Becky Heron | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Candidate for Durham County Commissioner

Becky Heron 

Candidate for Durham County Commissioner

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Becky Heron
Date of birth: 11/2/1927
Years lived in Durham County: 57
Campaign website: www.beckyheron.org
Occupation & employer: Durham County Commissioner



1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing Durham County? What are your top three priorities in addressing those issues?

New sources of revenue are the single most important issue. We cannot do what needs to be done without revenue beyond property tax and sales tax. Sales tax (which is shared with the City) is regressive and I do not favor any increase. The property tax is already 16 cents higher than Wake County. I strongly favor Durham having revenue sources that other counties have. If one looks into the discrepancies between counties one will be amazed. Medicaid and other health issues are putting an undue burden on Durham County. Medicaid relief is three years away. The relief we are getting now is paid for by the State taking away our Article 44 sales tax!

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Durham County Commission? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.

I have almost 26 years on the BOCC (10 as Vice-Chairman and 2 as Chairman). I served six years on the Planning and Zoning Commission prior to my election to the BOCC. This leadership, experience, know how and institutional knowledge on the local, state and national level have proved valuable to the Commission on many issues. I am not influenced by pressure groups or by big money as I do not accept money from PACs or contributions from individuals over $200. Government in general is influenced too much by lobbyists and big bucks. We need independent office holders. My government service has been recognized by awards such as the North Carolina Outstanding County Commissioner, the Herb Stout Regional Leadership Award, One of Ten Most Powerful Women, NC Jaycees One of the Outstanding Senior Citizens in North Carolina, and the North Carolina Intergovernmental Relations Award. One of the pleasures of working in County government is helping to solve people problems (human services needs, barking dogs, stopped-up ditches, etc.) and cutting through government red tape. Citizens know they can call me and get an answer. I do put people first and I have a record to prove this.

3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

As many of you know, I have spent my whole public career arguing for, voting for, and acting for open government and easy access to the halls of government for every Durham citizen. I want to continue that work, which is only as sound as the success or failure of the next effort to push decisions behind closed doors. While it may be easier and certainly quicker to act without public input, as some would have it, it flat out is not right, certainly not right in any system that considers itself a democracy. The first motion I made as a new commissioner was to move the meeting time from 10AM on Monday (when working people could not attend) to Monday evening at 7PM. It passed 3 to 2 and continues to this date on the second and fourth Monday evening.

4. The Independent’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?

A just community is where people have jobs, health care, good schools, a safe community and a place with open spaces and recreational opportunities. Government can’t make all of this happen, but government can try especially where people are willing to help themselves. Jobs are most important. New as well as existing industry must strive to hire locals and participate in the training of the unemployed and underemployed citizens. Our incentive policy requires the company to train and employ with full benefits Durham residents. The dropout rate in schools must be addressed by all - parents, the school system and government.

5. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected, that you know would cost you popularity points with voters.

Last year when we were considering the Land Transfer Tax (aka “home tax” as the realtors call it) I was bombarded with email from realtors who said it is an unfair tax on homeowners and that I should not support it. (Is it unfair and a burden on homeowners is another question.) Clearly my strong support for a LTT would cost points with some voters.

6. Durham city leaders have been criticized for failing to act quickly on dealing with the extreme drought. As a county commissioner, what policies would you recommend—and try to build consensus on—to address the existing crisis? Do you think Jordan Lake is an appropriate water resource for Durham? Why or why not? What permanent, new water conservation measures should be implemented in Durham County?

As you know, the County is not in the water business. Never-the-less we have encouraged water conservation in our County facilities. Through the Soil and water Conservation District, we have offered rain barrels at essentially wholesale prices. General Services has offered free to County employees shower heads and aerators for faucets. In our Commission meetings we have encouraged water conservation especially to those County residents using well water. Ground water is dependent on rainfall and during times of drought it must be conserved. We have added facilities at our waste-water treatment plant so that treated water can be obtained for appropriate reuse. We can do more by delaying big developments outside the City. We have asked the City to look at the growth they have approved and how much water it will take to accommodate this growth. Jordan Lake is possibly one source as is adding to the height of the Lake Mickie Dam or even dredging silt from the Lake to increase lake volume. These issues are the City’s responsibility as they have the revenue from water sales; however, we will work with the City wherever possible to help conserve water.

7. In any county budget, some agencies’ expenditures must be cut, while others need increased. In the current budget, where can the cuts be made—most painlessly—and in what areas should allocations be increased? Explain your reasoning.

We currently operate under a bare bone budget. We fund health including mental health, social services, schools, libraries, Sheriff Department which includes jail and courts where we must provide space as well as fund several positions in the DA’s office. We could decrease purchases of some County vehicles. The Sheriff must have reliable cars. It seems to me there are lots of miles left in some County vehicles and these vehicles could be used by other agencies instead of automatic replacements. We spend a lot of dollars replacing vehicles. The only other place where there might be wiggle room is the non-profits. Here we do look at duplication in services and if the non-profit is meeting the needs of the County. It is a tough call to make any significant cuts in any of these areas. I especially continue to advocate for coordination of services. Coordination of services is my middle name.
Human services accounts for 64 percent of our budget. $288, 458,174 of our $671,923,271 budget is pass through funds and must be spent as directed by the source of these funds. To cut human services is not an easy task as the demand increases each year.

8. Last year, a public poll suggested the majority of Durhamites were hesitant to approve the land-transfer tax, which could bring $17 million to county coffers. What are the pros and cons of the tax? If the land-transfer tax were to fail, what other development-funding mechanisms should the commissioners explore?

I support the land transfer tax, and I oppose another increase in the regressive sales tax. A prepared food tax is not as regressive as a sales tax. A one percent prepared food tax could support transportation (1/4 %), cultural arts (1/4 %), and 1/2 % for schools. The realtors and home builders have a powerful lobby, and they contribute much money to candidates (look at the contribution reports on the Board of Elections web site). As it now stands, I see little chance for passage of a LTT, but I do support putting it on the ballot for this fall and if it fails, the following fall. I supported putting it on the ballot last November, but the other commissioners did not. As far as other sources of funding, the BOCC is powerless to enact any sources of revenue without the support of the local delegation. We have asked the local delegation time and again for new sources of revenue and they have turned a deaf ear! Now the legislature is talking about having the counties fund road construction. Where will that money come from, what will that do to school funding?

9. On a related note, the cost of Durham Public Schools’ long-range facilities plan is $551 million. Given the financial constraints of the county and the lack of an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, how will the county pay for these schools?

We only have one way to fund school facilities, voter approved bonds with property tax increase. The plan is to use the land transfer tax for school construction, but that appears to have little change of passing. There are no other sources of revenue (well a tad from the lottery) approved by the legislature and the local delegation has no interest in approving any new sources. Again a prepared food tax of 1 % (only five cents on a fast food meal of $5) could help education and other County needs including cultural arts.

10. The Cultural Master Plan has also encountered funding problems. Where does this plan rank among the funding priorities for the county and why? Where can additional funding be identified?

Long ago there was an agreement between the City and the County for the City to fund cultural and art initiatives and the County to fund the Museum of Life and Science buildings, etc. Again no new funding is available because the Legislature will not approve, but a portion of a prepared food tax could be used for cultural arts.

11. In appraising and property valuations, how should the county address any inequities not only within the residential sector, but among the industrial, commercial and warehouse sectors?

After revaluation we set up a special office for citizens to speak with appraisers to see how the evaluation was determined and to correct errors. If there is no satisfaction at that level, the next step is to appeal to the tax review board (E & R) made up of citizens knowledgeable in land values. The next appeal is to the State Tax Commission. This process applies to all sectors. The County Commissioners cannot change tax valuations.

12. The county’s economic incentives policy lays out several criteria. What are the pros and cons of this policy? How would you amend it? What oversight mechanisms are in place to ensure companies adhere to the policy? Are those oversight mechanisms sufficient?

We require that the incentive amount not exceed the tax revenue to be generated by the facility in 5 to 10 years based on the incentives. We also require a minimum number of jobs for Durham County Citizens. We do not give the incentive in one lump payment. We have a “claw back” in the contract that states that if the agreement in the contract is violated, the industry must give back up to 80 percent of the award. A real weakness in our industrial recruitment is not encouraging industrial development within the City. In fact, the City has changed some area zoning from industrial to other such as residential. More jobs in the City will slow the decay of neighborhoods and schools thus helping to control sprawl.

13. The county has adopted a Greenhouse Gas Reduction plan. How should the county monitor the performance of that plan? What incentives would be appropriate in persuading the commercial and industrial sectors to cut their greenhouse gas emissions? The residential sector? At what point will Durham need to take more aggressive steps in emissions reductions?

According to the “GREENHOUSE GAS AND CRITERIA AIR POLLUTANT EMISSIONS INVENTORY AND LOCAL ACTION PLAN FOR EMISSION REDUCTIONS” (2007) a sustainability coordinator has been hired (Tobin Freid reports to work April 7) who will organize the work of City and County departments, monitor progress, update the inventory and provide regular plan updates to the City Council and County Commissioners.

The current industrial incentives will be revised so as to include the provision for reducing greenhouse admissions as a part of incentive package. If they do not make the goal, they will not receive all of the incentive.

For the residential sector, again from the 2007 report: “Policies and incentives can be developed within the community to encourage developers to meet higher energy efficiency standards for new construction (such as LEED or the Durham Orange Chatham Counties Homebuilders Association Green Building Standard)”. The incentives have not yet been developed but are a work in progress.

We will have to take more aggressive actions when the goal of 30% reduction for the community and 50% in government operations is not met. As it is, the County has made considerable progress. We have saved $850,000 in energy costs in the last 15 years by building energy audits and our new library buildings are LEED certified. All new County buildings will meet gas emissions and LEED certified.

14. The county’s poverty rate is 15 percent. Although there are several committees whose charge is to tackle issues such as affordable housing and homelessness, what concrete steps can the commissioners take to reduce that rate? Be specific.

As explained in the State of the County speech, few of our households file for the federal Earned Income Tax credit. Both the Mayor and Chairman of the BOCC have tackled that problem by writing to the county’s largest employers asking for help. I support this, but I feel that we must find others ways to contact these households.

The root causes of poverty and what we are doing are:

  • Lack of education and educational opportunities for children who come from challenging circumstances: we fund numerous specialized programs in the Durham Public Schools and after school programs. Remodeling of Holton School will provide skill training and education.
  • Inadequate start for children in early life: we fund programs such as Welcome Baby and we provide child care subsidies, early childhood programs, and nurse visitation to new moms and dads.
  • Lack of literacy – we fund non profit literacy programs – and programs in the schools. Our employees are given time off to volunteer in schools.
  • Problems such as homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency and mental illness all increase chances of living in poverty – we fund large numbers of initiatives including non-profits, and we plan to use the Oakley Access Center for mental health and alcoholism.
  • Lack of workforce preparedness and training - we have specialists working with single mothers through DSS. There are special programs for people who have disabilities or who have criminal records – we jointly have the Workforce Development Board and initiatives with the City.
  • Lack of financial literacy – how to budget, save money, apply for tax refunds – programs we fund in DSS, Cooperative Extension and through non profits.
  • Lack of decent wages – County has “liveable” wage policy which is extended to contractors working on County projects and in addition they must provide health coverage for their employees.
  • I have supported these programs and will continue to do so in the future.

15. The criminal justice system is a large component of county government. What are your priorities for improvements in services, such as the court system, jail, re-entry programs, juvenile justice? How will you fund those priorities? How will you measure the success of those programs?

The court system is State funded. The County provides the facilities ($675,071 for 07-08). We do fund jointly with the City an ADA for domestic violence. The only improvement we can do (beyond the planned new court house) is to speak out as citizens to protest the low bond often set for dangerous criminals.

The jail is the responsibility of the Sheriff and like the schools, we only fund (not control) the jail. We do fund the STARR program, a substance abuse treatment program in the jail, and the Pretrial Services Program. We can and should do more diverting mentally ill individuals from the jail, provide assistance to inmates who get released and need help with housing, and generally making sure we have the space to house serious and violent offenders, not the ones who are addicted/ mentally ill or too poor to post bond.

Durham had the first reentry program in North Carolina, and we are still operating it. We just started a reentry program for jail inmates. We need to do more for individuals coming out of prison who are not under supervision, like referrals to services, transitional housing.

Durham needs more juvenile court counselors.

Funding is from the County budget, but to do more we must look for grants and work collaboratively.

Performance measures:

  • Services to offenders: the bottom line is re-arrest, cannot we stop the cycle?
  • Juvenile justice: also re-arrest, can we divert the kids from the criminal justice system permanently?
  • Candidate for Durham County Commissioner

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