Orange County considers upping its tax rate

Five days a week, Mary Rogers drives 25 minutes to and from her job at Carrboro High School.

Rogers, who lives in Alamance County, says she would like to be closer to work — but the county’s high property tax rate makes that impossible on a teacher’s salary.

And if both Chapel Hill and Orange County follow through on discussions about raising taxes, the area could become even less accessible to the middle class.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners is considering a 1.1 cent increase to its property tax rate — already the fourth highest in the state — bringing the rate from 85.8 cents per every $100 to 86.9 cents.

The increase would cover the county’s $1.7 million deficit — a difference resulting from expenditures for emergency services, employee compensation and education.

Orange County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier said though she is worried about making an already expensive area even more out of reach, the commissioners might have no better options.

“We do have a huge problem already with affordability,” Pelissier said. “Chapel Hill itself is already very much a commuter town — if you look at UNC or county government, many employees come in from Durham or Alamance counties.”

Pam Durban, a writer and creative writing professor in the UNC Department of English and Comparative Literature, said she plans to leave Chapel Hill as soon as she retires.

“I’ve lived here since 2001, and in those 11 years my property taxes have doubled,” Durban said. “I can afford it now, but when I retire I won’t be able to.”

She said considering how high the county’s tax rate is, she doesn’t think she’s getting her money’s worth in services.

“It’s way out of line,” Durban said. “I’ve never lived anywhere with taxes this high.”

But Pelissier said it was not realistic to expect property tax rates to stay static in Orange County.

“You can’t go forever without an increase,” she said. “Everything else becomes more expensive over time, like energy, and we can’t pay 2008 prices for services we’re receiving in 2013.”

Chapel Hill is also facing an $880,000 deficit, prompting the Chapel Hill Town Council to discuss a potential tax hike.

For four years the town has avoided a tax increase by keeping operating budgets steady and not undertaking new initiatives.

But this year, the town will take on several large expenses, such as the expanded Chapel Hill Public Library and changes to solid waste disposal when the Orange County landfill closes in June.

Town Council member Gene Pease said the town would have to either cut or privatize services to avoid the tax increase.

“We would prefer not to increase taxes,” Pease said. “The increase would hit everybody, especially low-income people who are getting squeezed out of Chapel Hill as it is.”

But Ken Pennoyer, business management director for Chapel Hill, said though he isn’t in favor of a tax increase, the additional burden would be relatively small.

“If we increased the tax, it would be by somewhere between a penny and two pennies,” Pennoyer said. “I know that in these economic times every little bit counts, but that’s not a huge amount.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said he thinks the town might be able to avoid a tax increase.

“We have a lot of options and a lot of things to discuss,” Kleinschmidt. “The last thing we want to do is tax people out of town.”

Contact the desk editor at city@dailytarheel.com.

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