Planning told to double potential cut

Jun. 18, 2013 @ 09:49 PM

Senior administrators have ordered City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin to find a way to cut $169,516 out of his department fiscal 2013-14 budget to offset a lesser cut by the city to a different joint program.

The order, issued late last week, could force the department to abandon some of the things it intended to work on in the upcoming year and potentially cut staff, Medlin warned officials via email.

Its $3.1 million proposed budget was “designed with the expectation” that City Council members and County Commissioners had already agreed on what the department should do in fiscal 2013-14, he said.

The final decision on the cut is up to elected officials from the city and county, who will weigh Medlin’s proposed solutions later this summer.

Officials are mulling cuts to Planning because County Commissioners object to City Council’s decision to terminate city funding on Sept. 30 for the Durham County Sheriff’s Office’s warrant-control program.

The warrant office is responsible for digitizing old, backlogged arrest warrants, a job that’s close to finished. Sheriff Mike Andrews has argued it’s also a help to Durham law enforcement in handling new warrants.

But the city’s police chief, Jose Lopez, told the City Council on June 6 that a funding cutoff of the warrant office wouldn’t hurt police.

The council’s aid cutoff is costing the warrant program $84,758.

County Commissioners want to maintain the warrant program, and, at County Manager Mike Ruffin’s urging, agreed to take the money out of the Planning Department, a joint effort the city and county fund on a 50-50 basis.

Ruffin formally notified city officials of the decision via an email that argued the agreement between the two governments on how Planning should be funded means the city has to match the county’s cut.

His email glossed over a clause in the agreement that allows either government to fund Planning Department services outside the joint budget – meaning the city doesn’t necessarily have to match the county’s reduction.

And Mayor Bill Bell on Monday signaled that he’d be in favor of the city’s picking up the slack.

“If the County Commissioners want to do more in the warrant control program and we do more in Planning, I don’t have a problem with that,” Bell told City Council members.

The next day, Ruffin said city officials “could pick it up if they want to” and that he was “certainly not going to object to that.”

But in initially calling for a double-size cut to Planning, the county was targeting a politically sensitive spot.

Both the council and the commissioners have fielded requests from Durham interest groups this spring to increase Planning’s budget to deal with affordable-housing issues.

Ruffin was also singling out a department he’d previously said the county is paying too much for.

In comments to reporters in May, Ruffin said 50-50 funding of the department isn’t fair to the county because the “vast majority” of the development-induced permit and zoning requests in Durham happens inside the city.

Nearly 86 percent of Durham County’s residents live within the city limits, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 population estimates. Federal analysts believe 279,641 live in Durham County, with 239,358 of those having homes in the city.

A 50-50 split asks “more than our fair share,” Ruffin said in May, adding that “some of our commissioners think that too.”

When the warrant-control dispute surfaced this month, Ruffin pointed out to commissioners that the joint planning agreement includes an optional 30-day termination clause that either government can invoke if there’s an impasse about the department’s budget.

But he added that the goal of the cut was to get the City Council to “reconsider” its decision on warrant control.