People's Alliance submitted the following statement as public comment for the Monday, May 24, 2021 regular session meeting of the Durham Board of County Commissioners:
Dear Durham County Commissioners:
On behalf of the Durham People’s Alliance (PA), we are writing to express our thanks to you and the county staff for preparing the recommended FY 2021-22 budget. The proposed $730 million budget is an important statement of our priorities as a community and should help support a healthy and just recovery from COVID-19.
As you know, the members of PA work towards a vision of a just, equitable, and inclusive community where all people thrive in several interconnected areas — economic justice, education, housing, environmental justice, and race equity. In support of this vision, we submitted a letter to the county commissioners on February 9, 2021 (later updated on April 29), with a number of important budget requests. The recommended FY 2021-22 budget presented on May 10 meets several, but not all, of those requests. Below (and attached), we outline where the proposed budget reflects our values and where it falls short. We hope you find this analysis useful as you and staff prepare for the planned public hearing on the budget on Monday and as you debate where to prioritize your federal COVID resources.
Where the Proposed FY 2021-22 Budget Meets Our Expectations
Plan for enhanced revenue for FY 2021-22. As our community begins the process of recovering from the public health emergency and economic slump caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we wholeheartedly support the proposed 1 cent General Fund property tax rate increase that will enable important investments in the health and prosperity of our community.
Where the Proposed FY 2021-22 Budget Only Somewhat Meets Our Expectations
Underinvestment in K-12 education. The recommended budget for FY 2021-22 increases funding for Durham Public Schools (DPS) by $10 million. However, this amount is well below the $18 million requested by DPS and underfunds teacher supplements, additional custodians, a request for $2 million for nurses and social workers to address urgent health and student support needs, and other priorities.
Limited tax assistance for low-income homeowners. We recommended an investment of $2.1 million for a long-overdue property tax assistance program for long-time, low-income homeowners to help them stay in their homes. While we are pleased to see the creation of this important tax relief measure in partnership with the City, the very low income level for eligibility and the $750 cap on assistance limits its effectiveness. In light of the proposed 1 cent tax increase countywide and 2 cents for City residents, which together will place an additional burden on low-income homeowners, we recommend that the County expand eligibility to more long-time, low-income homeowners and raise the cap to $1,000.
Creation of new positions to advance race equity, but omission of commitment to creating a racial equity fund. We recommended that the County prioritize the creation of a racial equity fund with the City of Durham that is both sustainable and large enough to touch all aspects of Durham life, including education, housing, business ownership, health, environment, and criminal legal. The suggested budget includes new positions to advance race equity and additional funds for departmental race equity training, but includes no commitment to a racial equity fund.
Underinvestment in Durham Tech. Durham Tech has an essential role to play in addressing Durham’s jobs crisis and preparing residents for living wage work following the COVID-recession. We recommended an increase of $1.85 million in funding for Durham Tech to support a number of new initiatives, such as a critical Back-to-Work effort, stipends and success coaches to support opportunity youth/students of color in life sciences, and additional success coaching and financial aid to ensure that all students stay enrolled and succeed. The recommended budget only provided $500,000 toward these important new initiatives.
Where the Proposed FY 2021-22 Budget Falls Short
No new investment in Green Jobs. Our recommendations included deepening the county’s commitment to the Bionomic Educational Training Center (BETC) program and the Community Conservation Assistance Program. These programs are proven and provide green jobs and training to our youth, stipends to our teachers, and stormwater management assistance to low-income households. Instead, the recommended budget adds two FTEs for more traditional economic development activities, such as recruitment and workforce training. This is a missed opportunity at a moment when the need to address climate change creates an opening for investments in the Green economy that will further diversify our economy, expand job opportunities, and make our community healthier and more resilient. Additional investment in renewable energy is also necessary for this transition.
No commitment to diverting dollars from law enforcement to different models of public safety. PA has recommended reducing budget line items for armed law enforcement, weaponry, and new law enforcement vehicles, and diverting those dollars toward different models that embrace a holistic concept of what it means for us all to be safe and well. Instead, the recommended budget for FY 2021-22 includes 3 new FTEs in the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and almost $2 million to fund replacement vehicles.
We urge the county to address these gaps and shortfalls in the recommended budget and to fund fully all of the items above. Doing so will address many long-standing needs in our community, respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and move Durham closer to our vision of a just, equitable, and inclusive community where all people thrive.