Durham County

DPS supporters, inmate advocacy groups comment on Durham County budget

The Durham Association of Educators and others prepare for a press conference before the Durham County commissioners budget hearing. The association asked the county to fully fund Durham Public Schools Board of Education request for $11 million more in funding.
The Durham Association of Educators and others prepare for a press conference before the Durham County commissioners budget hearing. The association asked the county to fully fund Durham Public Schools Board of Education request for $11 million more in funding. vbridges@newsobserver.com

The list of requests to Durham County’s pocketbook holders ranged from more money for schools to restoring funding to a nonprofit broadcasting and production company, The People’s Channel.

Others want commissioners to stop the Sheriff’s Office move to using video kiosks for inmate visitation and holding inmates for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The nearly two-hour public hearing Monday night allowed residents and others to comment on Durham County Manager Wendell Davis’ proposed 2017-18 budget and share how they think taxpayers’ money should be spent.

Commissioners will take comments via the 2017-2018 Budget Comment Portal through June 20. The budget is scheduled for approval at the commissioners 7 p.m. June 26 meeting.

Davis’ proposed fiscal year $629.9 million budget marks a 7 percent increase over the current year. It includes 3-cent increase in the county tax rate.

The increase would be used for financing and related long-term debt. The debt includes the $170 million in bonds that voters approved in November for Durham Public Schools, Durham Technical Community College, the Museum of Life and Science and the Main Library downtown, Davis said.

A quarter-cent of the increase would go to county general fund operational increases (about $888,530), and the remaining three-quarters of a cent ($2.7 million) would go to schools.

School funding

Before the meeting, the Durham Association of Educators and others gathered outside the county’s administration building asking county commissioners to fully fund DPS Board of Education’s request for $11 million more in funding.

Instead, Davis recommended an increase of $4.8 million to the system’s current funding of $127 million.

Davis’ budget also includes $1.5 million to pay for the operation of Whitted School, a 144-seat preschool scheduled to open in August.

DPS and the county originally agreed to split the cost to run the preschool, but school officials have said a tight budget is making it difficult for them to honor the agreement.

The requested $11 million would allow DPS to continue to operate at its present level, educators, parents and students said.

Without the total $11 million, 24 teaching positions would be lost and eight assistant principal positions would be eliminated, said Michelle Burton, a librarian at Spring Valley Elementary.

“And this funding will also go to towards much needed money for the school bus drivers who we depend on daily to get our children to school safely, clerical positions at the school level, and substitute teachers and teacher retention,” Burton said.

The state legislature hasn’t funded public schools adequately since 2008, Burton said, and DPS has spent down its fund balance to pay for these positions.

Davis has said it is a delicate balance in terms of keeping the tax rate down and meeting other needs in the county.

If commissioners did fully find DPS’ request, it would add another 3 cents to 4 cents to the county tax-rate increase, Davis said.

In addition to Davis’s proposed 3-cent increase, City Manager Tom Bondfield is proposing a 1.79-cent tax-rate increase. The combined increases would result in a city and county property tax bill of $2,428 on a house valued at $180,000, the median value of a house in the city, which is $86.22 more than the current year.

If the county increased the tax rate by 4 cents, it would increase the tax bill on that home by $158 to $2,500.

Doug Dickerson, state director of the North Carolina AARP, said Durham County is “not yet age friendly,” and is trailing Wake and Orange counties.

In general, 64 people a day across the state move into Wake County, and the 60-plus cohort is the largest age segment of that group, Dickerson said.

“Those people are choosing not to come to Durham County because Durham has some of the highest tax rates in the entire state,” he said. “These older adults don’t choose Durham because these high tax rates are not providing a good return on investment for them.”

The new taxes would further penalize current homeowners and renters, Dickerson said.

“As rents would rise even more for older adults on a fixed income,” he said. “We have heard many great justifications for more spending, yet our seniors cannot afford to shoulder more taxes year after year.”

Dickerson called for a delay on the vote on the proposed county tax increase to allow a study on how it would impact seniors and to explore new funding choices.

The jail

Meanwhile, inmate advocacy group the Inside-Outside Alliance and activist organization Alerta Migratoria NC asked for the board to stop the video visitation and ICE holds.

In a press release, the organizations asked commissioners to call Sheriff Mike Andrews to report to answer questions under oath.

“Additionally, we ask the board to participate in an open and public discussion about the practices of the Durham County Sheriff's Office at a future regular session meeting,” the press release states.

The Inside-Outside Alliance is opposed to video visitation because they are concerned it would lead to the end of in-person visits.

Andrews said he doesn’t plan to stop in-person visits.

“The Sheriff’s Office maintains that the agency does not actively search for or arrest undocumented residents, and has never done so under Sheriff Andrews’ Administration,” wrote spokesperson Tamara Gibbs in an email. “Through its Hispanic Community Outreach Coordinator, the Sheriff’s Office continues to reassure the community and explain the agency’s process to people directly affected by this issue.”

The People’s Channel

Representatives of the nonprofit broadcasting and production company The People’s Channel asked commissioners to restore funding. Durham County budget documents indicate that the organization, which offers low-cost camps and classes for kids and others, received $14,850 for the 2016-17 fiscal year. It requested $20,850 for the fiscal year that starts July 1, but didn’t receive any funding.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges