Ruffin wants 50-50 split with city on lab-tech costs

Feb. 04, 2013 @ 06:48 PM

County Manager Mike Ruffin said Monday he’s only going to support paying the State Bureau of Investigation $186,051 a year for three chemists to work on Durham cases if the city government splits the bill with his 50-50.

“This is a common problem we both have,” Ruffin said, noting the Durham Police Department, like the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, is a major customer of SBI drug- and blood-testing services.

Ruffin in comments to County Commissioners added that “there’s still a question of how much the city is willing to participate,” a statement City Manager Tom Bonfield confirmed later.

Bonfield said he’d questioned why the county wouldn’t cover the full cost, given that Ruffin’s subordinates have suggested their government could save money if the SBI lab could turn lab reports around more quickly.

The savings could come, according to a report to the Durham Crime Cabinet, through lower costs at the Durham County Jail.

“The report I saw said the county would save something like $600,000 in jail costs by implementing the program, so I wondered why the county would not cover the cost,” Bonfield said. “Ruffin said he did not believe the savings were there and was going to follow up. I have not heard anything more.”

The report presented to commissioners on Monday offered a hypothetical example that looked at what might have happened with the jail’s Dec. 14 inmate population had the SBI lab been able consistently to report on its findings 21 days after receiving a sample.

It cited a potential savings of $217,502 for the Dec. 14 inmates, some of whom had been in the jail for nearly a year as prosecutors waited for SBI reports.

Ruffin on Monday acknowledged that by attacking the SBI’s perennial testing backlog, local officials would be helping get inmates out of the jail quicker, either by exonerating them or convicting them and turning them over to the N.C. Department of Correction.

The latter would ensure that inmates’ care would become “someone else’s cost as opposed to ours,” Ruffin told the commissioners.

But he and his staff also said many of the jail’s operating costs are fixed, meaning they don’t vary much with the number of inmates it holds.

“It’s not clear we'd be able to reduce any staff” even if the program works, Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley said.

Officials hit on the pay-the-chemists idea as an alternative to Durham launching its own crime lab, a move that would cost about $1 million up front and require a lengthy start-up period owing to accreditation demands.

Commissioners appeared willing to move ahead, though they weren’t happy that state leaders had allowed the problem to fester.

One commissioner, Wendy Jacobs, even invoked what’s become a favorite catch-phrase of new Gov. Pat McCrory to describe the situation.

“This is really a crisis; this really is a ‘broken system’ when you have people sitting in a jail while we’re waiting on results from a crime lab,” she said.

McCrory has used the phrase “broken system” to describe an array of problems in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. To date, he’s not applied it to the SBI lab.

The lab in addition to its slow turnaround has also been accused by defense lawyers of shading its report to favor the prosecution. But Worsley, answering a question from Commissioner Brenda Howerton, said county administrators believe the SBI has addressed the problem.

Another commissioner, Ellen Reckhow, told Ruffin and Worsley they should prod the SBI to pick up a share of the bill.

The idea is that the three Durham-paid chemists would work exclusively on Durham samples.

That would free technicians already on the SBI payroll to work on samples from other counties, allowing counties that hadn’t contributed to reap some benefits, Reckhow said.