Plan for more police in Durham gets mixed reaction, and a song, at budget hearing

Durham mayor, police chief address violent crime in city

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel addresses recent crimes in the Bull City during a press conference at City Hall with newly elected Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and Police Chief Cerlelyn “CJ” Davis.
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Durham Mayor Steve Schewel addresses recent crimes in the Bull City during a press conference at City Hall with newly elected Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead and Police Chief Cerlelyn “CJ” Davis.

A boisterous public hearing on the proposed Durham city budget included a song Monday night.

The group Durham Beyond Policing, which opposes a plan to add 18 officers to the Durham Police Department, broke into the song “I’m Going to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” near the end of the hearing that saw nearly 50 people offer their views on the proposed budget.

When the meeting began, all the seats in the Council Chamber were filled, leaving many people standing along the back wall. The chamber has a listed capacity of 176, but more people squeezed through the doors.

The City Council plans to adopt the 2019-20 fiscal year budget in two weeks at its next regular meeting. It will hold a work session at 9 a.m. Thursday in the second-floor committee room in City Hall to tweak the $476.2 million plan offered by City Manager Tom Bonfield.

The Police Department’s expansion, living wages for part-time city employees, affordable housing and more money for eviction diversion brought the most comments.

Shelia Huggins from the Friends of Durham political group said she favors more police officers.

“A study has supported adding personnel to the department,” she said. “This is not to suggest adding personnel to the department will automatically result in significant crime reduction, but it helps. Funding alone is not the answer. We must also support the community organizations who are working on the root causes of crime such as poverty, racial inequity and reduced economic opportunities.”

Instead of more police, Andrea Hudson said she supported Durham Beyond Policing’s call for spending more on affordable housing and reducing hunger in the city.

“If we had all of those things, crime would go down,” she said. “We do not need more police. When I got to Hope Valley or Treyburn, I don’t see police officers But when you go to Brentwood or Holloway or Cornwallis or Liberty Street, you see a slew of police. Fund food for folks. Fund housing for folks. Fund jobs for folks. That’s what we need.”

Durham Beyond Policing presented City Council members with an updated proposal on creating a community-led safety and wellness task force, rather than hiring more police officers. The groups in the coalition also want more money spent on paying all city workers livable wages.

Tax increase

Bonfield’s proposed budget calls for a new tax rate of 53.34 cents per $100 of assessed property value, a 3.6% increase after the county’s recent revaluation.

The owner of a median-priced home in Durham, which is $229,246, according to the county tax office, would pay a city property tax bill of $1,223.

No one spoke out against the proposed tax increase during the public hearing, but Jim Svara of the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit, did ask the City Council to consider expanding the long-time homeowners grant program, which helps offset property tax increases because of higher revaluations for homeowners in low-income neighborhoods.

“The city should honor its commitment to fund the third year of the long-time owners grant program,” he said. “There is a pressing need to expand property tax relief as a strategy to stabilize neighborhoods and offset the effect of gentrification.”

Most city employees would get an average 4% raise, while fire and police workers would get an average 5% raise. Part-time city employees would not get a salary bump under the proposed plan. The plan also calls for hiring 47 new employees.

About midway through the public hearing, Mayor Steve Schewel acknowledged the audience.

“We all are listening very seriously to all that you have to say,” Schewel said. “Many of the things you’ve talked about are in the budget, but many of them are still being discussed. We are looking forward to having those discussions as a Council over the next couple of weeks.”

The proposed budget can be reviewed online at bit.ly/2HF5bBs or at the City Clerk’s Office at City Hall.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.