County getting more flak over Planning Dept. cut
County Commissioners are facing intensified criticism over their decision to lop money out of the City/County Planning Department’s budget in response to the city’s cutting an unrelated law-enforcement program.
The situation has one activist, Kelly Jarrett, drawing parallels with the federal government’s ongoing budget-and-debt-impasse.
“I am disappointed to see the [commissioners] bringing the same childish tantrum-style politics to Durham that we’re seeing out of our ridiculous politicians in D.C.,” she said in an email addressed to City Council and the commissioners.
Jarrett’s was one of two the council fielded after the commissioners voted 3-2 on Monday to uphold the $84,758 cut to the Planning Department budget they’d originally ordered this spring.
The cut came after the City Council’s June 6 decision to end funding for a joint warrant-control program run by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.
Planning Director Steve Medlin has responded to the cut by freezing a vacant development-review position and putting one of his staffers on notice that he or she could be laid off later in fiscal 2013-14 if additional funding doesn’t materialize.
The freezing of the development-review positions has prompted complaints from the business community that continued in the other email the council received, penned by landscape architect George Stanziale.
He said the cut will slow permit reviews and torpedo Durham’s reputation among builders who face strict, post-recession demands from banks to show they can meet deadlines.
Slowdowns and morale problems in the Planning Department “will drive quality developers away, reducing tax base and [causing] a significant hit to our city’s brand and reputation,” Stanziale said.
County Manager Mike Ruffin acknowledged in a letter to The Herald-Sun that the cut will delay permit reviews.
But he shrugged that off, arguing that officials could raise permit-review fees to make developers pay “full cost for the time we spend reviewing the projects.”
One of Ruffin’s bosses, County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, separately argued that that the Planning Department could make good the county’s $84,758 if its projections of fiscal 2013-14 fee revenue prove over-pessimistic.
“Estimated revenues were $52,000 more than what was budgeted last year but the staff budgeted for $6,000 less for 13-14,” she said, adding the county in any event “may need every spare dollar” to cover social-service shortfalls triggered by the federal-government shutdown.
The warrant-control program began in 2009, meanwhile, when city and county leaders paid for the hiring of clerks to digitize a backlog of old, paper arrest warrants.
The warrant office also included people that police, sheriff’s deputies and other law-enforcement officers could call to find out if a person they were dealing with was wanted on a past charge.
But the fundamentals of the initiative largely took shape while Patrick Baker was Durham’s city manager. His successor, Tom Bonfield, was more dubious and, in 2010, recommended ending city funding of it.
Ever since, its survival has been in doubt. But this spring Ruffin, Bonfield and Sheriff Mike Andrews negotiated a deal that called for scaling it back after Sept. 30 when clerks were due to finish digitizing old paper warrants.
Bonfield included the funding necessary to carry out the city’s end of the deal in his fiscal 2013-14 budget request.
But council members weren’t keen, especially after Bonfield said the program’s continuation would be debated again next year and Police Chief Jose Lopez voiced, at best, only lukewarm support for spending money on it.
“If we can’t do it, it’s not something that’s going to impact my department,” Lopez said in June for an agency responsible for the security of about 85 percent of Durham County’s population.
Andrews, however, has strongly supported continuing the warrant-control program.
Commissioners are backing him, as is Ruffin. He said officials worked “hard to get rid of a backlog of around 40,000 warrants, and de-funding would just start to build it up again.”
That comment implied disagreement with the Police Department’s view that a statewide warrant database, N.C. Aware, that was on the cusp of being rolled out in 2008-09 now suffices to fill the information needs of its officers.
Andrews and his chief deputy, Don Ladd, in June argued that the local warrant office can often give street-level cops more accurate information than the state database.
Reckhow argued that, in any event, the deal the administrators negotiated should have held. “The county and city had negotiated an agreement in good faith,” she said.