A Durham City Council discussion on how much to contribute to the clean up after a sewage backup in the basement of the historic Mechanics and Farmers Bank building turned into one about race and equity.
Farad Ali, president and CEO of nonprofit The Institute (formerly the Institute of Minority and Economic Development,) asked the city last week to cover all the expenses related to a clogged manhole on Mangum Street that caused about 8,000 of sewage to enter the building’s basement in March.
The Institute paid about $52,000 to clean up the area, replace furniture, computers and repair the elevator, said Ali, a former City Council member.
The N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. built the neoclassical, revival-style structure at 116 W. Parrish St. The building was completed in1921, and Mechanics and Farmers Bank moved its headquarters to the first floor the next year.
The Institute purchased the building, a national landmark, in 1999 and in 2008 restored the facade with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a $500,000 appropriation from the N.C. General Assembly, according to The Institute’s website.
Glenn LeGrande, the city’s risk manager, said an investigation into the backup deemed that there was some concrete-like material in the main line, but the city didn’t have any notice of the problem in the line. A city ordinance states that in situations in which the city doesn’t appear to be at fault, that City Manager Tom Bonfield can authorize a $15,000 payment, which has been issued.
Any payment over that amount requires council approval, city officials said.
Over the past three years, the city has paid more than the $15,000 amount twice. In one of those instances, it was determined that the city was working on the line which resulted in a backup in someone’s home, LeGrande said.
The second instance was when the Eno River Association was forced from its office on Guess Road in January 2014 by a sewage backup that caused more than $100,000 worth of damage.
The council ultimately decided to make a $25,000 donation for the clean up in addition to the $15,000 payment.
City Councilwomen Cora Cole-McFadden said since the city helped out the Eno River Association, they should also help out The Institute.
“We have got to look at this with a racial equity lens, if you will,” she said. “We owe them. We have done it for another organization, and we need to do if for this one too.”
In this instance, Cole-McFadden said the city should cover all of their expenses.
“We should make them whole somehow,” she said. “This was a city pipe.”
“I think our building has significance not for us only, but for the city as a national historic landmark,” he said. The Institute, he pointed out, is one of the only black-owned enterprises on what is historically known as Black Wall Street.
But other council members wondered whether it was fair, since they gave the Eno River Association only $25,000.
“I am just trying to figure out what is different,” said Councilman Don Moffitt, who pushed in 2014 to cover all the Eno River Association’s expenses.
“One of the reasons is we want to keep our minority, black-owned businesses downtown,” Cole-McFadden said. “That is one good reason for supporting it.”
Council members Steve Schewel, Eddie Davis also expressed concern about fairness.
Ultimately, council members decided to vote on the amount at their Monday, Aug. 1, meeting.