Durham County Commissioner Questionnaire
Name as it appears on the ballot: Ellen Reckhow
Campaign website: www.ellenreckhow.org
Occupation and employer: Durham County Commissioner, Durham County
Years in Durham: 36
Phone number: 919-383-3883
1. In your view, what are the most important issues currently facing Durham County? If elected, what would be your top three priorities?
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The most important issue facing Durham is the continuing and growing opportunity gap. Last spring, at the request of Mayor Bill Bell, the Department of Justice issued a report on addressing violent crime in Durham. The report highlighted the substantial inequality in Durham with a large number of poor households and a large number of affluent. The middle class is shrinking as it is across the country. The report highlights the fact that the neighborhoods with the most violent crime have the lowest income and education levels. We need to focus on improving educational outcomes and reducing poverty in Durham. As a result, my top three priorities are:
We need to diversify the companies that we attract, as we grow our economic base, so that we have a range of good paying jobs. I am proud that we have created a public-private partnership in East Durham to develop an industrial park that will provide good jobs for people with a high school diploma even as we continue to attract high tech jobs for people with college degrees. We need an equity based approach to economic development that focuses on reducing barriers to employment such as facilitating transportation access to jobs and small business access to capital. We also should revisit our economic development incentive policy to do a better job to encourage new employers to hire Durham residents and people with criminal records.
We need to better prepare our citizens, particularly our young people, for the new jobs coming to Durham. Over the years, we have developed myriad programs; now we need to stitch them together into a supportive continuum. This will require a focus on early literacy – including universal pre-kindergarten and an emphasis on reading competency in the early grades. We need an early literacy continuum from birth to age 8 to assure that all of our children have a firm foundation so they are ready to read to learn. Fortunately, Duke University is working on a Durham Grown initiative that could help us build this foundation as a public/private partnership. In addition, through Made In Durham, a public –private partnership, we are working to create multiple career pathways for students starting in high school and often continuing at Durham Tech that will provide educational training, internships and apprenticeships so that students graduate ready for college or career.
Given that our population is expected to grow by over 50% in the next 25 years, we need to plan for and expand facilities and services to meet our growth needs. We should expand mobility options including light rail transit, more bikeways and sidewalks, along with expansion of our roadway network. By expanding transportation options, we will help low income residents access more school and work opportunities. We also need to work with the city and leverage our county owned land to provide more affordable housing.
2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Durham County Board of Commissioners? (This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.)
I have served on the Board of County Commissioners for 28 years, six as Chair and 12 as Vice-Chair. In addition, I have chaired a variety of groups including: the Durham Crime Cabinet, which I have co-chaired since 1997; the Triangle Transit Authority Board; the Durham Chapel Hill Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Board, the Triangle J Council of Governments, and various leadership roles with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. I also helped start the East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI) five years ago and currently serve as the Board Secretary. These and other leadership roles over the years have given me major policy setting and leadership responsibilities.
In addition, I have volunteered weekly as a tutor at YE Smith Elementary School for the past four years so I see first-hand the needs of some of the poorest children in our community. That volunteer work helps keep me grounded – when I see budget numbers, I think about the people being served.
I have demonstrated leadership on many issues during my 28 year tenure on the Board including: I led the effort to create a City-County Environmental Affairs Board in 1991 to provide advice about issues such as watershed and natural resource protection, environmental education, green building design, energy conservation, and the environmental impacts of industrial development.
I spearheaded the effort to start the Encore! Middle School After School Program about 20 years ago. Juvenile crime was spiking in the mid 1990’s and we were looking for ways to keep young people busy during after school hours. It still continues to serve hundreds of middle school students.
About 15 years ago I proposed that we develop a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategy to help address congestion associated with commuting. The strategy encourages carpooling, vanpooling, telecommuting, transit, and biking to work to reduce peak hour trips. The TDM program is administered for us by GoTriangle. TDM has yielded significant results in lowering single occupant vehicle work trips. In fact, the Durham/Chapel Hill metro area was recently recognized for ranking third among metro areas with more than 500,000 population (after San Francisco and Boston) with the largest decline in automobile commuting between 2006 – 2013.
When I chaired the Board of County Commissioners from 2002 – 2008, we initiated the catalytic developments that began the downtown renaissance including the American Tobacco Complex and DPAC.
After a cement plant was proposed in East Durham and residents felt they did not know how to effectively “fight city hall”, I proposed the creation of the City County Neighborhood College that teaches citizens about local government and helps them be more effective advocates. We won a national award for the first city/county neighborhood college.
When I chaired the Board about ten years ago, I led the effort to provide domestic partner benefits for county employees and worked with another commissioner to promote adoption of the living wage for all county employees and our contractors. (The provision for contractors was made illegal by the NC General Assembly two years ago.)
When a debris landfill was proposed on the Durham/Orange County line, I worked with Barry Jacobs, an Orange County Commissioner, to propose a joint park facility in that location instead. Now we have a 391 acre park owned by the two counties that received several federal and state grants and award recognition.
I also helped spearhead the purchase of the Hollow Rock Preserve and Natural Area by four local governments and two non-profits – an unprecedented cooperative effort to preserve open space.
I provided strong leadership to gain passage of the ½ cent sales tax for transit in 2011 and have continued to champion the need for light rail transit to serve our rapidly growing population.
I have advocated for the County to keep all of our major facilities in the downtown and to continue as a partner with the city on strategic investments in the downtown.
Last year, I fought for increased salaries for teachers and classified school employees who had not had a real raise in many years.
I have been a strong proponent of pre-kindergarten and helped to fashion a resolution of support to move forward with universal pre-K.
3. How do you define yourself politically, and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?
I am a pragmatic progressive who works to develop coalitions to get things done. I have taken the approach in my past actions that government can improve people’s lives and I work to develop viable cost effective solutions often collaborating with the private sector. The East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI), which I helped found and now currently serve on the board, has raised private foundation funds to create a pipeline of services from cradle to career in the poorest neighborhood in Durham. Last year I helped lead the EDCI initiative to create a free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds in the neighborhood since so many children were coming to kindergarten at YE Smith unprepared. Last year, I proposed using a public private partnership to reuse a county surface parking lot on East Main Street to not only build a parking deck as called for in our capital improvement plan but to work with a developer to wrap the deck with affordable housing.
My campaign platform reflects the fact that I take an active approach to addressing the issues facing Durham County. I recognize that government alone cannot solve many of the difficult issues that we face so I work to create community and intergovernmental partnerships to address our needs.
4. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election help further that goal?
I am committed to working to assure that Durham’s current economic development success and downtown renaissance improve the lives of all of our citizens. As we come out from the recession and have resources to invest, now is the time to come together county, city, and schools along with the private sector to make strategic investment in our citizens and help create a pathway out of poverty for more people. All of our major policies and programs should be revisited with this goal in mind.
5. What is your vision for development in Durham County? What sorts of development do you believe the county should encourage? What steps do you think the county should take to reduce sprawl? What should the county do to create more affordable housing?
My vision for development is that we put high density development in areas that we can serve with transit and low density in environmentally sensitive areas such as our reservoir watersheds. Higher density mixed use development should be encouraged in the downtown core and along corridors served by transit. The light rail plan includes 13 Durham stations and we are actively planning for appropriate development in the ½ mile radius around the stations. There is also regional commuter rail that is included in both the Durham and Wake County plans. There are several Durham stations along the commuter rail – West Durham, Downtown, and RTP – that will also become magnets for development. It is critical that these higher intensity areas are well designed and have excellent connectivity via walking and bicycling. There also needs to be well landscaped plazas and open space areas where residents and employees can relax and enjoy the outdoors.
To reduce sprawl, the most important approach is to follow our land use plan. We have no plans to extend water and sewer into our rural areas where lot size requirements are large. In addition, we have purchased the development rights for over 2,000 acres of farmland in the rural area to permanently preserve working farms. That prevents sprawl from occurring. We have six additional farms under option totaling almost 300 acres.
Under state law, the County cannot use tax money for housing. However, we can and should use creative approaches to support the provision of affordable housing. I have suggested that we work with a private developer to wrap a proposed parking deck on East Main Street that is in our capital improvement plan with affordable housing. That concept has since gained a great deal of traction and Durham CAN has asked city and county officials to use public land near transit to support provision of affordable housing. I believe it is the right thing to do and I support working to leverage our land and surface parking lots to help provide affordable housing.
I also provided leadership 3 years ago in promoting the adoption of the resolution calling for 15% affordable housing near transit by pointing out that the New Starts application for light rail transit funding would be helped by a strong commitment to affordable housing.
6. Parts of Durham’s future development plans are closely tied to the updated comprehensive plan. What changes to the comp plan do you believe the city and county need to make?
There are some important demographic and lifestyle trends that should help guide the update of our comprehensive plan. Household size will fall with the number of one person households increasing a great deal. Seniors will be the fastest growing group while the percentage of households with children will decline. In addition, Millennials are less interested in driving and more interested in transit and biking.
As a result, we need to focus on walkable, mixed use development that is served by transit. We should follow “Complete Street” design guidelines and design our streets so they are safe for both an 8 year old and an 80 year old to walk a few blocks to a grocery store. Our major connector streets need to be safe for bicyclists and incorporate bus pull outs, shelters, and other amenities like secure bike parking for transit riders. The comprehensive plan will need to focus much more on design and connectivity than our current plan does.
7. At a meeting in January, the DPS Board of Education discovered that it needed to cut as much as $16 million from the 2016–17 budget. Do you believe the county commission needs to find additional revenue to fund public schools? If so, how would you go about doing so?
At this point, it is not clear what the need for new funding for public schools next year will be. According to some recent benchmarking of the Durham Public Schools with three similar sized districts, much more money in DPS is being spent on central office and support staff than in peer districts. As a result, the Superintendent has announced that a complete review of staffing patterns is underway.
I have always been a strong proponent of providing a high level of funding for our schools. In fact, our school funding in Durham is third highest in the state. I actually voted against last year’s budget since I felt it should include a salary increase for the classified workers (an increase that we subsequently funded a few months ago.) As a result, I will be amenable to consider budget requests, particularly if they are needed to meet enrollment increases, keep salaries competitive with neighboring districts, and help improve educational outcomes for low income children. I am committed to working toward funding of universal pre-kindergarten over the next few years. Fortunately, Durham County revenues have rebounded nicely from the recession so there should be additional funds available in the upcoming budget.
8. Last year the legislature ended a waiver to the federal food-stamp program, limiting the ability of able-bodied adults without dependents to access food assistance. This change will affect as many as 2,700 people in Durham County. What do you believe the county should be doing to help this population?
The County needs to help these residents of Durham as much as possible. The Social Services Department is working with Durham Technical Community College, the Division of Work Solutions and the Volunteer Center of Durham to discuss and coordinate volunteer opportunities, access to training, and employment assistance to keep as many people eligible for benefits as possible. A job search and interview training has been held and another is planned for early March. A Career and Resources Fair has also been held and another is planned in early March. When the Board of Commissioners was briefed on this in early January, I suggested that the county manager consider working with Social Services to create volunteer opportunities within county government if we find that the already planned approaches are not sufficient.
9. Over the past year, there have been frequent protests outside of the Durham County Detention Center over allegations of unsanitary conditions, lackluster health and mental-health care, and gouging by jail contractors. In December, Chairman Michael Page told the INDY he would propose an independent investigation into the jail. Do you believe such an investigation is necessary and should move forward? What changes, if any, do you believe the sheriff’s office should make regarding the jail?
I have urged the Sheriff since last summer to bring in a professional review team from the National Institute of Corrections or the Bureau of Justice to review the conditions in the jail and provide technical assistance. The Sheriff announced a few months ago that he had invited the National Institute of Corrections. I think that a credible outside investigation is important and would help restore community confidence.
In addition, I feel that there are things that we can do to improve conditions in the jail. First, we need to divert mentally ill inmates from the jail through better use of our Crisis Access Center, creation of a mental health court, and appropriate community support services. In addition, the sheriff is considering creation of a mental health pod in the jail which would make provision of support services easier.
Ten years ago, I helped lead the effort to create a pre-trial release program in Durham. As a consequence our current average daily population last year was 481 about 100 less than it was in 2010. I met with court officials recently to discuss expanding the program using a risk assessment tool that has been piloted in Mecklenburg County. With that tool, we could expand the pool of people on pretrial release and reduce the number going into the jail even further.
10. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.
Durham County set a good example about five years ago by removing “the box” from employment applications so that applicants do not have to admit they were convicted of a felony at the start of the application process. If they are invited for an interview, they are asked at that point about any criminal record and the later background check will show any criminal history. The advantage of delaying the information request is that the applicant has an opportunity to explain the circumstances and make the case as to their rehabilitation. Durham County also sets a good example by employing recently released prisoners in a number of jobs in County government.
A principled stand that I will take is to seek cooperation of companies that receive economic incentives from Durham County to consider removing the box from their employment applications and to consider hiring Durham residents with a prison record. We often provide incentives based on the number of Durham residents hired so we could increase the per job incentive for hiring someone with a criminal background. If a person coming out of jail/prison does not get a job, there is a higher likelihood of recidivism.