Ellen Reckhow | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Ellen Reckhow 

Candidate for Durham County Commissioner

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Name as it appears on the ballot: Ellen Reckhow
Date of birth: February 19, 1951
Years lived in Durham County: 28
Campaign website: www.ellenreckhow.org
Occupation & employer: County Commissioner, Durham County

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

The most important issues are: the number of disconnected youth which leads to a high dropout rate and high rate of juvenile crime; the number of citizens and children in poverty; and growth related issues. Top three priorities to address these issues are:

  • Reconnect our Youth through a comprehensive approach starting at birth and continuing through the teens that focuses on helping all youth to be ready for and successful in school and develop goals for the future. I laid out a multi-pronged strategy in an Op-Ed in the Herald Sun and in my State of the County Speech, both in February. I am actively working with the Results Based Accountability Education Committee and the Youth Council of the Workforce Development Board to move forward on the various strategies.
  • Economic empowerment to help our citizens get the good jobs coming to Durham and help them achieve financial stability through promotion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, workforce development, financial education, savings campaigns and promotion of home ownership.
  • Sustainable Development should be promoted by implementing the recommendations of the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan; encouraging walkable mixed use development; promoting multi-modal transportation by implementing the recommendations of the Special Transit Advisory Committee; implementing the bicycle and pedestrian plans; encouraging downtown revitalization; preserving farmland and open space; encouraging green building; focusing on making the community drought resistant; and implementing our capital improvement plans in a timely manner.

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 demonstrated leadership on many issues during my 20 year tenure on the Board including:

  • When the school merger process broke down in 1992, Mary Ann Black and I worked together to craft a compromise that brought the Board of County Commissioners together and kept merger on track.
  • I spearheaded the effort to start the Encore! Middle School After School Program in Durham County in the early 90’s. Governor Hunt then modeled his SOS after school program on what we were doing in Durham. We now have the largest Middle School After School program in the state, serving over 800 youngsters in all the middle schools. I was honored with a national award for my efforts.
  • In 1997, when the crime rate was soaring, I proposed the creation of the Durham Crime Cabinet to bring together representatives of the criminal justice community to collaborate on initiatives. I have co-chaired the cabinet for the past 10 years. We have led efforts for more court funding, greater investment in technology, a local crime lab, pretrial services program, fingerprinting of misdemeanants, and development of the gang assessment.
  • Nine years ago, I proposed that we develop a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategy since we will never address traffic congestion with road construction alone. I chaired the effort, set up a task force with key stakeholders, and developed a TDM plan and ordinance for the City of Durham and Durham County in six months. The ordinance applies to all employers with 100 or more employees. TDM has yielded measurable results in lowering single occupant vehicle trips and vehicle miles travelled.
  • When Orange County proposed a debris landfill on the county line near the north fork of the Little River, 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 has received several state and federal grants and award recognition.
  • In 2002, I helped develop a compromise that resolved the Eno Drive controversy by replacing it with a package of much needed road improvements.
  • In 2003, I helped with the effort to provide domestic partner benefits to County employees. Over several months, I worked with my board to develop consensus to move forward.
  • When we had a crisis with a shortfall in child care subsidy funding in 2004, I helped lead the fight for more money from the state and find additional local resources. We successfully filled the gap.
  • for all county employees and our contractors four years ago.
  • In 2005, I spearheaded the purchase of the New Hope Preserve by four local governments and two non-profits – an unprecedented cooperative effort to preserve open space.
  • I helped lead the effort to develop and expand System of Care, an award winning program to provide case management and wrap-around services for at-risk youth.
  • I worked on the development of Project Access which will begin providing specialty care for uninsured citizens of Durham on July 1st.

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 working in partnership with the private sector. Examples are Project Assist which is working with private doctors to expand health coverage and the Transportation Demand Management Ordinance that I helped craft that works with the major employers in Durham County to reduce single occupant vehicle trips.

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?

As outlined in my State of the County speech, some of my top priorities include reconnecting our youth and economic empowerment. It is critical that more of our young people graduate from high school and get good jobs so our poverty rate goes down. It troubles me that we have a large segment of our community that does not have the education and skills to benefit from the higher wage jobs coming to this area.

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

While we have incentives for developers to include affordable housing with market rate new housing, these incentives have not been used to a great degree. I think we need to look at other approaches such as inclusionary zoning to require a minimum percent of affordable housing associated with new development, particularly multifamily.

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?

We need to focus on becoming a drought resistant community. This includes the following:

  • providing good information to citizens about how much water they are using so they can be wiser customers
  • consider an update of our storm water ordinances to encourage low impact design storm and water reuse through rainwater harvesting.
  • expedite the wastewater reuse project at the Triangle wastewater Treatment Plant. We can make 2 million gallons of treated wastewater available for irrigation and cooling water tower use reducing demand for potable water.
  • work with our neighboring communities in the region to develop a 50 year water demand and supply plan.
  • assess the carrying capacity for a new development project based on future water supply projections for that development.
  • discourage mass grading and clear cutting associated with residential development and encourage the retention of more existing vegetation with all development.
  • encourage the use of drought resistant landscaping by developing xeroscaping guidelines.

I do think Jordan Lake is an appropriate water source for Durham long term.

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.

I think we should be able to cut some vehicle purchases for department heads and others that do not require a car. I also think we should downsize the cars we buy to make them more fuel efficient and focus on fuel efficiency in our specs.

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?

First, a correction – a .4% land transfer tax (the maximum that we could levy) is estimated to generate about $11.6 million. The positive associated with the tax is that there is some nexus between appreciation of property values and the public capital improvements in a community. The negatives are that it has not passed in any community to date (since authorized last summer), it polled badly in Durham last year – about 23% in support, and the real estate market is in bad shape. (We do not have to levy the full .4% we could ask voters to authorize a lower amount.) Other funding mechanisms would be to continue to pursue impact fee authority, consider less than .4% transfer tax, or consider the ¼ sales tax option which was also authorized last summer. I think we should have a broad community discussion later this year and consider putting something on the ballot in the Fall, 2009 when we plan to have another school bond.

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?

At present, we plan to pay for our 10 year Capital Improvement Plan, including the $551 million for schools (some of which was approved in the Fall, 2007 Bond), with current revenues which includes the property tax, sales tax and our portion of the occupancy tax. This will require some property tax increases spread over the next ten years. If we are successful in obtaining a new revenue source, we will be able to reduce the burden on the property tax.

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?

When the County and City divided up responsibilities for funding non-profits about 15 years ago, the City took the lion’s share of the cultural funding, leaving the County funding only the Museum of Life and Science. When the County increased the Hotel/Motel Occupancy tax by 1 % about 7 years ago to fund the Performing Arts Center, we set aside some initial revenues to do a Cultural Arts Master Plan and some seed money for implementation. At this point, we should pursue a dedicated funding source such as a prepared food tax (similar to Wake, Mecklenberg, Dare and Cumberland Counties and the Town of Hillsborough), seek another increase in the occupancy tax, or work with the City to set aside a dedicated amount of property tax revenue.

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 appeals process provides a route to address discrepancies. When appeals in a neighborhood or category of use show a trend that is more extensive than the individual property, then the whole neighborhood or category needs to be reviewed and possibly adjusted.

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?

The county incentives policy has thresholds for capital investment and job creation associated with new development. In addition, commercial development will only be considered for an incentive if it is in the downtown, in the Fayetteville Street corridor or in Northeast Central Durham. Wages must be above the median for that sector and include benefits and we often require that a certain percentage of employees hired be Durham County residents. To qualify for the highest incentive available, the Commissioners will consider: the location in the community, the capacity of the infrastructure, the availability of on-site child care and whether the project is proposing sustainable design. The oversight mechanisms are stringent. Thresholds must be met before money is paid and there are claw-back provisions if a company leaves in less than ten years. For commercial developments, we reserve the right to hire an outside expert (paid for by the company but hired by the county) to evaluate the financial projections and determine whether an incentive is needed.

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 City and County have asked the Environmental Affairs Board to work with the new Sustainability Manager to monitor the implementation of the plan. While the County has been pursuing LEED certification for years, at my suggestion, the County will be pursing Gold level LEED certification for new county buildings. We are also planning to systematically retrofit our older buildings. For the private sector, we need to encourage walkable mixed use development in our core areas and on transit corridors. In addition, I have asked the Planning staff to add an item to their workplan to develop incentives for green building. Our new economic development incentives include sustainable design as a criterion for consideration of incentives. In addition, our Sustainability Manager will be doing a great deal of outreach to the private sector. More aggressive steps will be needed if we fail to make sufficient progress as reported by our Environmental Affairs Board.

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.

The County’s poverty rate of 15.6% is higher than the statewide rate of 14.7%, and 20% of our children live in poverty. Approximately 1/3 of our households are low income and qualify for one or more social services. The number of Food Stamp and Medicaid recipients continues to rise. Fortunately, our Social Services Department is taking a holistic approach to this issue through their Investing in Human Capital Initiative. Recently, the Prosperous Economy Results Based Accountability group, at my request, formed a sub-committee to focus on reducing poverty. The committee’s first project is to increase the number of families who file for the federal Earned income tax Credit (EITC). It is estimated that 3,000 to 6,000 households in Durham do not file a claim. The goal of the EITC campaign is to generate at least 1,000 more claims and $1 million in refunds. Other strategies that the committee plans to pursue are: enhancing financial literacy – including debt reduction, establishing checking accounts and savings plans and other financial goals. The County plans to pilot a strong financial literacy campaign with our employees this year and then take it out to the broader community the next year.
We also need to expand literacy programs, GED instruction, workforce training and certification, so our citizens are prepared to enter the workforce and obtain higher skilled jobs. The Workforce Development Board is positioned to develop an action plan including the use of the new Holton Career Center for adults in after school hours. The County also plans to increase its efforts to work with companies receiving incentives to hire Durham citizens.

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 County only runs or has control over a few components of the criminal justice system – the jail (which is actually run by the Sheriff), the Criminal Justice Resource Center, and the pretrial services program. Other programs are largely run by the state but are often in County owned or leased facilities. As a result, the criminal justice system is not under county control. I am proud of what we have accomplished at our Criminal Justice Resource Center which is recognized as one of the best in the state. We are expanding our re-entry initiatives and trying to help find employment for people leaving the prison system. An innovative program working with inmates leaving the county jail was begun this year.
My priorities for improvement are to continue to work with the state to seek changes to make the system more efficient and effective. I believe it will require a significant investment in technology and personnel. The state of North Carolina is 6th highest in the nation for case filings but is significantly below the national average in funding. We also need to end the silo mentality so different components of the judicial system communicate more effectively. When a client of a probation office is rearrested or convicted of a crime, the probation office should be informed immediately. Magistrates should be able to search criminal records in the state and nationally. Victims should be able to see online when their case will be heard. I hope that we can work constructively with the state to improve the various components of the system and help them work together.

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