Penny Rich for County Commissioner

2021 BOCC Application

Orange County Board of Commissioners – Vacancy Application July 19, 2021
Address: 111 Mulberry Street #A, Carrboro, NC 27510
Phone: 919-960-0220
Registered Voter? yes _X__ no ___ 
Party Affiliation: DEM

1. What motivates you to want to serve as an Orange County commissioner, including why are you seeking an appointment now, as opposed to running for the seat during a previous election?

I have previously served as a county commissioner representing District 1 from 2012 to 2020. In 2020, I ran for re-election receiving 12,496 votes, but falling 7 votes shy of the re-election. Orange County residents in District 1 voted for me in that last campaign and many of those same residents are now encouraging me to submit my name for the vacant seat. I am dedicated to making Orange County a place for everyone to experience a good life by providing a sound basic education for every student; creating meaningful jobs that pay a living wage; creating housing options for our income diverse community; protecting green spaces for recreation; providing robust public transportation options so that residents can get to jobs, make doctor appointments, go to school and access our local economy; addressing urgent climate concerns; protecting civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights;   rejecting bigotry in all its forms, including racism, antisemitism, anti-Asian crime and Islamophobia; and continuing the push for broadband to become a utility making it available and affordable for all of our residents, especially those in rural Orange. Orange County can be a place for “Everyone”, we just need to include everyone and hear all of their voices in order to do so.

2. What do you consider to be one of the most important characteristics of a county commissioner? What in your experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a commissioner? What is your experience in shared governance or leadership? What steps do you take in making decisions?

The most important characteristic is strong leadership dedicated to making Orange County a place for “Everyone”. 
Over the past 8 years as a county commissioner, including four years as either Chair or Vice-Chair, I have developed and maintained relationships in the community and with staff; remained open and accessible to the public; showed passion and compassion in creating inclusive public policy; took risks to think outside the box; engaged with local elected officials in Orange County, our surrounding counties and state; and proved that I have the drive to get things done. 
However, the largest measure of my leadership came during the Covid pandemic. As the Chief Elected official in Orange County, I had to step into a leadership role that had no playbook, no policy, and, it seemed, no end in sight. In early March 2020, the mayors of the three towns and myself formed a working group for the COVID 19 pandemic and created State of Emergency orders in accordance with the Governor’s Executive Orders. We had regular meetings every Tuesday and Thursday, and met when needed to make crucial decisions in concert with the OC Health Department, emergency services, law enforcement, UNC Health Care, UNC, OWASA, managers and attorneys offices, NC Department of Health and Human Services, and the Governor’s Office.  Looking back, I met with the mayors on a daily basis and sometimes more than once a day. I was literally on the phone or on Zoom meetings all day and well into the night. I often checked in with the health director in the morning before we had a chance to have coffee, realizing that what was happening at 7:30 in the morning could change by 9:30 when our formal group met. This shared governance began March 2020 and continued through December 2020. During this time I delivered regular updates to all members of the BOCC, our school board chairs, our state legislators and Congressman Price. I brought suggestions and questions back to our working group  from the BOCC, our legislators and our congressmen. Congressman Price invited me and Health Director Quintana Stewart to a town hall to discuss OC Covid response and recovery plan where over 300 residents were present and I delivered a presentation to the Kenan Scholar Program where students and faculty engaged in conversation about the pandemic and recovery. 
Decisions made during Covid happened at a fast pace and I depended on and collaborated with my colleagues, the three mayors, and with legal counsel, to make the best possible decisions based on the information we were receiving at the time and the science. Because Orange County was in a state of emergency, I was able to work jointly with the mayors to move orders forward exponentially. 

In general my decision-making process is: 
1. Gather as much information as possible pertaining to the issue 
2. Utilize staff resources and expertise 
3. Connect with as many residents as possible, especially those that will be directly affected by the decision
4. Talk with my colleagues on all boards to widen my knowledge about their interests and expectations 
5. Consider the financial impact 
6. Consider the social justice impact 
7. Consider how this vote can change or worsen our climate mitigation goals

3. How would your appointment enhance diversity of the BOCC?

Diversity is about what makes each of us unique and it includes our backgrounds, personality, life experiences and beliefs – all of the things that make us who we are. It is a combination of our differences that shape our view of the world, our perspective and our approach. If we take a look at the BOCC there are 4 members from Chapel Hill and 2 from unincorporated Orange County. We are missing a Carrboro voice. I am that voice. I am an American Jewish Woman and business owner. My background and personal experiences have allowed me to recognize prejudice, injustice, sexism, racism, bigotry and antisemitism; calling it out and demanding that as a county, we do better.  
Sponsored resolutions and petitions:

In addition, I live with my mom who will be 92 this year. I am often challenged to view the world through her eyes and the change she has seen and the progress still yet to be made. She helps me understand and advocate for her and other seniors in Orange County. We are very fortunate to have a dedicated department on aging in OC.

4. What do you see as the most urgent unmet needs facing Orange County. Please limit to 5 or less and prioritize these needs, particularly if listing more than 3.

Although our elected leaders have been working hard on urgent unmet needs, the list has not changed much over the years due to roadblocks including funding, limits and regulations handed down from the North Carolina General Assembly, outdated zoning policy,  lack of political will, and reluctance to change. 
In order of priority, I see the needs as:
1. Housing –  It is not affordable, it is not equitable, it is not available
2. Climate – See question 11.
3. Broadband – inequitable access to the internet has profound implications for our residents and community. I believe that broadband access will not be equitable until it is regulated as a utility, provided to anyone who wants it at a reasonable cost. This became an urgent need during the pandemic.  I have worked on this my entire 8 years on the BOCC and sat on a number of advisory groups and boards including the Triangle Council of Governments, NC Technology Board, and NACO Technology and Telecommunications Committee. I have lobbied both the state and federal governments.
4. Education – One of the jobs of a BOCC is to deliver a sound basic education to every student through the budgetary process. This can not be fully achieved if the NCGA continues to decrease funding thereby requiring counties to fill in the gaps while also refusing to allow counties to provide broadband to its students and residents. – See question 6 for more detail.
5. Diversifying our tax base – Economic Development – See question 11.

5. If you could change one thing about the current county budget, what would that be?

I would consider funding for diverse, unique learning settings, as every child will not attend a four year college. In 2019, the BOCC commissioned a study with the Chamber for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro to examine the worker shortage in the skilled construction trades and the cost of a trades-craft training center. The gap analysis showed that there are minimal training opportunities for students in skilled construction trade occupations in Orange County.  Orange County Schools have a Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathway that is robust and includes agriculture, horticulture, business, IT, health sciences, culinary arts, and industrial courses of study. CHCCS Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools by comparison has significantly fewer options that are not offered at all schools. Hope Renovations is a non-profit focusing on training women in construction and some employers in the construction/trades business allow for on the job training through apprenticeships. Other than these three options students must seek education outside of the county through either Alamance Community College or Durham Tech Community College (the Durham Campus). 
The recommendation for Orange County is to partner with Durham Tech and expand the WayMakers program to the Orange County campus working in conjunction with  K-12 districts. WayMakers covers major skilled trades: construction, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, highway construction, power line maintenance, and entrepreneurship. These are well paying jobs, some paying much more than college educated professionals, and in 2019 the median pay for some of these skills ranged from 36K at the low end to nearly 90K annually.

6. What is your assessment of the county’s funding practices with regard to the two school systems? How do you propose the BOCC meet over $300 million in K-12 public schools capital needs?

Under North Carolina state law the state is responsible for funding instructional expenses while counties are responsible for funding capital expenses. Cuts to the state budget during the Great Recession have not been restored and local districts have been forced to take on a larger share of instructional expenses, including personnel, making it very difficult to balance all funding needs. As a higher wealth district, we are able to tap into our tax base to cope with inadequate state level funding, however, we still cannot mitigate the impacts of decreased state investments because we are simply plugging holes rather than building upon state support. 
Orange County has consistently had the highest per pupil spending in the state in both school districts. The target of 48.1% of the county’s budget is a starting point each year for school investment. While I was on the board there has never been a year where spending fell below this and in many years it is at 50% or higher of the overall county budget. 
A recent study reported that a majority of U.S. public school districts need to make major building repairs in at least half of their schools, yet many districts are left on their own to pay for these repairs. The state of North Carolina does not provide funding for school construction or renovation leaving it to counties to generate support through property taxes or bonds. We can not tax our way out of this problem. The only other option is to borrow money through a bond. Likely 2 bonds spread out over a period of time. Furthermore, the General Assembly needs additional pressure from county officials to place Governor Cooper’s infrastructure bond on the ballot, which would in part pay for additional funding for school buildings. Additionally, as commissioners we need to work with Congressman Price, who serves on the House Budget Committee, to receive our fair share of the $129 billion from the American Recovery Plan dedicated to school building repairs to add to previously allocated local funding. 

7. Do you support the 1909 Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools special district tax? How should it be used?

Commissioners can not create or eliminate a school district tax or any other overlay tax as it is  legislated by the General Assembly. I take my lead from the residents in the CHCCS district. If they continue to feel confident that the distinct tax is beneficial to the system, I will continue to support it. I support public school/education and always want what is best for each child. I raised two boys in Chapel Hill and both attended the CHCCS K-12 system and continued onto public colleges in the UNC system. 
Orange County Commissioners have a limited role on how the district tax or any other funding to the school/s is spent. In each budget year there is CIP (Capital Improvement Plan for building construction, renovations and repairs) funding and Operational funding supplied to the 2 school systems. I believe the  Orange County Commissioners have always respected the school board/s role in directing funds as needed by their districts. 

8. What is your vision for how Orange County should grow economically?

In 2019, I was closely involved with our efforts first hand as chair of the BOCC, and on the County’s small business loan advisory board. Along with the Economic Development team, I was eager to support the diverse economic mix including a broad range of job, salary, and skill options, as well as making progress on our tax base. Those new employment opportunities helped Orange County residents seek full time jobs, at or above the living wage, and with benefits. Examples of these diverse efforts during my tenure as a commissioner and Board Chair included: Wegmans (in collaboration with Chapel Hill), the ABB expansion (in collaboration with Mebane), Medline Industries (in collaboration with Mebane), and Well Dot (in collaboration with Chapel Hill). The cumulative value of those projects totaled approximately $125 million in taxable investment and over 1,400 new jobs. Orange County should continue to explore a variety of economic development options and various job opportunities for all segments of our community. 
Also, in 2019-20 the County issued over $1 million dollars in COVID- related emergency financial assistance grants to small businesses, with many of these grants issued to women and BIPOC-owned small businesses. These grants enable these valued locally owned businesses  to recover and grow. We need to continue supporting small/homegrown businesses, local agriculture and farms, and our minority business owners. More money from these local small businesses stay in the community and those dollars circulate in ways that larger, out of town businesses simply do not.
Orange County should continue partnering with the towns to regain the momentum we had before the pandemic, collaborating efforts to assist in finding tenants for the 2 large commercial office buildings in Chapel Hill (the Gwedline at Glen Lennox, and the Parkline, located beside Wegmans) and also working with Carrboro, Hillsborough and Mebane to ensure a robust business community as the pandemic recovery continues.
Lastly we need to help our Tourism and Arts directors promote Orange County. (two of the hardest hit industries during covid) As of 2016 non-profit Arts revenue reached $5.3 million dollars (for-profit venues such as the Cat’s Cradle are not calculated in this number), and on average, tourism brings in $1.9 million dollars a year.

9. One of the unfortunate outcomes of the pandemic is that the wealth gap has grown even greater. We anticipate what economists call a K-shaped recovery, in which pre-existing inequities are exacerbated. This disparity largely falls along lines of race. How can county commissioners ensure that prosperity in the coming years is more equitably shared?

In the fall of 2020 I delivered a speech at UNC to the Kenan Scholars Program  faculty and students, focusing on this topic. I explained how, in the face of the challenges, such as COVID-19, we tend to as a society front load policy and propose changes in a hurry, but we need to ask ourselves, how are we structuring our response through a racial equity lens? I expressed the need to change the top-down approach and prioritize shared decision making as a team where accountability has to be horizontal, especially to the community. I encouraged the Scholars, as future leaders, to sit down, take your guard down, and listen, always making room for BIPOC people at the table. 
I strongly support the County Commission’s approach of explicitly stating how social justice applies to each issue on the agenda. I want to further advance this type of thinking to use an equity lens on each decision, and ensure that we are centering those most in need. As the county recovers, we need to examine what tools we haven’t yet used to advance equity, and what tools are needed from the state level.
In spite of all the adversity that the pandemic brought, I remain optimistic about the opportunity for change. I believe it’s time to think about transforming our community to be more resilient, more inclusive, more equitable and more agile. While the pandemic has changed fundamental assumptions about human behavior that may never revert back to a pre-pandemic state, I believe we should take this opportunity to create a more equitable community where such disparities do not exist and everyone can thrive.

10. What steps do you think the Board of Commissioners could take to address the chronic lack of affordable housing in the county?

Preserve, Rehabilitate, Build
Preserving an existing home is significantly less expensive than constructing new affordable housing. Restrictive land use regulations make it difficult to build affordable rental housing for very low-income families and seniors. Replacing every lost affordable apartment or home is often unrealistic. In particular, preserving affordable housing near transit corridors is important for connecting low-income families and seniors to opportunities. 

Rehabilitating an existing affordable apartment or home can cost one-third less than building a new apartment. Rehabbing existing affordable housing also provides opportunities to integrate “green” technologies that make the buildings energy efficient, healthy for residents, and environmentally sustainable. “Green” technologies, such as weatherization, can be used to promote energy and water conservation, benefiting owners through lower maintenance costs and lower utility expenses for low income families and seniors.

Building – The County does not build housing, however, it can encourage conversation, planning, and innovation among those who can provide and build affordable housing while providing support through zoning and grants. While most of our affordable housing is within the towns, this needs to be a county wide effort for maximum return, especially since most of the affordable land in the county is in our unincorporated areas. 

The Orange County HOME Consortium has taken proactive steps to increase our housing stock and we can do more. For example, we can provide incentives to for-profit entities to produce multifamily units at a price point that households can afford. We can defer taxes and other fees for a set period of time in conjunction with federal or state tax credits to help the developer reduce construction costs and thus reduce the rental price. We can use county or town owned parcels as leverage to bring down the cost of construction or redevelopment as land is often very expensive and streamline the development and approval processes with fast-tracking programs.
Housing affordability requires a partnership between government and the private sector. The more both entities bring all their tools and assets into play, the greater the likelihood of finding viable solutions.

11. What should the county government be doing to address the climate crisis?

The first step is to acknowledge there is a crisis and that it will cost money to mitigate future climate events. We are currently living through a number of climate catastrophes: heat dome, fires, flooding, and landslides. The climate crisis disproportionately affects lower income communities and women around the world, making it a social justice/environmental justice crisis as well. As a county, we have taken some steps, and we can always do more.

  • Pledge to be a Climate Smart Community – we have done this 
  • Set Goals, Inventory Emissions, Set targets – The CfE (Commission for the Environment) does this and provides updates on a regular basis
  • Encourage our community to decrease energy use – continue education campaigns 
  •  Increase the county and community use of renewable energy – we can do better
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions- we have pledged to do so
  • Transition to 100% carbon neutral energy county wide by 2040 – we have pledged to do so

Orange County can continue climate mitigation by creating sustainable public transportation options, using more renewable energy at county facilities, reducing emissions through the use of electric vehicles or hybrids (including plug-in electric hybrids) in our county fleet, encouraging local food production and consumption, and promoting water conservation. We must invest in renewable energy, infrastructure updates, and help vulnerable residents.  Working with the CfE (Commission for the Environment) we need to identify initiatives, quantify the impacts, prioritize and develop implementation, use established metrics to fund initiatives, create a plan for each initiative and track the progress. 

12. Orange County is in the process of revising its long-term transit plan in the aftermath of the failure of the Durham-Orange light rail project. What do you believe a new plan should emphasize? What potential initiatives would you like to support?

I support a transit plan with a comprehensive approach that aligns with county and regional objectives and provides redundancy, increasing transportation resilience. Street space is a precious commodity that should be shared equitably to best provide affordable and convenient transportation options for all of our residents.
It is also key that we invest in connections to the rest of the Triangle. Congestion is predicted to worsen in the future, and the growth across our entire region means that people will continue to look across county lines to find job opportunities. If we want to keep the residents and support our businesses, we need to make sure that Orange County invests in travel options that make this possible. Without smart regional transit investments, Orange County is at risk of becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the Triangle.  I believe a new plan should emphasize:

  • Dedicated, safe, accessible and continuous multimodal corridors, including greenways 
  • Dedicated, safe, accessible, protected and continuous bike lanes
  • Dedicated lanes for public transit like BRT (Bus Rapid Transit)
  • Frequent, reliable service in densely populated areas – headways (the amount of time between transit vehicles at one stop) of 10-12 minutes max
  • Enhanced regional transit connectivity through collaborative relationships
  • Clean, well lit, and safe stops/stations powered by solar panels
  • Buses, heavy rail and future alternatives must have wifi connectivity
  • Real-Time arrival information apps ie. Nextbus
  • Continue to explore “Green” technology ie. Electric buses
  • Marketing strategies to spread awareness and build ridership

13. How should the BOCC interact with other governments—i.e., town councils, NC General Assembly?

As an elected official at the municipal and county level, I have had the pleasure of building relationships with many people including elected colleagues from the BOCC and the four towns (Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Mebane), the two school boards, state and regional boards, Orange County boards and commissions, The Greater Chamber of Chapel Hill/Carrboro members, UNC, UNC Hospitals, UNC School of Government, and local business alliances.
My philosophy for successful interaction ia as follows:
Coordination – Being flexible in organizing different elements of a complex issue to enable a healthy work atmosphere to balance positions.

Collaboration – Building an alliance and partnering with colleagues to work cooperatively to achieve positive outcomes.

Communication – The exchange of information to produce greater understanding of an issue or circumstance.

We are so fortunate to live in a county where elected officials respect differences and can work through challenges for optimum outcomes. A good example of this was the Covid pandemic response. As the chair of the BOCC I was confronted with the huge task of leading our county during this unthinkable time.

In 2020 I received four awards for my work:

WCHL Hometown Hero – nominated by the three Mayors – Lavelle, Hemminger and Weaver – for my resolute commitment in leading the response team charged with keeping the residents of Orange County informed, educated and safe.

The 2020 Orange County Emergency Services Award for my involvement with the COVID-19 Response Team. This was awarded December 4th 2020 and reads – “On March 5, 2020, you were present, steady, engaged and provided invaluable leadership. While this has not been easy for any of us, you demonstrated resilience and the highest level commitment to our community and staff of Orange County. We may never be able to quantify the thousands of lives that were saved through your dedication and leadership.” 
“The Challenge Coin presented to you by our department represents our collective appreciation for the compassion, care and unwavering dedication that has never faltered even under these stressful conditions. It is a symbol that you will always remain a part of an organization shrouded in honor, integrity, dedication, and service above self.” 

2020 Chair’s Award For Leadership in Public-Private Partnership
The Chamber has presented an annual Chair’s Award for Public Private Partnership to an individual or individuals whose work and community service builds bridges between the community’s public and private sectors. “Along with the 3 Mayor’s we honor Penny Rich, Chair of the Board of County Commissioners. Their exceptional leadership, partnership, and service to our community during the Covid-pandemic–specifically their collaborative decision-making that strove to successfully balance public health with the needs of local employers and our local economy has helped make Orange County one of the safest places to live and do business in North Carolina. Thank you for conducting your business, during these very difficult times, in partnership with the business community and the Chamber.  We are grateful for you, your leadership, and for your care and sacrifice to serve our community so well.” 

The Old North State Award- presented by Governor Cooper April 2021 for 20 years of service and leadership during COVID-
For dedication and service beyond exception and excellence to the Great State of North Carolina. As printed on the award, “Working together, we can make North Carolina the place of unlimited opportunity – a place where anyone who studies hard, works hard and lives a life with high values can fulfill and even exceed their potential”. 

I strongly align politically with the late great Senator Paul Wellstone in believing “When we all do better, we all do better”. Orange County can be a place for “Everyone” we just need to include everyone and hear all of their voices.

I am available to answer any additional questions or clarify my responses given.       phone 919-960-0220

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