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Durham’s plan to plant 1,500 trees a year may face funding, development challenges

For almost three years now, the city of Durham has committed to planting 1,500 trees a year, nearly all of them in low-income communities. 

The city’s initiative to add more street trees is an effort to maintain Durham’s canopy and address historic discrimination that extended even to the ground between streets and sidewalks.

But this ambitious program faces questions about how it will be funded, and whether the rapid development in Durham’s booming real estate market will uproot trees as quickly as new ones are planted. 

“The city is doing more and they have this goal,” said Katie Rose Levin, executive director of TreesDurham, an advocacy group. “It’s just a matter of ‘Now that you know the right thing to do, you actually have to pay for it.’” 

When the program was launched in 2018, the plan was to pay for it with a mix of private and public funds, according to Durham Mayor Steve Schewel.

Schewel said the city never intended to pay for the program by itself. “I don’t think it’ll ever be true that there won’t be private donations for tree planting,” he said. “But I’m sure that the city will continue to fund more and more trees. I agree that we need to be increasing public funding for it.”

Slightly more than half the funding this planting season, around $65,500, will come from nonprofit Keep Durham Beautiful, which works very closely with the city. In fact, its executive director, Tania Dautlick, is paid by the city and works in the city’s General Services building.

The rest of the money, around $60,000, is supposed to come from donations to the city, which is cobbling together its share from tree-planting donations citizens make in their water bills, stormwater funds and donations from Duke, through its carbon offsets program. 

There is no sizable, recurring line item in the city budget for the tree initiative. Last year, the city came up with its share, nearly $68,000, through the participatory budgeting process, a one-time community budgeting source.

When asked if Keep Durham Beautiful had the same understanding of where funding would be coming from and the nonprofit’s role in funding this program as Schewel, Dautlick said: “The City continues to support the tree planting program, while leveraging additional community resources to meet its goals. The City has always worked closely with Keep Durham Beautiful and other community partners, as part of its ongoing tree planting partnerships and will continue to do so in the future.”

This lack of a guaranteed source of city funding worries tree advocates inside and outside City Hall. The city’s share of the funding for this year has not started flowing yet, and planting season begins in November.  

“We actually don’t have funding for our tree-planting program as of right now,” said Daniel Hickey, the city’s tree-planting coordinator.  “We were expecting to get it this year, but due to COVID, there’s been a lot of, you know, stalls with funding,” said Hickey. 

Dautlick said that Keep Durham Beautiful will continue to support the project every year. But Hickey worries about the impact of the pandemic.

“I think my concern is how many years in this post-COVID economic depression are there still going to be donors,” he said. “If we don’t have a tree-planting budget and the donors dry up, we’re going to have to get really creative.”

Kevin Lilley, director of Durham’s General Services Department, and Mayor Schewel are confident in the city’s ability to maintain city funding.

“Durham will continue to have a tree-planting program.” said Lilley, whose agency includes the city’s urban forestry unit. “We have a remarkable staff and wonderful community partners who find creative ways to fund the program,” he said in an email. 

Schewel agreed. “The city is 100 percent committed to planting at least 1,500 trees a year. That’s a commitment of the City Council,” he said. 

Towering trees extend over houses and the road in Trinity Park and a view of downtown Durham seen from South Street in a formerly redlined area. Southside has changed dramatically in recent years due to the Southside Revitalization Project. Photos by Henry Haggart.

Schewel has made the 1,500-tree initiative one of his signature programs, an effort to not only  beautify Durham and provide shade, but also to provide a measure of social justice. The goal of the program is to plant 85 percent of the new trees in low-income neighborhoods. 

“Durham street trees are about 100 years old. They were planted about 100 years ago and they were planted in primarily white neighborhoods,” explained Levin of TreesDurham.

TreesDurham, an environmental justice non-profit dedicated to protecting forests and creating environmental equality across Durham, was established in 2018, when the city had no formal plan for its tree plantings. Without Durham’s former urban forester, Alex Johnson and Keep Durham Beautiful,  dying trees wouldn’t have been replaced at all, Levin said. 

However, it wasn’t enough to replace dying trees; historic redlining practices had left many low-income and minority communities without much needed greenspace. 

“When the research came out showing the racial distribution of trees . . . if we just replanted the trees where they died, we perpetuated this racial inequality,” Levin said. 

“We have two problems,” said Schewel. “One of our problems is that we’re losing our tree canopy, but an equally important problem is that our tree canopy is inequitably distributed. This is a racial justice issue, and we have to be able to help correct that inequity.”

But the reality facing the tree-planting program, besides the need for long-term funding sources, is  the impact of the bulldozers and chainsaws that have been reshaping the urban landscape. 

Only stumps remain of trees recently cleared from the property of Grace Baptist Church. Photo by Henry Haggart.

As developers have discovered Durham over the past two decades, the fate of the city’s trees has become bound up in concerns about growth, gentrification, and the health of neighborhoods.

In addition to their aesthetic appeal, trees provide important health and air quality services for Durham locals. 

The coronavirus pandemic has made apparent the need for tree cover and greenspace in urban settings and in lower income communities. Tree cover helps to reduce urban heat island effects and local air pollution, lowering air and ground temperatures through shading and the absorption of carbon dioxide. 

“If you live in a place that doesn’t have trees, your house and your yard is 10 degrees hotter than people who live around trees,” said Levin, noting that those communities without adequate tree cover are also known to have higher rates of asthma, diabetes, or immune-compromising conditions. 

“The way that we’re developing is killing us,” said Levin. “In fact, Durham has such a bad tree cover, our developed spaces are up to 20 degrees hotter than the surrounding areas. This is the difference between life and death for our vulnerable residents. Trees are the difference between life and death.” 

Several neighborhoods including Braggtown, Walltown, and Merrick Moore are currently fighting developers that plan to cut down local woodlands. 

“We can’t plant our way out of this, we have to preserve trees, and we have to stop emitting,” Levin insisted. 

Schewel said that when land is developed, about 85 percent of the trees, on average, come down. “With so many people moving here, we’re not trying to stop development. But what we do need to do is strengthen our regulations around tree preservation.”

When he began advocating for the tree initiative Durham was planting around 750 trees annually. Doubling that was a start.

Since the program’s inception, the city has been on track to meet its 1,500-a-year goal, with 1,275 planted in those communities that have historically gone without trees. Ninety percent are planted along streets; the other ten percent are planted in public parks. 

Schewel has modeled the program after a similar one in Charlotte that also depends in part on private contributions, and his goal is to eventually get to 3,000 trees a year.

Durham’s 36,000 acres of tree canopy currently covers around 52 percent of the city. The goal is 55 percent by 2040, a challenging goal given the pace of development.

Hickey, the tree-planting coordinator, questions the value of that metric.  

“I don’t think that we should have a canopy on our plan,” he said. “It just makes no sense because so much of the land in Durham is privately held and developers are just going to do whatever they want anyway.”

9th Street journalist Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

At top: March 7, 2020 tree planting at W.G. Pearson Elementary in partnership with TreesDurham. Image provided by Tania Dautlick.

Pierce Freelon joins Durham’s City Council

After months of waiting, the City Council filled its vacant Ward 3 seat, appointing local artist and activist Pierce Freelon.

Sworn in today, Freelon was selected in a 4-2 vote Monday, taking the position left empty when Vernetta Alston was appointed to the NC House representing District 29 in April.

Freelon pointed to poverty as one of the biggest challenges facing the city in his online interview with council members last week. “Poverty is a policy choice,” he said, tying violence, crime, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on Black, Indigenous, and communities of color and a shortage of affordable housing to poverty.

He said Durham must acknowledge the city government’s historic role in zoning and development that harmed communities of color and push for inclusiveness, such as multi-class, inter-generational involvement in city decisions. 

Freelon also said he favors alternatives to reducing gun violence beyond policing, such as more counselors, vocational training, and recreational opportunities for young people.

During the interview, Freelon said his budget  priorities include ensuring no city workers will be laid off because of the pandemic, supporting Durham as a cultural and artistic center, and continuing the COVID smart response of the current council. Freelon also drew parallels between COVID-19 and the racism experienced by communities of color. 

“Because when you’re black and you get hit by the storm, it’s not just the rain and the wind, it’s the tempest of racism,” said Freelon. “When you’re black and brown and there’s a virus, the diagnosis itself can be dire, but it’s the plague of white supremacy and poverty that exacerbates the havoc that black folks are experiencing,” he said.

Five finalists addressed council members last week, including Anita Daniels-Kenney, Leonardo Williams, Sarah Sinning, and Shelia Huggins.

Council members DeDreana Freeman and Mark-Anthony Middleton voted for Daniels-Kenney, a clinical social worker who for many years has worked to expand mental health and addiction treatment, among other things.

With a 4 to 2 vote, Pierce Freelon was appointed to represent Durham’s Ward 3 on the City Council.

During the council interviews, Middleton questioned Freelon on his residential status. The two went back and forth for about four minutes, with Middleton asking whether Freelon moved to Ward 3 this year to seek the appointment. Freelon said he has lived at his current address since March of this year. He also said he’s lived in the ward for a total of 10 years at various times.

After the first vote, Schewel gave council members the chance to make the vote for Freelon unanimous. Middleton and Freeman did not respond, producing an awkward silence.

Schewel praised Freelon after the vote. ”Pierce Freelon emerged as the council’s choice because he is generous, brave, straightforward, incredibly knowledgeable on the issues that face us, and a powerful voice for the new generation of Durham,” he wrote in a press release.

Freelon’s appointment comes after two unsuccessful runs for office in Durham in the last three years. Schewel thwarted the first in 2017 when Freelon finished third out of six Democratic candidates competing to succeed former Mayor Bill Bell. In March, Freelon finished second to Natalie Murdock in a primary race for the District 20 state Senate seat.  

Ward 3 stretches north and south on the western side of Durham, from below Route 54 to above Interstate 85. Although Freelon ran on the principles of black liberation and reparations, the ward, which includes Duke University, is majority white.

Freelon, 36, is a Durham native and the son of the late architect Phil Freelon, who spearheaded the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and Nnenna Freelon, a Grammy-nominated jazz singer.

A musician, he is founder of the digital maker space and creative center, Blackspace, whose artistic workshops offer youth of African descent “a breathing space to manifest their dreams by any medium necessary”.  He and his wife, Katye Proctor Freelon, have two children.

Freelon’s appointment runs through 2021. If he wants to remain on the council, he’ll need to run for re-election in November.

9th Street reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu

At top: Pierce Freelon wore an agbada, a robe worn by men in parts of West Africa, when sworn in a new City Council member on Friday. He is facing his wife, Katye Proctor Freelon. Photo courtesy of the City of Durham

Bars, nail salons and a head shop are among recipients of COVID-19 relief funds

Editor’s Note: After we published this story yesterday, we asked about a recipient that seemed odd to us – Ascot Diamonds, Inc. a chain jewelry store that received $20,582 but did not appear to have a store in Durham. Today, Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell told us they had sent us the wrong list and gave us a new list without Ascot Diamonds included.

Why was Ascot Diamonds included on the first list? Chadwell told us that was a mistake of the city’s vendor, Carolina Small Business Development Fund, due to a “data population error.” 

We’re retaining the list below, with Ascot Diamonds, since that is what the city originally sent us. We’ve posted the new spreadsheet the city sent us today here. It also contains changes in the list of loan recipients, removing Ascot and adding a $10,807 loan to Quality Academy Home Daycare. 

Just a reminder: The 9th Street Journal filed a public records request for this list July 23, so the city has had almost six weeks to get us the correct list.

– Bill Adair

An eclectic group of businesses ranging from bars to nail salons to a head shop received grants or loans from the city’s COVID-19 small business relief program, according to records released Monday.

The city had been boasting about the program for weeks but didn’t release the list of recipients until Monday after a public records request from The 9th Street Journal. Among them: a $10,000 grant for Hunky Dory, a store specializing in “beer, records and dankness,” a $10,000 grant for artist Maya Freelon – the sister of just-appointed City Council member Pierce Freelon – and a $20,000 loan for Pour Taproom. 

Local businesses got about $915,000 from a $1 million Duke University contribution for grants and $225,000 in loans from Durham’s $2 million fund. Eight businesses got loans that averaged about $28,000 and 124 got grants that averaged $7,500. 

Of the 124 grants, 19 were given to barber shops, hair salons, nail salons or other personal care businesses and 15 were given to food and beverage-related businesses. As for the loans, two were given to bars or breweries, two to beauty and nail salons, one jewelry store, one plumbing, heating and air-conditioning contractor, a restaurant and a mental health/substance abuse treatment facility. 

In July, Durham had boasted of giving out hundreds of thousands in relief in a several-month process, but city officials said they didn’t know which businesses got the cash until now. Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), a Raleigh-based small business lending nonprofit which managed the program, had committed to disclosing to Durham which businesses got the money monthly but did not comply with that requirement. 

A full list of the grants and loans can be found below.

July Grants

Amy T Farrar DDS PLLC 2020-6-25 $10,000.00
Cargo and Co LLC 2020-6-18 $5,837.00
Living Arts Collective 2020-6-19 $8,480.67
Re Entertainment 2020-6-18 $907.17
southern cross group llc 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
LE NAIL SPA 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
A1 lock and safe of North Carolina Inc 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Durham School for Ballet and the Performing Arts 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Carson Efird LLC 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Bungalow LLC 2020-6-20 $10,000.00
Heal Tree LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Happymess at Outsiders 2020-6-18 $8,779.86
HUNKY DORY DURHAM LLC 2020-6-19 $10,000.00
Blackspace LLC 2020-6-18 $8,123.00
Brown Jiu Jitsu Academy 2020-6-27 $10,000.00
Indulge Catering LLC 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Goes to 11 LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Blue Corn Inc 2020-6-28 $10,000.00
The Bella Shea Ramirez LLC 2020-6-22 $5,637.83
Family Greens 2020-6-27 $10,000.00
36 North LLC 2020-6-25 $10,000.00
Rogue Business Solutions LLC 2020-6-18 $7,179.83
Allure Me The Hair Estate INC 2020-6-19 $6,385.00
LUXURY NAILS SPA 2020-6-19 $10,000.00
Rock Fury Industries LLC 2020-6-18 $6,524.83
Lucys Pet Care LLC 2020-6-23 $10,000.00
AGT Express LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Denoble Law PLLC 2020-6-28 $10,000.00
MA Solucion Professional Inc 2020-6-27 $1,704.17
SA Core LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Omar Beasley Bail Agency 2020-6-25 $10,000.00
Point A B Consulting 2020-6-28 $5,638.00
Wendy Allen 2020-6-25 $10,000.00
Allways Handy Home and Garden LLC 2020-6-28 $2,102.00
Mid South Fencers Club Inc 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
A2Z College Planning 2020-6-25 $6,230.00
MTS Speech and Language Services Inc 2020-6-24 $10,000.00
The Endurance Collective 2020-6-21 $6,118.17
Kendall Corporation LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Wright DIY LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Elevate MMA Academy LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
MICHAEL E POCINKI 2020-6-28 $340.67
Comfort CUisine 2020-6-27 $1,722.00
Yama Inc 2020-6-19 $10,000.00
The Famous Chicken Hut 2020-6-20 $10,000.00
Lets Eat Soul Food llc 2020-6-26 $113.17
TGX Development LLC 2020-6-24 $4,270.50
The Curated Curl and Co Hair Loft 2020-6-19 $9,601.00
The Law Office of Katie A Lawson PLLC 2020-6-18 $6,042.00
Nancy Frame Design LLC 2020-6-24 $6,301.00
Yinsome Group LLC 2020-6-25 $1,293.17
HuthPhoto LLC 2020-6-26 $3,907.33
Stan Coffman 2020-6-24 $10,000.00
Principal Janitorial Services LLC 2020-6-22 $2,259.50
Empower Dance Studio 2020-6-24 $8,203.17
Suzanne Faulkner 2020-6-26 $5,190.00
Pro Shop Solutions LLC 2020-6-24 $7,526.83
The ZEN Succulent LLC 2020-6-26 $10,000.00
Scatterbugs Vintage Inc 2020-6-24 $10,000.00
The Artisan Market at 305 LLC 2020-6-19 $3,424.50
Triangle car Service llc 2020-6-23 $10,000.00
Sonic Pie Productions LLC 2020-6-22 $8,949.17
Jeannette Brossart 2020-6-28 $2,141.00
doora arts and crafts 2020-6-28 $2,583.67
Methodical Magic  LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
JMS Catering 2020-6-23 $2,064.67
Medrano 1205 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
VILLAGE ITALIAN PIZZERIA LLC 2020-6-23 $10,000.00
PARKS BARBER SHOP 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
John William Scotton 2020-6-22 $5,101.83
Lakewood Hairquarters and Retail Inc 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Nailz 2020-6-28 $5,057.50
BCause It Takes A Village LLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Rushin Global LLC 2020-6-18 $5,514.17
George Stevens Insurance Agency Inc 2020-6-19 $10,000.00
Judith Romanowski Attorney PLLC 2020-6-18 $10,000.00
Next Level Tax Services 2020-6-19 $3,278.67
Community Expert Solutions Inc 2020-6-26 $3,338.33
PecanBacks Inc 2020-6-24 $10,000.00
Tysha h Cox 2020-7-19 $3,694.33
Echo Family Group Inc 2020-7-22 $10,000.00
NewSchoolInvestmentsLLC 2020-7-20 $6,856.17
Little Mangum Studio LLC 2020-7-23 $6,154.50
Alpha Nano Tech LLC 2020-7-20 $10,000.00
United KB LLC 2020-7-24 $10,000.00
Kathy Smith Yoga LLC 2020-7-22 $10,000.00
Alexandra Hamer 2020-7-22 $2,874.00
Green Ribbon LLC 2020-7-24 $10,000.00
The Pinhook 2020-7-23 $10,000.00
Maya Freelon LLC 2020-7-24 $10,000.00
Scorpions School Of Martial Arts 2020-7-21 $4,270.17
Triangle Gluten Free LLC 2020-7-20 $853.67
Vo Family LLC 2020-7-23 $10,000.00
Rapid Results Fitness 2020-7-24 $10,000.00
October Forever 2020-7-22 $1,341.67
SOLAY Counseling and Research Center 2020-7-27 $9,605.67
CC AND P ASSOCIATES LLC 2020-7-27 $10,000.00
True Colors In Home Daycare 2020-7-27 $2,311.67
Modu Martial Arts 2020-7-29 $10,000.00
The Pampered Woman 2020-7-28 $10,000.00
Full Strength Flexibility 2020-7-28 $4,780.00
Veda K Brewer 2020-7-29 $779.33
Croissanteria LLC 2020-7-27 $6,197.17

August Grants

Matthews Somatics LLC 2020-8-3 $3,017.00
Jadas Mens Accessories 2020-8-1 $549.17
Shirley S Abraham 2020-8-2 $2,718.83
Getaway Travel Inc 2020-7-30 $10,000.00
Elegant Nail 2020-8-6 $10,000.00
Last Minute Event Planning 2020-8-11 $637.50
Wood Water LLC 2020-8-11 $10,000.00
Clean Hands Painting LLC 2020-8-5 $10,000.00
LEE NAILS 2020-8-14 $10,000.00
A AND P PAINTING INC 2020-8-13 $10,000.00
Borders Barbershop LLC 2020-8-4 $5,629.50
HT Travel Inc 2020-8-20 $8,742.67
WORLD CLASS TAKWONDO ACADEMY 2020-8-20 $10,000.00
HOLSEN C VASQUEZ MENDEZ 2020-8-20 $10,000.00
LE NAIL SPA 2020-8-25 $10,000.00
Luxury Nails Spa 2020-8-25 $10,000.00
Principal Janitorial Services LLC 2020-8-25 $2,259.50
Infinity Benefits Group Inc 2020-8-24 $3,894.67
CASTRO REMODELIN LLC 2020-8-22 $10,000.00
Glimmer and Glow LLC 2020-8-23 $2,465.00
Ronalds Unisex Barbershop 2020-8-27 $7,948.50

Loans

Jayk’s,LLc 2020-7-2 $30,000.00
The Glass Jug 2020-6-19 $35,000.00
Fernandez Community Center, LLC 2020-6-21 $35,000.00
Celine Vu, INC 2020-6-22 $33,000.00
Silver Spoon Restaurant 2020-7-10 $35,000.00
Saloon Salon, LLC 2020-6-18 $15,000.00
Ascot Diamonds, Inc. 2020-6-26 $20,582.00
Quad Triangle Taproom LLC 2020-6-18 $20,000.00

9th Street Journal staff writer Ben Leonard can be reached at ben.leonard@duke.edu

Group running Durham business fund has kept city in the dark

The group running Durham’s $2 million COVID-19 small business relief program was obligated to tell the city which businesses got the cash. But the city has yet to find out. 

In July, Durham officials boasted in a press release about giving out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. Yet over a month later, they admit they still don’t know where the money went. 

The city is supposed to get a monthly report. The Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), a Raleigh-based small business lending nonprofit, committed to disclosing which businesses got money from a fund of $2 million in publicly-funded loans and $1 million Duke-backed grants, according to a copy of the contract between the city, Duke University and the group obtained by the 9th Street Journal. 

The contract said the group “shall provide monthly reports” to Durham and Duke that included the amount of money paid to individual businesses and the business’s names, along with aggregate data about the owner’s gender, race and ethnicity. 

Durham has gotten aggregate data, but not the business names and the amount they received, according to Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell. Both Durham and the group were aware of the requirement, according to Chadwell, but haven’t exactly been in a rush to comply.  

The information will be available to the public “within the next two weeks,” Chadwell said in an email to the 9th Street Journal. But his promise is would have the information being public more than six weeks after Durham’s self-congratulatory press-release, and well past the requirement in the contract. 

“Generally, if a valid contract requires a party to do something and that party fails to do that thing in the set timeframe, they have violated the contract,” Charlotte-based First Amendment attorney Beth Soja said. 


There’s no apparent reason for the delay, Soja said. There weren’t any exemptions in the contract that would preclude the group from handing over the information to Durham. 

There also doesn’t appear to be anything in the contract that specifies what would happen in the event of the contract being violated. 

Carolina Small Business Development Fund President and CEO Kevin Dick declined to comment for this story, saying Durham would respond “in order to represent the entire effort.” 

The group was slated to give out cash over multiple months, with a first wave of loans and grants announced July 21 and a second round to follow. 

So far, the group has approved eight businesses for Durham-backed loans for a total of $259,000, with $1.6 million in loans remaining, according to Brian Smith, the city’s senior economic development coordinator. That’s more than $32,000 per loan. 

Little is known about those businesses, except that they range from sectors like the  “personal care services” industry to beverage manufacturing to an alcoholic “drinking place.” The group has also given out about $849,000 in Duke-backed grants to 115 Durham businesses, or an average of about $7,400. Most of those businesses are retail, accommodation and food services, arts/entertainment/recreation, professional services and “other services.”

Durham officials boast of giving aid to small businesses, but don’t know where the money went

Three weeks ago, city and county officials boasted in a press release that they doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and grants to dozens of small businesses. 

But which ones actually got the cash? Twenty-plus days later, not even Mayor Steve Schewel seems to know. Schewel and other city officials claim they don’t know the recipients because the selection was done by a private group.

This much is known: 115 businesses have been approved for a combined $224,000 in Durham loans and about $800,000 in grants from Duke via the Durham Small Business Recovery Fund. The fund is made up of $1 million from Duke and about $2 million from Durham public funds. 

But city officials admit they are in the dark about which businesses got the money. Raleigh-based small business lending nonprofit Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), which administered the program, didn’t give Durham a list of businesses that got the cash, according to Andre Pettigrew, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. 

Mayor Steve Schewel – Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Pettigrew said the program is now in the midst of another round of funding (with about $1.6 million in Durham loans and more than $200,000 in grants remaining) and the group isn’t planning on giving city and county officials a full list of businesses receiving the funds until this second and final round is complete. The only information city officials have received was aggregate demographic data of the business owners and the industries the recipients are in, Pettigrew said.

The 9th Street Journal filed a public records request for a list of the recipients, but the city referred it to the Small Business Development Fund and its president and CEO, Kevin Dick, who would not release the list. He said the group is consulting its attorneys about confidentiality issues for applicants that could arise from releasing business names because the group is a non-profit, not a government entity. 

Without a copy of a contract between Durham and the group, it’s hard to know whether a non-profit is answerable to public records laws, Raleigh-based First Amendment attorney Amanda Martin told the 9th Street Journal. Pettigrew did not respond to a request for a contract in time for publication, nearly two weeks after first being asked. Government contracts are public record, according to the North Carolina General Statutes, Chapter 143 Article 3

Schewel said that when he received the aggregated data on the grants and loans given out, he didn’t think it was crucial to know the names of the businesses at the time. He says he’s now looking forward to the list. 

“This is public money and it should be public information,” Schewel said about the loans. 

He later clarified by saying that while he didn’t believe the grants were actually public money, “it is a City Contract and should be public.”

Still, the group has been given sweeping powers to award the money. It green-lit eight of 29 applicants for Durham loans, for an average of about $28,000 per business. Among the approved businesses include two in the “personal care services” industry, one eatery, one beverage manufacturing company, one building equipment contractor, one alcoholic “drinking place,” a “jewelry/luggage/leather goods” store and an outpatient care center. 

The program also approved 107 out of 196 grant applications for a total of about $800,000. Most of the grant applications accepted were in retail, accommodation and food services, arts/entertainment/recreation, professional services and “other services.”

Durham ultimately granted the group power to disperse the grants and loans because of a lack of bandwidth in the city government to do so and because of the group’s “expertise.” 

“This is what they do, they make loans and administer programs like this for small businesses, and are especially focused on minority-owned businesses,” Schewel said. “They have the expertise and it’s not what the city does. So much of what we do in the city is contracting out to those with expertise.” 

Schewel emphasized that neither he nor the rest of the City Council had seen a list of the individual loans. Schewel and the City Council had expected to get a list with the final report in “the next month or so.”

Saying goodbye: Q&A with City Manager Tom Bonfield

After 12 years as Durham’s city manager, Tom Bonfield is retiring, effective September 30. Bonfield has worked 42 years in public service. He cited a “variety of personal and professional reasons” as his reasons for leaving, including being at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 now that he is 65, and wanting to spend more time with family. 

The 9th Street Journal interviewed Bonfield about his career journey and his next steps. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

9th Street Journal: What made you decide to go into municipal government work? 

Tom Bonfield: Well, it was a long time ago. I kind of got into local government accidentally. I was originally planning on going to law school after undergraduate, and I got sidetracked a little bit with a fairly brief career in minor league baseball. So I delayed going to law school. 

In the meantime, I began working during the off season part-time in a city manager’s office in the town I grew up in, a small town called Gulfport, Florida. And it was there that I first got exposed to the challenges and the fun of thinking about making a difference in communities and local government. So instead of going to law school, I went to grad school, and pursued degrees in business administration and public administration. And 42 years later, I have worked in local government, and certainly been completely satisfied and know that this was the thing I was supposed to do. 

9th Street: Why Durham? What was it about this city that encouraged you to work for city government for 12 years?

TB: I moved to Durham in 2008. I was recruited to come to Durham to be the city manager. 

Before Durham I was the city manager in Pensacola, Florida for about 10 years. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a change of career or change of jobs. And I had never been to Durham … [with] the Research Triangle, I had heard a lot about being in the government business, but I really hadn’t focused as much on Durham. 

I wasn’t sure I was interested, but when I came and visited I just saw a lot of really interesting dynamics of progress and people and energy that I really loved and decided it was a good fit. And as it turned out, it’s been way — way better than I ever had envisioned.

9th Street: In what important ways do you think Durham has changed since you’ve been here, for better or worse?

TB: Back in the 2008 and around that time Durham was, you know, not necessarily that well thought of in the Triangle. And the progress that has been made as it relates to the community being incredibly desirable — in fact, maybe one of the more desirable destinations or locations for people to live and be a part of — has been fun. Obviously the last five-six months of COVID haven’t been all that fun, but I feel confident that it will return. 

9th Street: Are there any moments or memories in that time that really hit home why you decided to work in city government?

TB: I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I would say that was the magic moment. Everything about the city — whether it’s the diversity, whether it’s the broad economic opportunities, or the vibrant universities — there’s so many aspects of it that I don’t think I could really say there’s any one thing that said this was the moment. 

That’s just kind of what happens when you have enjoyed your job as much as I have.

City Manager Tom Bonfield.

9th Street: Why are you deciding to leave at this moment, especially considering the stress and chaos associated with the coronavirus pandemic, protests, etc?

TB: You know, it was the reality that my contemplated work horizon, at best, might have been a couple more years, just because of my age and things I’d like to do in life. But it was the fact that these are huge issues that are critically important, and it’s going to be really in the city’s best interest for the person who is developing these responses to also be responsible for implementing them. I just came to the conclusion that it really wasn’t fair for me to continue to be developing strategies that I was going to then turn around and pass on to somebody else to implement them. 

The community is better served if the person who’s going to implement these strategies is working with the City Council to develop them. 

9th Street: Are there any decisions or actions that, in hindsight, you wish you could have done differently?

TB: You know, the biggest disappointment that I have had with Durham is that we have not been able to really make a significant change in the direction of violent crime. I had worked in communities in Florida and had been exposed to some difficulties associated with crime but really nothing that I experienced like when I first came to Durham in 2008. I hadn’t really anticipated that. And it’s something that I’ve been actively involved in, with Gang Task Forces and violent crime reduction roundtables and various other initiatives associated with the root causes of crime. I just feel like we really have not been able to make the changes or turn the corner in that regard. Despite all of the huge amounts of effort in that 12-year period, that’s probably my biggest disappointment or frustration. 

I think that a significant issue facing the city is that there are a lot of varying opinions about what the approaches are to solving this. I think that it has got to be a multi-faceted solution. That includes longer term root cause, social service kinds of initiatives. But it also has to, at least in the short-term, include a criminal justice system that responds to situations where people know that there are consequences for behaviors. 

There’s a lot of different opinions about it and a lot of competing opinions and now … as a result of the social justice issues associated most recently with George Floyd’s killing, there’s a huge push to defund the police. And I just think it’s got to be multifaceted. It can’t just be one thing or the other, and it’s something that we just all have to be open and honest and willing to talk about.

9th Street: You haven’t necessarily seen eye to eye with certain members of the City Council in regards to policing. For example, that rebuttal to Jillian Johnson’s essay on policing. What has it been like working with a left-leaning City Council, and did that influence your decision to leave at all? 

TB: The answer is no. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have worked for a lot of elected officials and several mayors, and have really been fortunate to have a great relationship with them that has been respectful and professional. There’s been many times that I haven’t agreed with them or they haven’t agreed with me, but in all cases we have respected each other’s place. 

Our job as professional administrators is not to provide judgment about people’s persuasions or politics. It’s to help the collective City Council move and develop programs and initiatives for services that they put forth to respond to the community. Ultimately, they’re the ones that are responsible. I’m responsible to them. 

9th Street: As someone who has worked with so many different elected officials and mayors, how do you feel about the direction Durham has taken in these spaces, like environmental action? 

TB: I think it’s entirely appropriate. Part of my job has been to help bring practicality to the ideals. It’s not to challenge the ideals, but to help think about what are the administrative systems and the administrative practicalities that are associated with, with some of these ideals. It’s not our job to push back, it’s our job to just kind of temper some of the things that sometimes can be great ideas and great aspirations. But to implement them, there are certain challenges that everybody has to be willing to acknowledge.

I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve done with things like the Sustainability Road Map and that was something that the staff and everybody put together well in advance of the council, stating it as their their goals.

9th Street: What has it been like working in this crazy time, with fundamental changes from the pandemic and protests?

TB: This has been something that wasn’t in the playbook or wasn’t in any of the materials that traditionally managers learn about. But the roles of city government have continued to expand across the country. And, this situation reinforces what I’ve always believed: that the local government is where true change in people’s lives and communities can happen. 

This has caused all of us to continue to learn to be willing to adapt and, as I sometimes like to say, embrace ambiguity because we don’t know all the answers but we have to be willing to learn and be willing to accept the things that don’t work and change. 

I could never have predicted something like this pandemic would have happened in my 42-year career. I would have been disappointed if I didn’t at least get to experience some of it because it’s been definitely a challenge. It’s definitely something new for everybody. 

9th Street: What do the next two months look like for you as you wrap up your time as city manager?

TB: So there are two primary things. As soon as the City Council names who will be the interim city manager, once I retire, I would want to work very closely with that person to be sure there’s a very smooth handoff. And then the second thing is, I’m currently talking with the City Council about what are some really important things that they would like me to spend my time on over the next couple months. 

This is the third time in my career that I’ve transitioned from a job to another job with 60 or 90 day transition period, and one of the things that I have found is that it’s really not productive to go on doing your day the same, kind of just running out the clock, as I say. It’s better to try to transition and move to the things that other people are going to pick up sooner rather than later. That helps [provide] continuity.

I don’t have what I’ll be working on exactly yet because I’m still in conversation with the council, but it will certainly be something that we’ve been working a lot on: reopening city government as a result of the shutdown. 

9th Street: Are there any issues or topics you see city residents needing to pay particularly close attention to in the coming months and years?

TB: I think one of the challenges that I see — and I don’t know what the answer is, but I certainly have seen it shift in the last couple of years — is just this reality of what people want Durham to be. There was a time, 12 years ago, when downtown was pretty boarded up [with] not much investment … people wanted Durham to be different. And I think that we have worked really hard across a lot of sectors to create a different Durham. But as a result of that, that has made Durham a much more attractive place, and has led to obviously a huge influx of new residents. That’s had other consequences, like driving up prices, causing housing to go up in price and people feeling like there’s been gentrification. 

Now I see quite a bit of pushback from people saying, “Maybe we didn’t want all that after all, maybe it was better off when Durham was the way it was 12 years ago.” Ultimately, I think the community and residents need to grapple with the balance of economic progress that’s going to support initiatives that are important to people versus some of the realities of what happens with economic progress.

9th Street: Do you have any goals for after you retire? Travel is not really an option right now — but any other post-retirement plans?

TB: Yeah, I mean obviously, I thought a lot about that and COVID has caused some detours on some of those plans. I want to take some time this fall to just reflect and regroup and spend some time with my wife. And then, hopefully [around] the first of the year, COVID issues will become clearer to me, as will the kinds of [professional] things that I might want to dabble in here and there. We do plan on staying in Durham. 

9th Street: Is there anything else you would like to touch on? Comments? Advice? Thoughts for the people of Durham? 

TB: I have worked for four jurisdictions over 42 years and my time in Durham has been the most rewarding and enjoyable time, across the board. The totality of my time in Durham, primarily because of the staff that we have and the relationships in the organization that we have built, as well as as the community, has been what I know I come back to as having been the most enjoyable period of my entire career.

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu.

Top photo: Bonfield preparing to deliver his recommended 2020-21 budget over Zoom in an empty city council chamber. Photo courtesy Tom Bonfield

How a Durham artist tracked the city’s public safety budget for a decade

Andrea Cobb, a nationally known artist based in Durham, collected and filed away the annual property tax notices she received in the mail for more than a decade. She carefully examined each, paying particular attention to the chart at the bottom of the page explaining how the city spent its general fund — taxpayer money that covers core city services.

“I wanted to know where my taxes are going,” said Cobb, a 55-year-old Durham native whose art clients include Burt’s Bees, INDY Week, Whole Foods and Kleenex.

Self-portrait by Andrea Cobb. Courtesy of the artist.

She saw a glaring trend in the numbers: In 2009, 35% of the general fund spending went to public safety, which includes the city’s police department, fire department, 911 call services and emergency management. 

That public safety spending rose steadily over the years, reaching a high of about 52% in the 2017- 2018 fiscal year.

Durham’s final city budgets over the same period show that about 60% of public safety money went to the police department each year.

In 2019, property taxes in Durham paid for half of the general fund’s budget. About 50% of the general fund was allotted to public safety at large, and $65 million of that went to the police department — about 61% of the total public safety budget last year.

Cobb said the realization that a decent chunk of her taxes were going to police, rather than public services like education and social services, concerned her.

“It’s a lot of money,” Cobb said. “And, you know, it’s abusive what police departments are doing, and there’s people in our city that have been killed by police.”

Over the years, Cobb has repeatedly asked city officials publicly and privately about the way the city spends property taxes. She’s still grappling with one question: Why is such a large proportion of taxpayer money going to public safety? 

City manager Tom Bonfield told 9th Street Journal that there are several reasons for the increase, including annual raises for police officers and firefighters. “That’s something like a million dollars a year for both the fire department and the police department,” he said. 

There are also specific expenses that account for changes over the years, he said. In 2009, the city scaled back the number of police officers covered in the general fund budget for several years and then added them back in later, which led to increases in the public safety budget. In 2017, the city built a fire station and hired 60 firefighters.

“To take a 2009 number and a 2020 number and then try to run the math without going in and looking at every year, it is a significant oversimplification,” he said. 

Cobb’s concern about the police budget is one that has been discussed in Durham for years. And this year, it’s top of mind for many residents and officials amid protests against police brutality and the City Council’s recent decision to increase the police budget by 5%.

Gathering the data

Cobb has been a resident of Old West Durham since 1994, and said that illegal activity took place in the duplex she called home for years. One incident involved her neighbor; she called the police due to her suspicions about drug dealing. But she said not much changed after that.

“I got to a point where I’m paying the police to keep me safe, and I don’t feel safe,” she said.

So she started saving her tax notices.

Durham General Fund 2019 expenditures, seen at the bottom of Cobb’s tax notices. Photo courtesy Andrea Cobb

In 2011, she reached out via email to Steve Schewel during his City Council campaign to ask about the budget. According to their email correspondence, he told her to contact him again if he won. 

So Cobb emailed again the next year about the suspected drug dealer, writing that she was “a bit peeved with the police asking me to keep helping them given 45% of property tax is paying them to keep [the] district safe,” according to an email she shared with 9th Street Journal. 

In 2014, her questions came up in a more public way when the city held a virtual town hall to discuss increasing city property tax rates to pay for voter-approved debt and public safety spending. 

Interested residents were asked to submit their questions for the town hall via email or twitter, so Cobb sent an inquiry to former assistant director of Budget and Management Services, John Allore, asking why there was a need for an increase when “so much of taxpayer funds were going to public safety.”

Former mayor Bill Bell told attendees that public safety is a combination of many departments. “I constantly remind others that it’s not just a law enforcement piece alone,” he said, adding that the police budget included enough funding to pay the number of officers the department requested.

Don Moffitt, a City Council member at the time, said the city could always do more to keep the public safer and encourage the police to engage with the community more. “Are we doing enough? That’s what you’re asking, and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ We try to hit the balance.”

Graphic by Cameron Oglesby.

(For more information on the city expenditures above, click here for an interactive graphic.)

Cobb said that she gave up on contacting city officials after that, since no one followed up with her about her data. “I just got really discouraged by the responses,” she said. “After a few years of persistent effort, I became disenchanted being a lone seeker.”

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson was not on the council at the time Cobb brought up her grievances. She told 9th Street Journal that the annual police budget increases this year were largely due to an increase in retirement benefits and an increase in health insurance — things she said the council doesn’t have “much control over.” 

“Even if we never hire another police officer in the city of Durham the cost of employing the police officers that we already have will drive the budget up every year,” she said. 

Bonfield also said that most social services are covered through Durham County’s budget, and can’t simply be switched from public safety to other areas. 

“To say, ‘I don’t want to pay for the police, I just want that money to go to education,’ [is] a  misnomer because that’s not the structure of the way the state of North Carolina is around public services,” Bonfield said. 

Hope for her hometown

While Cobb has continued to save her tax statements, she isn’t as vocal about it as she used to be. She tries to keep the conversation going with her friends and family. She’s also created more artwork centered around guns, drug use and systemic racism, and said she is open to working with the city should they desire art focusing on these concepts for awareness. 

Cobb said it’s “too much” to go out and join protests against police violence at her age, but she supports the effort to pressure cities to defund city police departments. 

The work to evaluate police budgets and responsibilities, which has been a years-long conversation among city officials, is progressing in Durham. The City Council recently launched and funded the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to figure out how to redistribute police services and funding.

Painting by Andrea Cobb

City officials will look at their recommendations and determine whether they are financially and operationally feasible. Bonfield said that from a budgetary perspective, conversations about police defunding will not end with the task force recommendation. 

“There was an acknowledgment that this wasn’t going to happen overnight and this was an aspiration, not a guarantee,” he said.

Cobb is hopeful that in sharing her tax statements and the observations she’s made, she can help advocate for more clarity from city officials during this time of social unrest, and move towards redistributing police funding.

“My place in Durham’s community is tiny, although I have contributed a lot of artwork for businesses here,” she said. “If I continue to live in Durham, I want to cultivate a bigger purpose.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

How Steve Schewel put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system

On March 13, the nation was just beginning to realize the danger and rapid spread of the coronavirus, but “Les Misérables” was still scheduled to play that night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. That made Mayor Steve Schewel uneasy. 

In New York, Broadway was shut down. The World Health Organization had just declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And Schewel had just learned of Durham’s first COVID-19 case. 

The show couldn’t go on in Durham, he thought. 

So Schewel called DPAC’s leaders and asked about their plan. They said the 2,712-seat venue couldn’t close without a government order, which would allow it to get out of contracts without paying damages, according to Schewel. He called people in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, but they weren’t ready to make that call.

Schewel was. 

DPAC leaders wanted to stay open for a couple more shows, Schewel said. But he felt they had to shut down.

Without consulting the City Council, Schewel declared a state of emergency that banned large gatherings effective at 5 p.m. that day, effectively turning off the lights at DPAC. 

“That was the big moment where it all became clear where my role had to change,” Schewel said last week. 

In ordinary times, Durham’s mayor has more ceremonial than actual power. The mayor runs council meetings and makes committee appointments, but in many ways, the city manager actually wields more power.

Yet Schewel’s declaration of emergency, which is allowed under the city’s Code of Ordinances, gave him powers that put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system. Using that authority, plus a keen understanding of county and state politics and a mastery of the media (he is the former publisher of Indy Week), Schewel has taken a firm grip on Durham’s COVID-19 response, issuing an aggressive stay-at-home order and mandating masks before any other North Carolina locality.

“He’s been out front. He’s in the news,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham. “I live in Chapel Hill and I barely know who the mayor is. That’s not true in Durham.”

Unmasking Schewel’s face-covering, other COVID-19 policies 

Schewel’s newfound muscle can be seen in his bold actions to mandate mask-wearing in public. 

After issuing a stay-at-home order for the city March 25, Schewel worked with the county to update the order, the second time requiring Durham residents to wear masks in places such as grocery stores when it’s not possible to have a social distance. 

Working with Wendy Jacobs, chair of the County Board of Commissioners, Schewel’s mask mandate came more than two months before the governor issued a statewide order. Even Mecklenberg County, home to the state’s virus epicenter, Charlotte, waited for the state to require mask-wearing. 

In a reversal from its previous position, the Centers for Disease Control had recommended Americans wear masks in early April, but few jurisdictions required face coverings when Schewel enacted his requirement. 

Since April, the evidence has mounted in that mask mandates make a significant impact in slowing the virus’ spread. A June 1 analysis of 172 studies found face mask use could cause a major reduction in the risk of infection. Most Durhamites wear masks and socially distance properly, Schewel said. 

“I think that was a good call. Everyone’s doing it, even the vice president of the United States,” Schewel said (before Trump wore a mask in public for the first time last week). 

Schewel has filled a leadership vacuum not just locally but also at the national level, City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton said. 

“We’re seeing the numbers now go in the wrong direction in many states around the country because of a dearth of national leadership, so many state and local leaders have been left to fend for ourselves in many cases,” Middleton said. “It has placed leaders like Steve Schewel front and center to save our own lives at the municipal level.”

To be fair, Schewel hasn’t done all of this on his own. He has worked closely with Jacobs and has often consulted the City Council and health experts, City Council Member Charlie Reece said. Earlier in the pandemic, Reece said Schewel would talk with him and other Council members every few days. Middleton said Schewel kept the Council well-informed on his decisions with regards to his emergency powers. 

Still, Schewel has been the face of the city.

“Mayor Schewel has also been especially good at making difficult decisions in a clear and direct manner,” Reece said. “He has done a great job with the impossible task of weighing the various needs and interests of all the people of our city, and of charting a course through the COVID-19 pandemic that offers our community the best chance of emerging on the other side of this unprecedented public health crisis in the best possible shape.”

How Schewel got Durham on board with his COVID mandates

Schewel, a public policy professor at Duke, has been very strategic in explaining his bold policies.

When he announced the mask mandate, he got videos from Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton that showed them wearing masks and encouraging others to do the same. He knew the coaches were popular role models in the Bull City.

“If this is going to work, voluntary compliance is what’s going to make it work,” Schewel said. “We need to explain to people why it’s important, for them to believe it, and then for them to do it.”

With his messaging on masks, Schewel struck a good balance between personal freedom and people’s responsibility to protect each other, Middleton said. 

“We didn’t turn Durham into a police state making sure people were indoors or social distancing,” Middleton said. “He appealed to our sense of community not just for ourselves but to each other and for one another. We didn’t have to do it with the force of fine or imprisonment and people just complied.”

His actions haven’t been universally popular. Schewel recently got an unsigned letter at his home written in purple marker calling him a “sanctimonious little dictator.” 

“They hurt my feelings when they said I was little!” Schewel quipped. 

Schewel’s stay-at-home order also caught the attention of Liz Wheeler, a host on the conservative One America News Network. 

“Now, the lockdown is indefinite. This happens if you give politicians power. They abuse it,” Wheeler tweeted

Schewel says he hears a lot of opinions from across the spectrum. 

“There has been lots of criticism,” Schewel said. “But also I feel a lot of support. Most people in Durham understand the importance of social distancing, face coverings and the actions we’ve taken when we needed to shut down businesses in Durham.”

Middleton is among his supporters. 

“We were fortunate to have a leader whose temperament was led by science and compassion to be making decisions during this time,” Middleton said. “I give him very high marks in what was an impossible situation, where there’s no pamphlet or textbook on how to handle these things.”

Lessons of history

The few modern mayors that have brought strength to Durham’s mayor system have shared several key traits, according to Korstad, the Duke professor who has studied the city’s history. 

One of those traits is charisma and strong networks, shared by Schewel and three others. 

The first was Emanuel Evans, a Democrat who served from 1951 to 1963. The first Jewish mayor of Durham, Evans was able to bring together Black and white labor unions and the white business elite towards desegregation, unlike many other Southern mayors, Korstad said. 

His successor, Wense Grabarek, who served from 1963 to 1971, also used his strong personality and community ties in support of the Civil Rights movement, Korstad said.

After Grabarek left office, Durham didn’t see a mayor last in office more than four years until Schewel’s predecessor, Bill Bell, took office in 2001. He brought deep ties to Durham after serving on the school board and had been Chair of the Board of County Commissioners. Bell had more of a political presence than his predecessors, Korstad said, allowing him to strength ties with Duke, build coalitions and tackle issues like poverty and inequality. 

Schewel follows in the mold of a “strong” Durham mayor in part due to his charisma and deep ties in Durham, but has also brought policy chops to the table. 

A faculty member at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and formerly a faculty member at North Carolina Central University, Schewel brings a deeper level of engagement to policy issues than even Bell, Korstad said, and could handle the city manager role easily.

The Duke alumnus also has another advantage that Bell didn’t always have: a supportive City Council and a strong ally in Jacobs, Korstad said. 

“He’s got a lot of capital. Folks know that he’s invested,” Middleton said. “Even if you disagree with him on policy, there’s no question as to his love for the city. When you’ve built up that reservoir of capital, it’s time like these you can draw on it.”

At top, photo of Steve Schewel by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Durham task force will assess community safety, police funding

Just over a year ago, the grassroots coalition Durham Beyond Policing proposed that Durham launch a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to help transition some public safety responsibilities — and eventually, funding — away from the police department and towards social services.

The proposal was in limbo until late March, when the council passed bylaws for the task force that outlined broad objectives and set expectations for appointing members.  

Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened, halting any more progress on it. 

But on June 10, as protests against police violence began ramping up in Durham and across the U.S., the city council approved $1 million to officially launch the task force. 

“The renewed interest in the task force was directly tied to spikes in violence here in our city and shootings here in our city,” said Mark-Anthony Middleton, council member representing Durham Ward 2

“I guess George Floyd has sort of put it on steroids now,” he added, referring to the death of Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said some ideas for Durham’s task force include creating a new City Department of Community Safety that would specialize in the transition away from policing; establishing an Office of Violence Prevention like Minneapolis, which is trying to reduce the risk of community violence; or hiring consultants to communicate with other cities and counties working to reallocate police budgets. 

She said Durham is also moving forward with evaluating police departments to see where there may be opportunities to transfer responsibilities to other agencies, and auditing 911 call systems to begin the redistribution of call responses for non-violent crimes. 

The county, city and the school board will each appoint five people to the task force. Johnson said there are certain requirements for representing community members of diverse ages, races and expertise. For example, the task force must have two people under 25 and at least three people who focus on racial justice

According to the bylaws, members are expected to work together to conduct a “comprehensive review of existing institutional and community-based public safety and wellness resources,” hold three listening sessions in 90 days and make recommendations about how Durham can become safer without using policing, incarceration or other punitive measures. 

Johnson said the $1 million will be used as monthly stipends for task force members as well as for the implementation of the group’s recommendations. The task force is expected to have completed its evaluation and given recommendations within two years of member appointment

“We’ll be relying on the task force to direct the work,” Johnson said, adding that any significant next steps for public safety reform will be decided by the group.

There is no official timeline for appointing members and beginning recommendations. However, Johnson said she is confident it will move forward quickly because of the increased scrutiny of police departments. 

That process is already beginning. On June 25, the school board unanimously voted to support the task force. 

Natalie Beyer, a community volunteer and advocate who is a school board member, told 9th Street Journal that the board hopes to find nominations for the task force from high school principals and equity leaders within the public school system. She added that they will likely announce their choices in August

“I think we can do things better in Durham and I think that’s what this task force could help us imagine,” she said. 

Durham Beyond Policing, which originally proposed the idea, is concerned about whether $1 million is enough to do meaningful work — especially since the city council voted to pass a $70 million police department budget this year. 

“The $1 million felt like an odd sort of consolation prize,” said Durham Beyond Policing organizer Danielle Purifoy. “It just feels like an empty kind of gesture.”

Johnson said the $1 million is just a start. As the task force starts providing recommendations and public safety services are transferred to other departments, she said she anticipates the financial investment to increase. 

Purifoy also raised a concern that some city council members share: Ensuring the task force represents community members most affected by policing.   

Middleton vowed to make sure members are diverse. “It’s absolutely critical to the efficacy of this task force that the people on it are the people that are most impacted by police contact,” he said.

One way to achieve that goal, Purifoy said, is to ensure meeting times accommodate working people and offer fair compensation. 

“We have not placed a strict timeline on this because we felt like there’s going to be a lot of back and forth that we’re going to need to do in order to make sure that the task force is in the best position possible to to do the work that it needs to do,” Purifoy said. 

The task force is part of Durham Beyond Policing’s broader plan to get the city to divest from the current police system and redistribute funding to services that address mental health, homelessness and addiction. 

Finding alternatives “that are going to actually work in the city and be as well-funded and as well-supported as the police” will take time, Purifoy said. “It’s a trade-off between making sure that this is an urgent thing, but also not pushing so fast that we end up with something that won’t work.”

Durham city council members say they’re committed to continuing the debate about how communities should spend money instead of policing. 

Middleton wrote in an op-ed recently that it would be irresponsible for the city to immediately cut police funding without first gradually transitioning services to other departments. 

“My belief is that if the initiatives have the expected impacts there will be an almost naturally occurring defunding effect as the mission of the police department is fine-tuned and right-sized,” he wrote.

Johnson, who is also pushing for gradual defunding, said this work has to “create the space for these kinds of conversations in our community around how we stay safe, around what the most effective ways to stay safe are and about how we can do things differently.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Top photo: Artwork by Sonofsimba. Photo by Henry Haggart.

Durham officials say they prioritize recycling amid budget shortfalls, pandemic

Since China banned imports of most plastics and other recycled materials from the U.S. in 2018, cities and towns have been scrambling to figure out how to process a massive amount of recyclables — and it’s costing them a lot of money. 

In North Carolina, cities like Lincolnton, Greensboro and Pinebluff have discontinued or limited their curbside recycling programs due to cost or contamination from food waste or trash. While Durham has lost money due to the ban, the city hasn’t changed what material it accepts or limited pick-ups and has weathered the changes relatively well. 

Recyclables are still picked up from residential curbsides, sorted, packaged and transported to Raleigh, where Sonoco Recycling — the company the city contracts with — processes and sells the materials to places like steel mills and glass processors.

Recently, though, the coronavirus pandemic has strained Durham’s recycling system even more. Sonoco’s operations have slowed, and the city’s recycling budgets have taken a hit. 

Despite the challenges, and the expectations that next year could cost the city more money, Durham still plans to invest in its recycling program to keep it afloat. City officials say they’re also interested in more programs to reduce waste in general. 

“We want to encourage residents to be environmentally responsible,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson.

Industry ebbs and flows 

Durham picks up an average of 1,450 tons of recycled items from curbsides each month. The recycling industry has its ups and downs every few years depending on who buys the materials, according to Wayne Fenton, assistant director of solid waste operations for the city of Durham.

In 2019, Johnson told 9th Street Journal that the city was able to foot the cost of recycling because of millions of dollars in budget surpluses from property taxes and tourism increases. “There’s definitely some wiggle room in the budget,” she said at the time. 

Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, tourism and sales taxes decreased and that wiggle room was lost. 

“We are anticipating revenue shortfalls now, due to COVID,” Johnson said in June. 

Durham has seen a net expense of about $472,000 from recycling so far this fiscal year — a loss that officials expect to worsen because China’s scrap import ban is expected to go into full effect by the end of 2020

Net revenues and losses from recycling in Durham. Image courtesy Jim Reingruber

Brian Risinger, director of corporate communications and investor relations at Sonoco, said that while Sonoco Recycling and Durham were losing money from recycling services before the pandemic, it has stressed the market even more.

“The business model across the United States has been built around selling collected material into some kind of aftermarket, with the idea that if the material was in demand and commanded a certain value it would offset the cost for municipalities to run recycling programs and cover the costs of operations for companies like Sonoco,” he said in an email. “Now you add COVID-19 into the mix.” 

Recyclables can be a form of profit for the city, depending on demand for certain materials like glass or plastic.

For instance, Jim Reingruber, assistant director for the budgeting side of Durham solid waste management, said the value of some materials has improved during the pandemic. Since people are ordering more deliveries instead of going out, cardboard has “really seen a big increase in value,” he said.

The National Waste and Recycling Association has stated that as waste piles up, recycled materials will need to be diverted into landfills. But Durham officials don’t want that to happen. Fenton said the city is incentivized to keep recycling because Durham pays $42.50 for every ton of trash thrown in the landfill. 

“I always remind everybody that we lose money when we put trash in the ground,” Fenton said. “So when it goes to the landfill, that’s not free.” 

The values by recycled material type. (OCC is Old Corrugated Containers, or cardboard). Image courtesy Jim Reingruber

Protecting sanitation workers

While their overall operations haven’t changed much during the pandemic, parts of Durham’s recycling system have felt the effects. The city and Sonoco say they are trying to keep workers safe. Sanitation workers are essential frontline workers during the pandemic and at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.  

Fenton said he is not aware of any reported COVID-19 cases within the curbside pick up crews in Durham. However, it has been an issue in the state: The NC Public Service Workers Union said in March that union members were concerned for their safety and health after a Raleigh sanitation worker died from complications related to COVID-19.

The city has taken some precautions, including restricting the size of materials picked up curbside to limit the number of sanitation workers in a truck at once. They’ve also limited the number of vehicles out collecting at a time and have provided masks and gloves to all employees, Fenton said. 

Risinger said that Sonoco has dedicated a significant amount of time, communication and training to employees to ensure hand washing, social distancing and consistent use of personal protective equipment. 

“Very early on as a company we adopted CDC and World Health Organization guidelines with respect to worker safety and operations across our entire global organization,” Risinger said. 

A waste-free vision for the future

Even with some economic losses for the city, Johnson said that “moving away from funding recycling services would be the wrong choice environmentally.” 

But she is open to supporting circular economy projects, which include reusable to-go containers or the redistribution of recyclable materials directly back to retailers. Johnson highlighted one pilot project, The ReCirculation Project with nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham, which, according to its website, hopes to prove “that an entirely new kind of recycling is possible” by running a system that sanitizes recyclable materials and reuses them as they are, rather than running them through a processing plant to repurpose them. 

The organization has also been working with restaurants and Durham schools to push “Green to Go” container systems that reduce waste by encouraging people to use plastic to-go containers when dining out. Duke University officially rolled out a similar program last year. 

Johnson noted that the next step would be additional research to figure out how something like this could be scaled city-wide. She also reiterated that the city plans to prioritize recycling for the foreseeable future.  

“I would say there are opportunities to look at circular economy initiatives that might help save some  money and some recyclables from going into the waste stream,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that will cancel our recycling program; I think that there would be a lot of other things on the chopping block before we get to that point.”

Top photo: A recycling bin in downtown Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart. 

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu.