Tara L. Fikes | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week
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Tara L. Fikes 

Durham County Commissioner

Name as it appears on the ballot: Tara L. Fikes
Campaign website: www.tarafikes.com
Occupation and employer: Retired, Housing, Human Rights and Community Development Director - Orange County, NC
Years in Durham: 52
Phone number: 919-616-1020
Email: drtlf@yahoo.com

1. In your view, what are the most important issues currently facing Durham County? If elected, what would be your top three priorities?
click to enlarge tara_fikes_durham_county_commissioner.jpg.jpeg

In my view, the most important issues facing Durham County are education, jobs and jail administration. If elected to office, these would be my top priorities.

Education
Increasing the performance outcomes of the schools in the Durham Public School (DPS) system is the most important to me. Although there are ongoing debates regarding the metrics used in the state to measure student performance, I believe that the current indicators provide evidence that work still needs to be done to increase school performance and thereby increase student success. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, 21 of the district’s schools have been identified as low performing schools. Additionally, when reviewing student proficiency rates, students in DPS, with the exception of white students, consistently performed below the state average. These statistics indicate that we as a community are not providing our youth with optimum opportunities for living productive and fulfilling lives.

If elected, I will suggest that the Board of County Commissioners and the School Board develop a work group comprised of members of both boards and staffs along with business representatives to develop reasonable strategies to address school and student performance. I believe that collaboration is necessary between both boards so that both groups may fulfill their responsibility in the local education system. Specifically, the groups need to first fully understand and agree on the desired goals of public education in Durham County and then determine how best to achieve those goals given the fiscal, physical and human capital available in the community.

Jobs
The greatest employment need in the community is the provision of employment and employment training opportunities to formerly incarcerated individuals. Employment after criminal conviction remains a barrier to many in our community. While, the Ban the Box initiative has been successful in the City and County of Durham, there is still opportunity for private sector employers to adopt a similar practice that can help more ex-offenders obtain employment. To address this employment barrier as County Commissioner, I would support financial incentives to agencies providing employment re-entry programs. Those agencies should provide direct assistance to ex-offenders – e.g. educate employers regarding this population, provide information regarding available jobs, provide job coaching skills, and facilitate the training necessary for current offenders to meet the minimum hiring requirements. Additionally, county efforts to recruit new businesses to Durham County and/or sustain current businesses should include an expectation of the provision of jobs to those in need in our community. If elected as County Commissioner. I would advocate for this requirement when the Board considers providing financial incentives to these businesses.

Jail Administration
I believe that the County will be faced with answering the growing concerns of many citizens regarding the manner in which the jail is currently administered. There have been many concerns voiced regarding the amount of time inmates are allowed to leave their cells, medical treatment, visitation and mail policies in addition to other complaints of inhumane treatment. The recent death of an inmate in custody has only heightened these concerns. Therefore, I believe the County Commissioners should work with the Sheriff to formally respond to these concerns and would suggest the same if elected. Specifically, there should be an independent, third-party investigation regarding these concerns in order to ensure that the jail is operated according to the best practices in the industry while abiding by the law concerning housing inmates.

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.)

My professional experience, community service and academic training make me uniquely qualified to serve as a Durham County Commissioner.

Until my retirement in 2014, I worked for Orange County, NC government for 30 years - serving as Housing, Human Rights and Community Development Director for 28 years. In that role, I had acquired knowledge and skill in public service at the county level. I administered several federal and housing programs including the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, the HOME Investment Partnership Program, Fair Housing Enforcement Program and the Small Cities Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. These programs provided much needed housing assistance to many low income families with housing needs. Interaction with these families have provided for me a direct association with the housing needs of a diverse, multi-cultural population with varied socio-economic backgrounds. The position also required preparing and presenting many agenda items to the Board of County Commissioners at their regularly scheduled meetings. Additionally, I managed other local housing initiatives including the County’s Housing Bond Program, Urgent Repair Program and the Partnership to End Homelessness. Major accomplishments during my tenure included: securing approximately $12 million dollars in grant funds for housing programs and producing educational material for two (2) successful housing bond campaigns.

Further, while working in county government, I worked with many intergovernmental and intragovernmental work groups and provided staff support to many citizen advisory groups and task forces focused on affordable housing.

My professional education provides me a thorough knowledge and understanding the responsibilities and work of a public servant. I hold a B.A. from N.C. Central University in Public Administration, a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from NC State University, and the Doctorate in Public Administration from the University of Southern California. I have also completed specialized training from the UNC School of Government, including completion of the Public Executive Leadership Academy. For 18 years, I served as an adjunct assistant professor/lecturer in the N.C. Central University Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program teaching several core courses.

My engagement in the Durham community has afforded me a broad perspective on the potential in our community as well as matters of concern to our citizens. I am or have been active in the following organizations.

Current Chair, Durham County Board of Social Services
Regional Board Member and Secretary, NC Social Services Board Association
Member, Durham Technical Community College Board of Trustees
Trustee, St. Mark A.M.E. Zion Church
Member, Local Government Federal Credit Union Advisory Committee
Secretary, Lawrence and Artelia Perry Scholarship Fund Board of Directors
Immediate Past President, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Durham Graduate Chapter
Former Member, United Way of the Triangle Board of Directors
Past Board Chair, Alliance of AIDS Services – Carolina

Lastly, I completed the NC Institute for Political Leadership (www.iopl.org) to further prepare me for elected office.

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

I registered as a Democratic at the age of 18 and have remained a member of that party throughout my life. The fact that my personal value system is anchored in fairness led me to the Democratic party because of their commitment to equity and thus access to the nation’s prosperity for all particularly “the least among us.” My professional and personal engagements reflect my deeply held belief that it is the collective citizenry’s responsibility to ensure safety and security for all through policies that support its economic and social responsibility in the areas of economic security, accessible health care, affordable housing, and public education to name a few.

The priorities presented in my campaign platform mirror and amplify my political philosophy:

• Increase employment opportunities by supporting workforce development programs that prepare residents for the jobs provided in the community through economic development efforts. Special attention must be given to the employment challenges of formerly incarcerated residents and veterans.
• Provide assistance to our elderly population by helping them “age in place” with the necessary housing, health, nutrition and transportation services.
• Invest resources that will empower our youth to develop by working with educational institutions to help them obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to meet the demands of a global society.
• Support community-based youth mentoring programs.


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

I believe in the concept of inclusion; thus I believe diversity of thought, beliefs, cultures, races, ethnicity, gender and age are all central to an active and engaged community. My election would respect these diversities and ensure that there will be receptivity at the table ready to engage the community in open dialogue regarding county issues. Although, I may not agree with all thoughts on a particular matter, I believe that as a representative of the community it is my responsibility to listen to and respect residents’ opinions and to make decisions in an open and transparent manner.

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?

At a very basic level, I would like to see residential and commercial development scattered throughout the county instead of clustered in only particular neighborhoods in the area. For example, there has been extensive development of residential and retail areas in southwest Durham while areas such as East Durham have not developed at the same pace. Therefore, I think the county should encourage development in areas of the county where revitalization would improve the aesthetics of the neighborhood and increase access to jobs and retail establishment, preventing the need for excessive automobile travel.

To reduce sprawl in Durham County, I think County governmental policy and procedure should promote smart growth strategies including: mixed use development, compact building design, walkable communities and continue to advocate for various public transportation options. In the area of affordable housing, the County needs to consider establishing a dedicated revenue source to provide gap financing for developers willing to provide affordable housing in the community. Additionally, the County should request that all residential developments include housing affordable at different price points as a way to address affordable housing needs in the community. Unfortunately, the county cannot legislate this provision, but, the county can ensure that developers understand the Board’s commitment to and interest in 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?

I do not recommend any changes in the Comprehensive Plan at this time.

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?

The news accounts of the proposed cuts necessary in the DPS Board of Education budget have been general with limited detail, thus; I am not able to make a definitive statement about the need for additional revenue at this time. Nevertheless, I do agree with current statements made by school staff regarding the need for the critical review of school funding being undertaken in light of the anticipated budget shortfall. I believe that the bulk of local school funding should be tied directly to classroom instruction in an effort to promote successful student and school performance outcomes. After this review is undertaken, if funding shortfalls exist that are directly tied to student success, as an elected official I would work with my fellow board members to find additional revenue from existing county resources.

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?

As Chair of the Board of Social Services, I am acutely aware of the potential impact of the end of this waiver. Specifically, as of January 1, 2016, the expiration of the waiver requires these adults to be either employed, engaged in at least 20 hours per week or 80 hours per month in volunteer activities or pursuing educational study in order to continue to receive benefits. There are some exemptions to the requirement that will allow some individuals to continue to be eligible for benefits. If these adults do not meet the requirement or receive an exemption, they can only receive food and nutrition benefits for three months in a 36-month period.

This is a major change in eligibility and the Department of Social Services (DSS) has been proactive in informing the community about this change through newspaper articles, an interview on the County local television show and by direct mailings to those affected by this eligibility change. The Department also held a Resource Fair in December that included such agencies as The Volunteer Center, NC Works and other local non-profit organizations to help them meet this requirement. Another Resource Fair is planned and the agency will continue to talk with community non-profit organizations to help spread the word of the change. Also, DSS is working to identify other food and nutrition resources that are available to this population should they become ineligible for food stamps as a result of this policy change.

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?

Yes, in order to ensure that the jail is being administered in accordance with acceptable standards and best practices in jail administration, I believe that an independent, third-party investigation should be done. If the investigation suggests changes, the Board of County Commissioners should work with the Sheriff to make the proposed changes.

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.

While I am still learning about current U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) plans and priorities, I am concerned about the recent arrests of high school students in the area with the intent to deport them. I support the resolutions of the Human Relations Committee and the City Council to suspend ICE raids of school-age youth in Durham.   
  • Durham County Commissioner

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