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November 2011 Newsletter
Dear Neighbor:

The colorful foliage of this fall has faded, most of the leaves are now on the ground, and the holidays are suddenly upon us.  We trust that you will find time during this busy week for an informative update on rural Orange County, including progress on problems with Emergency Services, a key topic of last month's newsletter.

As always, there's much more to report.  Here are the headlines:  

    

In This Issue
Upcoming Events
Commissioners Choose Cooperation over Consultants to Resolve Emergency Services Issues
Rural Communities Hit Hardest by Delays in Ambulance Response
Fire Districts, Insurance Districts, and Tax Districts
Rural Fire Insurance Ratings
Development Coming to Orange County Speedway
"Drill, Baby, Drill!" SB 709 is Back!
Despite Rural Opposition, Sales Tax Passes
Duke Energy Responds to Public Pressure with a 12% Rate Hike

Upcoming Events 

  • Santa on the Farm!  Maple View Agricultural Center is offering Evening Hayrides with Santa during the first three weekends in December.  Reservations recommended.  Cookies and stories are included--and, of course, Maple View milk!  For more information, click here
  • No Time to Cook?  Check out the new Hillsborough Barbecue Restaurant--owned by rural neighbor Tommy Stann.  Yes, you can order a turkey for take out.  See the fall menu at http://hillsboroughbbq.com or call 732-HOGS.  
Commissioners Choose Cooperation Over Consultants to Resolve Emergency Services Issues
 

During a three-hour work session devoted to the county's Emergency Services, county commissioners asked the county staff to work with rural and town fire departments, the county sheriff, and other agencies--rather than retain consultants--to find solutions to the problems with radio communications, 911 dispatch, ambulance response, and other issues impacting the county's emergency operations. 

Led by Commissioner McKee, himself a former rural firefighter and first responder, the commissioners asked penetrating questions in an attempt to understand how $15-20 million of improvements proposed by the county would solve critical issues raised by both local fire departments and citizens. (To see the county's proposals, click here.)

The commissioners quickly realized that proposed improvements would do little in the short- to intermediate-term to correct problems.  For example, a proposed multi-million dollar investment in cell towers, repeaters, and other equipment would help with coverage, but would not fix the radio outages that place firefighters in danger.  Proposed new ambulance substations, costing $500,000 each, overlooked options to locate ambulances at rural fire stations.  There were no proposals for short term improvments to systems or procedures to remedy delays in emergency dispatch.

As a result, the commissioners chose not to support the county's request to retain consultants to further the proposed improvements.  Instead, they asked the county to work with fire, police, and other emergency agencies to agree on solutions that can improve emergency operations in both the long and short term.

We are pleased that the commissioners have chosen this direction, which draws on local expertise to develop practical solutions to problems that they face every day.  The proposed collaboration is the first step towards a coordinated emergency response, in the event of major disaster.


The county work group proposal, including its charter and composition, will be presented to the Board in January, so that citizens can provide input on the process. 

Rural Communities Hit Hardest by Delays in Ambulance Response

During last week's work session, commissioners learned that the countywide average ambulance response time measure blurs a disparity in service.  Chapel Hill and Carrboro, the most highly populated communities within the county, have an average ambulance time of 11 minutes.  The response time for the remainder of the county can be as long as 45 minutes, and the countywide average is 17 minutes.

Thanks to the efforts of rural fire departments, first medical responders are typically on site within minutes, providing support and assistance to rural families as they wait for the ambulance to arrive.

With these more precise response time statistics, the new work group will be able to pinpoint service problems and truly improve emergency medical response.  For example, maintaining an ambulance and full-time corresponding staff at a northern county fire station could improve response times in the northern part of the county.  It is important to acknowledge that ambulances are a moving fleet, so a northern substation is only part of the solution.

While not discussed at the work session, emergency response professionals also believe that the county should increase the number of emergency vehicles in the field.  It is important to add that not all need to be advanced life support ambulances, which are expensive to purchase and operate.

Many medical emergencies can be effectively handled with a basic life support ambulance, or even a paramedic dispatched without an accompanying ambulance.  With a diverse emergency response fleet, the county can improve both coverage and response times--with the added benefit of a reasonable cost to taxpayers.

OCV hopes that these suggestions, along with others, will be fully developed by the work group.

Fire Districts, Insurance Districts, and Tax Districts

 

If you are among the 1,500 or so households impacted by the new insurance guidelines, you'll be pleased to hear that the county is moving closer to resolving your issues.  Since the NC Department of Insurance now allows insurers to use ISO ratings for fire insurance, homeowners who live more than six miles from their primary fire station are deemed "not covered" and consequently are experiencing sharp increases in insurance premiums.

The issues behind this are complex, and solutions vary depending upon where you live and which fire departments currently serve you.  Every rural household is assigned to a single fire/tax district, but is served under a mutual aid agreement where the three closest fire departments are dispatched to every fire.  The fire departments work together to deliver water, manpower, and equipment to the scene.  The system offers good coverage to rural areas, all at a reasonable cost.

In areas of the county served exclusively by rural fire departments, county officials are working to change insurance district lines without changing fire or tax districts.  Because of the mutual aid agreements, the change in insurance districts has little impact on service.  Such a change has already been made for the Grand Oaks community, effective November 1.

The solution is a bit more complex in areas of the county where rural fire departments coordinate with the towns.  For instance, residents of the eastern portion of the Orange Grove Fire District are served under a mutual aid agreement with the town of Carrboro.  Carrboro will will not change insurance districts without also changing tax districts--even though the mutual aid agreement would remain unchanged.  As an alternative, the Orange Grove Fire Department will build new substations, which will place  most homes within the six mile limit.  The substations should be completed within twelve months, at which time affected residents can seek a reduction in insurance premiums.

For residents in the southern part of the county--near Southern Village, just outside the Chapel Hill town limits, and known as the "Southern Triangle"-- the commissioners are looking at options that involve splitting the fire district.  The Chapel Hill Fire Department can serve the portion of the district which has high-pressure fire hydrants and is connected to OWASA water lines.  Rural parts of that district, where water must be hauled, are best served through a traditional mutual aid agreement.  The work group will be considering various options in an effort to resolve this issue.

For the UNC School of Government's report on Insurance, Fire, and Tax Districts, click here
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Rural Fire Insurance Ratings
 
Fire, tax, and insurance districts are a sidebar distraction from the important work that our rural fire departments are doing to improve water access and other services that will directly improve fire coverage.  Fire departments are working to lower ISO ratings--which, in turn, will lower homeowner premiums for most residences by as much as 20-30%.  Residents who live in the Orange Rural and White Cross fire districts already enjoy these improvements.  The six remaining rural fire departments are actively pursuing similar measures which will take several years to complete.
Development Coming to Orange County Speedway

Small Area Plans govern economic development in rural areas.  Two such plans are now complete--one for Efland, the other other for the Orange County Speedway area, near NC 57, in the far northeastern corner of Orange County.  Shortly, the county is expected to move forward with these plans, including rezoning for the Orange County Speedway area.  For more, please contact County Planning Director Craig Benedict.

The commissioners may change the zoning for the Orange County Speedway area to meet the goals of the Small Area Plan.  Naturally, this is subject to public input.  At OCV's request, the commissioners agreed to not create a new rural economic development conditional zone which opens the door to industrial and commercial uses throughout the rural community.  This decision is consistent with the commissioners' ruling last spring on the Unified Development Ordinance. 

With the county's strong emphasis on economic development and the many changes in zoning that could potentially occur as a result, OCV also asked the county to clarify its conflict of interest policy.  More specifically, we asked, "Under what conditions is a commissioner expected to recuse him- or herself from a zoning decision due to personal or business interests?"
"Drill, Baby, Drill!"  SB709 is Back!

 

Clean Water for North Carolina (www.cwfnc.org) reports that the "Drill, Baby, Drill!" SB709, vetoed by Governor Perdue in June, is back.  This bill would "fast track" both Fracking for natural gas (currently illegal in NC) and off-shore oil drilling--as well as creating an industry-dominated "Energy Jobs Council".  The NC House of Representatives has called a special session for 8:00 PM on Sunday November 27, the Sunday following Thanksgiving, that could include an attempt to override Governor Perdue's veto!

Please call your state legislator today or soon after, to remind them that SB709 is dangerous--and please not to override the governor's veto of SB709!

For a direct link to home district contact information for your House member, click here.

Water, air, land, and safe communities are far more precious and essential to us than short-lived fuel sources that will provide financial benefits to a disproportionate few, and which could cause permanent, irreparable damage to the public health and essential resources of our state.

If you need some convincing that Fracking and off-shore oil drilling are not in the best interest of our state, click here.
Despite Rural Opposition, Sales Tax Passes

On Tuesday, November 8, Election Day in Orange County, the sales tax referendum passed 60%-40%.  Due in part to the fact that this issue was placed on the ballot during an off-year municipal election, less than 18% of the county's electorate voted.  Every rural community in the county, and most of Hillsborough, voted against the tax.  For election results and map, click here.

On a percentage basis, more rural residents voted than town residents, although rural voters were outnumbered by those from the towns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough.  For rural residents, the sales tax was the only item on the ballot.  As you may remember, Commissioners McKee, Foushee, and Gordon voted to delay this referendum until May 2012, but were in the minority.  For an analysis, click here.

The commissioners are planning another sales tax referendum (-cent) to fund mass transit.  Look for it on the May or November 2012 ballot.

The May 2012 primary will be an important countywide election.  Four commissioners are up for re-election along with several Orange County School Board members.  Consider asking candidates where they stand on tax policy and what new taxes and/or service cuts we should expect from the county in the future.
Duke Energy Responds to Public Pressure with a 12% Rate Hike
 
Many thanks to the hundreds of citizens who showed up to protest Duke Energy's proposed 15% rate hike.  For an article on public reaction to Duke's request, click here.

The Public Staff, the consumer protection arm of the NC Public Utilities Commission, suggested that Duke reduce the increase by two-thirds.  Instead, Duke Energy counter-offered with a 12% rate increase, a move understandably seen by The Public Staff as "insulting".

How much of this rate increase is tied to Duke's interest in protecting shareholder returns?  For more, click here. 
As we move through the holiday season and towards the new year, please support your friends and neighbors by shopping locally.  Consider CSA subscriptions, unique and handcrafted gifts from local retailers and artists, and gift certificates from salons, bookstores and restaurants, as a means of sharing some of the best that Orange County has to offer.

With Thanksgiving soon upon us, we are especially grateful to Orange County's local heroes-- teachers, social workers, firefighters, medical professionals, and law enforcement officials, all of whom exemplify a commitment to service that enriches the quality of life for every one of us.

Our best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season.  

 
Sincerely,
 

Bonnie

Bonnie Hauser, President 
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Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.  - Margaret Mead
 
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