Budget hearing yields complaints about sidewalks

Jun. 03, 2014 @ 02:26 PM

The City Council might be addressing problems with street paving and parks maintenance, but it needs to start paying attention to the condition of Durham’s sidewalks, participants in a Monday budget hearing said.

Council members fielded a request from Peter Skillern, executive director of an advocacy group called Reinvestment Partners, to double the $100,000 budgeted cash allotment for sidewalk repairs in fiscal 2014-15.

Skillern said officials need to cut the waiting time for sidewalk repair projects, but in reality it’s “one of the harder things to get the city to invest in.”

The issue also surfaced during an “e-Town Hall” question-and-answer session before the formal hearing on City Manager Tom Bonfield’s fiscal 2014-15 budget request.

And Councilman Eugene Brown said the complaints are valid. “We are sidewalk-poor in Durham,” he said. “There’s a deficiency here.”

Brown added that officials should have devoted part of a $20 million street-paving bond passed 2010 to sidewalk work.

Monday’s hearing also saw residents of an eastern Durham neighborhood renew complaints about its unfinished streets, and a group tied to the conservative movement ask the council to hold the line on the tax rate.

James O. Williams, president of the homeowners association in Stone Hill Estates, said residents there are losing patience with the lack of progress on completing the initial paving work the neighborhood’s developer left unfinished after going bankrupt in late 2008.

Stone Hill is among the subdivisions the city’s Public Works Department has labeled “failed and struggling developments” because of similar issues with developer-abandoned infrastructure work.

Developers are supposed to procure insurance that guarantees completion. But in Stone Hill’s case, payment is tied up in federal litigation. City officials and the insurers of the former developer, McGregor Development Co., disagree on how much of the necessary work should be covered.

A federal magistrate judge, Patrick Auld, received dismissal motions from each side in the lawsuit at the end of 2012 and has yet to hand down a ruling. City officials, meanwhile, have said they don’t want to go ahead and pay for the work for fear of giving the insurers ammunition to use against them in court.

That’s frustrated homeowners, some of whom are beginning to put their homes on the market, Williams said.

“They are totally disgusted,” he added.

Meanwhile, the conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, sent a spokesman to Monday’s hearing to oppose City Manager Tom Bonfield’s request for a 1.29 cent increase in the city’s property tax rate.

The council has signaled it’s likely to add another 1.07 cents to that, a half cent to boost parks maintenance and the rest to replace the $1.80-a-month trash collection fee it now imposes on homeowners.

But Americans for Prosperity before the hearing issued a news release that faulted city leaders for incurring “considerable debt over the past few years” – voters approved major bond issues in 2005 and 2007 along with the one in 2010 – and said the council should keep the tax rate flat.

The group, which usually allies with the Republican Party, also doesn’t like the city’s many business-recruitment incentive deals. “If you’re about the business of revitalization and trying to bring prosperity to Durham, the best way to do it would be to trim the fat out of the budget,” said Donald Bryson, its Garner-based deputy state director.

He added that the council should also worry about helping the real estate market to recover from the 2008 crash and that in that arena, raising taxes “doesn’t help.”

One councilman, however, was quick to point out that Durham’s economy is among the strongest in North Carolina.

“The tax burden in Durham is certainly not keeping any businesses out of Durham,” Councilman Steve Schewel said. “Durham is filling up with businesses that want to come here and live here. They’re pouring into Durham.”

A blogger and real estate agent who monitors south Durham market trends, Steve Nicewarmer, posted on his “Bull City Real Estate” blog recently that April sales numbers suggest it’s going to be “a good year for housing” in that part of the city.