"I thought my child would wind up in jail": Budget cuts could close the Wright School in Durham, which helps kids with mental illness

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The legislature is as predictable as the Summer Solstice: Come June, budget season, it's time to swing the guillotine over the head of the Wright School. The school, which is on North Roxboro Street in Durham, serves kids with mental, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. For many kids, this school separates them from a future in the prison system.

The proposed state senate budget directs the Department of Health and Human Services to halt any admissions or readmissions to the school, effective June 30. That's just a month for the parents of these kids to try to find, as the budget states, "other appropriate educational and treatment settings." The school would officially close on Sept. 30.

Well, these very special facilities don't exist, at least not any significant amount. In fact, the Wright School is unique in its approach to helping these kids.

I spent time at  the Wright School for a story I published in the INDY in 2009, when the senate first made overtures toward closing it. I'm reprinting that story here (without the photos, which are wonderful but not mine; shot by Jeremy M. Lange). You can also see it archived on the INDY website. It was a heart-breaking, yet inspiring experience.

Wright School

3132 N. Roxboro St., Durham, N.C. 27704; 919-560-5790

•Year started: 1963

•Average yearly enrollment: 55

•Number of slots available at one time: 24

•Ages served: 6-12

•Maximum length of stay: 6-9 months

Trouble In Mind

By Lisa Sorg

Editor's Note: To protect their privacy, some children are not named in this story. The Indy identified children with their parents' permission.

"Who says country music makes you sad?" In the kitchen of his Chatham County home, Logan St. Clair explains the title of his science project that recently won an award at his elementary school. Zinnia plants exposed to music by Johnny Cash and Wilco, he found, grew faster than plants that weren't exposed to music at all.

The Wright School was to Logan what Johnny Cash was to zinnias. Since kindergarten Logan had been defiant, a "wild child," says his mother, Jennifer St. Clair, a social worker. Medications like Adderall, Concerta and Strattera didn't help; he was eventually diagnosed with anxiety. In October 2007, Logan, then in fifth grade, received his first suspension from regular public school. Finally, having exhausted all other options, St. Clair met with a social worker at Carolina Outreach who suggested that Logan apply to Wright School, which treats children with severe mental, emotional and behavioral illnesses.

"It was the hardest thing to do as a parent, but we had tried everything else," St. Clair says. "It's like admitting there is a significant barrier to your child's success and you as a parent can't handle it."

In February 2008, Logan enrolled in Wright School.

"We learned lots of good stuff," says Logan, who, other than an amped-up restlessness, seems like any 12-year-old boy. "Share stuff. Be respectful. Be aware of what you're saying."

He pauses. "Being polite was hard for me."

In August, he graduated. Two weeks later, he entered regular public school, where he earns mostly As and Bs, and excels in math and science.

"He has coping strategies," St. Clair says. "He can remove himself and be calm. And he can accept the adult decision."

A group of powerful adults in state government are deciding the fate of the Wright School. Gov. Bev Perdue's proposed budget, which the General Assembly begins tackling this week, would close the nationally known school, located in Durham, and its counterpart for teens, the Whitaker School in Butner. [Update 2016: Whitaker has been converted into a residential psychiatric facility, and now accepts Medicaid, and removes the financial burden from the state.]

Wright and Whitaker have been on the chopping block before, but never in a recession this deep and in a budget crisis this severe. Facing at least a $3 billion shortfall, North Carolina would save $5.8 million over the next two years by closing the schools; it's a small percentage of the overall $21 billion budget, but in desperate times, lawmakers are scrutinizing programs no matter how small—or how successful.

Wright's size, success and uniqueness contribute, ironically, to its vulnerability. Each year, the school serves about 55 kids in a highly structured environment that combines individualized public school education with extensive mental health services. The "re-education principles" of finding a child's strengths and centering on the family have turned around the lives of hundreds of troubled children over the past four decades, many area parents and social workers say.

The financial sticking point is that Wright is not eligible for Medicaid reimbursement, placing the financial onus on the state and its Department of Health and Human Services. Yet, the savings in closing the schools may come at a later, more expensive financial, social and human cost: Without appropriate services, these kids could easily wind up imprisoned or hospitalized.

Continue reading ""I thought my child would wind up in jail": Budget cuts could close the Wright School in Durham, which helps kids with mental illness" »


An analysis of the Durham election snafu: It's about more than bad math. It's also the GOP legislature.

Durham County_Presentation_Page_16

Who and why, we don’t know, but what went amiss during the Durham primary in March has resulted in a state investigation, political gamemanship calling for a new primary, and a do-over for some people who cast provisional ballots. 

And arguably, the elections snafu is due in part to other factors: 

  • new voting regulations, including ID laws passed by the state legislature;
  • a new crew of election judges and poll workers who were poorly trained to deal with the changes;
  • and a baffling number of ballot styles, the result of gerrymandering by the state legislature.

First, the math: The total number of ballots in question is 1,039. The State Board of Election voted unanimously yesterday to allow 892 people to re-vote in the Durham primary because their provisional ballots were mishandled. This summer, those voters, who were flagged in the polling books as casting provisional ballots, will be mailed new ones.

The state counted 147 provisional ballots yesterday; those ballots were still in their envelopes with the voter information attached. 

Download Durham County_Presentation by the State Board of Elections.

Since the total number of provisional ballots in question —1,039 — would not affect the outcome, the state board rejected calls for a new election from Commissioners Michael Page and Fred Foster, challenger Elaine Hyman, and their supporters. Those included Lavonia Allison of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Anita Keith-Foust; both are pro-development, particularly pro-751 South. Foster and Page have long supported that controversial development.

Even the local board, which consists of two Republicans and one Democrat, opened the door for a new primary, saying there was a “great deal of public anxiety” over the results. (Republican county board chair Bill Brian is a lawyer with Morningstar firm; he previously was with the land use and zoning law division of K&L Gates, which represented 751 South developers.) The board has had a 2-1 majority since Gov. Pat McCrory was elected; the governor's party determines the board majority. In turn, the board majority hires the chief election judges.

Download DBOE_STATE_5_29016 (Statement by the Durham board)

Download Protest(Hyman)-2016-5-13  (Protests filed by the commissioner candidates)

Download Protest(Page)-2016-5-09

Download Foster_(Protest)_2016-05-25

To gauge the extent of that anxiety and where it’s coming from, BCR has requested all emails from constituents to the commissioners about the provisional ballots.

Second, the blowback: In March, the local elections board had approved or partially approved the 1,039 provisional ballots that had then been entered into the state’s election management system, also known as the provisional module. However, during the March 22 count, also known as the official canvass, the board and staff noticed there were only 980 paper ballots, leaving 59 unaccounted for.

It appears that 59 ballots were not lost, but rather run through the tabulator twice, according to the state board’s investigation. In addition, a temporary elections employee had told Director Michael Perry that an elections staff member had instructed her to run some ballots twice in order to reconcile the numbers.

The staff member who gave that directive has not been publicly identified. BCR has requested under the open records law the public portion of the personnel files on all staff members who have left the elections department since January.

Continue reading "An analysis of the Durham election snafu: It's about more than bad math. It's also the GOP legislature." »


A thought experiment: What a do-over Durham primary could possibly accomplish — nothing

Update, Sunday 11:35 a.m.: Commissioner Fred Foster Jr., the eighth-place finisher, filed a protest on Friday.

While BCR was covering the spectacle otherwise known as the UNC Board of Governors meeting, Virginia Bridges over at The Durham News attended the Durham Board of Elections powwow. She reports that the local elections board isn’t ruling out the possibility of a do-over primary — if the state board asks for one — on account of the miscounting of provisional ballots in March.

The state board meets Tuesday, May 31, at 1 p.m. At that meeting the state board will consider the protests filed by County Commissioner Michael Page, who came in sixth in a contest for five Democratic seats, and Elaine Hyman, the seventh-place finisher.

Virginia’s story lays out the math, which, despite the protests, would not change the outcome of the five winners: Wendy Jacobs, Ellen Reckhow, Heidi Carter, Brenda Howerton, and James Hill. (Since there was no Republican primary, the winning Democrats are the de facto commissioners unless an independent candidate files for the fall; it’s happened before.)

But as a thought experiment, let’s say Durham did hold a sequel to the March election — aside from costing taxpayers $500,000 and disenfranchising 80,000 voters.

It’s doubtful that Page would improve his position, especially considering his recent vote to allow 751 South developers to delay required payments — for “cash flow” reasons — to the state for an environmental mitigation fund. 

A new primary could give Page more time to raise campaign funds. In 2012, Southern Durham Development, which is behind the 751 project, created and funded a SuperPAC, pouring $50,000 into its independent support for several 751-friendly candidates, including Page and Brenda Howerton.

Yet Southern Durham Development can’t very well support Page’s redux (independently of course, under SuperPAC rules) while crying to the county that it can’t quite come up with the cash for its watershed mitigation payments. SDD is also on a payment plan with the county tax administration, trying to pay down its overdue property taxes.

Ditto for Howerton and Southern Durham Development. Now here’s where a new primary could get help Hyman. While she finished 1,880 votes behind fifth place, it’s feasible that in a second primary Hyman could carve into Howerton’s vote count. Howerton also recently voted for giving the 751 project a financial reprieve, and then went on a strange rambling about how she had received death threats in 2012 over her previous support for the project. That incident is fresh in voters’ minds, if not permanently burned into them. (Fred Foster, Jr. was the third yea vote; he placed eighth in the primary.)

Yes, it would take quite an effort for Hyman to leapfrog into the top five, but stranger things have happened.

Like the provisional ballots in the March primary.


Durham Housing Authority clarifies arrest policy for Section 8 applicants

Durham Housing Authority board voted unanimously to clarify the arrest policy for people applying for Section 8 vouchers. New language on the DHA website will specify that prior arrests without a conviction do not constitute proof of past unlawful conduct. An arrest alone will not preclude someone from applying or receiving a voucher.

Applicants with felony convictions will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. A conviction alone might not disqualify someone from the Section 8 program. “We must look at the nature of it,” said board member Bo Glenn, accounting for mitigating circumstances such as the applicant receiving drug treatment.

As BCR reported last week, Gudrun Parmer, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham, which works with ex-offenders, had approached Glenn and board chairman Dan Hudgins about the housing crisis facing people leaving jail or prison.

Glenn broached the issue based on a directive from federal housing and justice officials that gives local housing authorities leeway in accepting ex-offenders and people with an arrest record but not convictions into Section 8 programs and public housing. (Certain offenses are still off-limits: registered sex offenders and people convicted of felony meth distribution charges.)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development “states than an arrest alone can’t be grounds for denial,” Glenn said, noting that in the DHA administrative plan regarding Section 8, “the word arrest appears in nine places.”

Nor can a voucher be withdrawn solely on the basis of arrest.

Glenn was concerned that DHA would violate the Fair Housing Act unless the agency ensured people with an arrest record were allowed to apply for Section 8.

DHA attorney Eric Pristell countered that DHA policy does comply with federal law, but that  policies need to be updated to better mirror the Office of General Counsel.”


Upcoming meeting on bike/ped plan, plus corrections to the May 8 post

First, a key presentation is coming up early next month about the bike/ped plan. Whether you walk, bike, or drive, anyone who leaves his/her house should attend the city’s open house about the bicycle/pedestrian plan update. The event happens on Monday, June 6, at the Durham County Main Library, 300 N. Roxboro St., from 4 to 7 p.m. There will be maps, surveys, and interactive presentations, the latter of which occur at the top of each hour. (And then, civically minded readers, head over to City Hall for the City Council meeting.)

 

Secondly I need to correct and/or clarify several points I made in writing about the state of Durham’s sidewalks in the May 8 post. I apologize for these errors and the lack of clarity.

1) I walked all of Dearborn Drive from Old Oxford Road — near Oxford Manor — to Maplewood Drive. Parts of this stretch southeast of Ruth Street don’t have sidewalks; however, according to the city’s transportation department, it is a separate project that did not score highly in the DurhamWalks! plan. This was not clear from the post.

2) The sidewalk petitions plan is no longer in effect; so if you want a sidewalk, you can petition City Council. If Council approves the petition, then your request goes into the project queue to be constructed when funding became available. In other words, no jumping to the front of the line anymore.

In the comments section, there was a discussion about the sidewalk petition process. It determines that sidewalks not in the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan will be assessed at full cost of construction at the time they’re built.

Sidewalks on the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan will be assessed at $35 per linear foot once constructed. According to the city, there has not yet been a discussion regarding whether this process will change as the plan update is adopted.   

3) And finally, four of the top unfunded sidewalk projects that I listed are now either funded or partially funded. Here’s a timeline from the city:

•      North Roxboro Street from Pacific to Murray: This project is in design, with anticipated construction beginning February 2019.

•      East Geer Street from Midland Terrace to Glenn School Road: No current funding, will be reanalyzed and prioritized in plan update.

•      South Alston Avenue between Cecil Street and Riddle Road: Design complete, anticipated construction beginning June 2018.

•      North Duke Street between Carver Street and Roxboro Road: Funding for sidewalk on East side of road from Murray Ave to Roxboro Road. Construction anticipated to begin August 2021.

•      Horton Road between Stadium Drive and Roxboro Road: Partially funded, will be reanalyzed and prioritized in plan update.

 


Nosh owners ask city for grant to open new restaurant on West Chapel Hill Street

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Photo courtesy of Durham County 

As recently as two years ago, tumbleweed could have rolled down West Chapel Hill Street. Among the several empty storefronts and bleak parking lots, there was an odd, but endearing jumble of businesses, where you could drop your kid off at day care, get your windows tinted, have your leaky tire inflated or your transmission fixed, then grab a bag of chips at the convenience store. West Chapel Hill Street also represented Durham’s religious diversity. The Tabernacle of Joy, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, and the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center shared a three-block stretch of the neighborhood known as the West End.

Then, the city center began its renaissance and several homegrown businesses settled on the downtown’s western frontier in search of cheaper space or land: the Cookery, a Middle Eastern grocery, Taiba Market — and a year ago, Kent Corner, which includes the Durham Co-op and the Center for Child & Family Health.

Now  Wendy Woods, co-owner of Nosh and Pipers in the Park — and a resident of the adjacent Burch Avenue neighborhood — plans to renovate and expand a former gas station at 1200 W. Chapel Hill St. for a new restaurant. The building sits diagonally from Kent Corner. A church held services there from 2004-2013, but the 1,288-square-foot building has been vacant since.

Woods’ company, Habitable Space, which has owned the building since 2015, is requesting a $170,000 city Neighborhood Improvement Grant to help fund the project. (Update: A City memo from April 19 has countered with an amount of $100,000 Download 11088_MEMO_HABITABLE_SPACE_LLC_387974_692589.) Woods said Friday that she is still working out some details, and thus couldn’t go into the finer points about the new venture. However, documents filed with city show that in addition to a total gutting and renovation of the building, a 300-square-foot second level would be added for a green roof or garden system. The restaurant would include indoor dining and an outside patio.  Download Habitable Space

A Pure gas station was built on this quarter-acre in 1956, but closed in the 1990s. Because of its history, the property was designated as a brownfield by the state Department of Environmental Quality. However, a previous owner removed the underground storage tanks and removed any contaminated soil. DEQ didn’t require any further action, clearing the way for the property to be revived. Download 1200 W. Chapel Hill Brownfields

The restaurant, as yet unnamed in the documents, would “serve reasonably priced, quality food so that neighbors from Burch Avenue, the West End and other neighborhoods” could afford it. It would create 23 full-time jobs that pay $13 to $20 an hour.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $822,000.

The City Council could discuss Woods’ request within the next month.

 


Parking, gentrification and more: live blogging City Council, May 19

It's 1:17 p.m., and Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden is reading the agenda.  Download Durham City Council Work Session Agenda - May 19 2016

While you're waiting, here are some items of interest:

Morgan Street parking garage  Download 11139_MEMO_PROPOSED_NEW_DOWNTOWN_PAR_389330_696396

Environmental cleanup of new site of Durham Police Department headquarters  Download 11137_MEMO_POLICE_HQ_PGMP_1_DEMO_ABA_389031_696315

And a request for a neighborhood improvement grant by Wendy Woods, co-owner of Nosh, to open a restaurant at 1200 W. Chapel Hill St.. It was an old gas station, then a church, and is now vacant. It sits diagonal from Kent Corner.  Download 11088_OTHER_HABITABLE_SPACE_LLC_PROJE_387975_690963

1:30 p.m. City Councilors receive health benefits while serving the city, but not after, unlike some city employees, depending on hire date. Question is whether City Council members who serve at least 10 years could pay into a health savings account, like employees hired after July 1, 2008. City makes a small contribution. Financial impact: $6K and change. 

Other option: The same situation, but councilors with 10 years of service would get city health insurance up to age 65. Over 65, the councilors would be available for a Medicare supplement, about $100 a month or so per member. Plus health insurance, it's another $6K to the city. Employees don't get this option.

Councilman Steve Schewel: If City adds an entire group of qualified people, the insurance is mandatory, right?

Yes.

Councilman Charlie Reece: I don't think either of these options serve the taxpayers.

Mayor Bill Bell: At some point in time, additional benefits should be available to people who serve. This doesn't impact me; I'm not involved in it. (Bell is 74.) To say no, is to preclude any situations that might come up after you've served 10 years on the council. Future councils might want it [even if you don't want it.] Some people think this should be a full-time job, but that's another conversation.

Council is not taking any action on this.

1:55 p.m. Morgan Street parking garage, Harmon Crutchfield, interim transportation director: Refers to last meeting in which affordable housing was mentioned as part of the parking garage plan. There is additional information about land use, constructability and affordable housing. [He has several people here who can ask questions.]

Bob Chapman, local developer who wants affordable housing in the garage, signed up to speak on the issue [Powerpoint alert!] I want to talk about an outstanding opportunity on this property, especially when the Loop is undone. Kimley Horn massing study shows there is air space where you could put 42 apartments here without reducing the parking count. [We'll ask Chapman for his presentation.] Shows a parking deck in Roanoke, Va., where a Hampton is on top. 63% of 36 parking decks are pre-cast, icnluding American Tobacco. We used the number $18,350 per space, and ended up with enough money to spend money on $130 per square foot for all 42 apartments. If this were signed in August, could be done four months sooner than projected. If city sold those units to a nonprofit to Durham County Land Trustees, $333 a month for rent, and would help people making less than 25 percent area median income. The Empire State Building was planned and built in 20 months; we have 26 months and it's not as complicated.

Councilwoman Jillian Johnson: There was concern that to design a garage with housing on top of it could cost more, if it were added at a later date.

Robin Williams of general services: We don't have that specific dollar amounts, but we can say that putting housing on top of the structure, flagppole situation, creates a need for structural support. A wrapper would be more affordable, but there are site constraints that make us question the viability as well.

Reece: Asks transportation director about local employers getting monthly parking for their employees.

Crutchfield: It's ironic that this past week that I got a request from a customer who wants 3,000 square feet of parking space, we had to tell them we didn't have monthly parking for that tenant. That's not the only one.  Projected date of opening of new garage is summer of 2018. I'm going to look into incentives for parking downtown — park and ride options, because we have transit within our jurisdiction. [BCR wrote about park and ride a few weeks back.]

Reece: It seems clear to me [that this could be an option].

Crutchfield: We have a park and ride in the south that we'll implement in August. May not be enough so we need to look at another one as well.

Councilman Eddie Davis: Did the meeting the manager had with Mr. Chapman create wriggle room for a time frame that would be acceptable.

City Manager Tom Bonfield: it wasn't a negotiation, just an information sharing. There are site constraints. Anything can be done and designed, but there are certainly constraints that complicate that. Delivery, we have a significance difference of opinion how quickly we could build the site.

Crutchfield: Parking is paid with parking enterprise funds, any affordable housing can't be funded through that. 

Bell: I know the parking is a problem downtown. I think we have to be innovative when we can be. The staff report is all about why we can't do it. It seems to me we're providing the money for the parking garage for retail/commercial space there. I need the legal staff to tell us why we can't use the parking fund for housing if we can do that for retail/commerical space.

Patrick Baker: Will get back to them tomorrow.

David Boyd finance director: assuming you could pay for housing from parking fund, and the parking deck cost the same, then the math works. If the parking deck plus affordable housing costs more, the models won't sustain funding it, even from the parking fund. If it's not legal to use those parking funds, then affordable housing needs a different funding source.

Bell: I've not seen a projected budget for this garage.

Continue reading "Parking, gentrification and more: live blogging City Council, May 19" »


Out of jail, yet out of luck: Following HUD's lead, Durham Housing Authority board to consider relaxing housing rules for ex-offenders

Drew Doll had been living in transitional housing in Durham for four years when he finally found a nice apartment he could afford. And he had everything he needed to get it: money to pay the application fee and deposit. After applying for 137 jobs, on the 138th try, he was hired at a fast-food place and earning enough to make the monthly rent.

But the property manager turned him down.

“I asked myself, ‘Why in the world did I get rejected?’” Doll says.

The apartment complex would not accept ex-offenders, even those convicted of non-violent crimes.  Doll, a former accountant, was released from prison in 2010 after serving four years for embezzling $250,000 from an Apex business. So he turned to the Durham Housing Authority. “I thought they would be more accepting,” he says. “And lo and behold …”

DHA also rejected him, even though by that time had had been out of prison for four  years.

Situations like Doll’s — hundreds of them — prompted Gudrun Parmer, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham, to ask the DHA board of directors to consider relaxing its policy for public housing and Section 8 applicants who’ve been arrested or for ex-offenders. The Criminal Justice Resource Center offers caseworkers and social services — job training, transitional housing, counseling —for people who are re-entering society from prison. 

“The national trend to ease the rules, but that hasn’t translated to Durham,” Parmer says.

Nationwide, as sentences expire, the number of inmates being released from prison have increased by 2 percent, according to 2014 figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In North Carolina, that figure is 10 percent. In the last year, President Obama has commuted the sentences of hundreds of certain drugs offenders. That means there is a significant need for housing for ex-offenders re-entering society.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a directive that gave local authorities leeway in accepting ex-offenders into Section 8 or public housing. (Certain offenses are still off-limits: registered sex offenders and people convicted of felony meth distribution charges.)

Parmer’s request coincides with DHA’s plans to open its public housing waiting list this month. The board, which delayed opening the waiting list to further consider the issue, is scheduled to vote on the issue at its May 25 meeting.

Nor should an arrest without a conviction be used to deny someone housing, said board member Bo Glenn, at a meeting last month, in support of the delay. “It could violate the Fair Housing Act. “It puts us in jeopardy for a civil rights complaint.”

However, DHA CEO Dallas Parks, who is retiring next month, resisted changing the policy. One reason is procedural: DHA would have to amend its five-year plan, which requires public hearings, and thus would further delay the opening of the waiting list. “It would be a hardship to delay opening the wait list. We’re down to 200 names on list, and 300 vouchers we want people to give them to. We’re about to run out of people.”

It’s puzzling how DHA could “run out of people,” considering the significant housing shortage for very low-income people — those earning less than $15,000 a year. At a presentation on affordable housing in March, city consultant Karen Lado cited a statistic showing that for every 100 Durham households in that income bracket, there are only 38 rentals.

The second reason not to delay opening the waiting list, Parks said, is security. “We don’t want homeless people. But at Oxford Manor, we had three people shot [in a drive-by].” (Since no suspects have been named, it’s uncertain whether the shooters were Oxford Manor residents.)

There are 40 vacancies at McDougald Terrace, Parks said, because DHA and the Durham Police HEAT team have worked to evict offenders from that housing project. Yet, just last week, a man was shot and killed on Dayton Street; the police haven’t named a suspect, so it’s unknown if he lives at McDougald.

The shooting occurred near Mcdougall and the former Lincoln Apartments complex, which DHA purchased  for $10 from a failing nonprofit in 2012. The 150-unit property on 10 acres has been abandoned since. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, blocks with vacant buildings reported more than three times as many drug calls to police, and twice as many violent calls as blocks without vacant buildings.

Rhega Taylor, then the head of the Housing Choice Voucher division — Section 8 — told the board DHA does review applicants “on a case by case basis, and looks at documentation on severity of crime.” Taylor, who was either fired or resigned earlier this month, said applicants “can refute charges they may have. We give people the opportunity to explain and document in support their situation.”

But as Glenn pointed out, the very existence of regulations that consider arrests may “have a chilling effect on people who want to apply.”

In addition, an arrest is not a conviction. “Our jails are filled with people who don’t belong there,” Glenn said. “These folks would be homeless yet for our help.”

In fact, many ex-offenders are homeless. Doll, who now works for the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, says not only are there few housing options for ex-offenders, but those that exist are often substandard. One of his clients looked at an apartment that was in such bad shape, Doll says, that he decided to continue living in his car.

Even Doll, who now has been out of prison for six years, would find it difficult to get housing. He rents a house from a private property owner who served on the board of a local nonprofit. “I was ecstatic and relieved,” he says.

HUD also has set guidelines for a “look-back period,” the length of time between the arrest or the release and the request for housing. HUD suggests housing authorities use 12 months as a benchmark for drug-related offenses, and 24 months for violent crimes, and then considering the applicants on a case-by-case basis. DHA looks back as long as five to seven years. 

“That’s terribly unfair,” Parmer says. “The longer people are out of the system, the less likely they are to offend. People going through programs should be getting some bonus points for that. They are doing everything right.”

“Housing is a cornerstone of success,” Parmer adds. “Yet a lot of them end up in rooming houses, with just a room and a bed.”

HUD has also suggested local housing authorities implement a pilot program to allow the family of an ex-offender to add him or her to their voucher. DHA currently prohibits this. 

“We can’t safeguard ourselves from everything,” Parmer says. “At least give a few people a chance and see.”


Elaine Hyman joins Michael Page in protesting Durham primary election results

Durham County Commission challenger Elaine Hyman joined incumbent and commission chairman Michael Page today in protesting the primary election results because of irregularities in counting provisional ballots.

The State Board of Elections unanimously voted this afternoon to accept both protests; the SBOE is in charge of investigating the case.

A discrepancy discovered by the Durham County Board of Elections showed that 200 provisional ballots were counted twice in order to get the numbers to match. 

According to the SBOE, 1,059 provisional ballots were cast in Durham, 759 of them Democratic. Even if all of those 759 ballots were cast for either Page or Hyman, neither would garner enough votes for the candidates to move on to the general election in November.

Page placed sixth in a five-person race; he lagged behind James Hill, the fifth-place finisher, by 1,093 votes. 

However, Page told The Durham News that the entire election was tainted because of the provisional ballot problems.

Hyman placed seventh, trailed Hill by 1,880 votes.

There was not a Republican primary, so unless an independent candidate files for the fall election,  it is assumed that the top five vote-getters will be the new commission: Wendy Jacobs, Ellen Reckhow, Heidi Carter, Brenda Howerton, and James Hill.

 


751 South gets yet another pass from Durham Commissioners, delaying a $1 million payment

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 11.53.21 AMFrom the 751 South website

Like a recurring rash, the controversial and gigantic 751 South project came before the Durham County Commissioners last night when the developers’ representatives requested yet another concession on their plan. Because of “cash flow issues,” Southern Durham Development asked the commission to delay the payment of its mitigation fees — $1 million — that the state requires for projects in the Jordan Lake watershed. 

The money would be funneled back into the watershed to pay for projects that help protect the lake, a source of drinking water for 300,000 people, including Research Triangle Park.

But instead of paying when SDD files the site plan, which is common practice, although not formal policy, the company wants to wait until the certificate of occupancy is granted. 

While SDD had cited cash flow as a reason for the delay in the staff report, Dan Jewell contradicted the document. “This is the timing of the expenses and revenues, not that there is no money to do this.” said Jewell, who, with attorney Cal Cunningham, represented SDD. “To shift that payment would be of huge benefit.”

Translate: It’s a money problem.

The question: Benefit to whom?

Last night’s meeting was reminiscent of the very public battles over the development from 2008–2010: The tension in the chambers, the tension on the commissioners’ faces, the unwillingness of SDD to compromise. And the outcome was the same. The developers got their way, in part by repeating their strategy the original fight: courting the black vote with the promise of jobs — jobs, that six years on, have failed to materialize.

Michael Page, Brenda Howerton, and Fred Foster Jr. voted to allow SDD to delay the payment, while Ellen Reckhow and Wendy Jacobs voted against it.

The 167-acre project is forecast to include 1,300 houses, townhomes, apartments and condos, plus as much as 600,000 square feet of office and retail space in the environmentally sensitive Jordan Lake watershed, along 751 South near the Durham/Chatham County line. It could be built in as many as eight phases. The $1 million mitigation fee is just for Phase I.

Before we delve into all of the reasons the payment delay is a bad idea, it’s time for a refresher course:

This is the same developer that also because of cash flow issues, is on a payment plan with the county tax assessor’s office. The delinquent tax payments date back to at least 2012.

This is the same developer that from 2005–2010 pulled the following shenanigans

Tried to replace a U.S. Geological Survey with a private map that removed more than 200 acres from the watershed. Those boundaries are key to guiding less development in the area.

Tried to invalidate a citizens’ protest petition by giving an easement to the state Department of Transportation, thus putting neighbors beyond the valid protest zone.

Approached State Rep. Tim Moore of Cleveland County to sponsor legislation forcing the city of Durham to extend water to the development.

Created Durham’s first SuperPAC, Durham Partners for Progress. SDD poured $50,000 in to DPP which independently supported the 2012 campaigns of incumbents Page, Howerton and Joe Bowser and challenger Rickey Padgett. At that time, the commissioners was voting to extend sewer service to the development, which they approved, with Reckhow dissenting.

The rationale for delaying the million-dollar payment, SDD reps Jewell and Cunningham said, is that in 2014 the state strengthened the Jordan Lake nutrient rules (the same year lawmakers approved the doomed SolarBee project). Simply put, that means developers have to do more to keep nitrogen and phosphorus out of Jordan Lake. Nitrogen and phosphorus feed the algae, an abundance of which kills aquatic life and harms water quality.

This regulations apparently caught SDD unawares. However, rewind to 2010, when Alex Mitchell, president of SDD said the development “would meet  future rules for Jordan Lake, which state the development could discharge no more than 2.2 pounds of nitrogen per acre, per year, and no more than half a pound of phosphorus per acre, per year.”

 

Yes, the rate of the offset payments have sharply increased, but it should not have surprised anyone, especially a developer who specifically targeted the Jordan Lake watershed for a project, that some day the rules would become more stringent. That’s why developers build in contingency funds.

And by paying when the site plan is filed, the mitigation funds can be used more quickly. Commissioner Ellen Reckhow noted that “some of the worst water quality impacts can happen during construction. It’s a sensitive time when a lot of earth is being moved. We’re talking about a project that has some of the greatest potential to impact Jordan Lake that we’ve seen.”

The county staff opposed the change because it would create more bureaucracy and tracking of the development’s certificates of occupancy, and thus more public funds to pay for the additional work. In city developments, the payment is made at the issuance of the site plan.

“This was a committed element from this project,” said Jay Gibson, county engineer. “And it’s been a longstanding practice in the county. Our concern is that the devil is in the details. It changes the workflow. Are we having to chase COs [certificates of occupancy]?”

Reckhow, who is running for re-election this fall, suggested establishing a performance bond or a compromise on the timing; instead of SDD paying when filing a site plan, it could wait until it filed the building plan. That is still sooner than waiting for a certificate of occupancy.

Neither Jewell nor Cunningham would agree to those terms.

The refrain of the yes votes sounded familiar. Page, who did not advance in this year’s primary election, clearly wants 751 South to be part of his legacy. He voted for the project in 2010

“One of the things that disturbs me the most is that the project would not continue,” he said. “It is hard to believe. It’s a thorn in my flesh. … I have seen so many times that we’re not developer-friendly in this community. I still contend that this project would lend a totally positive image and progress for Durham.”

Howerton, who also voted for the project in 2010, used the occasion to deliver rambling comments. She said that she received death threats over her vote. (However, she did not say if she filed a police report.) “All because someone wants to build something in a community,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. Whoever did that, I want them to hear my voice. It’s been sitting there all these years — that people could be so mean.”

She won one of the five primary slots and will proceed to the fall election.

Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, who is also running in the fall, not only is concerned about the staff time required to track the fee payments, she also remarked that by relaxing the practice for SDD, the county is setting a precedent. 

Now any developer building in the watershed can request the same leniency — and expect to get it:  “We’re talking about changing the entire way we’re doing development.”