Durham budget could take HEART 911 response program citywide. How to weigh in.

Durham’s HEART program, which sends unarmed specialists instead of police to some 911 calls, could soon go citywide.

HEART aims to limit potentially dangerous interactions with police and connect residents with mental health resources and follow-up care.

It’s the first program of its kind in North Carolina and has attracted national praise since launching last summer. Supporters campaigning for its expansion have put up green and purple “Have a HEART Durham” signs across the city.

The expansion is part of a $610 million budget City Manager Wanda Page presented to a supportive Durham City Council at Monday night’s crowded meeting.

The budget would more than double the HEART staff, adding 27 full time employees, and expand hours for parts of the program to 12 hours every day. It’s not the 24/7 operation supporters wanted, but Page said it would triple the number of calls HEART handles.

“This expansion in the staff and the service area ensures many more neighbors will receive the right services in their moment of crisis and are connected to the care that they want and need,” Page said.

Durham City Manager Wanda Page speaks during an interview at Durham City Hall on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Durham, N.C.

Will Durham city taxes increase?

The proposed budget would be a 7% increase over the current fiscal year’s spending plan.

Taxes would not go up, remaining at 55.77 cents per $100 of assessed property value if the manager’s plan passes. Water and sewer fees would increase by about $26 a year.

On a $400,000 house — the current median sales price in Durham County, according to Triangle MLS — the city tax bill would total over $2,200

The Durham County tax bill would another $3,000, according to a budget proposal floated last week.

Firefighters ask for better pay

Also included in the budget is funding for city employee pay increases, including 2% market adjustments and an average 4.8% merit increase.

But a crew of several dozen firefighters wearing blue T-shirts unified Monday night to call for restructuring their pay steps.

They presented a plan in early 2022 they said would ensure livable wages and prevent pay compression for the more experienced.

“At this point, it seems like y’all know and just don’t care,” said firefighter Darius Thompson, prompting frustrated applause.

They said 22 firefighters left Durham this year, only five of whom were retiring.

Firefighter Meredith Carter said after five years in the department, she makes $15.49 per hour, about $45,000 a year.

“When we look around at our neighboring departments, we can see how far behind we truly are,” Carter said. “A fifth-year firefighter in Greensboro makes 17.5% more than I do here in Durham.”

What’s next?

Page said this year’s budget process has been particularly difficult given the death last month of budget director John Allore, who was riding his bike in rural Orange County when a car struck him.

“We are grateful to have known this great, multi-talented person, who many have called a true Renaissance man,” Page said.

John Allore

The budget must be approved before the start of the fiscal year July 1.

  • Residents can speak at work sessions that start at 9 a.m. next Wednesday and Thursday (May 24 and 25).

  • A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, June 5.

  • The City Council is scheduled to approve the budget on Tuesday, June 20.

All meetings will be held in Durham City Hall.

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