Ruffin scales back tax-increase plans

Apr. 11, 2013 @ 06:42 PM

County Manager Mike Ruffin has backed away from the idea of proposing a nickel increase in his government’s property tax rate for fiscal 2013-14, and will instead ask County Commissioners for a three-cent increase.

The increase in both cases would go to cover rising debt payments. The manager’s new plan assumes he will ask for the additional two cents next year, for fiscal 2014-15.

Ruffin changed tack after a series of private consultations with the five commissioners.

“Clearly, they felt like that was too much at one time,” Ruffin said of the nickel-increase proposal he floated in early March. “They wanted to split it up. They really thought that was better.”

He added that he settled on the 3/2 split after checking with his staff to make sure there wouldn’t be a need for a third debt-related tax increase in the coming five years.

“I actually thought it would, but it wouldn’t,” he said, adding that officials are looking ahead to fiscal 2017-18 as they try to set policy for how to handle debt payments associated with construction projects like the county’s new courthouse.

The manager made his intentions public Thursday during a special meeting the commissioners held to discuss capital budgeting.

The session also saw a shift in strategy for the county’s next bond referendum, which Ruffin and the commissioners agreed will now target 2015.

That’s a year later than the timeline administrators floated in March. And the mix of issues the county might put to the voters will also change.

Commissioners said they’re assuming for now that a 2015 referendum would ask for nearly $122.9 million in new borrowing authority.

That would include a $100 million request benefiting the Durham Public Schools, $16.6 million for renovation of the county’s downtown library and $6.25 million for upkeep of the N.C. Museum of Life and Science.

Officials are dropping the idea of asking voters to approve borrowing for open-space purchases, and will instead continue the $500,000 annual allocations the county’s been making to that program.

The library replaces open-space money in bond planning, officials now figuring they’ll user cheaper voter-approved borrowing for the project than the bank financing they initially planned.

Adding the library to the package should also make it more appealing to voters, commissioners and Ruffin said.

The $100 million for schools is less than the $115.2 million DPS actually wants. County officials agreed it’s a placeholder while they and the system gauge the need to build a new elementary school.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said she’s far from convinced DPS needs to build one, as the system’s enrollment figures suggest to her that several existing elementary schools aren’t serving the number of students they could actually accommodate.

She urged DPS officials to consider some “tweaking of attendance zones to better use capacity.”

But that sparked a counter from Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, who said county and DPS leaders have to consider more than just statistics when they’re planning construction.

Not only are many of the system’s facilities outdated, “this involves a lot of issues in our community about neighborhoods,” Jacobs said.

“It’s an economic issue; it’s a racial issue. It’s just really complex,” she continued. “We know a lot of overcrowding is in south Durham, and that’s where this future elementary school site is -- in south Durham. You can’t make people go to different schools. We can’t necessarily solve the problem of overcrowded south Durham schools when we say, ‘Well, we’ve got openings at some of our inner-city schools.’”