In the annual State of the County address, Durham County Board of Commissioners chairwoman Wendy Jacobs focused on transforming Durham’s future by preparing children for a successful life, building affordable housing, and counteracting historic racial inequities.

Light Rail

Jacobs kicked off her remarks by underscoring how critical the Durham-Orange Light Rail is to each of these goals. Last month, Duke University refused to sign an agreement needed as part of the federal funding application process.

“At this moment, the future of the Durham-Orange Light Rail project is uncertain,” Jacobs said. “But what is certain is that the need to manage our growth, sustain our economic development, and combat poverty and racial inequities must be our collective community focus and the foundation for any future plans.”

Jacobs said the project has been the focus of the county’s transit and land use planning for years, and “almost half of our new residential, commercial and office development” has been funneled into the light rail corridor.

“It has been the centerpiece of our strategy to address the reality that twenty people move here every day and over the next thirty years we will need to figure out where one hundred and sixty thousand more people will live and how they too will get around,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs called Duke’s decision “devastating.”

“In recent years, Duke’s priorities have been aligned with Durham as a stakeholder in the revitalization of downtown, community health, and Durham Public Schools,” she said. “In the coming weeks and months ahead we will need to have community conversations about the relationship between Duke and Durham and how we will forge a new path forward.”


Much of Jacobs’s remarks centered on helping Durham’s children become successful, resilient adults.

Durham’s child poverty rate is growing and rates are especially high for children of color. While about 8 percent of white children in Durham live in poverty, the rate is about 37 percent for black children and 36 percent for Hispanic children. Durham’s overall poverty rate is declining, but wealth inequities persist, Jacobs said.

“The most strategic investment we can make to combat intergenerational poverty is to ensure all our children are ready to learn by the time they start kindergarten at age five,” Jacobs said. “Research has shown that by this time, most of the critical pathways for learning in the brain have been set.”

In 2018, $3.5 million was raised via property taxes toward establishing a Durham pre-K program. Five classrooms are opening Durham pre-K programs this month, with another thirty-one in the pipeline behind them. Fully implementing Durham pre-K will cost $15 million per year.

In 2018, county commissioners also adopted a resolution committing to becoming an ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Informed Community. ACEs are traumatic childhood events that can impact brain development and lead to poor health outcomes later in life. According to Jacobs, a quarter of Durham’s population is at risk for such traumas. Fifteen staff members have been trained to educate others about the effects of trauma and toxic stress as part of the county’s overall plan to be trauma and resilience-informed.

Jacobs said the rising number of children in Durham County’s foster care system “seems to be an alarming symptom of issues like ACEs, poverty, substance use and mental illness.” As the INDY reported last year, the number of foster children in Durham is the highest it’s been since at least 2000, and there are not enough foster homes in the county to house them.

According to Jacobs, there are 309 children in foster care, including 61 who are eligible to be adopted. There are currently 108 licensed foster homes in Durham—a “record number,” Jacobs said, an increase of thirteen since the INDY’s November report. Jacobs added that more are needed.

Crime and Incarceration

While crime rates are down, Jacobs said “violence plagues our community.” She highlighted the conflict resolution work of Bull City United, a violence interruption program. According to Jacobs, BCU successfully mediated 157 incidents over the past year.

Jacobs recognized Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, who was sworn in in December, and his work to “reduce our overall jail population” down to 384 people and to “focus on those charged with violent crimes who are considered risks to the safety of our community.” The jail was recently designated as a GED testing site, Jacobs said.

Over the past year, the county has invested nearly $1 million to address suicide risks in the jail. Jacobs said that work will be done in October. Earlier this month, the county reached a settlement with the family of a teenager who died by suicide in the jail in 2017. The settlement requires the county to remove “all known suicide hazards” by the end of the year.

The settlement also commits the county to studying an expansion of the Durham County Youth Home or developing a plan for “total sight and sound separation between juveniles and adults” in the county jail.

Jacobs said the county hopes to partner with the state to expand the youth home in preparation for implementation of the Raise the Age law, which takes effect in December and will mean that all criminal cases involving anyone under eighteen start in the juvenile court system (certain offenses would then be transferred to adult court once an indictment or finding of probable cause is made). The county is also exploring how to create a youth-only pod in the jail, Jacobs said.

Jacobs says the county Criminal Justice Resource Center is working with the Pretrial Justice Institute on how to improve pretrial release services in the county. Jacobs said the program saves Durham taxpayers nearly $2 million per year, as well as the collateral consequences of incarceration.

Planning for the Future

Also in 2018, county commissioners jumped into their first affordable housing project. Two county-owned parking lots at 300 and 500 East Main Street will be redeveloped to include at least 277 units of affordable housing. Commissioners also passed a policy routing surplus property to the city for use for affordable housing.

Over the past year, fourteen hundred new jobs were created and $338 million in economic development investments made. Jacobs highlighted future projects that will multiply that total—include the Park Center Project at RTP, a “work, live, play” development in which the county invested $20 million.

Jacobs also highlighted the county’s work on a Master Aging Plan to accommodate Durham’s growing senior population, and on a goal to use 100 percent renewable energy sources for county operations by 2050. Since 2009, the county reduced greenhouse gas emissions from its buildings by 22 percent, and from utility operations by 15 percent, Jacobs said.

Jacobs closed her remarks by looking to Durham’s past, recognizing the City-County Confederate Monuments Committee—which worked for a year on what to do with a Confederate statue pulled from its spot on Main Street by protesters in 2017—and alluding to the work of activist Ann Atwater and Klan leader C.P. Ellis to integrate Durham schools, a story depicted in a forthcoming movie starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell.

“As we are reminded in the film The Best of Enemies,” Jacobs said, “Durham’s legacy is the grit, determination, and resilience of our people who will be an unrelenting force for positive change.”