Upcoming bill expected, needed

Feb. 04, 2013 @ 04:17 PM

Upcoming bill expected, needed

Durham County officials gave the media and others a tour of the new County Courthouse Monday, and you can read details of the new digs on the front page of today’s Herald-Sun.

By all accounts, it will provide the courts with more capacity, more security and better separation between public spaces and areas where jail inmates, for example, are awaiting trials or hearings.

“Looking at the ingress and egress, it’s going to be great – much more security for the judges and the administrators,” County Engineer Glenn Whisler noted during an earlier tour of the still-under-construction facility.
That greater security and separation will be a major improvement over the current structure, where jurors, defense attorneys, prosecutors and defendants mingle on the same elevators and the public often crosses paths with inmates.

But as County Manager Mike Ruffin reminded County Commissioners last week, the bill for the striking new facility – and the county’s new human services complex along East Main Street – is coming due.

At this early stage of looking toward a budget for fiscal 2013-2014, Ruffin told commissioners, the gap between anticipated revenues and anticipated expenses is about $16 million.  Normally at this stage, there is a gap, but this one’s larger than usual – and “over 90 percent,” Ruffin said, is because of looming debt payments for the new buildings.

It appears highly likely -- virtually certain -- county taxpayers will see an increase in their property tax rate for the first time since 2010-2011.

We suspect some sticker shock will reverberate from last week’s discussion. Especially after years of economic stagnation – even if we have been insulated from the worst of it here – the prospect of higher taxes will disconcert many.

But it’s important to remember this is no surprise. County leaders were upfront when they asked for – and received – voter approval for taking on bond debt for the new facilities that taxes most likely would go up.

And they have been able, through a strategy of using short-term debt through the construction phase, to postpone the tax increase for a year or two beyond when it might otherwise have been in place.

The new facilities were badly needed – many human services agencies were scattered in sometimes barely adequate offices and the courthouse suffered from crowding and security issues. Residents recognized the need when they approved the bond issues.

Construction on the facilities has provided jobs and added to the vigor of downtown’s revitalization even as the rocky economy slowed many private-sector projects.

As we ponder the prospect of somewhat higher taxes, it’s important to keep those contexts in mind.