Durham News

Durham County budget funds pod for inmates with mental illness

Worker Thomas Ray welds new "suicide proof" vent grates in a wing of the Durham County Detention Center Monday, June 6, 2016. A section of the jail is being renovated to accommodate mentally ill prisoners. The grates in the current area can accept tools to facilatate hanging by suicidal prisoners. The new grates in the renovated cells make access untenable.
Worker Thomas Ray welds new "suicide proof" vent grates in a wing of the Durham County Detention Center Monday, June 6, 2016. A section of the jail is being renovated to accommodate mentally ill prisoners. The grates in the current area can accept tools to facilatate hanging by suicidal prisoners. The new grates in the renovated cells make access untenable. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Durham County commissioners passed a $587.3 million budget Monday night that includes funding for schools and expanded mental health programs.

“We are really moving the needle in this budget,” by expanding services for the mentally ill in the community, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.

The revenue-neutral budget funds a mental health court and a pod for male inmates with mental health issues at the Durham County jail, along with other programs.

Durham Public Schools continues to be the county’s largest expenditure, representing about 31 percent of the budget. The budget supports the school system’s request of a $4.39 million increase to its current funding of about $123.6 million.

In May, Durham County Manager Wendell Davis released a proposed budget that included a 1 cent property tax increase over the county’s then revenue-neutral rate of 73.37 cents per $100 valuation. The revenue-neutral tax rate is the rate that would generate the same revenue as last year after the reappraisal this year.

County officials, however, have since revised the revenue neutral rate to 74.04 cents per $100 valuation. Commissioners set that as the county property tax rate Monday night.

Under the adopted rate, an owner of a house valued at $200,000 would pay $1,480. Under the combined city (56.07 cents per $100 valuation) and county adopted rates, residents will pay a combined tax rate of about $1.30 per $100 valuation, or $2,602 in property tax for a home valued at $200,000.

Jail upgrades

A significant addition to the final budget since Davis’ initial May proposal includes 10 new detention officer positions to staff a dedicated mental health pod in the jail.

Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews asked for 14 detention officers for the mental health pod in his budget request. One of the 33 recommendations of a recent federal assessment of the jail centered on housing detainees with mental health issues in one pod.

The new positions have a start date of Jan. 1. The cost of covering the positions is about $296,940. It would cost about $750,000 to fund the positions for an entire year, Lane said.

The funding is a starting point, Andrews said in a statement. “We’re confident this will evolve over time,” Andrews said.

Since the office is receiving funding for only 10 positions, the jail will only open one side of the mental health pod for male detainees, he said.

“Hopefully, next year, we will receive funding for detention officer positions to open the female side of the mental health pod,” he wrote.

Other criminal justice-related funding includes:

▪ The creation of a court-diversion program for people with mental health challenges. About $178,445 was set aside for two peer support specialists, who would work to ensure released inmates are connected to housing and treatment, and one mental health clinician. The funding also allows two more hours per week for the jail psychiatrist.

▪ An assistant public defender to help inmates lower their bonds during their first appearance before a judge.

▪ Expansion of the county’s pretrial services by providing an increase of $27,413 to allow a staffer to spend nights and weekends in the booking area of the jail to assist magistrates in making decisions on individuals with low-level charges, medical or mental health issues.

The budget for the fiscal year that starts Friday marks a 4 percent increase over the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Schools score

The increase will support a $1.1 million salary supplement for certain workers awarded in the middle of the current fiscal year and $500,000 for continued support of a teacher mentoring program.

While $2.75 million will be allotted to Durham Public Schools for an increase in enrollment, the funds would follow students that chose to attend charter school. Enrollment in traditional public schools is expected to decrease by about 446 students to 33,454. Charter schools are expected to gain 1,185 students for a total of 6,609.

The budget also sets aside $229,626 for four new school health nurses. Currently, about 13 county-funded nurses serve 47 schools.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

In other business:

Durham County commissioners:

▪ Approved an economic development allocation of $26,000 to Premier Research International.

The allocation follows commissioners awarding an economic incentive agreement with the research organization in December 2015. Commissioners voted Monday night to allocate the funds after the company met its commitment to invest $4.1 million to expand its Research Triangle Park operations and create 260 new full-time jobs.

▪ Approved a contract with Animal Protection Society of Durham, Inc., for the operation of the Durham County Animal Shelter. The $618,631 contract marks a 4 percent increase over the 2015-16 fiscal year.

The services include caring for all dogs, cats and other animals impounded by Animal Control or delivered by the public; providing necessary veterinary care for animals; and maintaining accurate records and providing monthly reports.

Why the rate change?

Keith Lane, director of the county’s Budget and Management Services, said the revenue neutral rate change followed two adjustments.

Officials adjusted the county’s real property values natural growth calculation after consulting with the UNC School of Government, Lane said. The natural growth rate is the increase of total property values countywide as new buildings come online, property improvements are made or a property changes in value after a sale.

The county had initially used a Tax Administration annual estimate of a 1.01 percent increase in the countywide property valuation. But the School of Government recommended using a seven-year average, which equaled 1.57 percent. The change adjusted the revenue neutral rate to 73.70 cents per $100 valuation.

The second adjustment followed updated numbers from the estimated valuation growth in real property following appeals to the recent property reappraisal. Tax Administrator Kim Simpson reduced the initial countywide valuation estimate of $29 billion by $160 million based on the appeals.

The lower valuations estimate brought the revenue neutral rate to 74.04 cents, Lane said.

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