Burning Questions ... with Durham County Manager Kimberly J. Sowell
PHOTO B Y J OHN MICH A EL S I M PS O N
imberly J. Sowell fell in love with the energy of Durham County a few years ago when she visited Duke University’s campus during an executive leadership program. Kimberly, who most recently served as an assistant city manager with the City of Greensboro, was sworn in as Durham county manager on March 14, and she’s worked nonstop ever since. On the weekends, she is an active member of her church, Love and Faith Christian Fellowship in Greensboro, with her husband, Broadus Sowell, who is a captain in the Kernersville Fire Rescue Department. Kimberly and Broadus have been happily married for 28 years – they even host a 30-minute radio show, “Marriage So Well,” on their church’s radio station where they give advice and coach couples. “Strong marriages make strong families, and strong families build strong communities,” Kimberly says. The rest of the Sowell family includes their two adult children, Bianca Sowell and Myles Sowell, who both live in Greensboro as well, and Lab-pit bull pup, Remy. Kimberly says she was thrilled when Myles was recruited to play baseball at N.C. A&T State University, her alma mater. “We traveled [extensively to watch him play], and – this is not an exaggeration – I can count on one hand the number of games that we missed in Greensboro or out of state,” she says. “One of us was at every game, and I probably did not miss more than five myself.”
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Since you started in this role, what’s primarily been your focus?
The budget has been first and foremost in my day-to-day operations. My days have been filled with meetings with departments and discussing their budget needs. And not only departments, but also some of the external partners that the county funds, such as Durham Technical Community College, Durham Public Schools, Alliance Health and a number of external agencies. Durham County staff – who have been amazing – planned for the presentations to have a similar look and feel and a similar flow. That helped me in learning and being able to absorb the operations of each department or agency, and then be able to formulate questions that were adequate and appropriate. We were able to make some really good decisions on building the budget, which leads up to May 9, the date that I present a recommended budget to the Board of Commissioners. That’s primarily the bulk of what I’ve been doing. [Ed. Note: This interview took place prior to the budget presentation.
Kimberly’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $794,655,897, a
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7.97% increase from the last fiscal year. Highlights include maintaining the existing property tax rate, increasing annual funding for Durham Public Schools by $10 million (for a total of $176 million) and investing in Durham County’s employees through a cost-of-living adjustment and increase in the “pay for performance” range. Residents can learn more at dconc.gov/residents/news.]
Circling around to have meetings with each of our commissioners – it’s important for me to have consistent communication with them to learn their expectations and what they’re hearing from our community. [Another thing] that was important for me to do was to hear from our [county] employees. In the first week that I was here, I had an organization-wide meeting. I shared my desire to have more small-group meetings with employees and a more intimate conversation to learn about the culture. There are some changes that we’ve made early on, just from hearing some of the concerns of our employees. Are there any examples of changes you’ve implemented?
We started talking about leave policies, and one of our leave policies is an adoption leave. Part of that policy allows for an employee to take leave if they adopt a child 4 years old or younger. Leave was not afforded for the adoption of a teenager. The reason [for] the age limit was because of data study – research shows that you really need to spend time bonding with a young child, and we wanted to give employees time off to do that bonding. Research didn’t say that about teenagers. It was just a matter of us having the conversation, of it being brought to our attention that we have employees who are looking to adopt older children and then finding out it really wouldn’t harm anything for us to make that change. One of the other trends that I noticed was our need to improve the manner in which we communicate. I’ve been speaking with staff