Durham city councilman proposes Duke pay “fair share” in property taxes

Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy | Photo taken by Mary Mungai

Thursday, March 14, 2024

By Mary Mungai

As Duke University celebrates its 100th anniversary, Durham City Councilman Nate Baker looks to the future of Durham’s funding. 

Baker’s proposal would require Duke to pay its “fair share” in property taxes, with the hope that increased revenue will cover the city’s growing needs, including critical services and salaries for city workers. 

According to their 2023 Annual Report on Engagement and Impact, Duke University and Duke University Health System combined pay about $3.7 million in property taxes annually.  And despite Duke’s contributions to the community through various investments and programs, Baker said the payments are far below what they should be.

“What Duke has instead is, they have programs with the community, they have grant programs, and other kinds of community based programs that do not add up the value of the property taxes that they’re not paying,” he said.

Baker said there are other options to raise revenue, such as embracing business from investors and corporate developers who are coming to Durham.

However, Baker said that there is already a precedent of peer institutions — such as Cornell University or Princeton University — paying property taxes or payments in lieu of taxes to their respective communities. 

Importantly, he added that raising property tax revenue from Duke would be an immediate flow of cash for a city in need of it.

“Essentially we are subsidizing Duke because they are not paying property taxes,” Baker said. “The cash-strapped city of Durham is, in other words, subsidizing a $12 billion-endowed university.”

With these funds, Baker said there could even be a partnership with Durham County where payments are made to both the city and the county to better fund services like Durham Public Schools. 

Many different public goods could be better funded with more revenue, creating an opportunity for residents to voice their concerns on what changes they’d like to see. 

“I don’t want to personally be overly prescriptive here because I think this is an opportunity for residents to imagine what additional resources could be used in Durham,” Baker said.

What do people in Durham think?

Elliot Berger, who has worked at The Regulator Bookshop since he was in high school, said the bookshop has  remained consistent throughout Durham’s changes over the past 20 years. 

Now the co-owner of The Regulator, he reflected on changes he’d like to see: fewer cars downtown, affordable housing replacing condos, and more bike lanes. 

“I ride my bike to Durham when the weather’s nice and yeah it sucks,” he said. “You gotta go the long way just to get anywhere if you don’t want to be hit by a car or sit in traffic.”

Amy Bourret lives in Carrboro, but joined Bull City Fair Trade in 2017 and became the executive director in 2022.  

Bourret said Bull City Fair Trade is a nonprofit, fair-trade retail store that provides a marketplace for global artists. She said they know these artists earn living wages, which is an issue both she and Bull City Fair Trade care deeply about.

“Living wage is something that’s really important to me, personally, and to us in our work here,” Bourret said. “I think if there’s more funding I would love to see Durham better able to support living wages for their city employees, for the folks that do really essential services for our city, and for things like public education, teachers, staff.”

And for Martha Calderon, who manages Pincho Loco Ice Cream, recent newcomers to Durham have been great for business. She acknowledged that while the changes haven’t directly impacted her much, she understands the challenges many residents face as prices for housing and basic needs rise. 

Conversations around new resources and funding usage  might quickly become a crucial topic for Durham’s residents and workers. For Calderon, this city reflects a supportive community.

“Living over here in Durham and having a business over years in the community is amazing,” she said. “The community always supports, and it’s really good to see, you know, people, they come over here for ice cream or come over here from different places and it’s really good to see it.”