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Support for $170 million Durham bond issues crosses party line

Rachael Riley;

DURHAM -- Organizers of Durham County’s $170 million bond referendum are finding bipartisan support, in contrast to the partisanship marking other ballot issues.

At a news conference Thursday at Northern High School -- which is expected to receive $51.87 million in proceeds for a new school if the proposed schools bond passes -- co-chairs of the bond committee said the package includes something for everyone in the community.

“We’ve decided to come together to really invest in our children -- and not just our children -- but the assets that give them capacity to be better to compete,” said Farad Ali, a co-chairman of the bond panel.

The four bonds found on the back and bottom of ballots seek support to raise $90 million for the Durham Public Schools, $44.3 million for Durham County Library renovations, $20 million for Durham Technical Community College and $14.1 million for the Museum of Life and Science.

More than 15 conservative and liberal organizations are endorsing the bonds -- including the Friends of Durham, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the People’s Alliance,

Dick Ford has been a member of the Friends of Durham and describes himself as “fiscally conservative.”

In the past, Ford said he has fought against a transit tax in Durham. Yet he said he is able to support the current bond proposal.

“We’ve already decided we want these county facilities,” Ford said. “We want these institutions in the county. Now we have to provide them with proper funding. The bonds are focused, targeted, modest, and the time is right.”

Ford said DPS needs to enhance its security to protect students and infrastructure updates.

“We’re not talking frills, we’re talking functions,” he said.

The library needs update to serve future generations or those who do not have access to internet at home, Ford said.

“These are real needs related to equality about which so much we hear,” he said.

Michael Goodmon, bond committee co-chairman, highlighted the Durham Performing Arts Center, ballpark and growth in downtown Durham as past successful public-private partnerships “that have to be anchored by the city and county making smart financial investments” into the future.”

Durham County’s last request for a bond passed by voters was in 2007.

County commissioners whittled $400 million worth of requests to the $170 million on the ballot now.

“The county commissioners were very conservative in the projects they approved,” Ford said.

According to proposals, approval of the bonds would mean a 2.5 cent property tax increase.

The county is paying down its existing debt, which is “under what it could be,” said Keith Lane, Durham County director of budget and management services.

“We’ve looked out over the next 10 years, and we feel confident that we can handle this increased debt load,” Lane said.

If approved, the new bonds would have a low interest rate because of the county’s AAA affirmed bond rating, he said.

The $14.1 million for the Museum of Life and Science would go toward exhibit maintenance, new classrooms and spaces, and create more parking, said Julie Rigby, vice president of external relations.

Between employees, using local vendors and attracting visitors, Rigby estimated the museum generates an annual $25 million economic impact for the county.

Durham County’s main library at 300 N. Roxboro St., is 35 years old, Library Director Tammy Baggett said.

The $44.3 million would transform the existing structure, expand the library’s North Carolina collection, which currently has items in storage, create business and meeting space and allows for expansion of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) programs.

“(It’s to) just really build on the success of the traditional library and adding even more technology,” Baggett said.

Half of DPS’ $90 million would be for a new Northern High School campus, and $7.3 million for renovations to Eno Valley Elementary School.

“But almost every site will get something,” said Hugh Osteen, deputy superintendent for operation services.

With more than 50 school sites, security, heating and cooling, lighting upgrades and more will make the facilities “good places to learn,” Osteen said.

Durham Tech’s $20 million portion would transform its oldest building on campus -- the Newton industrial engineering technologies that houses central programs, such as automotive, machining and information and technology, said Carver Weaver, executive director of marketing for Durham Tech.

All of the bonds support education, DPS Superintendent Bert L’Homme said.

DPS students use the Museum of Life and Science for field trips, students go to the library during the summer and Middle College High School at Durham Tech allows students to earn both college and high school credits, he said.

“When we’re talking about this all connected, it’s even more connected than you can imagine,” L’Homme said.