Election 2016, Tara Fikes: "I understand county government in North Carolina"
Election 2016: Michael Page, "We have too many people in the jail."

Election 2016, Wendy Jacobs: "'I'm proud of the fact that I take action and actually get things done"

This interview is one in a series of conversations with those candidates seeking seats on the Durham County Board of County Commissioners. BCR thanks The Durham Hotel for kindly offering space for our interview series.

Listen to or read a transcript of the interview in full at this link, or read our recap below.

In making her case for re-election, first time County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs has little difficulty explaining what she believes in and what she supports.

Wendy_jacobsBut Jacobs also asks to be evaluated not just in her votes, but in her deeds and accomplishments to date.

"I work hard, I do my homework and I'm proud of the decisions that I make on the Board of County Commissioners and my work on the budget," Jacobs told BCR's Lisa Sorg. "But I'm also proud of the fact that I take action and actually get things done. And I think that's an important part of being an effective leader."

While Jacobs held court on a wide range of issues that are at the front of public discourse -- including conditions in the county jails, breaking cycles of inequality, affordable housing, and water and environmental protection -- she also heralded her work on a less-discussed but, according to Jacobs, vital accomplishment: the creation of Durham's first sports commission.

"I come into being a county commissioner from very much being a community person and grassroots person," Jacobs said, noting her work on the New Hope Preserve campaign before being elected to office.

"And I think that has been exemplified with the Sports Commission, where people in the community have wanted to have a sports commission for a long time. And after two and a half years, with many people sitting around the table, we were able to come together with it with a plan that everybody felt good about," Jacobs said. "It's something that is going to really help with economic development and it's also going to help our local sporting community."

Jacobs noted that communities like Raleigh and Greensboro have long had these structures, which create a sort of virtuous cycle. They have seed funding to pay the bid-fees required for youth and other sports tournaments; those tournaments drive hotel occupancy, helping to fund the commission's work and in turn allowing improved athletic, aquatic, skating and other facilities.

The commissioner touted the work of a group of local leaders, including former Chamber head Casey Steinbacher and Durham Convention and Visitor's Bureau head Shelly Green, in creating a structure that could leverage the DCVB's interest in the effort while not running afoul of its legislated prohibition on providing sporting event bid fees or sponsorships.

"The estimate is that it will be a minimum of $2.6 million additional revenue to Durham," Jacobs noted. "And when we are in a time when the state legislature is really coming after the urban areas' tax revenue, we have to look at ways to diversify our revenue."

But the project, Jacobs emphasized, isn't just a benefit to the local economy, but to sports-playing youth and their families.

"Our local sports teams, they struggle putting on events. They struggle when they have to send their kids to tournament out of state, they have to pay for that now," Jacobs said. "When we have these things here in Durham, it's going to be a great boon for them. They'll be a whole legion of volunteers and an infrastructure to help them with their events as well."

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The range of factors interleaved in Jacobs' answer -- financial analysis, interrelation between county and state politics, engagement with local officials, and impact on Durham's residents and community -- epitomized the range of points of view Jacobs covered in our candidate interview.

On jail conditions, Jacobs emphasized the range of responsibilities within Durham County for the facility -- including that statutorily, the elected county sheriff is ultimately oversees the jail, although the BOCC provides funding.

Jacobs added that a range of groups is involved in different ways: the health department in overseeing nutrition and medical services, the Criminal Justice Resource center in handling pre-trial release and re-entry along with in-jail mental health and substance abuse prograns, and literacy and educational programs offered by Durham Public Schools and the Durham Literacy Center.

Across them all, Jacobs noted the commissioners' stated willingness to assist wherever they can.

"But in terms of what we can do, we've made it very clear to the sheriff that anything that [the sheriff] needs, any way that we can be supportive in terms of funding for programs or resources that we are there to help that," Jacobs said.

"We want to do whatever we can to make sure that the best conditions possible exist in the jail," she added, noting that the BOCC had encouraged the sheriff to bring in "outside help" in the form of a request to the National Institute of Corrections to perform an independent review. "There's obviously a waiting list, and if that cannot be done in a timely manner, I believe that the sheriff is open to having another entity come in and help with that," Jacobs said.

She noted Durham County's participation in the nationwide Stepping Up Initiative, where counties seek to reduce the number of mentally ill persons in the jail. "I don't know if people realize, we've got at least 25% of the people in our jail having mental health issues," Jacobs said.

Pods (units) for men and women with mental health challenges are ready in the jail, but awaiting adequate staffing.

"We also have people in our community that work in the jail. We have to remember that. And it's a very difficult place to work. And so we have had a problem with, we have lost a lot of people over the last few months and a lot of it is related to a lot of the negativity around working there," Jacobs said. "And it's really hard on the staff that work there. And so the flipside of that is, if we don't have adequate staffing, then we also can't provide the kind of care that we need."


Yet the commissioner emphasized that just as addressing the needs of inmates requires a range of resources, so too does addressing the root cause of why the jail census is so high -- both for those who are in the criminal justice system, and those who are at-risk youth and citizens.

"We really need to look at the jail in the big picture. It's one component of our criminal justice system that is broken in so many different ways," Jacobs said.

"So why are people sitting in the jail for so long? There's not enough public defenders. They're not having timely trials because of the State Bureau of Investigation. The bail system is prejudiced against poor people. We have people that can't pay the bail, they shouldn't be in there for low level crimes," the commissioner noted.

She cited ongoing work with CJRC, the courts and the district attorney's office to review pretrial release and similar programs that could reduce the census. "So some of these people with low level crimes, let's put them under house arrest. Let's figure out alternatives," Jacobs said. She added that the county needed law enforcement to take full advantage of Durham Center Access, the county's 24-hour mental health intake and crisis facility, as a diversion point for those needing urgent help over incarceration.

Asked about the role of poverty in impacting crime, Jacobs called it a "huge issue," particularly in impact on employment, citing her work on the Mayor's Poverty Reduction Initiative targeting Census tract 10.01.

"We've got in this one area of about thirteen hundred people, a 15% unemployment rate. And you know the overall unemployment rate in Durham is... less than five percent," Jacobs said.

Besides barriers of transportation, child care, lack of education and disconnection from resources, Jacobs cited criminal background as "the big one."

"We just have so many people that -- it's not even just people that have served time in jail, it's people that who may have had charges against them and they're dismissed, or they were found guilty, but those charges are still on their record. Still on the record," Jacobs said.

"And the state law only allows one charge to be expunged over your entire lifetime. And it's very easy to have more than one. And then how do you pick and choose?"

Jacobs noted that the county had partnered with local documentary filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman to launch a campaign called "Let's Hire All of Durham." Jacobs said the campaign will encourage the business community to take advantage of a new state program providing certificates of relief to employers; these can reduce the liability and risk employers feel they face if they hire a person with a criminal background.

"The bottom line is that when people have served their time, they have been punished. They've paid the price. It is not fair that they still have this mark against them," Jacobs said.

"People have to have a job. It's the most basic thing. So we can't expect people in our community to have served their time or have this mark against them and then stay out of trouble," Jacobs added. "They have to provide for their family. They have to provide for themselves."

Jacobs noted that the county government provides temporary work to some persons exiting prison or jail, helping them to get an employer reference and build a resume, but that the private sector had to play an outsized role in tackling this problem.

"I've been to the job fairs that are for people in our community who have a criminal background. And it's heartbreaking," Jacobs said. "Because I'll be in a room filled with mostly men of color who want a job who want to work. And they'll maybe be a handful of employers who are there. We really need the whole community to step up and give people a chance," she noted, adding that the campaign would feature two employers, C.T. Wilson and the Scrap Exchange, who'd stepped in to help this population.

On education, Jacobs reiterated her support for fully funding schools, and noted her own experience both as a former public school teacher and a Durham Public Schools parent with children in local schools their whole lives.

Jacobs applauded Durham's long history of generously funding local schools, noting that while we are high in spending within the perspective of North Carolina budgets, the state's low ranking nationally on teacher pay (47th) meant that Durham was essentially keeping up with national averavges only.

"We know that we are funding schools at a reasonable level compared to other counties. But at the same time we also have a lot of challenges," Jacobs said. "We have a high poverty school system, we have a very high ESL population, high A.I.G. population, high handicapped population, high special needs. We also have a lot of special programs that other schools don't have. So a lot of times it is hard to compare and make those across the board analysis."

At the same time, Jacobs noted the current conversations on school financing have "helped us look deeper into the budget, and I think we all recognize, the school board, superintendent, that everybody recognizes that the classroom and the teachers must be the priority," Jacobs said. She noted that she had spent two years on the DPS superintendent's budget advisory committe before her time on BOCC, and that she saw how complex the various streams of funding and programs could make school analysis.

"So trying to really analyze that and kind of unwind and unwrap and understand exactly how the money's being spent is going to be critical, so that we can make the best decisions about how to allocate the money. Because we have to do better," Jacobs said. "I know the test scores are only a small piece, but we also can't ignore when we have less than half of our third graders passing the reading tests, because literacy is absolutely fundamental. And then when we look at the other EOG hallmarks for eighth grade, for math and science and English, you know we can do better."

As with many candidates this cycle, Jacobs advocated for increased spending on early childhood education and Pre-K programs, a task that she noted would require more community engagement around funding a range of priorities.

"When you look at some of the school systems, like Wake and Mecklenburg who are getting some better results, they're front-loading a lot of their Title I money. We use a lot of it for remediation," Jacobs said. "And so it's a fine balance. Because we do have to help the kids who need the remediation; at the same time, we've got to focus on the prevention piece."

"We know that it's not enough to start when kids are three or four years old. The brain development starts in utero. What happens within the home, with parents reading to their kids, the nutrition-- the kids have to start kindergarten on an even playing field."

Jacobs also expressed her excitement about the planned inclusion of a stem-to-stern refresh of the Durham County Library in the planned fall 2016 bond issue.

"I'm on the library board of trustees and we have one of the best library systems, not just in the state but I mean really in the country. When you look at the usage and the programming, it's amazing. And it's where our community comes together," Jacobs sad.

Jacobs noted that the library renovation plan would include technology, maker spaces and the like to "serve people for the economy of today," while also (along with the proposed rehab of the old county courthouse annex) trying to address features like ground level activation such as retail, meeting rooms/spaces, and connections to streetscapes and communities.

She noted Durham's rare AAA credit rating as a county and noted this allowed the community to very inexpensively borrow money to pay for investments in the community.

Jacobs also called for making use of new state-granted permission to enter into public-private partnerships, which she argued would be crucial to redeveloping low-intensity surface parking lots in east downtown to support affordable housing near current and future transit.

And Jacobs noted the importance that affordability stretch beyond just housing. 

"I'm always ... saying affordable retail and office at the same time because that is another important component for keeping our diversity and vibrancy. That is a part of the fabric of what makes Durham special and unique and makes our downtown thrive," Jacobs said.


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