Name as it appears on the ballot: Brenda Howerton
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: BrendaHowerton.com
Occupation & employer: Howerton Consulting
Years lived in North Carolina: 30-yrs +1.
1) In your view, what are the most important issues currently facing Durham County? If elected, what would be your top three priorities?
In my view, the most important issues facing Durham County are Safety, Social Justice, Public Education, Economic Development and Affordable Housing. If re-elected, my top three priorities will include:
- Partnering with community-rooted groups, individuals, institutions, and organizations in Durham to address systemic racism through effective strategies that will bring about real changes and improved outcomes.
- Working in partnership with community stakeholders to strengthen public education by enhancing the learning environment, improving outcomes for students, supporting educators, diversity and infrastructure.
- Expanding economic development, growth, and training opportunities to prepareDurham County residents for new businesses moving into the county. Increase jobs for Durham residents and wages to strengthen the economy and quality of life for families.
2) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Board of Commissioners? Please be specific.
My track record as County Commissioner over the past 12 years demonstrates my full commitment to represent the interests of Durham County residents. I believe in transparency and integrity as I have served as a member and leader on the Board of County Commissioners.
During my tenure the board has implemented a broad number of initiatives to benefit residents, resulting in a record of accomplishments in advocating and delivering services to assure the priorities of the Durham community are met and addressed. I have effectively represented Durham County through my ability to amplify community voices, address and master complex issues, develop and sustain partnerships, and advance progressive policies.
As County Commissioner, I have had the honor to represent the County on boards and organizations such as:
- First Durham County Commissioner to become president of the North CarolinaAssociation of County Commissioners from 2016-2018
- Vice chair of North Carolina Association of County Commissioners from 2012-2016
- Vice Chairman on the Board of County Commissioners
Additional specific examples where I have been an effective member of the County Commissioners include:
Supported the allocation of funds to expand Universal Pre-K to all four year olds in Durham
Advocated for county employees’ compensation at the county commissioners’ level
Proposed increase pay for teachers’ salaries beyond the budget recommendation
Voted to release the $3 million passed local salary supplements approved in the 2019-20 local budget for teachers, staff, assistant principals, and classified employees prior to the state passing the budget
Led effort for the compensation study that resulted in more competitive wages for Durham County employees
Initiated the “100 Counties Helping Our Children Thrive” Initiative. Emerging Issues BlueRibbon Commission for early childhood financing.
Served on the Board of Durham Partnership for Children that elevates and implements programs for early childhood education
Co-chaired the Durham Poverty Reduction Initiative Education Committee
Co-Chaired the Transformation in Ten Education Task Force
Served as member of the Stepping Up Initiative that provides mental health services to people in jail
Served on the boards of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and Criminal JusticeAdvisory Committee
Community, Workforce & Economic Development
Instrumental in advocating for public investment initiatives utilizing economic incentives
Supported incentivizing the Downtown Innovation District
Supported employment and training for Durham residents when new companies expand to Durham
Served on the following Boards: National Association of Counties Work Force Subcommittee for the Community, City/County Planning Committee, Triangle J Council Center of the Region, Durham & Visitors Bureau Tourism Authority, Downtown Durham Inc., Workforce Development Board, National Association of Counties Economic and Workforce Development Steering Committee, and the Large Urban Caucus Committee
Initiated Healthy Counties Initiative while serving as President of North CarolinaAssociation of County Commissioners –a statewide program utilizing collaboration, identified priorities and innovative strategies to impact health issues.
Served on the following Boards: Durham County Board of Health, National Association of Counties, and County Officials Healthy Counties Initiative Advisory Board.
Served on the following Boards: Professional Executive Academy Master Certificate of Leadership from the General Colin Powell Institute, Durham City-County Committee,Durham History Hub, Governor Cooper’s appointee to the Local Government Employees Retirement System (LGERS) Board of Trustees.
3) One of Durham County government’s primary responsibilities is school funding. A2018 report from ProPublica found a wide gap between black and white DPS students in terms of discipline, achievement, and opportunity; it also rated DPS high in segregation. Is there anything the county can or should be doing to combat these issues?
Eliminating inequities that challenge the diversity, academic and social success of educating children in our public schools or anywhere is an issue that is not solved solely by the entities that provide funding or financial support. Durham is not alone in these disparities—and we have seen on a national basis, data that continues to show disproportionate gaps between black students and their white peers based on race, socio-economic status.
These statistics framed in the question in part verify that the struggle for equity continues. There is much work to do to ensure every student has opportunities to be successful. We must first begin addressing the root cause of systemic racism that sets in motion many of the outcomes we see across all of our systems.
4) In your view, what effects have charter schools had on education in Durham? Do you believe they have increased segregation as critics contend? Or have they offered opportunities to those who would otherwise be trapped in poor-performing school, as supporters say?
Since the first charter school opened Durham in 1997, 13 more have opened over the 12-year span. This rapid growth of charter schools and student enrollment has had an impact onDurham Public Schools’ enrollment.
There are many reasons families may make decisions about where to send their students to receive education and I believe the best way to know is to have discussions to learn more.
5) The City-County Planning Committee is reviewing and considering revisions to theComprehensive Plan and Uniform Development Code. What sort of changes would you like to see emerge from this review? What is your vision for growth and development throughout Durham?
Priorities I consider important to include in the plan are:
- Conservation/Environment – policies that promote protection and care of parks and water, preservation of open spaces protection and improvements of water and energy conservation.
- Economic Development – policies that increases Durham’s workforce, training, and promotes small businesses, entrepreneurs, equitable growth and development in all communities.
- Education – policies for student success, improvements, upgrades and construction of educational facilities.
- Historic Preservation – policies that seek to identify and preserve structures and places.5. Housing/Affordable Housing – policies that supportive of the Development of mixed-use housing and income diverse housing along transit corridors.
- Public Safety – policies that address keeping residents free of harm at home and public spaces, create healthy outcomes for all, and support of innovative law enforcement that protects and serves.
- Racial Equity – anti-racism training, identification, examination and changes to race neutral policies and practices that negatively affect communities color and people who are materially poor.
- Transportation and Infrastructure – policies that incorporate sound land use policy, support and preserve the environment, a regional transportation strategy inclusive of bikes, dense housing and mixed uses housing, innovative strategies to meet the growing need of mobility for aging, taking people to work and medical appointments and use of alternative transportation models and “green” vehicles.
6) City voters passed a $95 million bond to fund affordable housing efforts last year.What more should county government be doing to further housing affordability? In light of the ongoing crisis at McDougald Terrace, what steps can the county take to assist those living in substandard public housing?
While the issue of affordable housing falls primarily under the purview of the City and theHousing Authority, I believe it is critical that the County support initiatives, federal and state funding opportunities to address the growing number of families that are not able to afford basic living needs such as a place to live. Durham County should continue to be a leader in using innovative strategies to provide affordable housing.
The 300-500 Main Street initiative is an excellent example that respond to the gap in affordable housing—particularly in the downtown community. To qualify for the mixed-use – mixed income and intergenerational development calls for Durham residents with “households earning 80% Area Median Income (AMI) and below.
Compared to more recent development where many residents did not benefit from new housing, this mixed use project provides 305 affordable units with ground-floor commercial and service offerings for tenants and workers in and around the center of activity is a welcome and needed step in equalizing housing for a broad range of Durham residents.
I was one of two elected officials that participated in a meeting with the residents of McDougald Terrace. Not only as elected officials must we listen, but we must work together with theHousing Authority and City. Durham as an entire community must come together.
We must continue working collaboratively, engaging with the City, Housing Authority, private sector, organizations such as CAN, Affordable Housing Initiatives, legislators and congressional leadership as well as the residents to seek immediate solutions for housing and additional support and opportunities to prevent such devastation.
7. With the light-rail plan having collapsed, what do you envision as the future of mass transit in Durham? What initiatives would you like to support? What do you believe to be a viable next step?
I envision an interim step of efficient coordination utilizing new technologies inclusive of a network of transportation options inclusive of use of such on-call more economically feasible uses of Uber and Lyft. Additionally, the inclusion of the current City and County Leadership will provide a transparent and sound management inclusive of Community Engagement.
I would like to see Innovative strategies such as Bus Rapid Transportation, Affordable Housing along transit corridors and consideration of environmental assets are the principle components to achieve a successful transit plan. A transit corridor that meets the needs of reducing the carbon imprint, reducing congestion, multimodal approach of bus, commuter rail, cycling to connecting the triangle and providing the mobility to get people to jobs and school and to health related appointments.
I believe the next viable step is taking place with the development of the plan and inclusion of the community in that process.
8) Do you believe the county’s current property tax rate is too high, about right, or too low? If you believe it is too high, what programs would you be willing to cut to bringdown taxes? If you believe it is about right, how will you accommodate the growing need for services? If you believe it is too low, what programs or initiatives would you be willing to raise taxes to fund?
I believe the County’s property tax rate is just right. The county has assumed a considerable amount of debt over the last ten years with the construction of a new regional library system, new downtown library, new human service complex, new administrative building, new courthouse and bond referendums for Durham Public School, Museum of Life & Science and Durham Tech.
Recently the Commissioners have almost committed almost half billion dollars to support school construction and renovation over the next ten years. Given all of the new debt that we have assumed over the last 10 years the property tax rate is where it needs to be.
9. Property tax hikes can hit lower-income homeowners the hardest, especially those who own homes in gentrifying areas and are already seeing their land valuations rise as well. Is there anything the county can do to make the property-tax system more equitable?
Durham is faced with considerable challenges with new population growth of approximately 20 new people moving here every day. This means an additional strain for public services, which sometimes drives the need for higher taxes in order to pay to meet the service demands.
Currently there are several tax relief programs already in place, such as Circuit Breakers, Elderly Exemption and others that are available to meet the need of lower-income households.There is a delicate balance between having the optional tax rate and making certain we take care of the need of those who find it difficult to pay additional taxes.
10) Since the 2018 election, the county’s new district attorney and sheriff have adopted reforms aimed at making the criminal justice system more equitable. Sheriff Birkhead has declined to honor ICE detainers, for example, while District Attorney Deberry has mostly ended cash bail. Do you believe these reforms are working for Durham residents?
While I believe it is too early to tell the long term effect of both of the offices new reforms. From Sheriff Birkhead’s campaign trail to serving as Durham County’s first African American Sheriff, he has been innovative and consistent leader in bringing forward ideas and programs that follow his mantra “A Durham County where all people are safe and live free from harm or fear.”
I believe the reforms initiated thus far by Sheriff Birkhead are a step in the right direction and clearly demonstrate his leadership and insight in the criminal justice arena. Efforts for greater transparency, treatment of inmates, community engagement, development of a citizen’s advisory board and not honoring federal immigration officials’ requests to detain inmates have been among his initiatives.
District Attorney Deberry in her six-month report has worked to eliminate cash bail and has also been progressive initiating reforms such as the restorative justice, pretrial release policies and reducing the pipeline of sending our youth from school to prison.I believe it is important and critical to the success of both offices to continue the strong collaboration with the Durham Police Department and community.
11. Last year, Durham saw a spike in homicides over 2018. What can the county do to address violent crime in the community? Are there preventative steps the county can or should take with regard to mental health? Are there any innovative programs in place elsewhere in the country that you would like to see implemented here?
My comments around this issue are deeply personal and lengthy so I leave with you a note from my heart I shared with Durham County a couple of weeks ago:
A message to my beloved Durham community: So far, over 220 people have been shot in Durham this year. At this point last year there were far less. There is so much pain and trauma in Durham for a myriad of reasons which is reflective of what is happening all around us and in our country. You are familiar with my personal story of suffering as it relates to gun violence.
I pray no other parent, relative, or friend experiences the daily abiding pain felt as a result of the loss of life and potential of our dear loved ones. My most sincere heart’s desire is that we as Durham residents ban together to strategize on community-rooted change that is possible now. Certainly there are long-term ideas and approaches; however, it is also important that we explore more immediate actions to address systemic issues that produce and contribute to unfavorable outcomes we experience in our community.
I want you to know I am deeply impacted by what is happening in our community. In an environment where many are marginalized and taken for granted, you matter to me. Your voice matters and must be heard. I am with you. Let us work together to identify tangible ways to make our beloved Durham what we envision it to be now and in the future. We are stronger when unified and must not lose hope, even in the face of current challenges.
Brenda Howerton, Durham County Commissioner
12. Economic inequality rose significantly in Durham County over the past decade (though it declined somewhat from 2017–18). How can county commissioners address this problem and ensure that the county’s prosperity is more equitable going forward?
Individually and as County Commissioner, I firmly believe to address the issue of economic inequality requires that the multi-faceted complexities of economic inequity are examined globally and not in isolation. Most recently the successful relocation of high tech companies provide greater opportunity for the County to offer opportunities for training a work force with a higher wage that is often underserved.
Over the past year, Durham County has successfully used incentives to companies resulting ingrowth in jobs and higher wages to Durham residents. Three examples recently reported inaction taken by the Board of County Commissioner are note below:
Q² Solutions, $84M investment. 749 jobs over seven years. Durham County will provide incentives up to $950,000 over seven years if the performance criteria are fully achieved. North Carolina Community Colleges will provide $439,500 in customized training support tied to JDIG1 and $775,200 in training tied to JDIG2.
Sensus: $50,000 in economic development funds, will create 301 Jobs (expansion) and$3.5M State Reimbursement.
LabCorp: $220,000 in Durham County economic development funds. 422-job expansion at Durham’s Parmer RP Campus and will include jobs for IT designers, software developer, operations staff and senior and middle managers.
All request for incentives are acted upon by the County Commissioners and I take that action only when assured that goals are met goals and that progress can be measured financially in tax revenue returned and by improving inclusiveness/diverse, reducing inequities in housing, access to new jobs/training.
Additionally, Durham County looks aggressively to our entrepreneurs and small business to engage them as partners and subs as well as employers to further engage, train and inspire opportunities to encourage diversity.
13) Are there any issues not included in this questionnaire that you would like to address?
I have committed my life and influence, as county commissioner, to ensure that our community is a place where everyone is safe and able to freely live. I have fought many battles on the frontline and behind the scenes on behalf of my fellow Durham County residents and will always continue to do so.
As I reflect on the late Representative John Lewis and Reverend CT Vivian, two key civil rights leaders who recently died, I am reminded that the hope for freedom and justice for all is not yet a reality and those of us who say we are concerned about inequities must be willing to fight for the things that matter most leaving it all on the line.
We must be courageous to push for change, shift power, and willing to get into “good trouble” to achieve the vision we see and desire for our beloved Durham.
Comment on this questionnaire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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