County budget debate could be ‘very adversarial,’ Ruffin says

Apr. 11, 2013 @ 07:57 PM

This spring’s county budget debate may prove unusually contentious, with department heads advocating for more spending than elected officials have signaled any willingness to back up with tax decisions, County Manager Mike Ruffin says.

Departmental requests to Ruffin and the county budget office have exceeded projected revenues by $8.3 million, and that’s not counting any increased local subsidy the Durham Public Schools may seek, Ruffin said.

“These requests, some of these, are as unrealistic as any I’ve ever seen,” Ruffin said in an interview after County Commissioners wrapped up a special session on Thursday called to discuss capital budgets.

The meeting segued at the end into a discussion of the strategy Ruffin and the commissioners will follow in late May and early June after the manager presents his recommended fiscal 2013-14 budget.

The main question was about how much latitude to give department heads – not all of whom are legally subordinate to the county manager – to air any disagreements with Ruffin’s proposal.

And it seems clear there will be some, as Ruffin from his talks with commissioners presumes they aren’t interested in raising taxes beyond the 3 cents per $100 of assessed value he’ll ask for to underwrite debt payments.

“It’s not that people are only going to get some of what they want; it’s that they’re not going to get any of what they want because we don’t have that kind of money in our revenue stream,” Ruffin said. “It’s going to get stripped out, and it’s going to be a very adversarial process.”

But Thursday’s discussion indicated that the commissioners want to hear about any major concerns department leaders have about service deficiencies, albeit with deference paid to the manager’s position.

Commissioners Ellen Reckhow and Michael Page said they thought the county’s usual review process – centered around the manager’s budget request – has worked well.

“On the other hand, if there’s a festering issue, it’s probably going to have to get aired somehow,” Reckhow mused.

Ruffin told commissioners that the annual debate could become a lot more time-consuming than normal if they allow department directors during the hearing process to reprise their initial, unvetted budget requests.

That sparked pushback from Commission Brenda Howerton, who said the county’s elected leadership has “the right to ask questions.”

“Otherwise, it sounds like a dictatorship,” she said.

Ruffin bristled at that comment, first noting that state law makes it clear county government in Durham is a partnership between the commissioners and the manager, and then saying that the law also requires him to recommend a budget.

He returned to the point immediately after the meeting adjourned. “Brenda, the last thing I am is a dictator,” he told Howerton.

The discussion also provided hints about where at least some of the requests are coming from. Ruffin mentioned by name Social Services Director Michael Becketts, one of the department heads not under the county manager’s authority.

Becketts answers to a separate board appointed in part by the commissioners and in part by the state.

Ruffin said a request for 30 or more new positions in the Department of Social Services is “on the table now.” And, in his exchange with Howerton, he indicated that there’s little to no chance of it gaining his support.

In an interview after the meeting, Ruffin added that the budget request from the county’s Public Health Department is also “way out there.”

Public Health, like Social Services, is semi-independent by law and has a department director who isn’t subject to the manager’s authority.

“I believe it’s important for every department head to advocate for what they need,” Ruffin said. “Then it comes a time for them to accept that a decision has to be made about what’s available. Every need in every department cannot be honored.”