A dispute’s welcome end

Dec. 01, 2013 @ 11:56 AM

It was an appropriate Thanksgiving week gift for the citizens of Durham County -- those inside the city and those outside.

A dispute simmering since spring -- a dispute with the monumental sum of about $80,000 at stake -- has come to a congenial end.

That sum, it should be noted, is about .02 percent of the city budget and an even smaller percentage of the county’s. It is less than a rounding error.

But the City Council and the County Commissioners had been in a jousting match not over the dollars but over a matter of principle. 

The disagreement began during budget deliberations last spring.  The county wanted to continue a joint city-county warrant-control program that had been run by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office.

The program had, all sides agreed, been a success. A sizable backlog of warrants had been reduced and the system was in place to more efficiently manage them.

Problem solved, the city concluded, and time to stop funding the program since it was no longer needed. Police chief Jose Lopez Sr. indicated his department no longer saw a need for the program, and City Manager Tom Bonfield and the City Council concurred.

Sheriff Mike Andrews, on the other hand, saw ongoing value in the program and argued it should continue. County Manager Mike Ruffin and the commissioners lined up with him.

The city dropped its share of the funding for the program from the budget. The county decided to continue the program and make up the city’s share by spiking about $80,000 that had been allocated to the planning department.

Both sides exchanged barbs; citizens complained. City-County Planning Director Steve Medlin warned that cutting a position would slow development reviews. Developers grumbled.

Finally, last week, the city council voted unanimously to fully fund the planning department, kicking in $53,378 in city funds to offset the cut from the county. (The amount was smaller than the original disputed amount because part of the fiscal year has gone by.)

“The county needs to do what the county needs to do, and the city needs to do what the city needs to do,” Councilman Don Moffitt said. “And what the city needs to do is fix this.”

That seems a sensible solution. The county felt it had legitimate reasons for stressing its priority -- the warrant control program. The city might have been miffed by what sure looked like a payback for their not going along with the program. But the amount never should have been a staggering obstacle to moving forward.

Councilman Steve Schewel characterized the city decision as “an olive branch to the county.” The county may see it more as moving past a minor dispute that mushroomed.

Citizens should see it as a relief that this upheaval is behind us.