Q&A: Incumbent Durham County Board of Commissioners candidate Nimasheena Burns

Photograph of Nimasheena Burns as she runs for county commissioner

Photograph of Nimasheena Burns as she runs to keep her seat on the Board of County Commissioners. Photo courtesy of Burns For Durham.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

By Celia Funderburk

Today is Primary Election Day in North Carolina, and incumbent Nimasheena Burns is running to keep her seat on the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

Burns currently serves as the Vice Chair. According to Durham County N.C., she has focused her efforts for the past four years on maternal and infant health, economic development, job training and creation, affordable housing, public education, agricultural development, small businesses assistance, environmental justice and support systems.

To learn more about her story and the details of her campaign, Durham VOICE reporter Celia Funderburk posed ten questions to the county commissioner.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham VOICE: What are your core values as a person and why? 

Nimasheena Burns: I wake up each day and I ask God simply to never grow tired of doing the RIGHT thing.  It makes the work and the votes very easy.  Even with limited resources, keeping the idea of “doing the Right thing” at my center equips me to always look for a path to “yes,” as opposed to a road to “no.”  

Why did you choose to go into politics as a path for change? Do you remember the moment you knew this was the road for you?  

My families were always active in public service. I know this might sound odd, but it all started in the third grade. I was misbehaving in class and subsequently lost my television privileges for what, at the time, seemed like an eternity.  One day, the entire family was watching an interview with a presidential candidate; it was then Bill Clinton. While the family was watching television, I was transcribing certain sections of the direction as my punishment. My father called me into the family den to watch the interview.  He told me that if it had to do with the election, I was now allowed to watch television. He also told my relatives. So, here I was, at a pivotal age, and for six months the only thing I could watch were debates and presidential election coverage. At age eight or nine I was so hooked on politics. I saw Black women who looked like me opening up  what we needed in this country, and then I saw policy conversations shift. I was hooked.

How does your identity and your lived experiences set you apart to adequately represent the county of Durham?  

I like to think that I have lived in every type of neighborhood.  I grew up rural and on a farm with public servants and entrepreneurs. After leaving college, I lived in public housing here in Durham, and now, I live in the suburbs. I like to think that when it comes to the work of county commission in particular, I am very close, or have been close, to the issues that we have to vote on and I know the impact they have on the lives of everyday people. That is not the case for all elected officials in Durham. I know what it’s like to worry about being housing insecure as well as what it requires to be a caretaker and what it means to work for a living. I know that having a varied viewpoint adds value to our board and to the lives of our residents.

What does your motto, “If you want to change the narrative of Durham, you have to change the Narrator,” mean?  

That was the focal point for my first campaign. I do still believe it has relevance today. I want to feel empowered in the political process, especially for those who have felt their vote or voice did not matter.  From both a national and local standpoint, we are seeing an erosion of public trust in elected officials.

What award or recognition you have received means the most to you and why? 

Oddly enough there are three. One is a card made by students at Lyons Farm Elementary School. I know it might sound odd, but I often have an emotional response when I receive a note from those who are directly affected by our decisions. I also received one from ServPro. They gave me their African American Hero Award during Black History Month. I was really caught off guard because it reminded me that all parts of the community are watching us and that representation matters. Lastly is the inaugural Anne Stanford Award for Early Childhood Education. We have worked to expand Pre-K each year, and to be recognized for it once again completely caught me off guard.

What do you think was the most important thing you have accomplished as vice chair of the Board of County Commissioners and why? 

I have only been vice chair for three months, but it has been a whirlwind. In my second month, I was able to bring forward one of my initiatives, The Revolving Housing Trust Fund. The Revolving Housing Trust Fund is a unique concept that operates on the principle of lending and replenishing. It is essentially a pot of money that is used to finance affordable housing projects. Once the projects generate revenue, the money is paid back into the fund, hence making it ‘revolving’.  Along with the potential for additional down payment assistance, the fund includes two different loan options: a short-term revolving loan to help acquire properties that would give developers time to obtain long-term support financing, and a longer-term permanent financing loan to acquire and rehabilitate property specifically targeted toward “naturally occurring affordable housing.” This would increase our inventory of affordable housing. Affordable housing is a critical need in Durham County, as demonstrated by significant investments in this area. The initiative comes amidst a deepening crisis of affordable housing. For many, a safe and secure place to live remains a distant dream. This is primarily due to the soaring real estate prices, which have made it nearly impossible for low-income families to own a house. While, historically, counties have not worked on affordable housing, we have ventured into a multitude of public private partnerships that have created almost 2000 affordable housing units across Durham County utilizing our budget, fund balance as well as ARPA funding. We have continued that work and the community can see it coming to fruition with the 300 and 500 Main and Queen Street mixed use housing locations adjacent to our county offices.

Why are you running again for Durham County Board of Commissioners? 

I like to think that Durham is a tugboat that caught a whale. I am running so that we are not pulled under. I am focused on driving sustainable economic growth and ensuring that the benefits of this growth are shared by all residents.

Where do you foresee your energy and efforts focusing if you were to be elected for another four-year term? 

I want to make sure that we have a great tax reappraisal that gets commercial properties to the appropriate tax level, and I want to make sure we do a tax evaluation that gets us to a neutral tax rate that does not disproportionately harm Durham Residents. I want to see the Revolving Housing Trust Fund move forward and then expand it to offer down payment assistance. I want to continue to expand additional services in maternal health.I have had some success in expanding services, and I want to do more.  Currently, fares are free for the bus, and when that federal funding runs out, I want to make sure that we are providing additional, equitable and low/fare, if not income-based, free transit. Most importantly, I want to bring in additional good paying jobs that  make hiring Durham residents a priority through stronger community benefit agreements and contracting with our minority and women-owned businesses..

What do you think will be the biggest challenge as a commissioner for this next term, how are you prepared to address it?  

The Tax Re-Evaluation and the UDO re-write.  I plan on putting the residents’ voices first and balance how we move forward with funding and building our county.  I also think we have to be very forward thinking about how we develop housing for all. Yes, I am a champion for affordable housing, but we also have to look, post covid,  at ways to support our unhoused.  We purchased over 50 units of permanent supportive housing, and we also need housing specifically for women who are transitioning back into our community, on top of housing for those struggling with opioid use.   I want to lower the number of children in the juvenile justice system.  We have added $1 million additional dollars.  I want to continue to find reputable, local, culturally competent non-profits that will work with our most vulnerable young people to engage them in activities that benefit their lives and their future.

With the role of adopting an annual budget, how do you plan to address the current budgeting and financial issues Durham Public Schools are experiencing and why?  

Our board was supposed to have met with the school board in February to receive their budget request, and they have moved the meeting. I think, primarily, we want to make sure that we continue our trend of fully funding schools, but, more importantly,  we want to work towards a budget that will ensure we have the appropriate measures in place to prevent an incident of this magnitude from occurring again. We have added over $30 million additional dollars to DPS since I have been in office. We have supported classified staff salary increases, supplemental pay for teachers as well as provided funding for additional nurses and social workers. Most importantly, we passed a historic bond to rebuild and fully renovate our schools so that our students and teachers can have a healthy and aesthetically pleasing learning environment. I would be interested to see if they ask for additional support in their finance and/or budget office. All that said, we have got to get the legislature to move forward with Leandro so that the state can finally provide our educators, students and families with the funding they are owed.

Edited by Ava Dobson