Durham Co. budget raises taxes, tackles racial equity, HIV, keeping people out of jail

The Durham County commissioners unanimously approved a nearly $625 million budget Monday night that raises the county property tax rate nearly 3.4%.

The new tax rate for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will increase from 68.9 cents to 71.2 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation.

The owner of a $300,000 home will pay $2,136 in county taxes, a $69 increase.

Property owners in the city of Durham also pay a city property tax. The city’s new property tax rate is 53.17 cents per $100 of assessed property value, a similar 3.3% increase

“We had many tough choices to make as there are many great and justified funding needs in our community,” county board Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said after the budget passed. “We have to make decisions that leverage strategic use of our limited public resources in our efforts to ensure that all people are thriving in our community.”

At the board’s last work session, members agreed to increase the allocation to Durham Public Schools by $250,000 more than the $7 million County Manager Wendell Davis had recommended.

After Commissioner Brenda Howerton said she would like to have seen an increase of $500,000, Commissioner James Hill proposed adding the extra $250,000 for education, even if it meant a larger property tax increase and even though the commissioners had already approved the budget.

Commissioner Heidi Carter said she would be in favor of such a move.

Budget Director Keith Lane signaled that the staff could make the money even out.

“There are many different revenue sources,” Lane said. “In a $500 million budget, $250,000, not to sound crass, in my world is not that much to find.”

If it did lead to a tax increase, Lane said, It would be less than half of one-tenth of a cent on the tax rate.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s appropriate to make a decision on the fly,” Jacobs said. “I personally don’t feel comfortable asking staff to do that just like this.”

In the end, the board did not add the additional $250,000.

The total amount allotted in the budget to education is nearly $160 million, the second largest expense in the budget after general government. Of that amount, nearly $146 million goes to the Durham Public Schools.

“Education and our children are prioritized in this budget,” Jacobs said. “Education is the most important factor impacting life outcomes and our children are our most vulnerable and precious resource. When we invest in our children, we are investing in our future”

In addition to the nearly $146 million allocated to the public school system, the budget allocates $5.44 million under the Department of Public Health and the Sheriff’s Office for school nurses and 27 school resource officers, respectively.

The budget also creates a racial equity officer and and HIV navigator and provides more than $4.8 million in funding for programs designed to keep residents out of the criminal justice system.

“The needs this year seemed deeper and very legitimate across the board,” Carter said. “from every department from the sheriff’s department to the public schools and all our departments, so it was really hard not to be able to fund all of the requests.”

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow commented on how the budget’s priorities reflects commissioners’ 2016 campaign promises.

“This is exciting stuff,” she said. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Howerton said she was glad the commissioners were able not to add to poverty in the county by “taking care of” county employees. “I’m very proud of that.”

The budget is approximately $15 million more than the previous budget and will support a total of 2,092 full time equivalent (FTE) positions, including 27.42 new FTEs.

Additionally, funding will support 11 FTEs for the Durham County Library to fill positions necessary to operate the newly renovated Main Library scheduled to reopen in 2020.

For the third consecutive year, the commissioners have approved increased funding to support Universal Pre-Kindergarten education. The budget includes an additional $1.6 million for Pre-K services, bringing total funding to date to $5.25 million.

The budget provides $7,900,158 for Durham Technical Community College, an increase of $341,955 allotted since last year’s budget cycle.

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