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Ask Anything: 10 questions with Durham Mayor Bill Bell

Durham Mayor Bill Bell answers your questions about crime, gangs, panhandlers and much more.

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Durham Mayor Bill Bell
It seems like every day there is a story on the news about another murder in Durham. What are you doing to curb this trend? – Alan Rummel, Sanford

Alan Rummel (Sanford), there were eight homicides that actually occurred during the first quarter of 2008. Two persons who had been wounded in 2007 died in the first quarter of 2008. One homicide has occurred in the second quarter of 2008, resulting in a total of 11 homicides this year 2008. In my opinion any homicide, no matter what the number and what the city, is one homicide too many. In Durham, the City Council takes very seriously any incidents of crime, particularly violent crime. It is for that reason that since becoming mayor, I have requested monthly and quarterly public crime reports to the City Council by our police department. The purpose for this reporting is to look at any trends as well as to inform the public and take actions that hopefully will result in a downward crime trend. In some years we have been more successful in reducing certain types of crimes than in other years. However, the overall crime in Durham has decreased since I became mayor. I would also say that one quarter’s crime report does not make a year. We look forward to the end of the year 2008, and hopefully we will see an overall decrease in crime, especially violent crime, than the year before.

Mayor Bell, Durham, just like many cities in the U.S., has a problem with gangs. What are your thoughts regarding Durham’s current gang abatement program? What can we as citizens do to help take back our cities? Are there any programs in schools to address the issue with the youth before they get involved in gang activity? – Robert, Youngsville

Robert (Youngsville), you are correct in your statement that many cities in the U.S. have a problem with gangs. I would also add specifically in N.C., there is a growing problem with gangs in cities and towns of all sizes. I, along with Salisbury Mayor Susan Klutz, co-chair an anti-gang committee of the Metropolitan Coalition (a coalition of mayors comprising the 25 largest cities in North Carolina). The mayors from North Carolina’s largest cities and towns gathered in the state capital May 21 for a news conference urging state legislators to pass statewide anti-gang legislation. Joined by state legislators and law enforcement officials, they urged officials to pass gang legislation that would create stronger punishments for criminal actions and allocate funding for prevention and intervention programs. Following the press conference, the Senate voted 47-0 to approve the two pieces of street gang legislation. If this legislation is finally passed by the N.C. General Assembly, it will provide communities with resources to support intervention and prevention programs to help our young people hopefully avoid gangs as well as tools for law enforcement to more effectively deal with gangs. In Durham, we view intervention and prevention as key measures in dealing with young people and their avoidance of gangs. We have not tried to hide the fact that gangs do exist, but more importantly have admitted that there are gangs and it will take a community recognition as well as community effort to reduce gangs and their negative impacts.

The City Council and county commissioners commissioned consultants to study the impact of gangs in our community and to offer recommendations for reducing their impact. We are now in the process of beginning to implement some of those recommendations, which will involve the support of our school system. Additionally, the cities of Durham and Raleigh and the counties of Wake and Durham were recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice a $2.5 million grant (to be evenly shared) to combat gang activities. In my opinion, the best way to prevent and intervene in our young people from joining gangs is to show them love, care, positive life styles and attention whenever the opportunity presents itself. Aside from their homes and places of worship, the schools are where we probably have the best opportunity to reach our young people and show that we care and that there are positive alternatives to joining gangs.

Since you have been mayor for so long, please explain to the public your actual accomplishments. Are you partly responsible for Durham's bad reputation, and what do you plan on doing to erase that bad image (beyond ineffective programs)? – Kevin Jones, Durham

Kevin Jones (Durham), I was first elected mayor in 2001 and re-elected in 2003, 2005 and 2007. I consider it a distinct honor and I am deeply appreciative of having the opportunity to serve as mayor of Durham. You may also know that I was elected to two-year terms to the Durham Board of County Commissioners from 1972 through 1994 and 1996 through 2000, and I served as chairman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners from 1982 through 1994. During all of my terms as an elected official, whatever accomplishments that may have occurred during my leadership as chairman and mayor occurred because of the support from my colleagues on the respective boards and councils as well as the citizens of Durham. My public record is, therefore, open to anyone to determine their impressions or perceptions of actual accomplishments, and I won’t try in this response to make any assertions to what they may or may not be.

In my opinion, images of a community are in the eyes of the beholders and it depends on what point in time and place those eyes are viewing the community. Durham, like all communities, is not without its challenges, but Durham is also a community where many GREAT things are occurring.
The Baker report was issued on May 14 addressing seven errors committed by Durham law enforcement members which contributed to the release of Laurence Lovette (who is charged with murder in the slayings of Duke student Abhijit Mahato and UNC-Chapel Hill student Eve Carson). The release allowed him allegedly to commit at least two murders of area students. What discipline have you planned for Durham employees who contributed to this mess? – Honest Abe, Raleigh

Honest Abe (Raleigh), as you have noted the city manager released his report on May 14, 2008. He outlined his recommendations and I won’t comment beyond what he and the police chief have said on this matter.

Why can't something be done about all the panhandlers in Durham? This is absolutely an eye sore for those visiting Durham. They have gotten so brave lately that they will come knock on your window. Durham has already gotten a bad reputation for violence and crime and this is just another downer for Durham. Kinda makes me rethink about why I moved here in the first place. – William, Durham

William (Durham), sales and solicitation in the public right-of-way has been a very sensitive topic in Durham, in the city as well as the county. Our council has agreed to allow people to solicit people in vehicles on streets and highways, as long as they abide by particular rules. For instance, solicitors must not litter or impede the normal movement of traffic. The law does not permit us to selectively determine who we will allow to solicit or what they can ask for. For example, because the city allows vendors to sell to newspapers to the driver of a car, the city cannot prohibit someone else from asking the same driver for money. Finally, aggressive soliciting is prohibited. That includes continuing to ask for money after being told “no” and making someone fear personal injury or property damage. If you see persons who in your opinion are not abiding by the city’s rules, I would suggest that you contact the Emergency Communications 911.

Mr. Bell: The pedestrian bridge over N.C. 147 near Briggs Avenue is a rust bucket and sends the wrong message and first impression to everyone who enters Durham from RDU and points east. It sends the message that we don't care what our city looks like. Why can't a simple coat of paint be applied to that bridge to send the positive message that Durham cares? Like it or not, that bridge serves as a gateway to our City. Can't we paint it and possibly have a welcoming message? – Billie Biggs, Durham
Billie Biggs (Durham), I agree that the bridge over N.C. 147 near Briggs Avenue is an eyesore. Painting the bridge is a good suggestion for a temporary fix, but unfortunately, not practical for many reasons, one of which is the many permits and traffic closure involved with any work over a multi-lane highway such as N.C. 147. In addition, the pedestrian bridge has been closed since 1995 due to an outdated design that is confining and limits visibility for users. Instead of just finding a temporary solution, we plan to completely replace the old bridge with a new pedestrian bridge. We are moving forward now with the necessary front-end leg work to remove the existing bridge and begin installing a new pedestrian bridge in its place. Construction was expected to begin last year; however, funding was short. Therefore, we had to put the project on hold until additional funding became available. An additional $800,000 was just approved on May 14, and matching funds will be approved in the city’s upcoming FY 2008-09 budget for a grand total of $1 million. Demolition of the existing bridge and construction are then expected to begin in the fall of this year. Therefore, I’m pleased to say this eyesore for our community has a very short future and I hope you and all of the travelers of N.C. 147 will soon enjoy riding beneath a brand new pedestrian bridge. To keep up-to-date on this particular project, please visit the City’s Web site at http://www.durhamnc.gov/cip/ProjectView.cfm?vAcctNo=188.
In the wake of the previous police chief search that ended with the hiring of someone already inside the department after spending a great deal of money in a national search, in the wake of the Marcia Conner debacle and in the wake of the Duke lacrosse event, there have been several high profile missteps that have and are going to cost the city of Durham and its taxpayers a lot of money. What can city government do to reassure the taxpayers that it can competently manage itself? – Chris Jones, Durham

Chris Jones (Durham), very rarely does the positive get the same level of exposure as the negative, nor is the positive remembered as long as the negative. Let me reassure you that Durham, despite what you may read, is a very well-managed city with a lot going for it. That is evidenced by a number of factors – the highest triple-A rating by the three major bond ratings agencies (i.e. Moodys, Standard & Poors and Fitch) which only 19 cities throughout the entire United States has that distinction. Durham has received numerous financial reporting awards and numerous accolades that consistently rank Durham at the top of many positive lists on which to be seen. Combine that with almost many hundreds of million dollars of investment in Durham last year and the recent voter approval of major bond referenda to improve our roads and parks, and you have reasons why Durham taxpayers have reason to be confident about where their city is going.

Why has it taken the city so long to complete the vital link of the American Tobacco Trail over I-40? I have seen the three proposed design concepts for the pedestrian bridge and I hope that the city selects the cable-stay option. When do you expect the bridge to be open for public use? – Bull City Bicyclist, Durham
Bull City Bicyclist (Durham), I agreed that it does seem like the ATT pedestrian bridge over I-40 and trail is taking a long time, but rest assured that the City is diligently pursuing this important project. We feel we are taking the necessary time to deal with this particularly complicated project and want to ensure that it is done correctly from the start. There were significant regulatory permitting issues we were dealing with since federal funding guidelines must be followed for the city to receive any reimbursement. In addition to these permitting issues, the city had been working for more than a year to identify funding sources to construct the ATT pedestrian bridge and trail. I’m proud to say that with the passage of the 2/3 bonds in December 2007, the project was fully funded and design work then began. Since that time, we have made steady progress and have had significant community input on the design of the bridge. The final decision for the type of bridge will be based on that community input and staff will make a recommendation to City Council for approval. We plan for the bridge and trail to be completed in the summer of 2010. To keep up-to-date on this particular project, please visit the City’s Web site at http://www.durhamnc.gov/cip/ProjectView.cfm?vAcctNo=292.
Will the City of Durham implement any new rules and/or regulations for persons being appointed to any of the city's committees in light of the latest Durham Housing Authority scandal? – Cheryl Harrington, Durham

Ms. Cheryl Harrington (Durham), you may or may not know that the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) is a quasi-city agency that is governed not by the City Council but by the board of directors of the DHA. The City Council appoints those members, but it does not fund or administer the day-to-day operations of the DHA. The city has a code of ethics that governs its employees and City Council members. The DHA may need to develop a code of ethics that governs its employees and board as to how to conduct the business of the DHA. That action might better define how its employees and board members should conduct the business of the Durham Housing Authority. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any rules and/or regulations that will guarantee that people ultimately act with integrity and honesty when it is called for.

Patrick Baker has proposed another tax increase for Durham residents. Have you considered restricting the use of police department vehicles in an effort to save on gasoline expenses? I know that way too many officers are assigned a police vehicle and are allowed to use it in their daily commute to and from work and to off-duty jobs and other errands. Are there any controls in place to monitor and identify what percentage of use of the police vehicle is really necessary and directly related to the police department function and what percentage would be considered personal use? Are water and sewer department workers assigned take home vehicles in similar numbers and with the same restrictions as the police department employees? Everyone is being crushed by the increased cost of living. The possibility of increased taxes must be weighed carefully and cuts in excessive, unnecessary spending should be made before raising taxes. – Francis Lee, Durham

Francis Lee (Durham), I agree that raising taxes should almost always be a last resort, especially given today’s economic environment. Durham City Council members are currently evaluating the proposed budget for the city. Everything is being examined closely for efficiencies and needs – including the use of take-home vehicles. In fact, your question comes up practically every year and each time we must weigh the value of take-home vehicles to the protection and well being of, and service to, the community. The Police Department routinely monitors the use of cars and how police officers' ability to have immediate access to vehicles contributes to public safety. I can assure you that the use of taxpayer dollars is never taken lightly, especially this year, given the rising costs for the necessities of life, including gas, food and housing. During the coming weeks, you can rest assured that I and other council members will do all that we can to minimize any increase in the property tax rate to meet the ongoing and increasing needs of Durham citizens.

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