Parks upkeep splits council candidates
In a forum Tuesday with little in the way of fireworks, it took a question about the care of Durham’s parks to prompt candidates for mayor and the Ward 2 City Council seat to stake out a few of their differences.
Ward 2 hopefuls Omar Beasley and Eddie Davis joined Mayor Bill Bell in arguing for an ordered approach to maintenance planning, one that, as Davis put it, looks “at all the facilities under the city’s control” to ensure they’re available to the public for a long time to come.
But Ward 2 candidates Franklin Hanes and Del Mattioli were quicker to echo mayoral challenger Sylvester Williams’ suggestion that city officials tap volunteers, allowing and encouraging neighborhoods to lend a hand with upkeep.
“You can put your time and sweat into making it better,” Williams said, citing the example of the people who live around C.R. Woods Park in East Durham.
Hanes added that maintenance shortfalls are a function of capital.
“When we talk about maintenance, we’re talking about money,” he said. “A lot of times we can sit back and say what we need, knowing we don’t have the money to do it with.”
The candidates came together at downtown’s Durham County Library for what likely will be their only joint appearance leading up to the Oct. 8 primary that will narrow the field to two in both races. Early voting begins on Sept. 19.
The League of Women Voters and the Inter-Neighborhood Council sponsored Tuesday’s forum.
For much of the night, the Ward 2 candidates generally voiced support for the direction Bell and the incumbent members of council have set for city government. They are vying for a chance to replace longtime Councilman Howard Clement, who’s stepping down this winter.
There was more discord amongst the mayoral candidates, most of it originating from Williams, who challenged Bell in the 2011 election. This time around, they’re sharing the primary ballot with Michael Valentine, a political newcomer who pledged a “clean race.”
The question about parks touched on an issue the council discussed in depth in early August, as members reviewed the draft of the city’s new long-range parks plan.
They later approved the plan, by a 6-0 vote in Clement’s absence, even though Bell was dissatisfied with its treatment of the maintenance issue.
He wanted administrators to spell out for parks the sort of detailed repair schedule that they created a few years ago for the Durham Performing Arts Center.
“We have about 66 different parks in the city; we’ve got to put a master plan together in terms of how we maintain those before I’d be willing to support [building] any additional ones,” Bell said, repeating what he told the council in August.
Beasley, a member of the city’s Recreation Advisory Commission, added that city leaders have had to “pick and choose” repair projects “because the budget is so short.” He added that officials monitor the use of the parks and look to phase out any that see little use.
But Williams disputed that approach, arguing that the city shouldn’t be in the business of closing recreation facilities in low-income neighborhoods. He preferred opening the city’s financial reserves to pay for programs, even at risk of its AAA bond rating.
The talk of using volunteers also touched on a longstanding issue, one illustrated by a running debate between city officials and Duke Park neighborhood activists.
Duke Park leaders have sought a chance to raise money on their own to pay for the conversion of an old bathhouse in the neighborhood’s namesake park into a community center.
But city officials have been skeptical of the idea’s practicality, and also leery of inheriting an ongoing operational expense that isn’t in parks department’s long-range plan.
Park operations throughout Durham consume about $10.7 million a year. As for maintenance and new construction, the city is working off $26.7 million in past capital allocations. But officials figure on adding just $4.2 million in new capital spending to the program going forward, and nothing at all after fiscal 2015-16.
Valentine also signaled interest in making more use of volunteers but put a different twist on the idea by saying officials should enlist help from N.C. Central University and Duke University.
Tuesday’s forum only involved candidates in next month’s primary. Also up for grabs in November’s general election are the Ward 1 and Ward 3 council seats.
In Ward 1, incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden is running unopposed. The Ward 3 field pits incumbent Don Moffitt against former County Commissioner Pam Karriker.