cars, police officers that talked psychologically suffering people off ledges, and EMS personnel saving the life of a prematurely born infant.

All of these duties came because society is not meeting its responsibilities. We are not meeting our responsibilities to enable treatment of the mentally ill. We are not dealing with the problem of substance use disorder, and we are not providing adequate prenatal care. And, most importantly, we are not confronting the problem of institutional racism, leaving our police officers as sometimes the only point of interaction between “the system” and those it leaves behind. That’s not fair to the officers, and it does nothing to fix the issue or confront the challenge posed by institutional racism.

Dealing with this issue is on all of us. People are dying because we don’t know how to discuss the problems, and many of us in government find it easier to focus on other things.

Work with each other. Talk to each other. We will get through this.

Wake County stands with the people of Charlotte.

The 2016-2017 Wake County Budget

Next week, the County Manager will issue his proposed budget. Knowing Jim Hartmann the way I do, I expect his proposed budget to be well-reasoned, supported by data, and moderate. We have had some internal discussions about areas of emphasis, and of course, the school system has adopted its official request. All of those numbers will come together in a proposed budget on Monday, and then we can start discussing the good and the not so good.

One thing about Jim Hartmann, he will have done his homework, and if I or anyone else disagrees with a budget item, we’re going to have to do a lot of work to come to a conclusion other than the one he reaches. We have tasked Jim with the direction we believe the people want the County to go. He and his team of professionals will give us their best shot at getting us there over the next 12 months.

I expect that a good budget will not please everyone. That’s kind of the way budgets work. But I will be looking for the direction the county is headed under a proposed budget. If I feel it is headed the right way in a responsible fashion, I will be inclined to support it. If not, I’ll speak up. Either way, I’ll listen to you.

This year in particular, I will be looking for a few specific things:

  1. a dedication to the lowest responsible tax rate we can sustain while meeting our responsibilities.
  2. maintenance of historically-high appropriations to the Wake County Public Schools, to continue the recovery from a period of underinvestment.
  3. focus on the areas of emphasis passed by the County Commission this year, including a renewed effort to care for those people who are in our custody, whether that is through the Sheriff, Child Protective Services, or Mental Health. We have a responsibility to meet their needs, and to keep them and our County employees who support them safe.
  4. continued support for cultural, economic, educational and charitable institutions that promote a sense of community here in Wake County. Last year I was happy to support increased investment in the NC Symphony and Smart Start. Those are the kind of high return-on-investment agencies I am speaking of.

In addition, at our work session on Monday, we heard a report from the Wake County Fire Services Director. Chief Campasano laid out a detailed plan that the Fire Commission and Commissioner Calabria have put together to improve the service and funding of our rural and community fire departments around Wake County. That plan will require changes to the fire tax, which the Manager will also recommend Monday. The plan makes sense and will result in better and more efficient fire protection for the 20% of our population that live within the fire tax district (essentially those outside of the service areas of the Raleigh and Cary Fire Departments).

As usual, I will be as transparent as I can be on my thoughts and concerns about the budget. You are welcome to contact me.

Two Votes Worth Explaining

Today, we had two issues come before us that I thought merited an explanation of my vote.

First, we approved the Wake County Public School System’s request for an appropriation to allow them to rent a commercial building near the school system Central Office in Cary in order to house elements of new programs for middle and high school students who do not fit in to the normal track. They will use the facility as a hub for the SCORE program for long-term suspended students as well as for a new online and alternative high school for highly motivated self-learners. In addition, the building will house the employees who will deliver wrap-around services to these students, such as special counselors, social workers and others.

I voted for this lease, despite the price tag, because the terms of the lease are competitive, and the school system answered our questions in detail. The deal must be approved by the County Commission and the Local Government Commission by February 6 in order for the lease to be available. While I did not appreciate that the County had to make a multi-year commitment to funding the lease and the programs based on the timetable imposed by the commercial landlord, ultimately the programs are sorely needed, and the idea is a good one.

Nevertheless, I take my fiscal responsibility as your Commissioner quite seriously, and will continue to review such requests very carefully.

Second, we held a public hearing concerning the Town of Holly Springs’s request for an extension of its Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) into southwestern Wake County. ETJs are a vital tool in both the County and local municipalities toolkits to ensure careful and deliberate planning of development and expansion of municipal services such as water, sewer and street maintenance. However, in this instance, there were citizens who opposed the extension who raised questions that I thought deserved to be heard in more detail than we could accomplish in a public hearing in a meeting with a full agenda. So I moved to refer the extension to our Growth, Land Use & Environment committee and my colleagues agreed.

Over the next two months we will use this case as a vehicle to discuss how ETJs work, what they mean for the people living in the areas that are subject to the expansions, and how we can assure that people who live outside of the town limits can feel better represented in the process. I hope at the end of the process that people will feel they have been listened to, and they understand the nature of the process a little better.

This really is a fun job.

Happy New Year!

As I write this note from my office, the rest of my family has already gone to the beach, where we gather every year with several other families to welcome in the New Year. This is a tradition we’ve been following now for almost 20 years. No matter what life throws our way in each passing year, we all make a point to get together each year. We’ve taken care of each other through thick and thin, and those experiences build bonds that last. Life’s changes shouldn’t get in the way of what’s important at this time of year: family, friends, and hope for the future.

That same focus on building bonds is what drove us here in Wake County in 2015. From a new focus on education in our budget, to new parks and open spaces, we are building a Wake County our children and grandchildren can enjoy many years from now. And with two changes to our own employment policies, Wake County is setting a standard for how employees should be fairly treated and compensated.

As for the year ahead, 2016 will bring the passage of a comprehensive transit plan that will offer new choices and freedom to those who live and work in Wake County. We will also work with our friends and neighbors on tackling two of the great problems that face us as we grow: affordable housing and treatment of those confronting mental illness. It all comes back to caring for each other and building bonds in our community.

So, once I join my family and friends and we toast 2016 in a few days, I will say thanks to you and the voters of Wake County for offering me the opportunity to work to build those ties and bonds. And I look forward to working with you to build a better Wake County in the year to come. If you’d like to help with that work, please help me keep this site going by clicking here and donating a few dollars. I appreciate every one.

Happy New Year!

John

2016 Wake County Real Estate Reappraisal

If you own real property in Wake County, this week you will be receiving a notice of the 2016 reappraised value of your real estate. Reappraisal is required by statute at least every eight years, and Wake County’s last reappraisal was in 2007/08. This year-long process is a massive undertaking, requiring the appraisal of tens of thousands of properties throughout the County.

This process is highly detailed, conducted by professional appraisers and real estate experts, and is performed according to a Schedule of Values which determines what the current market rate is in 2015-2016 for every piece of property in Wake County. That is the value at which your real estate will be taxed in the coming years.

If you disagree with the value that has been determined for your specific property, you may appeal your reappraisal. Details of how to appeal can be found at the Wake County Tax Office website.

Questions about how they appraised your property?

If you have questions about your reappraisal, Wake County has staffed up with customer service operators with specific knowledge about this process, and you can call 919-857-3800. The online appeals website is https://services.wakegov.com/taxportal.

What will this mean for my taxes?

As a Wake County taxpayer, I want to know this answer as much as you do. But I can’t answer it yet. We will not know until a budget is developed in May/June of 2016. At that point, I and my colleagues will vote on a budget, which will set the tax rate for Fiscal Year 2016-2017. We are required by law to present a tax rate that would be tax neutral as applied across the county. In other words, we have to show you in our budget proposal what tax rate would result in the same level of revenue to the County as we would have received if we had continued to tax on 2008 valuations (taking into account growth).

If the budget we pass contains a rate that is higher or lower than that revenue neutral rate, then we can talk about whether taxes have been raised or lowered on a countywide basis. It will remain my goal to keep taxes as low as it is fiscally prudent and responsible to keep them, and to explain to you as clearly as I can the reason for my vote. We will begin the budget process after the Holidays, and I will keep you updated on that process through this website and emails.

As former General Assembly Legislative Counsel Gerry Cohen wrote on my Facebook page:  “If your property values increase at a higher rate than the average increase in the county, then you will pay more under the revenue neutral rate if that is the adopted rate. If your increase is less than the average increase you will pay less. For taxpayers as a whole it averages out. (and generally under a revenue neutral rate the property tax on any motor vehicle you own will go down since ALL motor vehicle assessments drop as cars get a year older). In my subdivision, I saw an actual property tax decrease the last three revalauation cycles as I had the lucky foresight to buy in an area where values increased less than the county as a whole (even though my valuation itself actually increased). Your results may differ.”

Generally speaking, by the way, residential real property in Wake County increased in value by about 1% across the board over their values in 2008 (remember, we had a monumental recession in the middle that we have only now come out of). Some areas of the county dropped. Some areas rose more than that. That’s the nature of the market, and is something the tax professionals tried to take into account.

This can be a confusing process and concept. Please do not hesitate to ask questions by calling 919-857-3800. And by all means, if you feel the reappraised value of your property was in error, please pursue an appeal. We want to get this right.

 

 

 

 

 

Why a Living Wage for County Employees?

On Monday, the Wake County Board of Commissioners will vote on an ordinance drafted by my colleague Matt Calabria, which will guarantee a living wage, based on several cost-of-living formulas, of $13.50 per hour to all qualified regular full-time Wake County employees. I am proud to support this ordinance, and equally proud of the work Matt put into it. Jeff Billman at IndyWeek wrote an excellent story on the proposal.

Since this proposal was announced, I’ve seen some comment that the Living Wage ordinance shows that the Board of Commissioners is on a spending spree and will have to raise taxes again. Another person asked if we are violating our fiduciary duty by giving employees a raise, when they are working now for less.

A careful reading of the story shows that only a relatively small number of employees earn less than this amount, and the increase is expected to cost approximately $96k, out of an annual budget of over $1.3 Billion. Moreover, our stated goals of promoting Great Government, Economic Strength and building Social and Economic Vitality are all supported by this move. It will help recruitment, increase morale and set an example for governments around the region that our professional, full-time employees are treated like professionals.

[A prior version of this post contained quotes from an email from a Wake County EMS employee. Because of technicalities in the way EMS salaried employees are paid, this ordinance is not strictly applicable. Out of respect for the employee, I have removed her email.]