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Bell's State of the City address: Thirsty Southern city on upswing seeks inner-city help, less violent crime

There were about, by a generous accounting, perhaps 10-12 residents for every pro journalist in the City Council chambers for tonight's State of the City address by Mayor Bell. (Then again, when you've got all the major media turning out for an event, why show up?) Still, those present got a useful lens into what the Mayor has in mind for the coming year in local politics and governance.

Bell kicked off his seventh-annual address by noting a list of accomplishments in this past year: the success of public-private partnerships like the topping-off of the Durham Performing Arts Center, the completion of the downtown streetscape and the ensuing Durham Rising celebration; and the groundbreaking for the Durham Transportation Center. Bell also noted the agreement with NCDOT and West Village to move the city's Amtrak station to its new home.

The mayor also singled out the $150 million West Village Phase II renovations, coupled with a $4 million streetscape investment. At the same time, Bell praised the approval of the funding for the DAP renovations and the arrival of Minor League Baseball, along with the ongoing work at American Tobacco.

But, as Bell noted at the end of the address, as tempting as it would be to talk about only the signs of Durham's "upswing,"  "that's not Durham, and that's not me." Durham faces challenges, the mayor noted, but the city can overcome them. Bell focused on three topics of attention for the City this year: crime and public safety, the drought, and inner-city revitalization.

Crime and Public Safety: Though he addressed this topic last, this marked perhaps the most newsworthy part of Bell's address. The mayor made a clearer, more strident call for reductions in crime than one has recently heard from hizzoner, including notably a number of admonitions towards Durham's judicial system -- an element that, strictly speaking, falls outside the city's jurisdiction.

Bell called for "a different mindset" about persons who commit violent crimes using guns -- in short, an equitable way to keep them off the street. "If that means setting higher bonds, so be it. If it means preventing bonds from being so low that [suspects] get out on the street before trial, so be it."

There's some concern that bonds in Durham aren't appropriate for the crime, Bell said; while he supports legal due process, Bell complained that the number of people committing crime with guns while out on bail is "very disturbing." The mayor met today with Orlando Hudson, Elaine Bushfan, and other court leaders and Patrick Baker to discuss the need for change, and Bell tonight asked the City administration to work with local judicial officials to re-examine the appropriate level of bonds for serious criminal offenses and the process for monitoring these individuals while they await trial.

Still, Bell noted, there's good news: the total crime index and total violent crime index are down from 2006. Today, Bell called on the police department and community to create a plan that would reduce crime in every category, including violent crime. He also highlighted the recently-completed gang assessment study and the presence of a new anti-gang coordinator now on staff.

Bell commented on media talk about an ATF task force rumored to come to Durham to look at violent crime. Bell welcomed their presence, but noted that no one in City administration is currently aware of this proposal. "If they're willign to come here, we're not turning away any help," Bell said.

Bell also called for holding property owners responsible through nuisance abatement actions for ongoing criminal prosecution of landlords who run buildings with ongoing crime problems; he called for the City to step up more aggressively against such property owners.

"If you own your houses, and you know your tenants are doing illegal activities, you've got to watch out, because we're coming for you," Bell said.

Drought: Although noting the importance of continued progress towards Durham's greenhouse gas emissions goals, Bell noted the short-term impact and unprecedented nature of 2007's drought, which led the city to impose mandatory restrictions when Durham hit a low of 36 days of supply. Bell highlighted the accelerated schedule for Teer Quarry -- currently online as an emergency supply, and now expected to become a third permanent reservoir by 2009, with the summer 2008 completion of an additional connection to Cary providing another 7 million gallons/day of water supply.

As of today, Bell added, Durham was back up to 193 days of water. (According to the web site, that includes 125 days of premium water in Little River, Lake Michie, and Teer Quarry, plus 68 days of less-accessible supply.)

Still, Bell noted that Durham is at or past the point where the pricing structure for water needs to be changed, and he repeated his call for a tiered rate structure to be applied as rapidly as possible -- studied and implemented no longer than July 1. Bell noted that the presence of tiered rates, which would charge large users at a much higher rate, would help to encourage conservation but would not solve today's water supply problem by itself.

The mayor stood by his resistance to calling for a moratorium on new development, given the importance of new and growing businesses in the Bull City. Still, Bell called for the City to bring a definitive legal answer by February 7 as to when and how Durham can refuse to allow new water and sewer interconnects, and asked for a clear checklist from City staff to let the public know what specific factors would lead public officials to move to Stage V water restrictions -- rationing. (Bell stated that that decision point should revolve around a particular number of days of water, among other things.)

Inner-City Neighborhood Revitalization: Bell called for continued intensive investment in North-East Central Durham, Southwest Central Durham, and Rolling Hills/Southside. NECD presents the largest challenge, Bell noted, due to the age and condition of the housing stock and the very large size of the area. To this end, Bell noted he had expanded the City Council's committee on NECD to four Council members -- Farad Ali, Eugene Brown, Cora Cole-McFadden,  and Howard Clement -- to meet monthly and broadly consider what investments and programs are needed int his neighborhood. Bell noted that he and the Council were "serious about making concrete changes, positive changes" in this neighborhood.

Bell highlighted partnerships with Habitat, Duke, Self-Help and other non-profits in SWCD, which has increased home ownership in this area by 12% and encouraged $8.2 million in new housing stock. Rolling Hills, the mayor added, is a critical site for redevelopment and improvement, and he highlighted the involvement of exisitng residents and property owners as the crucial centerpiece of the effort's success.

Bell stressed the successes in this year just ended, highlighting the bus tour by City officials of NECD, Southside, and Southwest Central Durham and noted 2007 witnessed inner city improvements, including Eastway Village's initial home sales. DHA also begin the final phase of Hope VI redevelopment, including townhouses and single-family houses on the site of the notorious old Few Gardens; additionally, almost 500 new streetlights were added on Durham streets to combat crime, Bell noted.

Bell also singled out Uplift East Durham as an example of an organization making great progress; the City can't do everything by itself, Bell noted, and the needs all the partnerships it can get in this area.


Mike Woodard

Kudos to Kevin and BCR for the shout out from Anthony Wilson on WTVD this morning at 6 AM...though Anthony forgot the BCR name and called this site "Bull in Full," Michael Bacon's site. Anthony corrected himself after the video clip. Bloggers being recognized by the mainstream media: ain't it grand!


Great job, Kevin. I was there and your summary completely captures what happened. I missed the blog reference on WTVD this morning, but I'll try to hunt it down on their Web site. They must love us bloggers b/c I was in their crowd shot during the station's report last night. (I posted a pic on my blog b/c I thought it was pretty funny). Anyway, thanks for the informative recap.

Anthony Wilson

Kevin's concise, clever headline deserved wider recognition...and it really helped tell the TV version of the story.

Maybe both blogs will get more views from curious surfers now....

Michael Bacon

Our motto: "Building on the good reputation of others!" Thanks for the unintentional shout out anyway, Anthony... ;)

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