Council resolves dispute on planning funds

Nov. 27, 2013 @ 02:22 PM

City Council members have agreed to spend up to $53,578 more in fiscal 2013-14 to fully fund the City/County Planning Department and offset a budget cut to it made by the county government.
The decision was made on a 6-0 vote and squared with a suggestion from Mayor Bill Bell, who argued early and often that the city should backfill the cut ordered by the county.
It prevents a staff layoff and allows Planning Director Steve Medlin to move ahead with filling a vacant development-review position. Officials say the new hire will work only on city permit cases, given that funding for the position is coming only from the city.
Council members said they wanted to call time on a dispute that began in June when County Commissioners cut the department’s budget in retaliation for the city’s ending support for an unrelated program in the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.
“The county needs to do what the county needs to do, and the city needs to do what the city needs to do,” Councilman Don Moffitt said. “And what the city needs to do is fix this.”
He added that he regretted that Medlin and his employees had been “dragged into the larger issue of city/county relations.”
Councilman Steve Schewel characterized the council’s willingness to backfill the county’s share of the Planning Department budget as “an olive branch to the county.”
The dispute began when the council decided to end subsidies for the sheriff’s warrant-control program, a formerly joint effort by the two governments to digitize backlogged paper arrest warrants and make them readily available to officers in the field.
With the digitization of the warrants being as of spring nearly finished, and new warrants being readily accessible from computer databases, the council saw little value in paying the sheriff to keep clerks on staff to respond to radio queries from officers.
Durham police commanders said the warrant program’s termination would have little impact on anti-crime operations. But Sheriff Mike Andrews disagreed, and County Commissioners backed him. They ordered a $84,758 cut to the Planning budget, intending to divert the money to the sheriff.
The city only needed to come up with $53,578 to make good on the city because the dispute has dragged on nearly five months into fiscal 2013-14. The development-review vacancy also happened to slow the Planning Department’s spending.
But the uncertainty surrounding a potential layoff and work plans nonetheless damaged staff morale, said Councilwoman Diane Catotti.
“In general it's a terrific shame that we got put in this position,” she said.