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Candidate for Durham County Commissioners

Don Moffitt 

Candidate for Durham County Commissioners

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Don Moffitt
Date of birth: 11-11-1955
Years lived in Durham County: 17
Campaign website: www.donmoffitt.org
Occupation & employer: Small business consultant; self-employed



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

Some of the key issues facing Durham County today are mental health reform, schools, public safety and violence, poverty, disconnected youth, sustainability, healthcare disparities, growth, transportation and revenue sources. It’s almost impossible to single out three issues.

One priority will be working on new solutions to providing adequate critical mental health services to residents. The Durham Center has been very good at taking care of its clients, and until recently managed the oversight and referrals for Medicaid-funded services. Two years ago the state transferred that authority to a private company. While it’s true that as a result of reform there are more people in Durham County receiving mental health services today, it is also true that substantially less critical services are being provided. The Durham Local Management Entity is working on the issue, but faces multiple challenges. One Local Management Entity, Piedmont, has an arrangement with Medicaid whereby they receive the funds directly and disperse them as they determine appropriate. As a result they spend a larger proportion of mental health funds on critical need clients. We have to seek and receive local control over the certification of providers and services.

Another priority is schools, particularly improving the drop-out rate. Programs like Encore need to be funded. Encore provides after school care for middle school children. It allows the children who would normally be going home to an empty house to stay at school until their parent(s) are home from work. They study, play intramural sports and participate in clubs. The program is currently over-subscribed—more kids want into the program than there are places. New York City is launching an intriguing program that will bear watching called Opportunity NYC. Funded privately, it will pay cash for results, for both parents and students. (http://www.newsweek.com/id/40910/page/1). It’s modeled on a Mexican program that has been successful in reducing poverty there.

Planning is one of the few areas for which County Commissioners have direct responsibility (many County departments are run by people elected or appointed by others). Growth, transportation and sustainability are all tied together. Whether we like it or resist it, growth is occurring rapidly across the entire region, and projections are that it will accelerate in the years ahead. Where growth occurs will affect our ability to provide a high quality rapid transit system. How growth occurs will affect whether it’s done in an environmentally responsible manner, or whether growth will outstrip the resources we have to support us. One aspect of this issue is that currently our Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map is modified whenever a developer assembles enough property to develop and wishes to have it rezoned to a use not allowed by the current FLUM designation. The plan amendment has to precede the rezoning request, and only addresses the subject property. Our plan, though, should be modified in broader strokes. I’d like us to move to a system whereby we modify the FLUM once every three years, beginning with a citizens’ advisory panel that would consider every requested change as well as the areas around those requests. Another aspect is that in order to encourage mass transit we are going to have to develop key areas densely. These areas are called out in the Comprehensive Plan as suburban transit areas (e.g. the Ninth Street area). We need to ensure these areas are built out with projects like Station Nine and Ninth Street North, increasing density and creating the driver for mass transit. One advantage of improved transit will provide more freedom from car-dependency, giving non-car owners access to better shopping and allowing residents to age in place. In addition to transit we have to develop better streets, that allow for pedestrians and bicycles as well as automobiles, in an aesthetically enhanced environment. Regarding sustainability, we must be able to quantify the resource impacts of new projects in order to better quantify the amount of increased development we can sustainably embark on today.

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.

For the past four years I’ve served on the Durham Planning Commission, and chaired it for two of those years. I prepare thoroughly, listen carefully and consider the concerns of all citizens that email, call and testify before the commission. As chair I also served on the Joint City-County Planning Committee, which guides land use planning in Durham. I also served on the Development Review Board. These experiences have given me a broad view of the issues facing Durham regarding land use planning and development. I’ve also learned (to some extent!) how local government works and the importance of public input and transparency.

I served on the City’s Citizens Capital Improvement Panel for Durham, which helped me understand the diverse needs of the community.

I’ve served on the board of the Eno River Association for the past 12 years, three of them as president. During the Little River Regional Park project I learned the value of local governments collaborating on issues. I’ve learned the importance of open space protection, and how to accomplish significant works with limited resources.

I worked for Whole Foods Market for 18 years, initially unloading trucks and stocking shelves for minimum wage, and finally as regional president of this region. I currently serve on the board of Bookpeople, located in Austin, Texas. These experiences have taught me the value of meaningful jobs as well as how business works. This is critical as we work to create additional jobs that pay decent (living) wages.

I served on my neighborhood board of directors for two years, and have been involved with the Peoples’ Alliance and its PAC for several years. Through this work I understand better how the actions of local government impact the lives of residents.

I served on the board of the Organic Trade Association and have chaired numerous committees for a variety of organizations. For a complete list of my activities you can visit www.DonMoffitt.org/resume.html. I’ve learned the art of collaboration, of listening, of synthesizing ideas.

I have a Bachelors of Architecture and am completing work on a Masters of Business Administration. I understand construction issues (relevant given the amount of new infrastructure the County is developing) and I’ve learned finance, spreadsheets, human capital issues, micro- and macro-economics, strategic planning, and sustainability issues. I have course work in the next few months on both real estate and new urbanism, relevant to Durham’s growth.

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

My political leaning is left of center—progressive social politics and a belief that government must be visible and accountable. Government has a moral obligation to provide certain functions to everyone (e.g. public health, safety and education). To do so we have to have adequate financial resources to provide those services. At the same time we cannot indiscriminately raise taxes; we need to work hard to ensure that the services provided by the County government are done as efficiently as possible.

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?

The key guiding principle in my life is fairness. What I have, what you have, is due in part to our own efforts but also to a large part it is due to the society in which we live. We must help strengthen that society, by doing our best to see that all of its members are treated as fairly as possible. Four areas where we need to focus attention are the opportunity for education, employment, healthcare and affordable housing.

The issue is not that some people have access to higher wages and better healthcare, but rather that should be an appropriate minimum standard that we, in the United States today, insist on for everyone. Everyone needs a home, everyone needs to be able to care for those they love. Affordable home ownership is the key to building wealth, which in turn benefits all of us. During and after my term in office I will work hard on each of these issues.

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

At the end of the day I have to be able to live with myself, knowing that I have done and said what I believe to be right. Any principled stand will energize some voters and alienate others. Issues that I’ve supported in the past that might have cost me points (had I been able to participate in the decision) include the living wage and domestic partner benefits. On the Planning Commission I voted to support a project that was opposed by a number of its neighbors, because I believed that the commitments made by the developer would make the project an outstanding model for residential development in Durham.

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?

Although the reservoirs are now nearly full, the crisis remains. It is long-term. We have experienced three 100 year droughts in the past seven years. Our reservoirs are insufficient to provide an adequate safety margin given our current consumption patterns. Even residents who use well water must be concerned with falling water tables.

The City owns the reservoirs and the distribution system, sets the water rates and determines the level of restrictions on use. The County is barred from regulating well water use or even the use of water pumped from streams. However, the County still has several areas where it can have an impact.

The County should seek the authority to regulate the use of well water. I understand that there are shared systems, using one well, where one resident works hard to conserve water and another pours it on their landscaping. In times of crisis the County should be able to reserve existing ground water supplies for critical needs.

The County must continue to lead by example, by building new facilities that are certified to be low-impact projects (LEEDS certification).

In land planning issues we must add water consumption as an area where zoning cases include estimated resources available and the project’s impact on the resource. We must ensure that ordinances governing new construction require the best water-conserving fixtures reasonably available. We should consider incentives to all Durham residents for devices like hot water recirculation pumps and dual-flush toilets.

Water is essential to our residents, for cooking, drinking and sanitation. We must ensure that corporate consumers continue to conserve water, encourage other big users to work hard on finding additional ways to conserve (think NC Central and Duke Universities) and inspire residents to continue reducing their own consumption. In our house we currently use about 21 gallons a day per person through methods that have not impacted the quality of our lives.

At the same time Durham must develop additional sources of water. New employment generators who look to locate in Durham must have confidence in their ability to operate, and the dynamic growth that we face will require more water. Two potential sources are an expansion of Lake Michie’s capacity and a new pumping station to tap Jordan Lake. Of the two I would prefer that the City tap Jordan Lake. The downside of using Jordan Lake is the transfer of water from the Cape Fear watershed to the Neuse. The upside, though, is that it will be a lower cost to residents and will prevent the adverse impacts of increasing the capacity of Lake Michie, to neighboring land owners as well as to the aquatic life in the Flat River.

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’re facing the very real possibility of a significant recession in the months ahead, and I’m concerned that County tax revenues will decline. During our last recession the state had an enormous revenue shortfall that impacted intergovernmental transfers to local governments. The impact was magnified by a concurrent decline in sales tax revenues.

We have to plan for reduced revenues for at least another year. Critical functions of the government must continue to be properly funded—public education, health and safety are three that spring to mind. Finding a way to deliver essential services more effectively to residents of the County will be a task that should involve employees from across the government. The alternatives to identifying efficiencies in specific areas are across-the-board cuts in spending and hiring freezes. Neither approach should be taken.

Reductions in funding impact the lives of County employees who serve residents. Cuts should be made carefully. My background in business will enable me to be a thoughtful participant in the budget process.

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?

One downside of the Land Transfer Tax is that it is essentially a sales tax on property, adding to the cost of property ownership. In addition, my understanding is that the County has no ability to exempt classes of property (for example, low-value single family houses). Finally, the County has a single shot at getting a Land Transfer Tax approved by voters; any attempt is likely to generate substantial resistance (or voter education, depending on one’s viewpoint) from the real estate and home building industries.

Upsides to the Land Transfer Tax include that it is progressive in the sense that it impacts most significantly the transfer of commercial real estate and the transfer of highly developable, high priced land owned by those most able to contribute to the cost of maintaining our society. Renters, for example, would not be affected by the land transfer tax.

The County is limited in its alternative revenue options. Durham collects property taxes, sales taxes and hotel occupancy taxes, in addition to some fees (on license plate renewals, for example). The state does not allow other options at this time. One possible new “alternative funding source” is a tax on prepared foods. Because of opposition from our local delegation to the State House, however, it seems to be an unlikely option at best. I understand it would raise about $9 million, 40% of which would come from non-Durham residents, something that is very attractive given that non-residents use Durham County resources as well.

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?

$200 million of the long-range facilities plan has already been funded via the county bond issue approved by voters last fall. The City and County developed an Adequate Public Facilities Policy several years ago. My understanding is that City Council at that time was unenthusiastic about a full-fledged ordinance. The policy was incorporated into the Durham Comprehensive Plan. Unfortunately it currently allows for a level of service of 120% of permanent school capacity, system-wide. On February 28, 2009 that LOS is to drop to 110% of capacity. The Planning Department is required to recommend denial for any project which would increase student enrollment beyond the LOS. It’s time to revisit the possibility of a full-fledged Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. One downside consideration to an APFO is that it is a blunt instrument—once the threshold is met, all development stops, including downtown rehabilitation projects. Cabarrus County has an ordinance that allows a developer to proceed with a project if they pay a pro rata share of the facility capacity cost, which could be a model for Durham.

The County should be actively land banking future school sites. Locating sites is challenging and expensive today, and will become more so over time.

In the continued absence of other mechanisms, the County’s primary funding tool is low-interest bonds. If approved by voters, bonds could result in an increase in the property tax rate.

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?

The Cultural Master Plan has, appropriately, a high priority for implementation for the County. It impacts the quality of life in Durham as well as issues of diversity, economic development and education. The City and County together have jointly funded numerous priorities from the plan, using a portion of the hotel occupancy tax to do so. That funding has been exhausted, but implementation should continue. Many of the strategies of the plan have minimal or low costs, to be shared among multiple entities. We simply need to find funds in the general budget to keep the effort moving forward, working with the City.

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?

The Durham County Tax Administrator’s office oversaw the revaluation process. There is a three step process for resolving disagreements regarding the new property valuations. The first step is an informal review. If the disagreement is unresolved, it moves to a hearing with the Board of Equalization. If the disagreement is still unresolved, the property owner appeals to the State Property Tax Commission.

If a systematic problem is uncovered during the appeals process, an entire neighborhood might be revalued whether each property owner appealed or not. By law the County Commissioners do not have a role in changing property values.

That said, the County must reasonably ensure that every property owner in Durham understands the appeals process and how they can effectively demonstrate the actual value of their property. The County did develop materials regarding the revaluation and the appeals process, but I believe they could have been more informational. Online there is a two page well-designed brochure with little information. With some digging I was able to find both English and Spanish versions of an eight page document with good information, but very poorly designed. See http://www.durhamcountync.gov/departments/txad/Documents/Internet_Revaluation_2008_English_01.pdf. My neighborhood held informational sessions so that homeowners understood how the revaluations were accomplished and how to appeal, including effective ways of demonstrating values. Similar meetings could have been held by the Tax Administrator’s office around the County.

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?

One problem I have with the County’s current policy is that it limits the companies which can apply for public investment to very large employment generators (or at least to companies making significant investments). As a result small companies, which can grow to large companies over time and provide substantial local employment) are left out of the policy. Given the type of policy that the County has, I appreciate the focus on specific areas such as Northeast Central Durham, the Fayetteville Corridor, the suburban transit support areas and downtown.

The County’s policy discusses too many specific parameters without addressing the overarching issues. A policy whereby the public invests in private projects should pass five tests:

  1. The project would not have occurred without the incentive
  2. The project results in a Durham we enjoy and cherish
  3. They create value for the County
  4. They are the best possible deal the public can receive
  5. The value of the incentive does not exceed the property taxes on the increased property value due to the investment of the applicant.

To determine whether value is created for the County (the third test), all of the cash flows of the County in regards to the project should be estimated over a period of 5 to 10 years, then discounted to the present. The resulting measure, Net Present Value, indicates whether the investment results in positive value for the community, or whether over time it will cost the community. If value is created, then net revenues to the County will rise, allowing us to provide better services to residents.

By taking this more general view the County can move away from limitations on the location of new investment, number of jobs created, the size of investment required or even the total amount of public investment that is made. This will allow large and small businesses to benefit alike from public investment and allow the public to benefit from healthy businesses.

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?

The County, together with the City, has created a position for a Sustainability Manager that is part of the County Engineer’s office. Tobin Fried starts work on March 31. Her job will be to monitor the plan, to track data and to collect and disseminate information.

The County’s role in reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions is to lead by example, to educate and encourage businesses and residents to reduce emissions and to advocate for appropriate state and federal legislation that will directly control emissions on a broader basis.

Duke Energy has a cost for each kilowatt of capacity it must build to satisfy demand. The County should advocate with the Public Utilities Commission to require Duke Energy to offer the same cost as an incentive for reducing demand.

Businesses, particularly large ones, have capital spending plans based on creating value for shareholders. Operating in a sustainable manner builds value, although some businesses may need help understanding how that occurs. The County’s role should be to collect information and educate business owners and operators about the reduced costs of operation that offset the potential increased capital cost, as well as the benefit of creating operational plans that reduce resource consumption and therefore GGE. Such plans might entail simple changes in procedure that could create substantial reductions in resource use (e.g. turning desktop computers off at the end of each work day). The County can also offer recognition programs for businesses which successfully reduce GGE. Such programs should highlight the cost savings for the businesses.

Some residents of the County may not be able to afford to purchase new resource-conserving appliances without assistance. The County should look at programs whereby the County might enable low-cost loans to residents, possibly on a needs-based basis. The County should investigate the viability of a program that would allow residents to purchase appliances through monthly payments included in the resident’s utility bill.

The County should already be considering more aggressive steps to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions and improve air quality. One direct method of controlling emissions for local government is to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, and the amount of time each vehicle is in operation. An idling car at a stoplight is a threat to our health. Considerations:

  • Better roads to move cars smoothly from point to point with fewer stops
  • Better retail located near residential districts to shorten shopping trips
  • Stronger neighborhoods to encourage local employees to live here as well
  • Better local schools, to reduce long automobile commutes for some students
  • Better transit, to replace a substantial number of cars

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.

Everyone needs to have a home and a way to provide for those who are important to them. Poverty creates despair, and despair leads people to give up on society. The result is a community in a downward spiral. We must do everything we can to provide a level playing field for people, to help people help themselves out of poverty.

Some of the ways in which commissioners can address poverty in Durham include

  • Continue to provide a living wage to all County employees and employees of contractors
  • Benchmark the living wage so that adjustments are automatic, to eliminate the impact by inflation
  • Encourage other employers to pay a living wage
  • Increase job training opportunities, including vocational education
  • Widen the reach of Durham’s MoneyWise program by recruiting volunteers (for whom the IRS will provide training). Through the MoneyWise program run a promotional campaign every tax season to promote wider utilization of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit; use the volunteers to help taxpayers fill out the complex forms.
  • Advocate for a higher state minimum wage. The minimum wage used to be 50% of the average wage; today that would be $8.40.
  • Investigate funding sources for a local EITC
  • Promote affordable childcare so that parents can work
  • Increase the availability of affordable housing in Durham County; use bonds and federal funds to support it; locate it throughout Durham to prevent concentrations of poverty
  • Improve public transit, to reduce the cost of travel and make it possible to get to work
  • Promote a DurhamSaves program, based on AmericaSaves and CharlotteSaves, which could include Individual Development Accounts and Children’s Savings Accounts
  • Promote financial literacy in our schools
  • Promote wider access to financial services for all residents of Durham, similar to Bank on San Francisco, which could include low cost starter accounts
  • Promote state and federal laws to prevent the exploitation of predatory financial service providers
  • Support state educational policies to provide affordable higher education at community colleges and four year institutions for all qualified youth regardless of their income

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?

I’ve learned that the criminal justice system is actually a collection of disparate parts that work within an adversarial system. The County funds some of those parts: the Sheriff’s Office, the jail and the Criminal Justice Resource Center are three of them. The County also funds the infrastructure of the courts. Some programs which should be strengthened are:

New Courthouse. With the new courthouse now in design, the County needs to make sure that it will meet the needs of the courts for years to come. Particular care needs to be paid to the information technology of the center, to ensure that judges have access to as much information as reasonably feasible.

Criminal Justice Resource Center. CJRC is a day reporting center that deals with offenders’ substance abuse, vocational training and employment assistance. When offenders graduate from a well-structured, community-based program, the odds of re-arrest are half of what they would be otherwise. This is a program that reduces crime and makes our community safer. We must continue to support it and to look for ways to extend its success story.

Pre-trial release. Through the Criminal Justice Resource Center the County has a pre-trial release program. The system can take an extended period to try someone. For some, loitering in jail while waiting can cost them their job, their house and their ability to support their family, which in turns costs society. The program investigates those charged with a crime and provides information to the judge so that the judge can make an informed decision on the need for pre-trial detention. Some offenders should clearly not be released, and a good pre-trial release program can help uncover the information necessary to make that decision. A Wake County jail inmate, charged with a misdemeanor, was found to be wanted on murder in Durham because of the pre-trial release program there. The pre-trial release program in Durham provides nothing but information, but is limited in scope regarding which people it investigates based on the charges faced. The program should be broadened to assist judges with more information on more accused individuals.

Substance Abuse. Many of the people awaiting trial or serving minor offenses are substance abusers. We have to intervene to reduce the level substance abuse in the County. Durham is already leading the State in its programs, but more is needed, particularly for offenders.

Mental health court. Orange County utilizes a mental health court to bring together multiple parties to deal with crimes committed by those with mental health problems, reportedly with significant success. We need to evaluate the program and implement it in Durham if it works.

Probation office. Probation supervision is a State function, but clearly there are significant problems in our region. We need to investigate the issues to determine what we can do locally to support the probation officers at work here.

Initial funding is a challenge. Over time, however, each improvement to the system should create value for the County, costing less money than the societal costs of simply incarcerating more people. Initial funding can come from efficiencies in other parts of the County government and from grant funds. Raising the property tax rate is another way to raise money, but certainly an undesirable one. Some fees for service should be considered—for example, for pre-trial release services—as long as the fees do not preclude access to the service by low-income individuals.

Measurement of success is critical for all government programs. Measures for criminal justice programs would include recidivism rates, incarceration rates, crime rates and costs.

  • Candidate for Durham County Commissioners

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