Durham city manager proposes new public safety measures, property tax increase

·6 min read

Durham property owners may see a 2-cent tax-rate increase in the coming year, in addition to a new department exploring public safety programs that don’t use armed police officers.

City Manager Wanda Page presented her proposed 2021-22 fiscal year budget to the City Council Monday evening. She recommends more funding for affordable housing, road improvements, and the creation of a Community Safety Department, which will oversee programs to reimagine ways to keep residents safe.

“We’ve faced so many unprecedented challenges and historic events — from a global pandemic and financial uncertainty to social unrest and political division,” Page said.

“But in recent months, we’ve seen signs of hope. COVID-19 infection rates are on a downward trend, vaccinations are readily available, many restrictions have been lifted, and there is a feeling of opportunity for big change,” she said.

Page’s proposal would increase the city’s operating budget by 4.38%, bringing it to $524.6 million.

The tax increase of 2 cents per $100 of assessed property value would generate $15.2 million of additional revenue for the city, Page told The N&O. Most of the revenue from the increase would go toward paying off the $95 million affordable housing bond that voters passed in 2019. It also would help pay for green and equitable infrastructure, like new sidewalks and bus stops in historically under-served neighborhoods.

Page also recommends higher pay for city employees, and to use federal funding from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act to make up for lost revenue across departments.

Federal funding would also cover free bus fare for all residents throughout the next fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2022.

In her proposal, she asks for a 2% pay increase for general employees, 4% for sworn police officers, and 3.5% for sworn firefighters.

She also asks to raise funding for street paving from $6 million to $10 million.

Residents can comment on Page’s proposal at a June 7 public hearing. The City Council could amend the budget in the coming weeks, and may adopt it on June 21.

Two more pennies on the tax rate

A 2-cent increase would bring the city’s property tax rate from 53.17 to 55.17 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The owner of a home valued at $233,927 — the city’s median house value according to the Durham County Office of Tax Administration — would receive a city property tax bill of about $1,291 a year.

Property owners pay an additional county tax. The Durham County manager recommended a 1-cent property tax rate increase for his recommended budget, The N&O reported.

Property owners within the Business Improvement District in Downtown Durham will continue to pay an additional tax of 7 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Community Safety Department and police budget

If City Council members approve the new Community Safety Department, the division would house new initiatives for public safety outside of the Durham Police Department.

“We still need policing to help protect our community, but we also need to find alternative ways to address issues that don’t necessarily need a law enforcement response,” Page said. “We want to be a part of this reform, with the goal of saving lives.”

The Community Safety Department will implement pilot programs for alternative responses to 911 calls, like sending mental health care workers to calls that may not require an armed officer. It will oversee over $1 million in public safety initiatives, like the expansion of Bull City United, the county’s violence interruption program.

The department would have 15 positions, about half filled by transferring vacant positions from other departments, including the police, Page told The N&O.

Those transfers include:

Five vacant positions in the police department, including four sworn officer positions

Two vacant positions in the city’s communications department

One vacant position in the city’s general services department

Page is requesting additional funding for four of the 15 positions. The three other positions would be funded through fellowships and contracts, Page said.

Page’s proposal increases the police department’s budget by about $529,000, as part of an overall increase of the city’s general fund, which includes public safety, public services and administrative departments, Page told The N&O. Her proposed salary raise for sworn officers would be part of the overall increase.

In late April, two community groups called for city leaders to transfer 10% of the police department’s staffing budget to fund the Community Safety Department, The N&O reported.

The Durham Police Department has 71 vacancies among its 556 allocated sworn positions, or about 13% of the overall force, police spokesperson Kammie Michael told The N&O in April.

Economic recovery from COVID-19 pandemic

The city lost over $8.1 million in revenue because of the pandemic’s impact on the local economy, Page said.

The most impacted revenue sources include money made through parking, the ball park, and the Durham Convention Center. The city’s shortfall in parking revenue is about $2.1 million, Page said.

She recommends using American Rescue Plan Act funding to restore the lost revenue, and to give an additional 5% in premium pay to front-line workers. The premium pay would be retroactive, beginning July 2020.

She also requests a $1,000 to $1,500 bonus for all employees.

If the City Council approves her budget, the city would create 34 new full-time equivalent positions across several departments.

City leaders express enthusiasm

Mayor Steve Schewel and City Council members appeared unanimous in their excitement for Page’s budget.

Council member Charlie Reece called her recommendation an “extraordinary presentation.”

“Maybe the thing I might be most excited about is that we’re using our federal relief dollars to make bus fares free through the entire fiscal year, through June 30, 2022,” Reece said. “And I will just say, colleagues, it’s going to be real hard if you expect me to vote to create those fares again in a year and a half.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said she felt so excited, she danced in front of her standing desk as Page was speaking.

“I’m so excited about the Community Safety Department. I’m really happy about us being able to afford to hire so many new folks,” she said. “I’m really excited that our staff are going to get the raises that they so much deserve and that we weren’t able to give last year.”

Council member DeDreana Freeman also praised the budget proposal, and added that there are more staffing needs she will ask about in the future.

“I’m really excited about digging into the details, and making sure that we’re going to be attuned to meeting the needs of the folks who are marginalized or often left out of this,” she said.

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