Ruffin retires as county manager Friday

Jan. 30, 2014 @ 06:41 PM

The county government’s next chief executive will have a tough act to follow after County Manager Mike Ruffin steps down Friday, Durham’s political leaders say.

Ruffin is retiring after a 13-year run as manager, in preparation for a move to the Charlotte area to help care for his aging in-laws.
His supporters credit him with responsible fiscal management and careful oversight of a massive building program, and with having helped orchestrate the county’s post-tobacco economic renaissance.
“Mike and I have disagreed on issues, particular issues, from time to time, but in the main I’m very grateful to him for his sound administration of the county government,” said Tom Miller, one of the leaders of the People’s Alliance, one of Durham’s big-three political groups. “I think he’s a very wise man.”
He even draws praise from a former County Commissioner who in 2004 helped orchestrate his short-lived ouster that was the apparent fallout of a personnel dispute.
“I don’t think you’ll find anybody any better at managing a local government,” former Commissioner Joe Bowser said of Ruffin on Thursday.
Ruffin arrived late in 2000 as the successor to former County Manager David Thompson.
He came with a resume that included stints as chief executive of several counties and towns in North Carolina and Georgia, and lower-level service as the planning director in two North Carolina communities.
But as Miller pointed out, being a manager in a rural community is a different sort of challenge than being one in a place like Durham.
Leading an “urban county is a tough job” given the need both to “manage the position in a way that keeps the respect and trust of elected officials” and serve the public at large, Miller said.
“Out of the general population, there can only be a handful of people who can do it,” he added.
The 2004 personnel dispute – growing out of a fight between the people then serving as the county’s internal auditor and human resources director – looked to make Ruffin an example of the statistic that says a manager typically lasts for only three or four years.
But he was rehired after the 2004 general election changed the makeup of the County Commissioners, and soon re-established himself as a fixture in local affairs.
He by that time had already played a key role on the economic front, acting as the county’s point man in major business-incentives deals like those that secured a Merck pharmaceuticals plant for the Treyburn Corporate Park.
Ruffin “is a man of his word,” said Ted Conner, vice president of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, the county’s chief business recruiter. “When we were meeting with clients, he became the face of Durham County. He doesn’t promise them the world. He says, ‘We’ll do this,’ and always does everything he promises.”
Conner added that the negotiations for the Merck plant and a separate deal that convinced Quintiles Transnational to keep its headquarters here “would have been much more problematical” had Ruffin not been involved.
Bowser and County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow also credit Ruffin with a key role in arranging the financing of the Durham Performing Arts Center. Though a city project, much of the money that pays its construction debts is generated through a county-levied “occupancy tax” on local hotel-room use.
The 2008 recession solidified Ruffin’s standing with local leaders, as he recognized early the recovery from it at both the national and state levels was likely to unfold much more slowly than had been the custom after previous downturns.
Ruffin argued the county had to adjust to a “new normal” fiscally and presided over a series of moves that led to a build-up in reserves, even as his government revamped its physical plant to accommodate continued population growth.
“He’s been very fiscally responsible, which is one of our main concerns,” said David Smith, leader of the Friends of Durham, another of the county’s big-three political groups. “I know they’ve had to raise the tax rate some, but we’ve had a lot of expense with the new courthouse and social services building, and I feel he’s done what he could to keep those expenses down.”
Other initiatives, however, remain on the to-do list for Ruffin’s eventual successor.
Among them is a revamp of the rural fire service in line with the advice of a consultants’ study officials launched in fiscal 2012-13 at Ruffin’s behest, Reckhow said.
The problems on that front also revolve around money. County officials had to take over the Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department last year after it ran short of funds, and are now working to stabilize the finances of the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department.
“We have a ticking time bomb right now in terms of our volunteer fire districts and moving the fire service in the county into the 21st century,” Reckhow said. “That’s an area of need that will definitely need to be a priority for the incoming manager.”
And while Bowser and Reckhow both said Ruffin deserves credit for supporting and implementing innovations on the human-services front, Reckhow at least sees that remaining a challenge for the new manager.
“Something we’ve talked about for years is how we assure that all the children in Durham County, including low-income children, get the best start in life and are prepared to do well in school,” Reckhow said. “We talk about the income gap in our community, and it starts with education.”