County again considering deal with SBI for faster lab work

Jan. 06, 2014 @ 06:42 PM

County officials want to renew the push in 2014 for the idea of paying the State Bureau of Investigation to hire three more lab technicians and assign them strictly to Durham cases.

Supporters say the program would speed the analysis of drug and blood samples, thus helping criminal cases move more quickly through the courts and reduce the time Durham County Jail inmates must wait for trial.

For every locality in the state, the average turnaround time for test results now “exceeds six months, which is a problem,” Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley told County Commissioners on Monday. “It’s not good to have these cases drag on.”

The idea of paying for Durham-cases-only SBI techs appeared to receive support from elected officials a year ago, but it didn’t move forward as the county and the city set their fiscal 2013-14 budgets.

Estimates are that the program would cost about $186,000 a year.

Officials also have considered using grant money to start their own lab, and in fact are tentatively in line for a grant from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program.

But Worsley and County Manager Mike Ruffin say the program’s offer comes with so many strings attached that it’s more cost-effective simply to pay the SBI.

The state initially seemed willing to offer $961,705, but it now appears only about $524,000 in potential year-one expenses would actually qualify for funding.

The grant would cover some of a local lab’s startup costs and a single year’s operating expenses. The lab would only be able to test samples for blood-alcohol levels.

Local governments would likely be on the hook for operating costs in subsequent years, and also would have to pay for the renovation of lab space.

Over time, they would have to shoulder about $250,000 a year in new annual expenses to keep it running, Worsley said.

“Having the grant is nice, but it would cost the county more to implement the grant than to contract with the SBI,” he said.

But Worsley and Ruffin said the county needn’t give up on the idea of a local crime lab. They suggested including one in a prospective off-site expansion of the Durham County Jail that officials think may be needed in five to 10 years.

Commissioners signaled a good bit of wariness about working with the SBI, for fear the state agency will use Durham-funded technicians for cases in other communities.

It recently secured N.C. General Assembly funding to expand its lab staff by 19 positions. As part of any contract talks, officials will inquire about the effect the state-funded expansion will have on backlogged cases, Worsley said.

In any deal with the SBI, “I would want an escape clause,” Commissioner Fred Foster said, adding that he suspects “there’s no way to tell them not to use our folks for what they want to have done.”

“The contact is obviously very critical,” as is the county staff’s making sure the terms of any deal are honored, Worsley said, conceding the point.