Dear Durham County Commission and City Council:
The Durham People’s Alliance believes in a just, equitable, and inclusive community where all people thrive. This will be possible only when everyone lives in a safe and affordable home, feels welcomed in their community, enjoys quality healthcare, has easily accessible transit, benefits from strong environmental and climate justice policies, and has a strong public education.
As you do the difficult work of developing a budget for the coming fiscal year, the People’s Alliance has several recommendations that we share below. We present these together as a set of proposals:
Provide wage increases for classified staff. We ask that our County leaders include funding to raise the wages of classified staff in Durham Public Schools in accordance with the level identified by the District’s salary study dated January 12, 2023. As you know, we are facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis. At the same time, Durham Public Schools is experiencing major staffing shortages, particularly among classified staff. These staffing shortages lead to disruption in school bus routes and unsustainable workloads for other employees, ultimately short-changing the school system’s ability to provide students the education they are guaranteed. These employees – our instructional assistants, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and many more – are critical members of a schools’ education team, and deserve to be compensated at a level that allows them to live full and happy lives here in Durham.
Support differential pay for Exceptional Children’s Teachers. Our EC teachers and support staff are some of our District’s hardest-working employees, juggling care for our most vulnerable students and mountains of mandatory paperwork. In this time of deep staffing shortages, our EC department has been hit especially hard. We propose rectifying this by compensating EC staff at a competitive rate that appropriately values the additional workload and the physical and emotional demands of teaching our students with the highest support needs.
Implement a Guaranteed Income Program for Low-Income Renters. As evictions continue rapidly, plunging numerous vulnerable families into uncertainty and homelessness, we encourage City and County leaders to use excess ARPA funding to help keep at-risk community members in their homes. We propose a Guaranteed Income Pilot for Low-Income Renters — and those who are low-income, justice-involved, unable to rent and at high risk of facing homelessness — allowing relief to flow directly to renters whose landlords do not accept rental assistance. This program fits squarely within Durham’s participation in the nationwide Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and Counties for Guaranteed Income initiatives. We propose that the program start in the 2023-2024 fiscal year and provide immediate relief to 500 extremely low-income households, who pay more than 50% of their income for their housing. The total cost of $4 million should be shared: $2 million each from the County and City. The 500 households would have a guaranteed income of $7,200/year at a cost of $3.6 million. The remaining $400,000 would pay for a non-profit capable of both administering the program and counseling recipients of the guaranteed income. Households will receive financial counseling to improve their financial capabilities. As statistics from Dataworks show, nearly 2,000 Durham tenants were evicted in 2022, we believe that finding ways to keep people in their homes must be a top priority.
As City and County leaders implement the Transit Plan, we encourage you to be mindful of several subtleties that are critical to the freedom of movement and quality of life of Durham residents. First, we urge you to Closely Evaluate Services Outsourced to Third Parties. Currently, our community’s Paratransit services are outsourced to National Express Transit. Paratransit provides essential service for our city’s disabled and elderly residents, but it faces staffing shortages and has struggled to keep up with demand. The People’s Alliance believes that public functions are best served by public agencies, and we encourage our elected leaders to evaluate Paratransit Operator compensation and whether insourcing these services would be in the best interest of the community.
Because bus ridership is likely to be critical for many residents for years to come, we also encourage you to Continue Prioritizing the Safety and Accessibility of Bus Stops. As you know, many stops are located along busy streets, without adequate sidewalk connections, wayfinding tools, or amenities such as benches or trash cans. Remaining mindful of these common-sense features will drastically improve the experience of GoDurham riders and bring new riders into the system.
4. Community Safety.
Expand the H.E.A.R.T. Program. In collaboration with organizations across Durham, we urge you to expand the H.E.A.R.T. program so that it can provide citywide, 24-hour access. We appreciate Durham’s bold leadership in piloting this program, which connects our neighbors in crisis with services that will help them. We appreciate the staff’s transparent data collection and look forward to reviewing their formal progress report soon. Their initial data has shown signs of success. Since launching in June, H.E.A.R.T's four programs have responded to over 4,000 incidents. The Community Response Team in particular has successfully diverted nearly 70 percent of calls away from armed law enforcement. Crucially, H.E.A.R.T responders felt safe in 99% of encounters.
We believe that scaling H.E.A.R.T. will allow it to be more effective. Crises are not restricted to a particular neighborhood and can happen at all hours of the day. Durham residents deserve access to our exceptional resources at the H.E.A.R.T. program without having to worry about whether they are available in their area or at that time of day. We urge you to fully support H.E.A.R.T.’s budget request so that our city can continue as a leader in finding new ways to care for one another.
5. Economic Justice
Continue funding the current guaranteed income pilot in Durham. (City only) With an inhumanely low minimum wage of $7.25/hour (set at the federal level) and the preemptive policies of the state that prevent municipalities from mandating a local minimum wage, local governments in North Carolina have limited ability to directly impact the wage floor. As a result of low wages, 1 in 6 households in Durham live in poverty. We salute Durham’s current guaranteed income pilot (Excel, managed by Step Up) as a promising strategy to assist formerly incarcerated citizens with an important source of monthly income. The pilot is due to end soon, but with early indicators suggesting that the pilot is going well, we urge the City Council to continue funding Excel for another year (or until the final report is available) with public or private dollars. At that point, city leaders can make an informed decision about whether additional investments in guaranteed income would be wise. The City Council can show the way forward for other municipalities, including those of differing political stripes—that our cities can be united in supporting those among us who make the lowest wages.
Provide full support for Durham Tech budget request. (County only) Durham Tech plays a critical role in developing Durham's workforce pipeline. We recommend that the Board of County Commissioners fully fund Durham Tech’s budget request for 2023-24, including student scholarships.
Revive efforts to pass a “healthy and sustainable communities bond” to fund equitable green infrastructure projects. (City and County) Our built environment has a tremendous impact on the physical and mental health of our communities. PA has had a number of past conversations with City/County leadership about the need to raise additional resources to fund projects that help achieve “Vision Zero” commitments, decrease air and water pollution, support greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, increase active transit connectivity and accessibility, and create new community green spaces. Durham was recently ranked the 11th “least walkable” city across the U.S. and Canada by Walk Score. Tragically, on average every 16 days someone is killed or seriously injured while walking or biking in Durham, according to statistics compiled by our colleagues at Bike Durham These numbers will only increase as our community continues to grow, unless we take meaningful, proactive steps. Durham also ranked 81st (out of the 100 most populated U.S. cities) in the Trust for Public Land’s “Park Score,” which evaluates public parks based on acreage, access, financial investment, amenities, and both racial and socioeconomic equity indicators. We urge City/County leaders to pick conversations about the bond back up, ideally putting it up for a vote on the November ballot.
Thank you for your careful consideration of these recommendations. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss them with you in greater detail and respond to any questions or concerns you have.
Board of Directors
The Durham People’s Alliance